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The Art of the Now: A Contemporary Art Meta-List


All Art Has Been Contemporary, Maurizio Nannucci (1999).

As the above work of contemporary art makes clear, the term “contemporary art” is problematic.  “Contemporary” doesn’t refer to a specific method, technique, movement, style or even sensibility. It’s about time – and nothing else. Despite the term’s limitations, when I looked for lists of the best contemporary art, I found a general consensus that the term applied to a period of time beginning in the 1960s or 1970s and continuing to the present day.  Many art historians, critics and others agree that Contemporary Art is what followed Modern Art. While there is  significant disagreement about when the Modern Art period ended, just about everyone agrees that it did end some time ago.

Here’s the new meta-list:
Best Contemporary Art – A Chronological List

In looking at the works on the meta-list (and those that didn’t make the cut), I can make several general observations about contemporary art. Here are 10 takeaways:

(1) Many contemporary artists are interested in the process of making, displaying and acquiring works of art as a subject in itself.  For example, when Damien Hirst priced For the Love of God – a diamond-encrusted skull – at 50 million British pounds in 2007, his marketing strategy was part of the conceptual piece.  Other artists have eschewed or mocked the traditional notion of art museums.
(2) While some contemporary artists continue to create art in traditional forms such as painting (Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Alice Neel, Ellsworth Kelly) and sculpture (Richard Serra, Duane Hanson, Anish Kapoor), many are drawn to other means of expression. One path leads to technology: films and videos (Francis Alÿs, William Kentridge, Matthew Barney), electronics (Jenny Holzer), multimedia. Another path leads to ephemeral or temporary art: installations (Olafur Eliasson, Yayoi Kusama, Christo), performances (Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, Pussy Riot), and street art (Keith Haring, Banksy).
(3) Commodification of art is a concern for many artists. Many artists produce replicas, duplicates or variations of earlier work.  (This artistic practice has a long history, of course.)  The artists may produce multiple copies of identical or similar works (see Andy Warhol’s Mao or Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster), or they may take a theme and produce variations on it (see Donald Judd’s Stacks, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Rooms, Sigmar Polke’s Watchtower paintings, Louise Bourgeois’ Cells).  This is particularly common with photography; many photographers go from series to series during their careers (see Sally Mann’s Immediate Family; Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Lightning Fields; Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills).
(4) As with the modernists who preceded them, many contemporary artists love to play with the notion of “what is art?” and enjoy provoking the question, “Is this art?” from the viewer (see Damien Hirst’s Natural History series, or Jenny Holzer’s Truisms).  Others appear to be interested in the shock value of their art.
(5) Many contemporary artists encourage viewers to take part in, become part of or otherwise actively interact with the artwork (see Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room, Chen Zhen’s 50 Strokes to Each or Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present).
(6) There seems to be a dichotomy between artists who love to explain the meanings of their works – who use texts, interviews and other means to discuss the works – and artists who refuse to attribute any deeper meanings to the works they create.  In a few cases (Jeff Koons comes to mind), some critics feel that the artwork does not live up to the deep meanings ascribed to it by the artist.
(7) Bigger is better.  Many contemporary artists create works that are very large in size or scope (Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty; Jeff Koons’ Puppy, James Turrell’s Roden Crater; Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field), or that include many hundreds or thousands of elements (see Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds; Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books; Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks; Antony Gormley’s Field series).
(8) Art as a forum for personal expression – particularly personal autobiography – is a theme of much contemporary art (see Edward Kienholz’s The Birthday, Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead and the work of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin).
(9) As more women and people of color have been able to overcome barriers to have their artistic voices heard, they raise difficult issues of race and gender in their work (see Judy Chicago, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley).
(10) Postmodernism is a theoretical underpinning to much contemporary art, leading many artists to engage in a dialogue with (or repudiation of) the art of the past (see Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading His Troops Across the Alps, Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (Fugato), Vik Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage). Postmodern ideas also underlie the practice of appropriation art, in which artists incorporate or repurpose objects or images produced by others in their work – either untouched or manipulated in some way (see Andy Warhol’s Mao silkscreens, Thomas Ruff’s jpeg series, Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs).

For more on contemporary art, check out this list:
Best Contemporary Artists and their Work