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CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

What's the difference between modern and contemporary art?

 
Buste D'homme Barbu By Pablo Picasso | M.S. Rau
 
Buste D'homme Barbu By Pablo Picasso | M.S. Rau
 
At first glance, the words modern and contemporary might seem like they are referencing the same thing. However, when it comes to fine art, the terms have two different meanings and cover two different time periods and art styles. Simply put, modern art covers the period between the 1860s to the 1970s. This means that modern art includes movements like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism under its umbrella. Modern art also describes later movements like Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art and even early land art. Strictly speaking, contemporary art refers to art made and produced by artists living today. However, more generally, contemporary art references art made in our lifetimes or art created in the last 50 years (from roughly 1970 onward). Contemporary art engages with the culture of the present day, encompassing work created by artists who have lived and worked in recent decades even if they have since passed. Sometimes categorizing contemporary art vs. modern art can be tricky. Read on to learn more about what defines each movement and learn how to make the distinction when viewing art yourself.
 

What is modern art?

Beyond characterizing the movement by dates alone, modern art refers to a major change in the history of art that heralded a turn away from the traditions of the academy and a movement toward experimental modes of representation. Rather than seeking to capture the world in the most true to life way, with accurate perspective, color, scale and light, modern artists sought to imbue their canvases and sculptures with their own unique points-of-view, feelings and techniques. No longer bound by the parameters of only depicting reality, modern artists explored their own consciousness to create works that captured the human condition, the beauty of the natural world and the boundless creativity of their own imaginations.
 

Origins & influences of modern art

 
Rouille Sur Journe By Alexander Calder | M.S. Rau
 
Rouille Sur Journe By Alexander Calder | M.S. Rau
 
Many art historians point to the beloved Impressionist movement as the catalyst of change that precipitated the dawn of modern art. The Impressionists broke with the rigid traditions of the Academic fine art institute that dominated the 19th century, instead choosing to capture scenes from everyday life with particular emphasis on the transient effects of light and color. The Impressionists took a painterly approach in their depictions of modern life, utilizing loose brushwork and embracing a creative palette that reflected the nuances of light and shade.
 
The Industrial Revolution was also a major catalyst for the birth of modern art. Rapid technological advancements and the growth of manufacturing and transportation greatly influenced the social and cultural environment of the early 19th century. As urban centers prospered, workers flocked to cities for industrial jobs and urban populations boomed. Rather than painting portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons or religious or mythological scenes for institutions, artists began to draw from their own personal experiences and make art that commented on the changing socioeconomic landscape.
 
Another development that led to a break from the academic traditions of painting and sculpting was the advent of photography. Beginning with daguerreotypes and tintypes and turning to the more readily accessible cartes-de-visites and silver gelatin black-and-white prints, the ability to utilize technology to capture the world exactly as it appeared in reality gave artists working in traditional mediums the freedom to move beyond a focus on hyper realism. The creativity of photography also influenced the way artists envisioned compositions. Artists realized that they could render their compositions as snapshots of moments in life. They did not have to be perfectly posed—a wood beam in the ballet studio, for example, could bisect Degas’s painting of rehearsing dancers.
 
Psychoanalysts like Freud also inspired artists to explore their subconscious minds and experiment with dreams and symbolism in their works. This precipitated movement away from the figural and some artist’s turn toward total abstraction.
 
Generally, at its nascent beginnings, the modern art period encompassed a moment when artists challenged the notion that they must realistically depict subjects deemed “worthy” by the Academy in order for their art to have merit. Rather, artists explored new subjects both figural and abstract, dabbled with expressive use of color and light and perspective and utilized new materials and techniques to create dynamic and decisively modern works.
 

Characteristics of modern art

Given its wide variety of influences and sweeping time period, modern artwork cannot be described in any singular terms or characteristics. Rather, specific movements heralded by several specific artists best describe modern art’s many defining characteristics.
 

Many art historians name Paul Cézanne as the father of modern art. The famous Post-Impressionist painter clearly illustrated how artists could break free from the rigid strictures that had previously defined art history by actually co-opting one of the most traditional genres—the still life. Cézanne’s most notable subject, a basket of apples, nodded to the long tradition of the still life that came before. His technique, however, accounted for a complete break from tradition. His compositions defied the laws of perspective and color, rendering space in a completely unique way. This groundbreaking approach greatly influenced following movements like Cubism and even Surrealism.

 
Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, 1893 | Art Institute of Chicago
 
Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, 1893 | Art Institute of Chicago
 
Cubism was invented around 1907 by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The two developed a revolutionary visual language of geometric planes and alternating angles that compressed space and broke subjects down into geometric components. Their works fragmented and abstracted reality. In a similar vein, the Surrealists like Magritte and Dalí challenged reality through creating compositions that allowed the unconscious mind to express itself.
 
These revolutionary approaches gave way to even more avant-garde movements like Dada, led by famous artists like Marcel Duchamp. Dada began during the First World War in Zurich as a reaction to the frivolity of the war. In response, Dada artists created satirical, nonsensical and at times irreverent works that challenged the very notion of what could be considered art.
 

Later movements include Abstract Expressionism, led by luminaries like Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. These movements prioritized process just as much as the final product. Pollack’s gestural flinging of paint onto monumental canvases and Frankenthaler’s immersive abstractions of completely saturated canvases soaked with amorphous fields of paint married fine art with performance in a way that inspired many later artists.

 
Helen Frankenthaler photographed by Gordon Parks in her studio, 1956. © The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.
 
Helen Frankenthaler photographed by Gordon Parks in her studio, 1956. © The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.
 
Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 
Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 

Pop art emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a counterpoint to the painterly abstraction of other modern artists. Pop art returned to representational compositions and utilized decisive edges and forms that drew inspiration from commercial and popular culture. Artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol led the way, creating unique, sometimes tongue-in-cheek works that provided rich commentary on the increasing commoditization of modern society.

 

While Warhol experimented with creating multiples in his famous shop, other late modern artists looked toward monumental projects like land art. Perhaps the most famous example, sculptor Robert Smithson created the Spiral Jetty—a spiraling earth work that protruded out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake in 1970. Smithson’s work was elusive and mysterious, accessible to only those who knew of its existence. Part performance piece, part disruptive statement, this piece of land art can help mark the shift from the modern art era to the contemporary era.

 
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgon | Utah Museum of Fine Arts
 
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgon | Utah Museum of Fine Arts
 

What is contemporary art?

Contemporary art is sometimes more difficult to define. While most say contemporary art is art made by artists living today, some of the most famous contemporary artists of the last 50 years are no longer living—some due to the contemporary issues that their art commented on. Contemporary art reflects the world we live in today. Though many contemporary artists directly make reference to the canonical works of art history, their work is unbound by any structures or traditions. They create across mediums, making works monumental and small, tangible and intangible, installation and video, sculptural and flat.
 

Characteristics of contemporary art

Some of today’s most famous contemporary artists include Yayoi Kusama, Jeff Koons, Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, Zeng Fanzhi and Julie Mehretu, to name a few.

Yayoi Kusama’s works defy categorization. She creates immersive artworks of polka-dot covered rooms and infinity mirrors that transport those who experience her works to a different dimension.

 
Inside Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room at The Broad.
 
Inside Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room at The Broad.
 

Jeff Koons’ famous balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces sharply divide contemporary critics. One art critic might view his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance while another may dismiss his work as kitsch and based on cynical self-merchandising. The American contemporary artist himself has stated that there are no hidden meanings and critiques in his works of contemporary sculpture—though this statement itself could be part of the ruse.

 
Kehinde Wiley, St. Anthony of Padua, 2013 | Seattle Art Museum
 
Kehinde Wiley, St. Anthony of Padua, 2013 | Seattle Art Museum
 
Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005 | Brooklyn Museum
 
Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005 | Brooklyn Museum
 

Other contemporary artists engage directly with the canon of art history to make important statements about today. Though perhaps best known for painting the official Presidential portrait of Barack Obama, artist Kehinde Wiley has amassed an impressive body of work throughout his career. Wiley draws heavily on canonical works, with his most quintessential pieces working in a large scale to recast Old Master paintings with contemporary Black models in a stylized interrogation of the historical legacy of fine art. Wiley’s body of work creates a sort of revisionist history that places Black people at the center of the narrative. His desire comes from personal experience, roaming the halls of museums like the Huntington Library and wondering aloud, “Where are the people who happen to look like me?” Spurred by this feeling, Wiley developed what he described as an obsession with the, “incredibly ancient language which is easel painting. This obsession with the dignity of it. The bombast. The pomp and circumstance surrounding all of these portraits.” Wiley thought “Perhaps I can hack that language of dignity. Hack that language of respectability and turn that light towards people who happen to look like me.” As a portraiture artistWiley reimagines a history that paints these figures as the dignified subjects of monumental compositions. Wiley’s world-building through paint envisions racial equality then and now.

 

While some purists count contemporary artwork as art created by “living" artists," we would be remiss not to include artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat or Félix González-Torres in the conversation about contemporary art—as their work remains so critical to the movement’s central concepts. Both died young, Basquiat in 1988 at age 27 to drugs, González-Torres in 1996 at age 38 to AIDS. Basquiat was a one-of-a-kind artist and connoisseur of cool. A Neo-expressionist who utilized graffiti and paint with the same reverence, Basquiat created a visual language that fed a cult of celebrity around him. His work commented on culture and Blackness, the fragility of life and ongoing colonialism and racism. Preoccupied with fate and his own demise, Basquiat met an untimely death due to drugs at a young age, but his influence permeates contemporary art.

 
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981 | The Broad, Los Angeles
 
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981 | The Broad, Los Angeles
 

Félix González-Torres, known more simply as Félix, also made an indelible impact in his short time. A leader in installation-driven art, Félix’s works created heartbreaking commentary about the AIDS crisis. Though many of his works were untitled, works like his 1991 Untitled (Perfect Lovers), envision the horror of the AIDS crisis through two nondescript wall clocks placed side by side. A commentary on the brevity of life and the urgency of time, through the run of the installation’s display the two identical synchronized clocks will eventually fall out of sync, and one might stop entirely. Installation art like this feels deeply emotional despite utilizing such commonplace objects with little intervention by the artist. These installations embody just how far the bounds of contemporary art can push and encourage viewers to find artistic meaning in works that might not at first seem to align with our idea of what art is.

 
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991 | The Museum of Modern Art, New York
 
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991 | The Museum of Modern Art, New York
 

How do the two compare?

While contemporary art and modern art cover two different time periods and vastly different artistic approaches, they share a continued goal of thinking outside the bounds of tradition and commenting on the tradition that came before. Both movements oscillate between figuration and abstraction, prizing color over form or method over medium. While modern art might feel decisively more traditional to a contemporary viewer, modern and contemporary art share a fundamental desire to make a unique statement through evolving modes of representation. Their differences are nuanced. While it might be easy to say simply that modern art is art made from 1860-1970 and contemporary art is art made by artists living today, the above discussion showcases how these definitions cannot be so rigidly applied. Like the movements themselves, the exact definitions resist categorization and precipitate larger conversations and deeper thinking.
 
Are you interested in establishing or expanding your own art collection? Browse our unique antiques and shop available modern art for sale at M.S. Rau. From Italian art culture to French art styles, we’ve got everything you need to expand your knowledge within the world of fine art.

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