Introduction to Contemporary Art Movements: From the 1940s to Today

Much of the art we see today is influenced by the foundational movements of modern and contemporary art, both aesthetically and conceptually. An introduction to some of the contemporary art movements from the mid-20th century to the present can be helpful in understanding the underpinnings of the art we see in museums and galleries today. Many of these movements embraced the abstract, while also developing intellectual and conceptual ways of expressing meaning.

Abstract Expressionism

Number 18, Jackson Pollock, 1950.
© 2018 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

While all of the modern art movements previously discussed originated in Europe, Abstract Expressionism is an art movement that developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. This signaled the movement of the center of the Western art world from Paris to New York, which was prompted by World War II and the emigration of many European artists to the United States. Championed by art critic Clement Greenberg, the most identifiable artist of the movement is Jackson Pollock. The effect of Greenberg’s writings led artists to approach their work with a focus on the “formal” and “pure” qualities of an artwork, rather than the content of the work or its underlying meaning. Abstract Expressionist artists embraced this to some extent, but also relied upon their materials to express their state of mind, often using Surrealist strategies like improvisation and intuition to allow their paintbrushes and paint to lead the way on the canvas. While Pollock’s energetic and monumental paint-splattered canvases typify the movement, Abstract Expressionism also encompasses other artists who used color as a means to express emotion, such as Mark Rothko, who is known for his entrancing and meditative color field paintings.


Vietnam Veterans Memorial, created by Maya Lin

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, created by Maya Lin

The Minimalist art movement emerged in the 1960s, and represents the idea of taking the concept of the abstract to the extreme. Minimalism emerged in the practice of several sculptors in New York, including Donald Judd and Frank Stella. The movement rejected representation and emphasized the “objecthood” of an artwork. These artists often used mass-produced or industrial materials in their work, further removing the art from traditional artistic and creative expression. The resulting work is pristine, sleek, and geometric—exuding the idea of a cool, detached artist rather than an involved, emotional creator. While these unemotional, object-focused artworks are the most common work associated with Minimalism, the ideas and formal qualities of the Minimalist movement can also evoke emotion when used in a certain way. One example of this is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial created by Maya Lin in the 1980s. Rather than a traditional, representative monument, Lin used a simple, stark, geometric V-shape to elicit psychological responses from visitors. The idea that subtle forms can transcend and seek truth was a tenet held by many Minimalist artists.


Performance Art

Ah, yes, this is where the fun begins! One of the wonderful things about avant-garde art that emerged in the 20th century is that it radically opened the possibilities of what is considered art. Prior to the 1960s, objects were the primary vehicle for creating visual art—paintings, drawings, sculptures, anything that was tangible. However, with the advent of performance art, the idea of ephemeral, non-tangible artwork was created. Performance art often featured brief, temporary works that were experienced in the moment. Performance art pieces were often called “Happenings” (a term first used by artist Allan Kaprow) or “Actions.” Though some of the work was documented by photography and film, many of the performances were not documented and thus only existed in the moment for the artist and the audience. There was often a focus on the body, as the nature of the medium necessitated the use of the body to express the idea. Performance art was widely embraced by feminist artists, and Marina Abramović, Suzanne Lacy, and Yoko Ono were key innovators in the movement. Ono’s 1964 performance work, titled Cut Piece, invited members of the audience to approach the artist and cut away her clothing. A statement on gendered violence, objectification, and vulnerability, the performance also allowed the audience to become active participants in the creation of the work.

Conceptual Art

Wall Drawing 132, Sol Lewitt © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Wall Drawing 132, Sol Lewitt
© The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Conceptual Art may be one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century, with much of the work created today rooted in the ideas of Conceptual art. Like many of the other movements previously discussed, this movement originated in the 1960s—a fertile time for creative exploration and expression. The key tenet of Conceptual art was that art resided in the artist’s idea, rather than the object that the idea resulted in. In fact, like Performance artists, many Conceptual artists did not use objects at all to relay their ideas. Conceptual artists took inspiration from Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp, who exhibited found, mass-produced objects and declared them art, forcing the audience to focus on the idea behind the work. Conceptual artists used a variety of methods and materials, including performance, video, the written word, photo documentation, and found objects. Key artists in the movement are Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari, and Sol Lewitt. Conceptual art can also incorporate humor, as in Baldessari’s 1971 video work, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, which features the artist writing this statement over and over again on a sheet of paper. While Conceptual artists often focused on ideas and the intellectual, they also found a great deal of humor in art-making and were able to incorporate jokes into their work.


Pop Art

Pop art, short for “popular art,” originated in Britain in the early 1950s but subsequently moved across the pond and was embraced by American artists. Pop art created a return to representation, which had been abandoned by many movements that focused on abstraction. Pop artists used imagery and devices from consumer and popular culture and mass media to convey their ideas, making their work more accessible to a wider public. American artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were instrumental in the development of Pop and included images of everyday objects and Americana in their work, often using collage and found objects to encourage audiences to take a deeper look at the ubiquitous and familiar imagery. While Johns and Rauschenberg were early adopters of the movement, the quintessential Pop star is Andy Warhol. Warhol’s work focused on consumer culture and celebrity, using repetition and silkscreen printing to both reflect on and perpetuate popular and celebrity culture.


Feminist Art

Feminist art is a movement that takes the strategies of many contemporary art movements (Performance, Conceptual, Land Art, and New Media, among others) to create artwork with a political message. Emerging in the 1970s in conjunction with the larger feminist movement, artwork from this movement brought gendered issues to the forefront, including topics such as domestic violence, rape, inequality and lack of knowledge of women’s histories, and the “male gaze.” Judy Chicago, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman are widely known artists associated with this movement—each used different methods and mediums to convey their ideas, including sculpture and embroidery, photography, and text. The Feminist movement dovetails with many of the other art movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Ana Mendieta, a Cuban American artist, created a Silueta series that incorporates both Performance and Land art, while engaging with feminist concepts and ideas. Feminist art, which explored the personal and the political, has influenced many artists of the 21st century as artists continue to explore racial, gendered, religious, and class differences and biases in society,


Land Art (or Environmental Art/Earth Art)

The Land art movement emerged in 1960s, and can be seen as a form of Conceptual art in that the artists used the natural landscape as their medium rather than traditional tools of the trade. Emerging in conjunction with the ecological movement in the 1960s and an increased awareness of pollution and environmental impact, Land artists challenged traditional modes of art-making and aimed to reach a wider public. Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude are all associated with the movement. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) may be the most emblematic artwork of the movement. Consisting of black basalt, limestone, and earth, Smithson constructed a large spiral that extends into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Like Conceptual and Performance artists, Smithson documented the work with photography and film, which today are important for ecological scientists who study the water levels of the lake.  Land artists often aimed to comment on the connection between humans and the natural world, which can be done with work that integrates naturally into the environment, like the Spiral Jetty, or work that emphasizes the differences between the two, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s environmental interventions often do. This movement has been influential on many 21st century artists, as they work with new materials and seek to integrate artwork into the natural landscape.



A brief look at some of the contemporary art movements that emerged in the 20th century helps us to see the influences and predecessors of working artists today. Their influence can be seen worldwide, as international artists engage with conceptualism, minimalism, the environment, feminism and other political movements, and do so by working with new materials and methods. We see Ai Wei Wei using performance art as a political act, Shirin Neshat using video to explore femininity within traditional Islam, Mickalene Thomas using photography and painting to represent black female identity, and Yinka Shonibare creating sculptures and paintings that engage with post-colonialism. Artists today are using countless creative and expressive strategies that defy the art history-defined art movements, creating exciting opportunities to engage with new ideas and aesthetics.




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