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What Is Contemporary Art?

Fresh, daring and experimental, contemporary art, or the art of today, continues to challenge and amaze. Here we examine what defines contemporary art, while looking at some of the best examples from around the world.

Art by Barabara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989 and Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Theory, 2015
Art by Barabara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989 and Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Theory, 2015

 

Broadly speaking, the term “contemporary art” refers to art made by artists who are alive and working today. But not all art made today can be classified as “contemporary.” To fit the bill, art has to have a certain subversive, thought provoking edge or to take bold, experimental risks. It has to provide a fresh way of looking at the issues facing today’s cultures. Because contemporary art is not a movement, there is no one defining style, method, or approach. As such, almost literally, anything goes. 

 

Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock, 1994, Christie’s
Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock, 1994, Christie’s

 

Subjects are as varied as taxidermy animals, casts of body parts, mirrored rooms filled with lights, or giant glass columns of degrading compost. Some make brave and adventurous combinations of materials that push boundaries and prove just how limitless contemporary art practice can be. But conversely, other artists also play with traditional media, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, investing into them an awareness of contemporary issues or politics that brings them up to date for the 21st century. If it makes people stop, think, and, at best, see the world in a new way, then it’s a great example of contemporary art. Let’s take a look in more detail at some of those qualities that make contemporary art so exciting, along with some examples of the best artworks from around the world.

 

Risk-Taking in Contemporary Art

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, Christie’s
Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, Christie’s

 

Contemporary artists aren’t afraid to take bold, controversial risks. Ever since the Dadaists and Surrealists in the early 20th century began playing with the shock value of art, artists have searched for more adventurous ways to make an impact. Some of the most experimental artists of the last few decades were the Young British Artists (YBA’s), who rose from London in the 1990s. Some used found objects in unprecedented ways, like Damien Hirst, who horrified the art world and public alike with dead animals preserved in formaldehyde, including sheep, sharks and cows; he even put rotting meat filled with maggots in a glass box for everyone to see.

 

 

Tracey Emin, Everyone I have Ever Slept With (1963-1995), 1995, Saatchi Gallery
Tracey Emin, Everyone I have Ever Slept With, (1963-1995), Saatchi Gallery

 

Others have brought deeply personal material out into the public eye, like Tracey Emin. Emin turned her dirty, unmade bed into a work of art in My Bed, 1998, leaving a trail of embarrassingly intimate debris around it, including soiled underwear and empty pill packets. In the same vein, her hand-woven tent titled Everyone I have Ever Slept With (1963-1995), 1995, had a long list of names stitched into it, causing a media sensation.

 

Paul McCarthy, Frigate, 2001
Paul McCarthy, Frigate, 2001

 

American multimedia artist Paul McCarthy also enjoys stirring up trouble. One of America’s most ground-breaking video artists, he toys with the boundaries between pleasure and disgust, capturing strange, sinister characters rollicking in bodily fluids, melted chocolate and other sticky matter. 

Like McCarthy, African-American artist Kara Walker’s art is aimed at making viewers sit up and take notice. Addressing America’s dark history of slavery, she creates cut out silhouettes that tell horrific stories of torture and murder based on real historical events, creating overwhelming artworks that have attracted both controversy and praise over the years.

 

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, MoMA
Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, MoMA

 

Keeping it Conceptual 

Much of today’s contemporary art has been influenced by the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s and 70s, when artists put precedence on ideas over form. Some of the most important examples of Conceptual Art include American artist Joseph Kosuth’s series Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), 1966-7, in which he replicates dictionary definitions of art terms as mounted photographs, exploring the ways language infiltrates the understanding of art objects. American sculptor Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings also typify the Conceptual Art era, because he came up with the idea to make them, but passed their execution on to a team of others, proving that artists don’t have to actually make art to call it their own.

 

Martin Creed, Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000, Tate
Martin Creed, Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000, Tate

 

British contemporary artist Martin Creed carries on this legacy, with an emphasis on simple, memorable concepts rather than hand-crafted art objects. His revolutionary installation Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000, was an empty room in which the lights flashed on and off periodically for five seconds each. This seemingly simple artwork concisely challenged the conventions of the gallery space and the way the viewer interacted with it through the exploration of commonplace matter from ordinary life, and it even won him the Turner Prize in 2001.

 

Another British contemporary artist, Peter Liversidge, explores the relationship between language and art, making the purity of an idea the central tenet of his work. From his kitchen table he dreams up a series of actions or performances, which he then types out as a “proposal” on his old manual typewriter, always on an A4 sheet of paper. Made in series, in response to particular places, he then tries to carry out the proposals he can, which range from the boring or mundane to the dangerous and impossible, such as “painting a wall grey” to “damming the Thames.”

 

Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer, 2012, BBC
Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer, 2012, BBC

 

Russian artist collective Pussy Riot also takes a conceptual approach with their rebellious punk art by merging performance art, poetry, activism and protest. Rallying against Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime of Russia, their Punk Prayer performance in one of Russia’s largest cathedrals in 2012 made the world news, but sadly landed two members in prison for two years, prompting a worldwide rallying cry from liberals around the world to “Free Pussy Riot!”

 

Postmodern Approaches

Postmodernism, literally meaning “after modern”, arose as a phenomenon in the 1970s when the digital revolution took over and we were bombarded with a constant flux of information at our fingertips from the past, present, and future. Unlike the pure, clean simplicity of earlier Modernism, Postmodernism focussed on complexity, plurality and confusion, mashing together references from art, popular culture, media and art history to reflect the confusing times we are living in. Installation art became popular during this time, as boundaries between mediums were blurred, and could be combined together in a rich variety of ways.

There are many overlaps between Postmodern Art and contemporary art, because many of those pioneering artists who made the first Postmodern Art in the 1970s and 1980s are still living and working today, and are continuing to influence the next up and coming generation.

 

Barbara Kruger, Belief + Doubt, 2012, Smithsonian
Barbara Kruger, Belief + Doubt, 2012, Smithsonian

 

American multi-media artist Barbara Kruger’s text art of the 1970s and beyond typified the Postmodern language. Playing on the daily riff of slogans we unconsciously digest from advertisements and newspapers, she turned them into confrontational or provocative statements. In her more recent installations, a barrage of textual information spreads across gallery spaces, covering walls, floors and escalators with emblazoned, punchy slogans that each fight against each other for our attention. 

 

Yinka Shonibare, Girl Balancing Knowledge, 2015, Christie’s
Yinka Shonibare, Girl Balancing Knowledge, 2015, Christie’s

 

More recently, many contemporary artists have combined a complex, Postmodern language with various socio-political issues. British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare examines the multi-layered relationships between Europe and Africa, with richly layered, carefully crafted installations based on violent, oppressive or catastrophic events. Mannequins or stuffed animals are staged into theatrical arrangements wearing vibrant, boldly printed Dutch wax fabric, a cloth historically associated with both Europe and West Africa. 

 

William Kentridge, still from the animation Felix in Exile, 1994, Redcross Museum (pdf)
William Kentridge, Still from the Animation Felix in Exile, 1994, Redcross Museum

 

South African artist William Kentridge also makes reference to history through a complex, fragmentary language. Converting his sketchy, black and white charcoal drawings into rudimentary animations, he weaves together part-fictional, part-factual stories about characters from both sides of apartheid, investing a painfully human side into the racial conflicts he was surrounded by while growing up.

 

Experimentation with Materials

Helen Chadwick, Carcass, 1986, Tate
Helen Chadwick, Carcass, 1986, Tate

 

Breaking with convention and tradition, many of today’s contemporary artists have made artworks from unlikely or unexpected matter. British artist Helen Chadwick filled a clear glass column with rotting garbage in Carcass, 1986, which accidentally sprang a leak and exploded across London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. She later made a huge fountain filled with molten chocolate in Cacao, 1994, which gurgled the thick liquid on a constantly flowing cycle. 

 

Ai Weiwei, collection of colored vases, 2006, for a discussion see SFMOMA
Ai Weiwei, collection of colored vases, 2006, for a discussion see SFMOMA

 

Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has made an impressive range of mixed-media installations that reflect on art’s role in political activism. In Colored Vases, he dipped a collection of priceless ancient Chinese vases in industrial paint and left them to drip dry. Clashing together old and new, he reminds us that ancient traditions still live beneath the glossy, contemporary surface.

 

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, AGO
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, AGO

 

Experimentation is also at the heart of Japanese multi-media artist Yayoi Kusama’s practice. Known as “the princess of polka dots,” she has been covering a seemingly endless array of surfaces with her trademark dotty patterns for decades, transforming them into mystical, hallucinatory dreams. Her dazzling Infinity Rooms have been recreated around the world, walled with mirrors and filled with a myriad of colorful lights which refract around the space, creating the illusion of a digital cyberspace that seems to go on forever. 

 

Reworking Tradition

Julian Schnabel, The Jute Grower, 1980, plate painting, Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel, The Jute Grower, 1980, plate painting, Julian Schnabel

 

Some of the most exciting examples of contemporary art rework media that has been around for centuries, taking traditional materials and updating them with novel subjects or methods. American painter Julian Schnabel made his name with “plate paintings”, sticking broken shards of old plates and other crockery into the painted surface along with gloopy, expressive oil paint. Lending them the quality of ancient Iznik relics, they are made new with narrative references to modern life. 

 

Julie Mehretu, Entropia, 2004, Christie’s
Julie Mehretu, Entropia, 2004, Christie’s

 

In contrast, Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu creates vast, expansive drawings and prints which are built up gradually into a complex series of layers. Open, floating networks, grids and lines float through space, suggesting the daily flux of contemporary urban living, or perhaps dispersed ideas for cities yet to be built.

 

Tony Cragg, Domagk, 2013
Tony Cragg, Domagk, 2013

 

Technology also informs the work of British sculptor Tony Cragg. Designed partly on computer and partly by hand, his fluid, organic sculptures seem to merge man with machine, flowing like molten metal or moving water through space. Made with a rich variety of materials old and new, including stone, clay, bronze, steel, glass and wood, they transform once static materials into objects that pulsate with flowing energy. Encapsulating the way digital technology has become one with our everyday existence, his sculptures show just how powerful and concise contemporary art can be.

Art by Barabara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989 and Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Theory, 2015
Art by Barabara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989 and Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Theory, 2015

 

Broadly speaking, the term “contemporary art” refers to art made by artists who are alive and working today. But not all art made today can be classified as “contemporary.” To fit the bill, art has to have a certain subversive, thought provoking edge or to take bold, experimental risks. It has to provide a fresh way of looking at the issues facing today’s cultures. Because contemporary art is not a movement, there is no one defining style, method, or approach. As such, almost literally, anything goes. 

 

Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock, 1994, Christie’s
Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock, 1994, Christie’s

 

Subjects are as varied as taxidermy animals, casts of body parts, mirrored rooms filled with lights, or giant glass columns of degrading compost. Some make brave and adventurous combinations of materials that push boundaries and prove just how limitless contemporary art practice can be. But conversely, other artists also play with traditional media, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, investing into them an awareness of contemporary issues or politics that brings them up to date for the 21st century. If it makes people stop, think, and, at best, see the world in a new way, then it’s a great example of contemporary art. Let’s take a look in more detail at some of those qualities that make contemporary art so exciting, along with some examples of the best artworks from around the world.

 

Risk-Taking in Contemporary Art

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, Christie’s
Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, Christie’s

 

Contemporary artists aren’t afraid to take bold, controversial risks. Ever since the Dadaists and Surrealists in the early 20th century began playing with the shock value of art, artists have searched for more adventurous ways to make an impact. Some of the most experimental artists of the last few decades were the Young British Artists (YBA’s), who rose from London in the 1990s. Some used found objects in unprecedented ways, like Damien Hirst, who horrified the art world and public alike with dead animals preserved in formaldehyde, including sheep, sharks and cows; he even put rotting meat filled with maggots in a glass box for everyone to see.

 

 

Tracey Emin, Everyone I have Ever Slept With (1963-1995), 1995, Saatchi Gallery
Tracey Emin, Everyone I have Ever Slept With, (1963-1995), Saatchi Gallery

 

Others have brought deeply personal material out into the public eye, like Tracey Emin. Emin turned her dirty, unmade bed into a work of art in My Bed, 1998, leaving a trail of embarrassingly intimate debris around it, including soiled underwear and empty pill packets. In the same vein, her hand-woven tent titled Everyone I have Ever Slept With (1963-1995), 1995, had a long list of names stitched into it, causing a media sensation.

 

Paul McCarthy, Frigate, 2001
Paul McCarthy, Frigate, 2001

 

American multimedia artist Paul McCarthy also enjoys stirring up trouble. One of America’s most ground-breaking video artists, he toys with the boundaries between pleasure and disgust, capturing strange, sinister characters rollicking in bodily fluids, melted chocolate and other sticky matter. 

Like McCarthy, African-American artist Kara Walker’s art is aimed at making viewers sit up and take notice. Addressing America’s dark history of slavery, she creates cut out silhouettes that tell horrific stories of torture and murder based on real historical events, creating overwhelming artworks that have attracted both controversy and praise over the years.

 

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, MoMA
Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, MoMA

 

Keeping it Conceptual 

Much of today’s contemporary art has been influenced by the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s and 70s, when artists put precedence on ideas over form. Some of the most important examples of Conceptual Art include American artist Joseph Kosuth’s series Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), 1966-7, in which he replicates dictionary definitions of art terms as mounted photographs, exploring the ways language infiltrates the understanding of art objects. American sculptor Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings also typify the Conceptual Art era, because he came up with the idea to make them, but passed their execution on to a team of others, proving that artists don’t have to actually make art to call it their own.

 

Martin Creed, Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000, Tate
Martin Creed, Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000, Tate

 

British contemporary artist Martin Creed carries on this legacy, with an emphasis on simple, memorable concepts rather than hand-crafted art objects. His revolutionary installation Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000, was an empty room in which the lights flashed on and off periodically for five seconds each. This seemingly simple artwork concisely challenged the conventions of the gallery space and the way the viewer interacted with it through the exploration of commonplace matter from ordinary life, and it even won him the Turner Prize in 2001.

 

Another British contemporary artist, Peter Liversidge, explores the relationship between language and art, making the purity of an idea the central tenet of his work. From his kitchen table he dreams up a series of actions or performances, which he then types out as a “proposal” on his old manual typewriter, always on an A4 sheet of paper. Made in series, in response to particular places, he then tries to carry out the proposals he can, which range from the boring or mundane to the dangerous and impossible, such as “painting a wall grey” to “damming the Thames.”

 

Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer, 2012, BBC
Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer, 2012, BBC

 

Russian artist collective Pussy Riot also takes a conceptual approach with their rebellious punk art by merging performance art, poetry, activism and protest. Rallying against Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime of Russia, their Punk Prayer performance in one of Russia’s largest cathedrals in 2012 made the world news, but sadly landed two members in prison for two years, prompting a worldwide rallying cry from liberals around the world to “Free Pussy Riot!”

 

Postmodern Approaches

Postmodernism, literally meaning “after modern”, arose as a phenomenon in the 1970s when the digital revolution took over and we were bombarded with a constant flux of information at our fingertips from the past, present, and future. Unlike the pure, clean simplicity of earlier Modernism, Postmodernism focussed on complexity, plurality and confusion, mashing together references from art, popular culture, media and art history to reflect the confusing times we are living in. Installation art became popular during this time, as boundaries between mediums were blurred, and could be combined together in a rich variety of ways.

There are many overlaps between Postmodern Art and contemporary art, because many of those pioneering artists who made the first Postmodern Art in the 1970s and 1980s are still living and working today, and are continuing to influence the next up and coming generation.

 

Barbara Kruger, Belief + Doubt, 2012, Smithsonian
Barbara Kruger, Belief + Doubt, 2012, Smithsonian

 

American multi-media artist Barbara Kruger’s text art of the 1970s and beyond typified the Postmodern language. Playing on the daily riff of slogans we unconsciously digest from advertisements and newspapers, she turned them into confrontational or provocative statements. In her more recent installations, a barrage of textual information spreads across gallery spaces, covering walls, floors and escalators with emblazoned, punchy slogans that each fight against each other for our attention. 

 

Yinka Shonibare, Girl Balancing Knowledge, 2015, Christie’s
Yinka Shonibare, Girl Balancing Knowledge, 2015, Christie’s

 

More recently, many contemporary artists have combined a complex, Postmodern language with various socio-political issues. British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare examines the multi-layered relationships between Europe and Africa, with richly layered, carefully crafted installations based on violent, oppressive or catastrophic events. Mannequins or stuffed animals are staged into theatrical arrangements wearing vibrant, boldly printed Dutch wax fabric, a cloth historically associated with both Europe and West Africa. 

 

William Kentridge, still from the animation Felix in Exile, 1994, Redcross Museum (pdf)
William Kentridge, Still from the Animation Felix in Exile, 1994, Redcross Museum

 

South African artist William Kentridge also makes reference to history through a complex, fragmentary language. Converting his sketchy, black and white charcoal drawings into rudimentary animations, he weaves together part-fictional, part-factual stories about characters from both sides of apartheid, investing a painfully human side into the racial conflicts he was surrounded by while growing up.

 

Experimentation with Materials

Helen Chadwick, Carcass, 1986, Tate
Helen Chadwick, Carcass, 1986, Tate

 

Breaking with convention and tradition, many of today’s contemporary artists have made artworks from unlikely or unexpected matter. British artist Helen Chadwick filled a clear glass column with rotting garbage in Carcass, 1986, which accidentally sprang a leak and exploded across London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. She later made a huge fountain filled with molten chocolate in Cacao, 1994, which gurgled the thick liquid on a constantly flowing cycle. 

 

Ai Weiwei, collection of colored vases, 2006, for a discussion see SFMOMA
Ai Weiwei, collection of colored vases, 2006, for a discussion see SFMOMA

 

Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has made an impressive range of mixed-media installations that reflect on art’s role in political activism. In Colored Vases, he dipped a collection of priceless ancient Chinese vases in industrial paint and left them to drip dry. Clashing together old and new, he reminds us that ancient traditions still live beneath the glossy, contemporary surface.

 

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, AGO
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, AGO

 

Experimentation is also at the heart of Japanese multi-media artist Yayoi Kusama’s practice. Known as “the princess of polka dots,” she has been covering a seemingly endless array of surfaces with her trademark dotty patterns for decades, transforming them into mystical, hallucinatory dreams. Her dazzling Infinity Rooms have been recreated around the world, walled with mirrors and filled with a myriad of colorful lights which refract around the space, creating the illusion of a digital cyberspace that seems to go on forever. 

 

Reworking Tradition

Julian Schnabel, The Jute Grower, 1980, plate painting, Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel, The Jute Grower, 1980, plate painting, Julian Schnabel

 

Some of the most exciting examples of contemporary art rework media that has been around for centuries, taking traditional materials and updating them with novel subjects or methods. American painter Julian Schnabel made his name with “plate paintings”, sticking broken shards of old plates and other crockery into the painted surface along with gloopy, expressive oil paint. Lending them the quality of ancient Iznik relics, they are made new with narrative references to modern life. 

 

Julie Mehretu, Entropia, 2004, Christie’s
Julie Mehretu, Entropia, 2004, Christie’s

 

In contrast, Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu creates vast, expansive drawings and prints which are built up gradually into a complex series of layers. Open, floating networks, grids and lines float through space, suggesting the daily flux of contemporary urban living, or perhaps dispersed ideas for cities yet to be built.

 

Tony Cragg, Domagk, 2013
Tony Cragg, Domagk, 2013

 

Technology also informs the work of British sculptor Tony Cragg. Designed partly on computer and partly by hand, his fluid, organic sculptures seem to merge man with machine, flowing like molten metal or moving water through space. Made with a rich variety of materials old and new, including stone, clay, bronze, steel, glass and wood, they transform once static materials into objects that pulsate with flowing energy. Encapsulating the way digital technology has become one with our everyday existence, his sculptures show just how powerful and concise contemporary art can be.

Rosie Lesso
Rosie Lesso
Rosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organisations 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.

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