Modernism vs. Postmodernism Explained in 6 Facts and 13 Artworks

Modernism and postmodernism are the two major movements in 20th-century art. But what is the difference between modern and postmodern art?

Nov 1, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
van gogh sunflowers
Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, via the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (left); with Rest Energy by  Marina Abramovic and Ulay, 1980, via MoMA, New York (right)


From an art-historical point of view, the 20th century can be roughly divided into modern and postmodern art. Basically, these are two aspects of the same movement. Both modernism and postmodernism were strongly influenced in their spirit by the Enlightenment. Through the Enlightenment, science and reason had triumphed over tradition and faith. Furthermore, the advancing industrialization brought with it an untiring belief in progress. All that finally culminated in the First World War and Second World War, the most horrible and influencing historical events in the 20th century. Both wars were to completely change social life and also the art movement. 


What all this meant exactly for art in the modern and postmodern age is now explained with 6 facts and 13 artworks.

1. Modernism And Postmodernism: Different Periods In One Century 

burial at ornans gustave courbet
A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet, 1850, via Musée d’Orsay

It is always somewhat difficult to define the time frame of art epochs as well as to draw an exact line between one epoch and another. Nevertheless, it can be said that modern art was an art that was created around the end of the 19th and up to the middle of the 20th century. At about this point, postmodernism replaced modernism.

number 14 jackson pollock
Number 14 by Jackson Pollock, 1951, via Tate, London

Translated into artworks, modernism can be thought of as from the realism of Gustave Courbet to the action painting of Jackson Pollock. Postmodernism came up in the middle of the 20th century, around 1950, and has produced artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat.


2. They Both Include Many Different Art Forms

japanese footbridge claude monet
The Japanese Footbridge by Claude Monet, 1899, via National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Modern art and postmodern art have a great deal in common: both epochs cannot be reduced to a single art form or style, nor can they be reduced to one theory. Rather, the two eras are famous for having produced different styles and ideas about art. Typical artforms of modernism are impressionism, expressionism, cubism but also fauvism. In the postmodern era, newer forms of art have emerged, such as Land Art, Body Art, Conceptual Art, Pop Art and many more.

flowers andy warhol
Flowers by Andy Warhol, 1964, via Christie’s

This range of art could be demonstrated, for example, by a painting by the Impressionist Claude Monet and a painting by Pop art artist Andy Warhol. Both in a way similar in their motif, the technique as well as the colors, are presented totally differently. 

3. Postmodernism: Heterogeneity Replaces Homogeneity As The Basic Principle

By having experienced the Enlightenment in the recent past, seeing progressive industrialization underway and an increasing detachment from artistic institutions, traditions and norms, modernism was particularly characterized by an unquestioned belief in progress. Artistically, this will to further development showed itself in graphic experiments and also in the form of reduction as artist El Lissitzky, for example, exercised it.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


proun composition el lissitzky
Proun Composition by El Lissitzky, 1922, via MoMA, New York


It was particularly Jean-François Lyotard‘s book La Condition Postmoderne (1979) that was to put an end to this belief in progress in postmodernism. In his writing, Lyotard replaced a universally valid and absolute explanatory principle (God, subject, etc.) with a multitude of language games that offered various explanatory models. Lyotard turned against a certain historical form of rationality based on the exclusion of the heterogeneous. As a result, a tolerant sensitivity to differences, heterogeneity and plurality increased and with it the ability to endure incompatibility.


i shop therefore i am barbara kruger
I shop therefore I am by Barbara Kruger, 1987 via Public Delivery


A heterogeneous understanding of the world also brought with it many critical works of art, including Barbara Kruger’s work critical of capitalism. Other works were influenced by the fight for civil rights in the USA or the second wave of feminism, for example.


4. Postmodern Art: An Expanded Understanding Of Art

robert rauschenberg moma signs
Signs by Robert Rauschenberg, 1970, via MoMA, New York


This heterogeneity initially manifested itself quite formally in postmodernism: the classical media of art such as canvas or paper were replaced by new media. Artists worked more and more with everyday materials and mixed them with classical forms of art. Collages, for example, were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s. But also Body Art, which uses the own body as a medium of art, was such a new art form. More and more, artists also moved away from any object as their medium of art. This is how performance art, for example, came about.

rest energy marina abramovic ulay
Rest Energy by  Marina Abramovic and Ulay, 1980, via MoMA, New York


The artist Marina Abramovic is still one of the most famous performance artists of all time. She started her work in performance art when postmodernism started to come up. Abramovic also represented a somehow nihilistic way of art that can be seen as typical for postmodern art and the period of the second half of the 20th century. In her performance Rest Energy (1980), Abramovic performed together with her partner, the performance artist Ulay.

The artist explained her work later as follows: “I was not in charge. In Rest Energy we actually held an arrow on the weight of our bodies, and the arrow is pointed right into my heart. We had two small microphones near our hearts, so we could hear our heartbeats. As our performance was progressing, heartbeats were becoming more and more intense, and though it lasted just four minutes and ten seconds, I’m telling you, for me it was forever. It was a performance about the complete and total trust.”

5. Modern Art: Form and Function, Postmodernism: Takeover Of ‘The Idea’

walter gropius bauhaus
Photography of Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany designed by Walter Gropius, photographed by Lucia Moholy, 1926, via Bauhaus Archive


Conceptual art, as defined by the American artist Sol Lewitt, provided a particularly radical approach to modern art. While at the beginning of the 20th century, artist movements such as the Bauhaus in Europe placed the function of art above its form, Sol Lewitt made the idea of the producing factor of art. In his essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967) he writes: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”


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


In this sense, artist Joseph Kosuth had already reflected on the different codes of one chair in his conceptual artwork One and Three Chairs (1965). The work of art itself is not unique in Kosuth’s work; it is the artist’s reflection on Plato’s allegory of the cave that completes the work of art here.


6. Postmodernists Rejected The Idea Of An Objectively Comprehensible Reality

Postmodernists like Lyotard, Heidegger, Derrida but also phenomenologists like Lacan or Merleau-Ponty critically examined the concept of an objectively perceivable reality. From theorists like the above-mentioned come ideas which assume that there is no objective truth and identity. Newly emerging theories of perception were also addressed and processed in the art of postmodernism.

time delay room dan graham
Time Delay Room by Dan Graham, 1974, via Media Art Net


An interesting work in this context comes from the New York concept and video artist Dan Graham. In his complicated work Two Delay Room (1974) made of mirrors and screens, Graham confronts visitors to his work with the function and limits of their own perception. In his two rooms, each equipped with two screens and cameras, Dan Graham plays with the technical and human observation of his own existence. A time delay in the transmission of the camera images to the screens imitates human perception.


Modernism Vs. Postmodernism: Canvas To Space-consuming Installation

pyro jean michel basquiat
PYRO by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984, via Sotheby’s


I admit that this text represents a rather fast ride through the history of art from almost two centuries. But this quick run-through and the juxtaposition of modernism and post-modernism in six facts clearly shows different things. Firstly, it is clear that the movement that modernism and postmodernism are making in art as a whole is a movement in the sense of development. However, this movement takes place differently in the two eras. The change in form is also the most obvious. While at the beginning of modernism artists still painted on canvas, postmodernism has produced works of art that are absolutely space-filling, as the last work by Dan Graham shows. 


Modernism vs. postmodernism is the belief in progress versus the criticism of progress and a turn towards plurality and heterogeneity. It is also the assumption that there is more than one objectively perceivable reality.


Author Image

By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.