Introduction to Contemporary Art
The term "contemporary" can be subjective, just as with what constitutes "modern". In most cases, Contemporary Art refers to Modern Art movements which came about from the 1950s up to the present day, and refer to only styles which are considered new and non-traditional. Therefore, artists who work in an Impressionistic manner but appear in the second half of the 20th century, would not fall into this category. As a general rule, contemporary art styles include abstraction, mixed media and non-traditional forms of expression, such as with Conceptual art.
The post-1950s brought great changes to the art world, with the rise of technology and social change bringing new ideas and forms of expression into the art world. There was also a demographic change in the western world, allowing new ideas to gain exposure for the first time, generating something of a melting pot within artistic capitals such as New York, London and Paris. This wave of change still continues today and, if anything, is evolving at an even faster pace due to the impact of social media and global connectivity.
Some have recently argued that the term Contemporary art can only be used for art from the previous decade, from whenever it is used, meaning that this is a constantly changing label which currently should only include art from the 2010s. Others have claimed it to be from the 1950s, others the 1970s. There remains no clear definition of the specifics of Contemporary Art that everyone has agreed upon.
The image featured in this page is Paul Klee's Rich Port, which is similar to later Contemporary Art. The Swiss painter may well have influenced a number of the artists featured within this article.
List of Contemporary Artists
We have collated below a list of famous Contemporary artists, and attempted to cover as many different artistic disciplines and styles as we can within this group. American artists dominate, which reflects the influence of the US during this period of art history, though significant contributions were also made elsewhere. Hundreds of artistic movements appeared over this span of several decades, but most were too small to warrant discussion here - we will focus on the key influences such as Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual art and Minimalism.
Contemporary Art has always been about expression and freedom, with a particular desire to avoid the methods that were present from around the 15th century up to the end of the 19th century. Whilst many Contemporary artists were respectful of these approaches, and often were trained in them, they wanted to evolve things forwards and avoid just re-hashing the work of artists from the past.
List of Contemporary Art Movements
Whilst the debate still rages over which movements and styles are classified under the banner of Contemporary Art, we have listed below some of the major art movements which we feel should be included under that term. They tend to fall from the 1950s onwards, even though the term of Contemporary Art was first used some decdes earlier by a number of curators and collectors.
- Abstract Expressionism
- Pop Art
- Conceptual Art
- Installation Art
- Street Art
- Digital Art
- Color Field
Early Influences on Contemporary Art
It is worth mentioning a number of artists who were not Contemporary Artists, but certainly influenced a number of them. Their oeuvres were all mixed and varied, taking on different styles as their work evolved, but all of Matisse, Miro and Klee all produced work at one point or another which bears clear similarities to the work of artists featured in this article. Matisse worked with abstract shapes in minimal arrangements, Miro created a visual language of simple lines and colors, whilst Klee's cartoon-like imagery will remind many of later Pop Artists. It is important to note that these artists were all European, where as the main success for Contemporary Artists was in the US, underlining the impact which was felt across the western world throughout the 20th century. In today's world, the impact tends to head in the other direction, with Americans influencing Europeans.
Abstract Expressionism Artists
For those who use the wider time span all the way back to the 1950s, then the Abstract Expressionists would certainly be included within the Contemporary Art field. Abstract Expressionists were a key contributor to the rise of American Modern Art, and gave us a number of household names who are known to even the most casual of art follower. Abstractionism has been on the rise since the early 20th century, and those listed below would take it to its natural endpoint, as well as promoting the use of Abstraction within the US.
Mark Rothko remains one of the most famous Modern artists and helped bring about the influential Color Field movement. He reduced his imagery to lozenges of strong color, avoiding recognisable connections to reality in order to allow the viewer to make their own mind up on just what they were witnessing. Rothko's canvases were mural-esque, stretching wider and taller than one's vision might stretch. He stuck to this approach for several decades, and moved into dark palettes later in life, perhaps reflecting his darkening mood.
Rothko remains one of the leading exponents of Contemporary Art, for those who consider it to stretch back to his era. Even for those who don't believe the Abstract Expressionists should be determined as Contemporary artists, he still would have had a profound impact on American artists that followed on afterwards, and his works enjoy considerable valuations today whenever they come up at public auctions.
Pollock used a drip painting technique to fill huge canvases with paint, working in a unique manner to produce art that had never been seen before. This American artist was a true maverick and his artistic style remain unique, and instantly recognisable. His creations were not intended to present reality, but to create new worlds of expression that the viewer could appreciate for their aesthetic purpose. The artist would experiment with color, as well as the manner in which he applied his paint and his art remains particularly valuable.
The artist delivered us the likes of Convergence and Number 1 (Lavender Mist), which were amongst his most famous pieces. He helped to bring momentum to Modern Art, opening doors to other artists who followed on in later decades. He also was respected in New York, where much of this progress was made, with major art institutions and galleries being located here, alongside a number of Contemporary Art collectors.
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning was a famous American Abstract Expressionist whose creations were more akin to reality than was the case with other members of the group. Figurative art would be placed within expressive brushstrokes to create dream-like or nightmarish imagery which would immediately strike the viewer, triggering emotion and interest. Willem de Kooning was a Dutch artist who relocated to the US, and eventually became a citizen of the country in his late fifties.
Woman appear in many of his most famous paintings, and often he would choose curvacious models, just as was thr case centuries earlier with the likes of Peter Paul Rubens - hence the term, Rubenesque. De Kooning may have felt an interest and honesty in working in this manner, reflecting the real world rather than the idealised as other artists had done.
Emerging in the late 1950s, and lasting for several decades afterwards, the Pop Art movement became a major part of the wider Contemporary era. Many of the most famous modern artists would derive from this genre, with its qualities reflecting many of the elements that were consistent across Contemporary Art. For example, the modern world inspired much of its content, such as with advertising posters, cartoons and the like. That said, there was considerable variety across Pop Art, and each contributor should be discussed on an individual basis.
Roy Lichtenstein combined art with cartoon in his inventive work which also later stretched into sculpture. Famous paintings such as Whaam told the viewer brief stories, whilst exciting us with bold lines and clear colors that took much from advertising posters. Few could argue that his paintings were contemporary in nature, and still feel present and modern even today. The lines between commercial work and art were now becoming blurred, helping to widen the scope of what art even was, and also who could contribute to it.
Lichtenstein had certain themes that would appear within his work, and greater information would be delivered through speech bubbles, allowing us to understand more about what the character was saying or even thinking. This artistic style would shock the more traditionally-minded, whilst younger crowds immediately connected and enjoyed this novel approach.
David Hockney is a popular British artist whose work is admired globally today. He worked as a Pop Artist for a number of years but has since forged his own path which remains fairly unique. In recent times he has become involved with digital art, producing landscape scenes of Britain and France using only a tablet device. Despite his age, he continues to innovate and excite audiences of all ages, remaining relevant through hard work and a curious mind.
Besides the landscapes, there have also been a number of charming portraits, all of which are delivered in bright, modern palettes that appear to have struck a chord with the public. His exhibitions continue to draw large crowds, and he now enjoys a huge body of work dating back many decades. Hockney is perhaps the most famous British Contemporary artist, and has lived in a number of countries across his lifetime, including the UK, France and US.
Keith Haring created line figures in a similar manner to some elements of the career of Paul Klee. Again, there is a charming, cartoon-like quality to his work and commercially his style proved exceptionally popular. Haring's designs could be used in a variety of ways, thanks to their simplicity and also the consistency of his art which created something of a brand. Haring was another unique artist whose work is instantly identifiable, just as with the likes of Hockney and Lichtenstein.
Haring was also another key New York-based artist who helped to drive creativity and innovation within the city, helping it to become, and remain, the leading global center for contemporary art. Indeed, most of the names featured in this article would have spent time in the city, looking to promote their work and also find audiences which were prepared for their forward-thinking, avant-garde approaches.
Street Art / Graffiti Art
Graffiti has been used by artists ever since ancient times but has become a popular art form in the western world over the past few decades. It is seen as attractive to young people due to its perceived status as counter-culture, and only a small percentage of street artists have ever achieved fame with art institutions. Whilst many artists were frowned upon originally, some have now been taken seriously thanks to the undeniable brilliance of some of the names listed below.
Jean-Michel Basquiat is perhaps the most famous graffiti artist of them all, and is also significant in his status as an influential Black artist who helped to break social barriers for other artists. Basquiat was a gifted, creative artist who used his work to draw attention to social issues relevant to his own life, and to speak out for members of society who he felt were being ignored.
Basquiat's work made use of a variety of influences, to create a unique body of work. His figures were highly abstract, but recognisable at the same time and he would often scrawl text around his work in order to add meaning to his imagery. Basquiat's work is as famous today as ever, and modern technology has allowed his reputation to spread into new regions, many decades after his passing.
Banksy uses stencil art to deliver his opinions and musings all across the globe. This artist has become a significant voice that young people will pay attention to, due to his artistic style which is strongly opposed to more traditional methods. He is respected for his creative ideas, and the impactful ways in which he delivers his messages, and with the rise of activism amongst the young, driven by social media, few artists today are as well known as Banksy.
The artist would also typically avoid text within his work, working intelligently to deliver messages without it and this has made it easier for his work to be understood on a global stage, with his secretive nature also adding to the intrigue. Aas a young artist, there is still much left for Banksy to achieve, and new avenues that he might potentially take his work in the future.
Minimal Artists took abstraction to the extreme, reducing color and details down to the small level possible, by attempting to remove any visual information that was not deemed essential to the overall composition. Early signs of this were found in the work of Russian painter, Kazimir Malevich in the first half of the 20th century, before these ideas became more prevalent in the US, some decades later. Minimalism would cover painting and sculpture in the main, as well as touching on architecture in some circles.
Dan Flavin was a memorable artist who created art from lighting displays. His innovations brought him considerable success in the form of regular commissions for a variety of architectural projects in the US and Europe. Germany seemed particularly keen on Minimal art, and his work seemed an alternative to outdoor sculptures which were much more prevalent at that time. Flavin would use brightly colored lighting in relatively simple arrangements and would be featured in a number of major exhibitions later on in his career.
Donald Judd rejected the term Minimalism, but is still categorised by most within this group. He created sculptures within a variety of materials, and challenged many of the preconceptions about what constitutes an artist, or art itself. He was influential, helping to build support for these new ideas, and he also regularly wrote about his work, and the art industry as a whole. The artist moved around the US several times in his life, and these different environments would affect the nature of his work, before later he started to achieve success in Europe, just as many American Modern artists would do in the second half of the 20th century.
Frank Stella is a highly innovative sculptor from the US who also produced a number of geometric paintings that perfectly summarise the methods of Contemporary Art. Jasper's Dilemma and Harran II are amongst his best known works and combine bold, bright color with clear shapes. Commissions across Europe and the US flooded in for this artist as his reputation soared, and Stella remains one of the most famous Minimal artists of them all.
Color Field Artists
Color Field Art was a form of abstraction that appeared in the US at around the mid-point of the 20th century. It would become a major influence on the rise of New York Modern art, and gifted us the likes of Kenneth Noland and Mark Rothko. The movement would later spread globally, becoming commonplace in a number of other western nations. We know that Joan Miró and by Henri Matisse were major influences on the movement, with Matisse having produced similar work as early as the 1910s, as a small section of his wider oeuvre.
Installation Art was a development of sculpture and architecture, where large rooms would be filled with custom-made constructions that could take advantage of all manner of different materials. Large galleries provided an alternative to visual art hanging on walls around their galleries by attracting some of the best Installation artists. Their work would often be displayed for months on end, and some of it would be interactive, bringing more interest to their visitors. Whilst sculpture allowed us to walk around an object, we could now become lost within installed art, similar to walking through a forest, where interest would lie in every direction, and at multiple levels.
The purpose of Conceptual art was to allow the idea, or concept, of an artwork to take precedence over how it was to be produced. This allowed all manner of approaches to be used, with many using existing everyday items and creating a concept from it. Naturally, the traditionally-minded immediately opposed most of the work appearing in this group, but over time others would accept the principles behind it and some of their best work would achieve high valuations as a result. When critics deride contemporary art they will often use examples of Conceptual Art to support their views, but, in truth, there is much below the surface to understand that some may not initally understand.
The future of Contemporary Art is likely to revolve around the rise of Digital Art. New technology continues to evolve, with AI potentially changing art in years to come. Technology has impacted the way in which can be produced, but also in how it can be shared and promoted - making the world much smaller, and bringing more opportunities to artists living and working away from the traditional hubs of art, which tend to be the large, major cities of the world. Tablets and even mobile phones can now be used to produce art or edit photography, and the more creatively minded can use these tools in all sorts of imaginative ways. Exhibitions of Digital Art are now commonplace, and younger generations are particularly open to this growing genre.