When did we decide that some art was modern art? Did modern art began at the dawn of the 20th Century, or some time before? Was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 the defining moment or was it some earlier work by Matisse or Kandinsky? One would think that modern would stay current, but apparently it got old, and we needed a new term to describe what came after modern. (Does postmodern follow modern? Yes and no. They’re in a relationship and it’s complicated.) The near-universally accepted term for the most recent art and artists is contemporary. We even have museums devoted exclusively to contemporary art. When did we go from modern to contemporary? The term ‘contemporary art’ has been defined in a variety of ways, all of which seek to distinguish newer art and artists from the modernists who came before. Because those Picassos, Matisses and Kandinskys are over 100 years old – and that doesn’t sound very modern, does it? Contemporary is the new modern, but how do we establish boundaries for a present tense that keeps moving into the past?
For some critics and art historians, contemporary art encompasses all the postwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s – Abstract Expressionism (think Jackson Pollock), Neo-Dada/Pre-Pop (think Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) and Pop Art (think Andy Warhol) – and continuing all the way to the present. Others say ‘contemporary’ means art since 1970. Still others define it as art by artists living today, which means that the scope of contemporary art changes every time we see an artist’s obituary. Once we’ve defined the time period covered by ‘contemporary art’, we must try to comprehend not only the artists and their particular works of art, but also struggle with what generalizations we can make about the various means, techniques, movements and ideas employed by these artists (and by the critics, curators and historians who think and write about them). As an example of the difficulties involved in making such generalizations, consider just a few of the contemporary art ‘movements and styles’ identified by the obsessive-compulsive folks at Wikipedia: environmental art, holography, postminimalism, wildstyle, froissage, culture jamming, transgressive art, transavantgarde, neo-expressionism, hyperrealism, pseudorealism, toyism, stuckism, superflat and metamodernism. Where to find an umbrella big enough to cover all these and many more disparate paradigms?
Considering the breadth of contemporary art, it is foolish (even dangerous) to attempt generalizations. We can only point to some common trends. It is almost a cliché to say that contemporary artists seek to challenge our understanding of what art is and can be and what the artist’s role is in ‘creating’ the art, but many contemporary artists are interested in exploring (and challenging assumptions about) the nature of art – what is art?, is this art? They also like to draw attention to (and challenge our assumptions about) the nature of the creative process and the relationship between the artist and the person who interacts with the artwork, or buys the artwork. While some contemporary artists create works of art that require sophisticated artistic skills, others deemphasize technical skill and instead focus on what is simple, easy or already visible (everyday objects, advertising, etc.) – they appropriate the work of others or use assistants or the public to execute their ideas. Others use high-tech techniques that permit the creation of stunning visual effects that could not have existed in the days before computers and digital manipulation. The age-old questions about the relationship between the artwork and external reality (if they even concede its existence) continue to be asked but in new ways.
Contemporary artists use contemporary media. Instead of painting a canvas, framing it and hanging it on a wall, or shaping a sculpture from stone, bronze or clay, many of them create performances and installations that live temporary lives; after the happening happens, it exists only in various forms of documentation: videos and photographs, preparatory sketches and props. They create artworks that reshape the environment or change with time. They make artworks about their own artworks or the artworks of others. They blur boundaries between trash and art, art and commerce, lowbrow and highbrow, painting and sculpture, word and picture, sight and sound, performance and exhibit. (Is this photograph art or is it a photograph of art?) They take a tradition and add something that doesn’t belong, or subtract something that does. They break the rules or they draw your attention to the rules they are following. While some contemporary artists may only want you to come away from their work thinking “What pretty art” or “Wow is he talented!”, it is more likely that they want to send you away from an encounter with their art filled with questions: ‘Why this?”, “What for?” and perhaps, ultimately, “Why not?”
All this is prelude for my latest meta-list: Best Contemporary Visual Artists – the Critics’ Picks. To make the list, I collected a number of lists of the best contemporary artists (mostly still living, but a few who have recently passed) and arranged them with the most-listed artists at the top. Then, for each artist, I compiled their most highly-regarded works of art. These range from relatively traditional paintings and sculptures to a man with gold paint on his face explaining artworks to a dead rabbit, a shark floating in formaldehyde, a room full of light, pictures cut out of biker magazines, a portrait created from thousands of magazine pictures, instructions for painting a wall and many more. I hope you enjoy the list and use it to explore the world of contemporary art.