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Postmodern Art

Started: 1950s

Postmodern Art Timeline

"Modern art is merely the means by which we terrorize ourselves."

Tracey Emin Signature

Summary of Postmodern Art

Postmodernism is best understood by defining the modernist ethos it replaced - that of the avant-garde who were active from 1860s to the 1950s. The various artists in the modern period were driven by a radical and forward thinking approach, ideas of technological positivity, and grand narratives of Western domination and progress. The arrival of Neo-Dada and Pop art in post-war America marked the beginning of a reaction against this mindset that came to be known as postmodernism. The reaction took on multiple artistic forms for the next four decades, including Conceptual art, Minimalism, Video art, Performance art, Institutional Critique, and Identity Politics. These movements are diverse and disparate but connected by certain characteristics: ironical and playful treatment of a fragmented subject, the breakdown of high and low culture hierarchies, undermining of concepts of authenticity and originality, and an emphasis on image and spectacle. Beyond these larger movements, many artists and less pronounced tendencies continue in the postmodern vein to this day.

Key Ideas

Postmodernism is distinguished by a questioning of the master narratives that were embraced during the modern period, the most important being the notion that all progress - especially technological - is positive. By rejecting such narratives, postmodernists reject the idea that knowledge or history can be encompassed in totalizing theories, embracing instead the local, the contingent, and the temporary. Other narratives rejected by postmodernists include the idea of artistic development as goal-oriented, the notion that only men are artistic geniuses, and the colonialist assumption that non-white races are inferior. Thus, Feminist art and minority art that challenged canonical ways of thinking are often included under the rubric of postmodernism or seen as representations of it.
Postmodernism overturned the idea that there was one inherent meaning to a work of art or that this meaning was determined by the artist at the time of creation. Instead, the viewer became an important determiner of meaning, even allowed by some artists to participate in the work as in the case of some performance pieces. Other artists went further by creating works that required viewer intervention to create and/or complete the work.
The Dada readymade had a marked influence on postmodernism in its questioning of authenticity and originality. Combined with the notion of appropriation, postmodernism often took the undermining of originality to the point of copyright infringement, even in the use of photographs with little or no alteration to the original.
The idea of breaking down distinctions between high and low art, particularly with the incorporation of elements of popular culture, was also a key element of postmodernism that had its roots in the late-19th and early-20th centuries in the work of Edgar Degas, for example, who painted on fans, and later in Cubism where Pablo Picasso often included the lyrics of popular songs on his canvases. This idea that all visual culture is not only equally valid, but that it can also be appreciated and enjoyed without any aesthetic training, undermines notions of value and artistic worth, much like the use of readymades.
Hans Haacke's <i>The Anatomy of the Horse</i> installed in London's Trafalgar Square.
Hans Haacke's The Anatomy of the Horse installed in London's Trafalgar Square.

After the horrors of World War II set in, technology continued to grow and dominate, and the world became more interconnected. Artists and theorists drew a line in the sand - they adjusted and a new, "post-ISM" creative period was defined. As the art historian Robert Hewison said "Postmodernism is modernism with the optimism taken out." Here is how it developed and came to be understood.

The Most Important Art in Postmodern Art Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important in Postmodern Art - that both overview the major ideas of Postmodern Art, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Andy Warhol: Marilyn Diptych (1962)
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Marilyn Diptych (1962)

Artist: Andy Warhol

Artwork description & Analysis: This series of silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe was taken from her image in the film, Niagara and reproduced first in color, and then in black and white. They were made in the months after her death in 1962 by Warhol who was fascinated by both the cult of celebrity and by death itself; this series fused the artist's interests. The color contrasted against the monochrome that fades out to the right is suggestive of life and death, while the repetition of images echoes Marilyn's ubiquitous presence in the media.

This work can be conceived of as postmodern in many senses: its overt reference to popular culture (and low art) challenges the purity of the modernist aesthetic, its repetitive element is an homage to mass production, and its ironic play on the concept of authenticity undermines the authority of the artist. The use of a diptych format, which was common in Christian altarpieces in the Renaissance period, draws attention to the American worship of both celebrities and images. All of these translate into an artwork that challenges traditional demarcations between high and low art and makes a statement about the importance of consumerism and spectacle in the 1960s.

Acrylic on Canvas - Tate Modern, London

Claes Oldenburg: Shuttlecocks (1994)
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Shuttlecocks (1994)

Artist: Claes Oldenburg

Artwork description & Analysis: Oldenburg's explorations of banality and art began with soft sculptures such as Giant Hamburger (1962) and Soft Toilet (1966), where he recreated common objects using cushioned materials that belied their solid structures. His works are monumental but placed directly on the floor, dispensing with the pedestal or plinth normally associated with sculpture in a way that literally places the work of art in the viewer's own space. His work use the absurdity reminiscent of Dada's "readymades" to elevate a piece of everyday life to the status of art Shuttlecocks is a later work installed in front of the classical architecture of the Kansas City museum. Through these objects he underscores the larger-than-life quality of popular or low culture - in this case a simple game of badminton on an open lawn - in everyday life. Oldenburg's essay entitled, 'I Am for an Art,' (1961) succinctly expresses his belief that anything can and should be considered art.

Canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, painted with acrylic paint - Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Marina Abramović: Rhythm 0 / Seven Easy Pieces (1974)
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Rhythm 0 / Seven Easy Pieces (1974)

Artist: Marina Abramović

Artwork description & Analysis: Marina Abramovic positioned herself passively in a gallery and invited her viewers to do what they liked to her without any response from her. They were offered a range of objects - each selected for either pleasure or pain, including knives and a loaded gun. After initially provoking a playful reaction, during the six-hour performance she was subjected to an increasing level of aggression, resulting in violent and disturbing occurrences. This pioneering piece broke new grounds in the postmodern shift towards audience participation through its total relinquishing of authorship and control from the artist to the audience, thus challenging the modernist notion of the unique and autonomous artist figure. This piece was typical of Abramovic's tendency to push herself and her body to physical and mental extremes in her performance.

72 materials of pleasure and pain including a gun, a bullet, a comb, a saw, olive oil, cake, wire and sulphur

More Postmodern Art Artwork and Analysis:

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #21 (1978) Philip Johnson: The AT&T Building, New York (1984) Barbara Kruger: Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987) Gerhard Richter: Apples Trees (1987) Jeff Koons: Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) Felix Gonzalez-Torres: "Untitled" (Loverboy) (1989) Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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