Characteristics of modern art

Characteristics of modern art.


Modern Art, painting, sculpture, and other forms of 20th-century art. Although scholars disagree as to precisely when the modern period began, they mostly use the term modern art to refer to art of the 20th century in Europe and the Americas, as well as in other regions under Western influence. The modern period has been a particularly innovative one. Among the 20th century’s most important contributions to the history of art are the invention of abstraction (art that does not imitate the appearance of things), the introduction of a wide range of new artistic techniques and materials, and even the redefinition of the boundaries of art itself. This article covers some of the theories used to interpret modern art, the origins of modern art in the 19th century, and its most important characteristics and modes of expression.


Modern art comprises a remarkable diversity of styles, movements, and techniques. The wide range of styles encompasses the sharply realistic painting of a Midwestern farm couple by Grant Wood, entitled American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois), and the abstract rhythms of poured paint in Black and White (1948, private collection), by Jackson Pollock. Yet even if we could easily divide modern art into representational works, like American Gothic, and abstract works, like Black and White, we would still find astonishing variety within these two categories. Just as the precisely painted American Gothic is representational, Willem de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe (1954, private collection) might also be considered representational, although its broad brushstrokes merely suggest the rudiments of a human body and facial features. Abstraction, too, reveals a number of different approaches, from the dynamic rhythms of Pollock’s Black and White to the right-angled geometry of Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1937-1942, Tate Gallery, London) by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose lines and rectangles suggest the mechanical precision of the machine-made. Other artists preferred an aesthetic of disorder, as did German artist Kurt Schwitters, who mixed old newspapers, stamps, and other discarded objects to create Picture with Light Center (1919, Museum of Modern Art, New York City).

 Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl (1963) on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York




Thus 20th-century art displays more than stylistic diversity. It is in the modern period that artists have made paintings not only of traditional materials such as oil on canvas, but of any material available to them. This innovation led to developments that were even more radical, such as conceptual art and performance art—movements that expanded the definition of art to include not just physical objects but ideas and actions as well.


In view of this diversity, it is difficult to define modern art in a way that includes all of 20th-century Western art. For some critics, the most important characteristic of modern art is its attempt to make painting and sculpture ends in themselves, thus distinguishing modernism from earlier forms of art that had conveyed the ideas of powerful religious or political institutions. Because modern artists were no longer funded primarily by these institutions, they were freer to suggest more personal meanings. This attitude is often expressed as art for art's sake, a point of view that is often interpreted as meaning art without political or religious motives. But even if religious and government institutions no longer commissioned most art, many modern artists still sought to convey spiritual or political messages. Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, for instance, felt that color combined with abstraction could express a spiritual reality beneath ordinary appearances, while German painter Otto Dix created openly political works that criticized policies of the German government.




Grant Wood (1892-1942), American painter, born in Anamosa, Iowa, and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Académie Julian in Paris. He taught art in the public schools of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from 1919 to 1924, and he served as artist in residence at the University of Iowa from 1935 to 1942. Wood is best known for his later paintings, which depict the scenes and people of his native Iowa. A leader in the regionalist school of 20th-century American art (see American Art and Architecture: Regionalism), he was strongly influenced by the subject matter and technique of various German and Flemish painters of the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century). In translating their stylized formality to the American scene, however, he added his own distinctive touches of irony and realism. This satirical treatment can be observed in Wood's most famous work, the double portrait American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago), and in Daughters of the Revolution (1932, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio.)




Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), American abstract painter, who developed a technique for applying paint by pouring or dripping it onto canvases laid on the floor. With this method Pollock produced intricate interlaced webs of paint, as in Black and White (1948, private collection). Rapid and seemingly impulsive execution like Pollock’s became a hallmark of abstract expressionism, a movement that emphasized the spontaneous gestures of the artist.


Born in Cody, Wyoming, Pollock moved to New York City in 1930 to study at the Art Students League with American artist Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock’s early paintings, realistic scenes of life in America, clearly reflect Benton’s influence. As his career progressed, Pollock rejected his teacher’s representational subject matter, but retained Benton’s emphasis on rhythmic, dynamic composition. In New York, Pollock was also exposed to the work of Mexican mural painters José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their experimental techniques, large scale, and use of industrial paints had a lasting impact on Pollock’s work.


The surrealism movement was another significant influence upon Pollock, whose ideas about the relevance of the unconscious to artistic creativity coincided with his own experience. As part of treatment for alcoholism, Pollock underwent psychoanalysis; his therapists, who followed the teachings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, encouraged him to analyze his drawings for clues to his unconscious mental processes. Surrealist artists had also hoped to tap into the unconscious through automatism, a technique in which the artist’s hand wanders across the painting’s surface with as little conscious control as possible. In early works such as The She-Wolf (1943, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), Pollock combined surrealist automatism with subject matter that reflects his interests in ancient sculpture, non-Western art, and the work of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.


After moving to a larger studio on Long Island in 1947, Pollock began creating his characteristic large-scale abstractions. He placed the canvas on the floor, attacked it from all directions, and poured paint directly on it. His new method resulted in part from his interest in Native American sand paintings, which are created on the ground with sand of various colors let loose from the hand. Typical of this period, Autumn Rhythm (1950, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) is clearly abstract, since it makes no direct reference to the external world. However, Pollock described his abstraction as an attempt to evoke the rhythmic energy of nature (as the title Autumn Rhythm indicates).



Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Dutch painter, who carried abstraction to its furthest limits. Through radical simplification of composition and color, he sought to expose the basic principles that underlie all appearances.


Born in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, on March 7, 1872, and originally named Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, Mondrian embarked on an artistic career over his family's objections, studying at the Amsterdam Academy of Fine Arts. His early works, through 1907, were calm landscapes painted in delicate grays, mauves, and dark greens. In 1908, under the influence of the Dutch painter Jan Toorop, he began to experiment with brighter colors; this represented the beginning of his attempts to transcend nature. Moving to Paris in 1911, Mondrian adopted a cubist-influenced style, producing analytical series such as Trees (1912-1913) and Scaffoldings (1912-1914). He moved progressively from seminaturalism through increased abstraction, arriving finally at a style in which he limited himself to small vertical and horizontal brushstrokes.


In 1917 Mondrian and the Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg founded De Stijl magazine, in which Mondrian developed his theories of a new art form he called neoplasticism. He maintained that art should not concern itself with reproducing images of real objects, but should express only the universal absolutes that underlie reality. He rejected all sensuous qualities of texture, surface, and color, reducing his palette to flat primary colors. His belief that a canvas—a plane surface—should contain only planar elements led to his abolition of all curved lines in favor of straight lines and right angles. His masterly application of these theories led to such works as Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1937-1942, Tate Gallery, London), in which the painting, composed solely of a few black lines and well-balanced blocks of color, creates a monumental effect out of all proportion to its carefully limited means.


When Mondrian moved to New York City in 1940, his style became freer and more rhythmic, and he abandoned severe black lines in favor of lively chain-link patterns of bright colors, particularly notable in his last complete masterwork, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-1943, Museum of Modern Art, New York City).


Conceptual Art, an art form that developed in the mid-1960s, in which the concept takes precedence over the actual object. As American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt notes in a 1969 article, not all ideas for art need to take physical form. Le Witt argued that art criticism is no longer necessary because artists can and should write their own analysis of art; these writings are themselves as legitimate an art form as painting or sculpture. Around the same time, another founder of the conceptual movement, Joseph Kosuth, declared that conceptual art is based on an inquiry into the nature of art itself.


Early conceptual art took several forms. LeWitt provided how-to instructions for creating drawings, specifying types of lines by length, curvature, color, and so forth. The instructions constituted the salable artwork; the drawings themselves were only a secondary result of the original creative concept. In 1965 Kosuth exhibited single objects—a chair, hammer, or saw, for example—alongside a life-size photograph of the object and a dictionary definition of the object printed on a placard. This presentation questioned the relationship between objects, images, and words.


Another investigation of the link between art and language occurs in the work of American artist Lawrence Weiner. By lettering phrases about material conditions like scale, position, color, and even price, directly on gallery walls, Weiner made art out of language. For his No. 051 (1969, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City), Weiner had the words “1000 GERMAN MARKS WORTH MEDIUM BULK MATERIAL TRANSFERRED FROM ONE COUNTRY TO ANOTHER” printed on the gallery wall. Weiner instructed that the phrase be presented “alongside the material referred to.” Weiner’s instructions are purposely open-ended, so that in one installation it might include a pile of fabric with a value of 1000 German marks, and in another, a pile of bricks with this value. Then again, in Weiner’s conception, the piece need not be built at all; the words could simply be spoken and the piece imagined. Hanne Darboven, a German conceptualist, has been working with numerical and chronological progressions since 1965, creating serial installations that examine the nature of time. In her Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (1996, Dia Center for the Arts, New York City) 1,589 panels of uniform size and format trace more than a century of history, using texts, numbers, photographs, and postcards.

In practice, many conceptual works were reduced to the documentation of an event or activity through written instructions, photographs, or video footage. Additionally, some conceptual artists executed or gave directions for performance art. A 1970 work by Japanese American performance artist Yoko Ono consisted of the simple written instruction: “Draw an imaginary map and follow it down an actual street.” This piece demonstrates the difficulty of connecting an abstract idea (the imagined place) and a visual representation of it (the map) to the real world (the actual street).

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Conceptual art has important precedents in the early 20th century. French American artist Marcel Duchamp exhibited an upside down but otherwise unaltered Bicycle Wheel in 1913, asserting that it and other everyday objects are sculpture if an artist declares them to be so. Duchamp soon followed the bicycle wheel with a bottle rack, snow shovel, and most famously, a urinal. The attitude of Duchamp and other members of the dada movement who shared his revolutionary views about art reemerged in the early 1960s through an international group of artists calling themselves Fluxus. Working under the spiritual guidance of American composer John Cage, Fluxus artists sought to erode the barriers between art and life and allow randomness and chance to guide their work. Another important precedent to conceptual art is minimal art, a movement that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In minimal art simple geometry often determines the shape of a sculpture or painting, and the mathematical specifications for an artwork can be as important as its execution.


Conceptual artists originally attempted to rid art of all so-called objecthood and thus of its commercial value as well, and their endeavor survived for only a few years in its purest form. But conceptualism’s heirs thrive. In the 1970s a number of artists, including Americans Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer and German artist Lothar Baumgarten, began using words in their art to explore visual and verbal conventions. The legacy of conceptual art is a belief that thought expressed in words can be art.

 Richard Hamilton. Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956) is one of the earliest works to be considered "pop art".



Performance Art, presentational genre, usually involving some degree of improvisation, in which an artist draws upon dance, music, drama, and sometimes motion pictures, customarily mixing these forms of expression. The terms happenings, mixed-means theater, action art, or simply performance are sometimes used to describe this art form. All performance art shares two elements: First, the various parts of the performance function disharmoniously, in the tradition of visual-art collage, which is based upon assembling elements normally found apart; second, a piece of performance art must be live, because a recorded piece, whether on film or audio tape, has no spontaneity. Performance art may also incorporate elements of shock, social criticism or protest, and audience involvement.


Performance art has its origins in the work of several avant-garde artists of the late 1950s. American artist and professor Allan Kaprow coined the term happenings to describe a one-time event, generally held outdoors, in which people come together to execute instructions they had not seen before. Central to such happenings are the elements of discovery and surprise. Happenings later took place within a performance space. An example of this was Moviehouse (1965), a piece by American sculptor Claes Oldenburg, in which several artists performed in the seats of a movie theater while spectators watched from the aisles. American composer John Cage explored performance art differently. In his pioneering 45-minute untitled piece, staged in 1952 at Black Mountain College, one person read a text, another performed choreography, and a third produced sounds, all with minimum rehearsal.


In the 1970s the term performance art came to describe more modest theatrical events, often involving only one person who was not only the performer but also the writer and director. The cross-discipline trends begun in the 1960s continued in these performances. Performers often used media previously unfamiliar to them: Someone trained in theater or writing might use motion-picture images or choreographed movements, or a performer trained in dance might use more language than movement in the performance. Performance art after 1975 reflected the influences of minimal art, which focused on extreme simplicity, and of conceptual art, which considered the creative process more important than the finished product (see Modern Art).

The most innovative and influential contributions to performance art in the 1990s came from women initially trained in dance, including German Pina Bausch, who incorporated sound and setting in grandiose spectacles, and American Elizabeth Streb, whose theatrical pieces mixed dance with gymnastics and circus acrobatics. Other successful performance artists include Americans Anna Halprin, Meredith Monk, and Yvonne Rainer, all of whom trained initially in dance; American Laurie Anderson, who combined music, video, speech, and electronics in her work; American Robert Wilson, who contributed text and spectacular decor to his performances; and American David Moss, who experimented with percussive vocal sounds in his solo works.

Ongoing excavation in Egypt continually reshapes the views of scholars about the origins of Egyptian civilization. In the late 20th century archaeologists discovered evidence of human habitation before 8000 bc in an area in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the border with Sudan. Nomadic peoples may have been attracted to that area because of the hospitable climate and environment. Now exceptionally dry, that area once had grassy plains and temporary lakes that resulted from seasonal rains. The people who settled there must have realized the benefits of a more sedentary life. Scientific analysis of the remains of their culture indicates that by 6000 bc they were herding cattle and constructing large buildings.

The descendants of these people may well have begun Egyptian civilization in the Nile Valley. About 2,000 years later, when the climate changed and the southwestern area became more arid, it is possible that they chose to migrate eastward to the Nile. Some of the distinctive characteristics of their society, such the structures they built and the emphasis they placed on cattle, support this theory. By 4000 bc there were settlements in Upper Egypt, at locations such as Hierakonpolis (ancient Nekhen), Naqada, and Abydos.

Such a theory, however, explains only part of the picture of the early Egyptian civilization. A culture known as Badarian is represented as early as 5000 bc in Upper Egyptian settlements. Moreover, in Lower Egypt, Neolithic settlements in the Al Fayyūm area date from more than 1,000 years earlier. Several sites in that area show evidence of agriculture by around 5000 bc. Merimde, at the Nile Delta’s western border, may have been almost as old, and a settlement at Buto appears to date from around 4500 bc. The style and decoration of the pottery found at these sites differ from those of pottery found in Upper Egypt. The northern type eventually fell out of use. Other differences between the peoples in Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt include the nature of their architecture and the arrangements for burial of the dead, the latter perhaps signifying differing religious beliefs.



Unification and Early Dynastic Period

By 3500 bc, the settlement of Hierakonpolis, located on the west bank of the Nile between Luxor and Aswān, had become a central site of Predynastic culture—that is, the culture that existed before the time of the first Egyptian dynasties, or families of rulers. Hierakonpolis soon became a large and important administrative and economic center. Its religious rituals took place in a structure that is now seen as a primitive form of later Egyptian temples. A large brick tomb, constructed underground, apparently was the burial site of an early local ruler. Some of its decorations and images, such as a scene of the ruler smiting his enemies, are the same as those used in the times of the Egyptian kings. Many elements of the culture at Hierakonpolis, including the division into social classes, were typical of other settlements along the Nile. The archaeological evidence makes it clear that the culture of Upper Egypt, not that developing in Lower Egypt, was exerting influence and perhaps some control over an expanding geographic area.

It is possible that a center such as Hierakonpolis or Abydos, also in Upper Egypt, began to exert control over other settlements and that the unification of ancient Egypt was in reality the gradual growth of one center’s influence. Several king lists, or lists of rulers, some of which were prepared after 1550 bc and are quite complete, as well as histories dating to the Classical Age (500-323 bc), indicate that a ruler named Menes was Egypt’s first monarch. He reigned around 3100 bc. However, some of these documents refer to earlier rulers or even to a series of demigods (mythical beings who were partly divine and partly human). This information, as well as the archaeological evidence, implies that rival small kingdoms existed in the late Predynastic period, just before 3000 bc. Eventually one of their rulers established control over Upper Egypt and then perhaps became powerful enough to exert dominance over both the north and the south.

No one knows which, if any, of the rulers whose names are preserved from this period can be identified with Menes. Perhaps it is Aha or Narmer, whose names are recorded on some of the oldest artifacts. An image of Narmer appears on his Palette, a large ceremonial slate slab that dates to around 3100 bc and was found at Hierakonpolis. On it Narmer wears two crowns: on one side, the white crown of Upper Egypt; on the other side, the red crown of Lower Egypt. He is the first individual to be depicted with the royal headgear of both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Other insignia and images later associated with the Egyptian monarch also appear on the palette, and Narmer is shown triumphant over enemies, including, in a symbolic manner, the delta. The scene on the palette is sometimes interpreted as ritual imagery, but it may have some historical truth. Excavations in the late 20th century at the Upper Egyptian site of Abydos, where the early kings were buried, may provide some support for the historical interpretation. A small ivory label found in the tomb of Narmer has a carved scene that appears also to represent that king’s victory over the delta. Moreover, the same expedition uncovered a structure dating from around 3250 bc. In that structure were found a scepter, wine jars from the nearby land of Canaan, and more labels, some of which were records of products from the delta. This material supports the idea that Upper Egypt came to dominate Lower Egypt even earlier than 3100 bc and controlled trade with the east.

The Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived in the 3rd century bc, recorded the royal history by organizing the country’s rulers into 30 dynasties, roughly corresponding to families. Some Egyptologists (people who study ancient Egypt) now suggest altering his list of dynasties by adding at the beginning a Dynasty 0, which may have lasted about 150 years, from about 3100 to about 2920 bc. During this period, Egyptian unification appears to have taken place, the structure of the Egyptian state seems to have been formed, and writing first appeared. The 1st and 2nd dynasties, which cover a time span of about 300 years, from around 2920 to around 2650 bc, brought the further development of a complex society, the rise of the state, and Egypt’s emergence as a power in the ancient world.



Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period

Fairly early, perhaps during Dynasty 0, the administrative center of Egypt shifted to Memphis, which is located just below the southern tip of the delta. It is not known when Memphis was founded. Memphis was well positioned to be the seat of government of the now unified land. The royal cemetery continued to be located at Abydos, in the south. The last ruler of the 2nd Dynasty, Khasekhemwy, was responsible for the construction of the last royal tomb of this period there. This ruler, who also built a monument at Hierakonpolis, may have constructed a funerary monument at Şaqqārah (Sakkara) as well, thus paving the way for the establishment of the royal cemetery at that northern location. Şaqqārah was to serve as the royal cemetery for much of the Old Kingdom, a period that some scholars believe began with the 3rd Dynasty (about 2649-2575 bc) and others believe began with the 4th Dynasty (about 2575-2467 bc). The Old Kingdom lasted until around 2134 bc and was followed by the First Intermediate Period.

The size of the funerary monuments of Egypt’s royalty still impresses visitors today. These huge burial complexes provide a wealth of information about the society and culture of the people who produced them. Imhotep, the architect for Djoser, second king of the 3rd Dynasty, constructed what appears to be the world’s first monumental stone building for the eternal resting place of a king. Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Şaqqārah is perhaps one of the earliest in a series of burial complexes that culminated in the pyramids at Giza, which date to the 4th Dynasty. The largest of these pyramids, known as the Great Pyramid, was built for King Khufu, the second king of the 4th Dynasty. These construction projects required a huge workforce of several hundred thousand laborers over a period of many years. The successful completion of the pyramids depended on a stable and well-developed economy, a well-established administrative bureaucracy, and immense public support. Moreover, Egypt had to be at peace with its closest foreign neighbors to provide the necessary concentration for this work. Unskilled workers toiled on the projects during the months of the Nile flood, when they could not farm, but craftspeople, artisans, stonemasons, managers, and others worked year-round. Devotion on the part of all the people to the king and his burial project was an important element in the success of the project. The royal office was considered divine, and the ruling king was believed to be a god on Earth, a mediator between humankind and the deities. Working for this god and securing his place among the divinities for all eternity could be interpreted as an expression of the religious devotion of the people.

From the end of the 5th Dynasty in about 2323 bc, the interiors of the pyramids contained texts carved on the walls. This collection of hymns, spells, instructions on how to act in front of the gods, and rituals, now called the Pyramid Texts, is the oldest body of religious literature yet discovered. As time went on, the size and the quality of pyramid construction diminished, in large part as a result of financial strain on the treasury. In addition, the nation had to deal with hostile neighbors, and a change in climate apparently caused serious droughts, references to which are found in texts and scenes.

By the end of the 6th Dynasty in about 2150 bc, the chiefs of the provincial areas, or nomes, were becoming increasingly powerful. Eventually the chiefs, called nomarchs, established hereditary offices and became local rulers, thus paving the way for internal rivalries and hastening the breakdown of the central administration. The First Intermediate Period ensued. It lasted from about 2134 to about 2040 bc and included the next several dynasties. During this period the nomarchs of Herakleopolis, in the northern part of Upper Egypt, rose to power. However, another rising power, based in the south at Thebes, challenged their authority and succeeded in reuniting the land.


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