Postmodern art replaced modernism and led the way to contemporary art. It emerged in the mid 20th century and lasted until the early aughts. As with every period in art history, it is not easy to give a very clear definition of postmodernism. However, some recurring attributes characterize this style of art.
What Is Postmodern Art?
Two authors have been instrumental in establishing the term ‘postmodernism’, defining the nature of postmodern art. One was Charles Jencks with his essay The Rise of Postmodern Architecture (1975). And secondly Jean-Fraçois Lyotard with his text La Condition Postmodernism (1979). Even if these writings have coined the term postmodernism, it must be emphasized again at this point that postmodern art cannot be limited to a single style or theory. Rather, many art forms are considered postmodern art. These include Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Neo-Expressionism, Feminist Art, or the art of the Young British Artists around 1990.
Postmodern Art: Criticism, Skepticism, Irony
Jean-François Lyotard and other theorists defined the following characteristics for postmodern art: First of all, the art movement is considered to be a movement that rejected modernism‘s unshakable belief in progress, which was brought into disrepute by the totalitarian politics in the 20th century. The second important characteristic is the doubt about the existence of an objectively comprehensible reality. Therefore, a key concept of postmodern art is called “plurality.” According to postmodern ideas, all knowledge and all perception are subject to relativity. This was expressed in art through criticism, skepticism and irony. For many artists, the writings of the French philosopher Jacques Lacan built an important philosophical foundation. Let’s now take a look at 8 iconic examples of postmodern art.
1. Andy Warhol – Marilyn Diptych (1962) An Emblem of Early Postmodern Art
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The work Marilyn Diptych from 1962 is a silkscreen by Pop Art artist Andy Warhol. The diptych consists of a left and a right panel, showing once in color and once in black and white the portrait of the artist Marilyn Monroe. The portrait of Marilyn Monroe is a press photograph from the 1950s, which Warhol used here some ten years later for his art.
The artwork Marilyn Diptych (1962) can be described as postmodern art for various reasons. Andy Warhol here plays with an aesthetic that is typical for the advertising industry and that got typical for Warhol’s art, too. The artwork and Warhol’s technique also remind us of newspaper printing. Using all that in his diptych, the artist challenged the classical form of representation that was known from modern art.
Furthermore, the repetition of the portrait within the diptych can be read as an ironic commentary on the increasing mass production as well as on authenticity in art. Andy Warhol’s often questioned the traditional idea of high art in his prints and paintings. His works of art can be seen as a playful answer to this question.
2. Roy Lichtenstein – Whaam! (1963)
Roy Lichtenstein‘s Whaam! is a large-format painting consisting of two parts. In its form, the painting is reminiscent of a comic strip, as both the motifs and the speech bubbles and onomatopoeia in the picture derived from the aesthetics of a comic strip. Admittedly, this aesthetic is fundamentally different from the artwork by Andy Warhol presented above.
Nevertheless, Lichtenstein’s work of art can also be considered postmodern as it dissolves the boundaries between high culture and pop culture. Unlike Warhol, Lichtenstein here confronts the classical method of painting with motifs that did not exist before in modern art.
The composition of the work Whaam! comes from a panel created by the comic artist Irv Novick. This is part of the comic All-American Men of War (1962). In postmodern art, there was also a recurring discussion of the two world wars that people had to experience in the 20th century. Roy Lichtenstein’s piece is not a clear confrontation with the Second World War. However, the choice of motif and the presentation of it in pop aesthetics can be interpreted as an ironic commentary on the glorification of war.
3. Joseph Kosuth – One And Three Chairs (1965)
Joseph Kosuth is a famous conceptual artist. His work One And Three Chairs dates from 1965 and is something like a prime example of conceptual art. The work is a form of artistic examination of Plato’s philosophy and a reflection of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In this allegory the idea of an object represents the highest of all realities.
With his work One And Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth also reacted to the assumption of modern artists that an artwork must always be an object. For Kosuth, the idea stands above the work of art as an object. In this sense, One And Three Chairs can also be read as a critical commentary on the idea of a universal truth.
4. Carolee Schneemann – Interior Scroll (1975)
With performances as a new art form, many artists in the 1950s and 1960s challenged the relationship between artwork and viewer. Performance artist Carolee Schneemann did this in a radical way. In her performance Interior Scroll, the artist undressed in front of an audience. She then read naked from her book Cézanne, She Was A Great Painter (1967). Then Snowman painted her body and after a while she slowly pulled a strip of paper out of her vagina. She then read aloud the text that was written on the paper strip.
Obviously, Carolee Schneemann’s performance is directed here against all classical ideas of art and high culture, which still existed in the middle of the 20th century. The performance is an act of feminism that questions the meaning and classical (re-)presentation of the female body. With the performance of Schneemann’s book about the artist Cézanne, Carolee Schneemann also openly gives a side blow to modernism here, as Paul Cézanne was an important figure in modern painting.
5. Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)
This black and white photograph is part of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, which the artist created between 1977 and 1980. What we see here is a female film heroine, a young career woman, in a costume and with a hat. In her Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman has portrayed a number of stereotypical female characters: the vamp, the victim, the lover, the career woman, etc.
The photography series appears in this list of postmodern artworks for a reason: Sherman’s photographs deal with fragmented, post-modern identity. Cindy Sherman represents this fragmented identity as she herself is always photographer and subject of photography at the same time. The motifs of the photographs can also be read as a critical commentary on the female film reels of the 1950s.
6. Gilbert & George – Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (1972)
This work by the artist couple Gilbert & George is an example of a postmodern art which is particularly characterized by its irony. In this short film, initially reminiscent of a commercial, Gilbert & George are seen doing nothing more than drinking the “best gin” of the 1970s (like Gordon’s Gin was famous at this time). The expressionlessness of the artists in the video as well as the strict and tension-free plot and the repeated statement “Gordon’s makes us very drunk” creates an absurd film piece. In their work, Gilbert & George obviously make fun of the advertising industry but also of traditional notions of identity and elitist behavior.
7. Guerilla Girls – Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? (1989)
The second wave of feminism also falls into the era of postmodernism. Many female artists and also artist groups such as the Guerilla Girls have incorporated their political views and the fight for more women’s rights in works of postmodern art. With their graphic work Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? (1989), the Guerilla Girls clearly criticized art institutions. They obviously drew attention to the fact that women as (naked) motifs are a welcome fixture in large and renowned museums, but as artists, they find it difficult to enter these houses with their own works.
8. Damien Hirst – The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living (1991)
Damien Hirst‘s The Physical Impossibilities of Death In The Mind of Someone Living (1991) is also known as The Shark. The reason for this is the content of this work of art, which is a tiger shark in formaldehyde. The artist Damien Hirst was part of the so-called Young British Artists, who became known for their provocative and also shocking works of art. In this artwork, Damien Hirst confronts the viewers of his artwork with their own death, which is manifested in the tiger shark.
A Note On Postmodern Art
This selection of postmodern artwork should make you understand what the term postmodernism means. The selection, however, also shows that postmodern art is an elusive term. Postmodern art can have infinite variations, as the deviation from the norm became something like the ‘program’ of this art at that time.