The World Since 1950 CE

Contemporary Art

Contemporary art is the overall production of art made after World War II.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the categories of late modernism and post modernism in art.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The predominant term for art produced since the 1950s is Contemporary Art. The terminology often points to similarities between late modernism and post-modernism, although there are differences.
  • Modern art, radical movements in Modernism, and radical trends regarded as influential and potentially as precursors to late modernism and postmodernism emerged around World War I and particularly in its aftermath.
  • The discourse that encompasses the two terms Late Modernism and Postmodern art is used to denote what may be considered as the ultimate phase of modern art, as art at the end of modernism or as certain tendencies of contemporary art.
  • Late modernism describes movements which arise from and react against trends in modernism and rejects some aspect of modernism, while fully developing the conceptual potentiality of the modernist enterprise.

Key Terms

  • Cubism: An early-20th-century avant-garde art movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, where objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form.
  • precursors: That which precedes; a forerunner; a predecessor; an indicator of approaching events.
  • Surrealism: An artistic movement and an aesthetic philosophy, pre-dating abstract expressionism, that aims for the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative powers of the subconscious.


The predominant term for art produced since the 1950s is Contemporary Art. Not all art labeled ‘contemporary’ is modern or postmodern, and the term contemporary encompasses both artists who continue to work in modernist or late modernist traditions, as well as artists who reject modernism for post-modernism or other reasons. Arthur Danto argues explicitly in After the End of Art that contemporaneity is the broader term, and that postmodern objects represent a sub-sector of the contemporary movement which replaced modernity and modernism.

Radical movements in modern art

Modern art, radical movements in Modernism, and radical trends regarded as influential and potential precursors to late modernism and postmodernism emerged around World War I and particularly in its aftermath. With the introduction of the use of industrial artifacts in art came movements such as Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism as well as techniques such as collage and art forms such as cinema and the rise of reproduction as a means of creating artworks. Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and many others created important and influential works from found objects.


Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907: This work by Picasso is considered to be a major step towards the founding of the Cubist movement.

Late Modernism vs. Postmodernism

The discourse surrounding the terms Late Modernism and Postmodern art is fraught with many differing opinions. There are those who argue against any division into modern and postmodern periods. Some don’t believe that the period called modernism is over or even near the end, and there certainly is no agreement that all art after modernism is post-modern, nor that postmodern art is universally separated from modernism; many critics see it as merely another phase in modern art or another form of late Modernism. There is, however, a consensus that a profound change in the perception of works of art, and works of art themselves, has occurred and that a new era has been emerging on the world stage since at least the 1960s.

Late modernism describes movements which arose from and react against trends in modernism, rejecting some aspect of modernism, while fully developing the conceptual potentiality of the modernist enterprise. In some descriptions post-modernism as a period in art history is completed, whereas in others it is a continuing movement in Contemporary art. In art, the specific traits of modernism which are cited generally consist of: formal purity, medium specificity, art for art’s sake, the possibility of authenticity in art, the importance or even possibility of universal truth in art, and the importance of an avant-garde and originality. This last point is one of particular controversy in art, where many institutions argue that being visionary, forward-looking, cutting edge, and progressive are crucial to the mission of art in the present, and that postmodern art therefore represents a contradiction of the value of art of our times.

One compact definition of postmodernism is that it rejects modernism’s grand narratives of artistic direction, eradicates the boundaries between high and low forms of art, disrupts the genre and its conventions with collision, collage, pastiche, and fragmentation. Postmodern art comes from the viewpoint that all stances are unstable and insincere, and therefore irony, parody, and humor are the only positions which cannot be overturned by critique or later events.

European Postwar Expressionism

Postwar European artists, unlike American abstract expressionists, grappled with the isolated experience of the individual figure.

Learning Objectives

Contrast European postwar expressionism with contemporary expressionism in America

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following the end of WWII and the advent of American abstract expressionism, the center of western artistic activity shifted from Paris to New York.
  • Many European artists were heavily influenced by the intellectual movement existentialism. This interest is reflected in their attempts to grapple with the meaning of the isolated figure in the postwar world.
  • The closest equivalents to American abstract expressionism were the French painting movements Tachisme and Art Informel. The artistic approach of these movements was characterized by intuitive abstraction and abandonment of premeditated structure.

Key Terms

  • existentialism: A twentieth-century philosophical movement emphasizing the uniqueness of each human existence in freely making self-defining choices. This movement had foundations in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and was notably represented in the works of Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Gabriel Marcel (1887-1973), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80).
  • Surrealism: An artistic movement and aesthetic philosophy that aims for the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative powers of the subconscious.

In the Postwar period, the center of modern artistic activity in the west shifted from Paris to New York. One of the biggest contributing factors to this shift was the advent of abstract expressionism, a decidedly American movement often cited as the first American avant-garde. Visionary figures like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman epitomized abstract expressionism in New York, but a similar concern for expressionism was present in the work of many important European artists in the aftermath of World War II.

The Postwar Figure

While both American and European artists were influenced by the postwar rhetoric of anxiety, alienation, and disillusionment, the American school was also heavily influenced by Surrealism and moved increasingly toward reductive abstraction and away from representing biomorphic forms as a means for pursuing the self-expression of the unconscious.

Unlike American Expressionism, which was more abstract, many European painters maintained the primacy of the figure in their work. More concerned with the philosophical and cultural movement of Existentialism, European artists grappled with the meaning of the figure and its isolated, individual experience of the world. Existentialist themes often framed the work of figurative artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Alberto Giacometti. Bacon and Freud were British painters who painted expressive portraits noted for their psychological penetration. Giacometti was a Swiss painter and sculptor mostly known for his sculptures of isolated, attenuated figures. These figures were thought to reflect the postwar view that life was void of meaning.

Two images of the sculpture of: one of the entire sculpture and one a close-up of the head. The sculpture is heavily textured, and the figure is thin and stretched out.

Alberto Giacometti, Woman of Venice VII, 1956, bronze. Art Gallery of New South Wales.: Giacometti’s “Woman of Venice VII” presents the typical solitary figure often seen in his work, which was heavily influenced by existentialist thought.

A distorted version of the 17th century painting, Portrait of Innocent X. In this version, the Pope is shown sitting in a thrown, screaming behind transparent drapes.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, oil on canvas, 60 x 46 in. De Moines Art Center, De Moines, Iowa.: This painting by Bacon exemplifies a figurative portrayal of existential and individual angst that European Expressionists typically display in their work.

Tachisme/Art Informel

During this period, European artists engaged more fully in abstraction, particularly those associated with the French painting movements Tachisme (from the French word tache, meaning stain) and Art Informel. Tachisme is often regarded as the closest European equivalent to American abstract expressionism, and can be characterized by spontaneous brushwork, drips and blobs of paint applied directly from a tube, and, occasionally, scribbling reminiscent of calligraphy. Important Tachisme painters include Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Soulages, Nicholas de Stael, Hans Hartung, Serge Poliakoff, Georges Mathieu, and Jean Messagier. Art Informel, a movement closely related to Tachisme, rejected the geometric, hard-edge style of American abstraction in favor of a more intuitive form of expression. “Informel” referred to the lack of form itself and the absence of a premeditated structure.