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What is Modern Art? Part Two: Postmodern to Contemporary

By Lisa Thomas

Fred Mitchell (b. 1923), Untitled, oil on canvas, to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
Fred Mitchell (b. 1923): Untitled, oil on canvas, to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.

The words Modern and Contemporary have different definitions yet are synonyms, often used interchangeably in conversations about art. In the art world, however, they have different meanings. Contemporary Art is art that is made contemporaneously to the time period we are living in. Some define this as art that has been produced concurrently or “within our lifetime.” The term Contemporary Art was used as early as 1910 when the Contemporary Art Society was founded in London. At the time, the art being made was contemporary, but as time moved forward, the date that defined the term moved as well.

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Charles Arnoldi (b. 1946): Untitled, mixed media on paper; to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.

Contemporary Art includes, and grew out of, Postmodern Art, the successor to Modern Art. Postmodern Art is a group of art movements that emerged and developed after Modernism and include Installation Art, Conceptual Art, Multimedia and Video Art. The characteristics shared by the Postmodern art movements are the appropriation and recycling of past styles and themes in a new way or context, often by using collage and performance. Postmodern Art focused on the theme of “high” and “low” art and their place in popular culture. In this way, Postmodern Art was very “modern” and “contemporary.”

Paul Feeley (1910-1966): Untitled, screenprint in colors; to be offered in our June 7, 2014 Modern & Contemporary Auction.
Paul Feeley (1910-1966): Untitled, screenprint in colors; to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.

Most art historians see the transition date from Modern Art to Postmodern Art to Contemporary Art to be after the 1960s, considering art produced from the 1970s to the present to be “within our lifetime.” Art galleries representing currently producing artists often define Contemporary Art as work produced after 2000. Artists who are productive over many decades can fall into both categories, often beginning their careers as Modern artists and ending as Contemporary. Contemporary art can be in any style: abstract, realist, conceptual. What makes it Contemporary is that it has been created in the time period we are currently living in.

So what really is Modern Art? By definition and philosophy, it is art that reinterprets traditional ways of thinking about art, either by dismissing them entirely or by recycling certain elements, or creating new ways of expression altogether. It is any art made about people, places or ideas that interest the artist. It is art that is unexpected, different, distinctly modern or avant-garde. Postmodern and Contemporary Art can be modern, but in the semantics of its definition, Modern Art is not contemporary.

Please join us for one of our upcoming sale exhibitions where you will be able to view art, furniture and objects from all of these art movements, periods and styles.

Tom Holland (b. 1936): Palm Spring, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1966, to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
Tom Holland (b. 1936), Palm Spring, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1966, to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
Ross Bleckner (b. 1949): Him, oil on canvas; to be offered in our June 7, 2014 Modern & Contemporary Auction.
Ross Bleckner (b. 1949): Him, oil on canvas; to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
Richard Crist (1909-1985), Flying Cluster, oil on canvas, 1981, being offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
Richard Crist (1909-1985): Flying Cluster, oil on canvas, 1981, to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
Martin & Sicilia (XX-XXI), Cambate #7, 2006, acrylic on wood, ed. #1/3, 64 x 35 x 8 in., to be offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
Martin & Sicilia (XX-XXI): Cambate #7, 2006, acrylic on wood, ed. #1/3, 64 x 35 x 8 in., being offered in our auction, June 7, 2014.
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