What Are the 9 Best Contemporary Art Movements?

Contemporary art is broad umbrella term that encompasses many art movements from the 1970s to the present day. Here are a handful of the best.

Apr 3, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

9 best contemporary art movements


Contemporary Art is a term that is applied to art of the present day, or the “art of today.” Generally, the term makes reference to the most daring, innovative and experimental art that pushes boundaries and asks important questions about our place in the world today. While the official start date of contemporary art varies from one source to the next, it is generally agreed that this era of art came about from roughly the late 1960s to early 1970s onwards. This was an important moment in art history, which art historians consider to be the end of the modern era, and the beginning of the postmodern, or contemporary era. Contemporary art is a broad umbrella term that encompasses several art movements; we look through some of the major movements that fall under the contemporary art banner.


1. Minimalism

Untitled work in enameled aluminum, by Donald Judd contemporary art
Untitled work in enameled aluminum, by Donald Judd, courtesy of MoMA


Minimalism emerged out of the simplicity and purity of late modernism, which had stripped art back to its basic forms and resulted in a utopian form of pure abstraction. However, minimalism took these ideas to new extremes, relying on grids and geometry, along with pared back color schemes and polished, pristine surfaces. It asked viewers to see art as object, rather than representation. While Minimalism was a popular style of contemporary art during the 1960s and 1970s, through artists including Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Dan Flavin, it has now been superseded by other styles. However, many artists of today show the influence of minimalism in their art. 


2. Conceptual Art

joseph kosuth one and three chairs
One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth, 1965, via MoMA, New York.


Conceptual art is one of the most important contemporary art movements of contemporary times, and its parameters are broad. Generally conceptual art is that which is driven by idea, or concept, rather than by materials or process. Emerging during the 1970s, conceptualism is a significant characteristic of contemporary art that continues to this day. Some key examples include Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, in which he wrote instructions for how to make the work and left the actual making to a team of assistants, and Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965, in which the artist explores what he calls a visual code, a verbal code and a code in the language of objects to represent the humble chair, asking us to think about the concepts of value and representation.


3. Photorealism

big self portrait chuck close
Big Self-Portrait by Chuck Close, 1967-68, via the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis

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Photorealism marked an important transition period in art, when artists moved away from representing the real world, to incorporating digital effects in their art. A popular movement during the 1970s, photorealism took painting to new heights, as artists deliberately replicated photographs with minute attention to detail, sometimes representing miniscule details like individual hairs and skin pores, as seen in Chuck Close’s masterful self portraits. Many artists still explore elements of Photorealism today, such as Vija Celmins and Glenn Brown, and it is a key feature of contemporary art.


4. Fluxus

yoko ono cut piece contemporary art
Still image from Japanese American artist Yoko Ono’s performance Cut Piece, 1964-65


Fluxus was an experimental art movement that spanned the 1970s, encompassing a huge range of media and approaches. Driven by a desire to tear apart convention, Fluxus artists including Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono played with performances, happenings and events, along with photography and film, arguing that art should be about experience rather than commercial, bourgeois art objects that were designed to satisfy the art market. We still see the influence of Fluxus across much of today’s contemporary art, such as the freewheeling performances of Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, and the mock-horror performance and film art of Paul McCarthy.


5. Land Art/Earth Art

robert smithson spiral jetty
Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, 1970, via The Holt/Smithson Foundation, Santa Fe


The art movement Land Art, also known as Earth Art, first emerged during the 1970s, but it continues to prove a popular approach in much of today’s contemporary art. Artists engaged directly with the environment, through acts of performance, intervention, photography and film, analyzing our relationship to the natural world during a precarious time of increasing industrialization.


6. The Pictures Generation

cindy sherman clown contemporary art movements
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #414, 2003, image courtesy of Saturday Paper


The Pictures Generation was an art movement from the late 1970s and early 1980s New York, whose artists toyed with photography and digital imagery, asking us to question its dominance over the realms of mass media and advertising, and the way it manipulates our vision of ourselves and our place in the world. Leaders of the movement include American photographer Cindy Sherman, and the American painter Richard Prince


7. Neo-Expressionism

avignon ade georg baselitz
Avignon Ade by Georg Baselitz, 2017


The contemporary art movement Neo-Expressionism arose during the 1980s as an antidote to the cool, clean precision of Minimalism and Photorealism. It was an important moment in the development of contemporary art, when artists played with how the messy, painterly elements of early 20th century Expressionism could be incorporated with references to the real world. 


8. Text Art

martin creed everything alright contemporary art text art
Martin Creed, Everything Is Going to Be Alright, 1999


Text art is an important strand of contemporary art. Artists have been experimenting with how text can be incorporated into works of art since the 1970s, and today many leading examples of contemporary art feature text. These range from Martin Creed’s soothing neon signage to David Shrigley’s sly scribbles and Jenny Holzer’s light art.


9. The Young British Artists

damien hirst shark
The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991, via Damien Hirst’s Official Website


The Young British Artists (YBAs), were a band of British artists from the 1990s who played with shock tactics and attention-grabbing antics to wake up the international art world. Leaders of the movement include Tracey Emin, famous for making her unmade bed into a work of art, and Damien Hirst, who shocked the public with his animals preserved in formaldehyde. Their attitude that art should cause a sensation continues to ripple through contemporary art today.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.