Art History Timeline Part 3: Emergence of Contemporary Art

In the last 3000 years, western art history has gone through many changes, resulting in a diverse range of styles, techniques, and mediums. Art has always been a reflection of societal contexts and changes, making it a crucial indicator of cultural and sociopolitical climates during the time of their creation.

Here is the continuation of parts one (Prehistoric to Romanticism) and two (Realism to Abstract Expressionism) of the most prominent western art movements in history.

Op Art (1950s — 1960s)

Due to advances in science and technology, as well as a growing interest in optical illusions and effects, the Optical Art movement launched with Le Mouvement, an influential group exhibition in 1955. Artists practicing this style used different shapes, patterns, and colors to create images that looked as if they were moving or blurring. The purpose of the abstract patterns was to both excite and confuse the human eye.

English painter Bridget Riley is one of the most acclaimed Op Art practitioners. Her 1964 piece called Blaze 1 features mesmerizing zigzag black and white lines that help achieve the illusion of a circular descent.

Pop Art (1950s — 1960s)

Pop Art is arguably the most recognizable art development of the 20th Century. Transitioning as far away as possible from methods used in Abstract Expressionism, the movement focused on everyday mundane items to produce innovative artwork that challenged consumerism and mass media. Opening this window to identifiable imagery was a significant shift from the direction of modernism.

Famous Pop artists, including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, aspired to establish the notion that artists can draw inspiration from any source, and that no hierarchy of culture should disrupt or inhibit one’s creative expression. Perhaps the most well-known pop culture piece is Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans from 1962.

Arte Povera (1960s)

An Italian term meaning poor art or impoverished art, the Arte Povera movement challenged the contemporary system by incorporating commonplace materials into creations. Rock, soil, paper, fabric, and similar earthen elements served as “paint” for paintings and “clay” for sculptures to artists who expressed themselves through Arte Povera, conjuring a pre-industrial sentiment.

Italian artist Mario Merz, along with other artists such as Alighiero Boetti and Giovanni Anselmo, produced anti-elitist works of art by utilizing materials from everyday life. Merz’s 1968 sculptural piece called Giap’s Igloo, which paved the way for his signature series of igloos, featured some of life’s most basic necessities: food, shelter, and warmth.

Minimalism (1960s — 1970s)

The Minimalist movement surfaced in New York as a group of younger artists began to question the wildly expressive pieces of Abstract Expressionist artists. Instead, minimalist art focused on obscurity and anonymity, shifting the spotlight on the materiality of works. Minimalist artists encouraged their audience to focus on what was right in front of them, transitioning away from drawing parallel realities and emotions through the usage of purified forms, simplicity, order, and harmony.

American painter and sculptor Frank Stella is one of the most notable artists of the Minimalism movement. His claim to fame was his exceptional nonrepresentational paintings, as seen in his monochromatic Black Paintings completed between 1958 and 1960. Each masterpiece features rectilinear stripes of uniform width, which Stella printed in metallic black ink. Kate Nesin, an art historian and curator based in New York, shared that “To many, Stella remains best known for his precocious appearance in ‘Sixteen Americans’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1959. Only twenty-three years old, he was represented there by four of his ‘Black Paintings,’ a series that eventually comprised about two dozen large-scale canvases, each composed of concentric bands or stripes in black enamel house paint on raw canvas, at once stark, deadpan, rigorous, imposing, velvety – diagrammatic but also tactile.”

Conceptual Art (1960s — 1970s)

Conceptual art turned away from every preceding art movement. The artists favored ideas over visual components, producing art in the form of performances and ephemera.

The active poetry of Ewa Partum, a Polish performance artist, consisted of her dispersing single alphabet letters across different landscapes. As for American artist Joseph Kosuth, he explored the role of language within art, evident in his One and Three Chairs completed in 1965. The piece featured one chair in three different ways: as a photograph, as a copy of a dictionary entry for the word “chair,” and as a manufactured chair. There is no distinct style or form since it focuses on concepts and ideas.

Contemporary Art (1970 — present)

The early beginnings of contemporary art emerged in the 1970s and extends to the present day. Various smaller movements dominate this period.

  • Postmodernism. In response to modernism, artists produced works that mirrored irony, skepticism, and philosophical critiques.
  • Feminist art. This movement came to light in an attempt to eliminate stereotypes and change the model of male-dominated art history.
  • Neo-Expressionism. Artists sought to resuscitate the original aspects of Expressionism and produced highly expressive,  textural, large artwork.
  • Street art. Artists like Keith Haring, Banksy, Barry McGee, and more made graffiti-like art on various surfaces in public places such as buildings, overpasses, and sidewalks.
  • The pictures generation. Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, Gary Simmons, and other artists that Pop and Conceptual art influenced began experimenting with a variety of mediums, including photography and film, to capture and expose stereotypes and cultural tropes in popular imagery.
  • Appropriation art. This movement refers to the practice of making slight modifications to pre-existing images or objects.
  • Young British Artists. This group of modern artists from London were notorious for their eagerness to shock audiences through their imagery, and an inclination to push beyond the limits of decency. They are also well-known for their zestful, entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Digital art. The advent of cameras, smartphones, computers, iPads, and other advances paved the way for this artistic practice that allows people to produce masterpieces with the help of technology.

This concludes our western art history timeline. The team here at Biltmore Loan hopes that you enjoyed learning about the definition of each movement, which is indispensable in navigating the complex background and stylistic shifts of Western art throughout history.

If you have in your possession a painting, sculpture, or any artwork from an influential period, you have the option to sell or use artwork as collateral here. Biltmore Loan is a trusted art buyer in Scottsdale and Chandler, AZ. Our appraisal specialist is sure to offer you a competitive price for an authentic piece from a renowned artist.