10 modern and contemporary artworks that can help us predict
In response to the pandemic, we’re seeing artists create in different ways, exploring new practices, mediums and themes. Taylor Dafoe from ArtNet News highlights how Rashid Johnson, George Condo and other international artists are grappling with racism, isolation from loved ones and anxiety from a different angle, noting new processes and more somber tones. More radically, other artists like Amalia Ulman and Elinor Carucci are being resourceful, using social media as a medium to create without traditional materials, to showcase existing works under new interpretations, and gain new audiences. Further, private and public art institutions have embraced virtual exhibitions and programming, forever changing how we view art.
As we wonder how our experiences and trauma will manifest through art in the shadow of a pandemic, we should also ask whether we are entering into a new art movement because of a need to change our understanding of what “art” is, what it represents, and what it will become. What we do know is that “2020” has taken on a new meaning, changing how we interpret and value art of this decade.
Take a look at 10 modern and contemporary works that altered the way we perceive art and could predict whether we’re entering into a new movement.
1. Banksy - Love is in the Bin, 2018
Banksy, Love Is in the Bin (2018). Sotheby's.
Shredding Down The Establishment
At the Sotheby’s - London 2018 Contemporary Art Evening Auction, Banksy arguably made his most shocking stunt yet by cueing his most famous work, Girl With The Balloon, to shred seconds after the auction closed. By creating a new artwork whilst destroying another, Banksy, once again, turned a critical eye on the commercial art establishment -- forcing us to question the market and its valuation methods, the concept of ownership, and the art world’s insatiable need for innovation and scandal.
The art world had about a year to cool off before Maurizio Cattalan’s Comedian made global headlines at Art Basel Miami. The work, a banana taped to a wall with silver duct-tape, sold for $120,000 and ignited a frenzy amongst fair-goers and the local community. The six-figure selling price and cheeky media coverage shed light on internally accepted, but shameful, excess and lack of sensitivity to the gross wealth disparity in Miami and around the world.
If these works were tests for the establishment (art institutions, media, and collectors alike), we can’t help but wonder whether the establishment failed.
2. The Obama Portraits
Kehinde Wiley - Barack Obama, 2018 (left)
Amy Sherald - Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018 (right)
Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively. National Portrait Gallery.
A New Portrayal of America
The Obama Portraits, created by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, were unveiled in 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, marking the first time that African-American contemporary artists were commissioned to create the Presidential Portraits. The portraits received international praise and recognition, as well as a well-deserved emotional response from National Portrait Gallery visitors -- so much so that the museum’s attendance tripled. The portraits, which both deviate from traditional portraiture, represent a shift in the nation’s portrayal of blackness, the American political establishment and will continue to live as pop-culture phenomenon.
3. Tracey Emin - My Bed, 1999
Installation view of Tracey Emin, My Bed, at the Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, 1999-2000. Photo © Stephen White. © 2018 Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Confessional Art and the Commercialization of the Art World
In 1998, Tracey Emin decided that her bed, strewn with evidence of a 4 day bed-ridden episode, was a work of art deserving of exhibition in a gallery. Surrounded by condoms, empty vodka bottles, pregnancy tests, cigarettes, and lubricant bottles, her bed transformed confessional art and, for some, represented the 1990s rise of reality television and introspection of artists. The work received international acclaim and earned Emin’s spot as a Turn Prize contestant and leading member of the Young British Artists (YBAs). The Young British Artists began in the 1980s and, with the help of patron Charles Saatchi, propelled conceptual art and the commercialization of art to new heights.
4. Guerilla Girls - Do women have to be naked to get Into the Met. Museum?, 1989
Changing the West’s Representation of Women
After calculating the disparity of women artists represented in the Modern Art Sections of the Met, The Guerilla Girls shared their first illustrative work, Do women have to be naked to get Into the Met. Museum? Originally designed as a billboard for the New York Public Art Fund (PAF), the work depicts a gorilla head on the body of the female subject in Jean-August-Dominique Ingres's La Grande Odalisque. The work was ultimately rejected by PAF, so in true Guerilla Girls fashion, they rented an advertising space on New York city buses, spreading the message around the city. Ultimately, New York city buses canceled their lease for reasons unknown. Still, the work shook public art institutions by highlighting a blatant bias towards Western male artists and how this has shaped art history.
This civil protest led to increase museum retrospectives of women, including Carmen Herrera, Alma Thomas, and Lee Krasner, and group shows highlighting minority perspectives (e.g. Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985).
5. Roy Lichtenstein - Whaam!, 1963
Roy Lichtenstein - Whaam!. Image - ArtNet.
Pop Art Takes On Abstract Expressionism
Roy Lichtenstein and his most famous work Whaam! are iconic symbols of the Pop Art movement and clear examples of his rejection of the institutionally accepted methods of abstract expressionism. The markers of this shift are Lichtenstein’s use of imagery from pop-culture (the DC Comics All-American Men of War) and the painting’s grand scale (a diptych standing at 136 by 160 inches). Like his contemporary Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein uses popular culture to encourage political discourse on global conflict and cultivate cross-cultural understanding. This work, which disrupted the art world, can now be seen on permanent display at Tate Modern in London.
6. David Hockney - A Bigger Splash, 1967
David Hockney, A Bigger Splash. Image - Tate Modern.
One of the most famous post-war paintings by one of the most renowned post-war artists, A Bigger Splash captures the moment immediately after a dive. Like Hockney’s other works, it captures the essence of a simple, American life. However, by not showing a human subject we are left to imagine anyone, including ourselves in this picturesque, California setting. The work is an example of the trend of escapism in the media during the 1960s, which resulted from the traumatic events of the Vietnam War.
The painting deserves even more credit for the slow process by which Hockney created the splash effect. Rather than splattering with paint brush flicks, he referenced a photograph of a splash and reproduced the fleeting moment over two weeks.
Ramiro Gomez, No Splash. Photograph, Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles.
NOTE: L.A. artist Ramiro Gomez’s No Splash (2013) "fills] in the gaps that Hockney omitted,” by portraying two people of color cleaning a house and the pool, in a similar style to Hockney's famed setting. Gomez and his Hockney Series provide a realistic picture of Hockney’s idealized perception of California by acknowledging the presence of laborers in everyday life and, more poignantly, after the splash.
7. Jackson Pollock - Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950
Jackson Pollock - Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). Image - The Met Museum.
Pour & Drip
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) is Jackson Pollock's most famous work and a symbol of the abstract expressionist movement. Pollock and this specific work shifted the focus of the art world from Paris to New York and, due to the support from art critic Clement Greenberg, made Pollock into a dominant figure in the art world while he was alive. Abstract expressionists, including Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, had an increased interest in the collective subconscious, the ego and one’s personal emotions, not coincidentally in the aftermath of WWII. Abstract expressionism and its supporters valued the artistic process and emphasized its importance.
8. Gordon Parks, Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Gordon Parks, Outside Looking In, Mobile Alabama, 1956. (C) Gordon Parks Foundation.
New Perspectives of the American Experience
Gordon Parks was the first African-American photographer for Vogue and Life Magazine and is considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Along with his contemporaries, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, Parks mastered the genre of social realism, which uses realistic depictions of contemporary issues such as race, poverty, and civil rights.
Outside Looking In is part of photo essay entitled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” that Parks shot in 1956 (a year after Emmett Till’s murder) while on assignment for Life Magazine. The series documents the everyday activities of one African American family, The Thorntons, living in the South under Jim Crow segregation. Parks used photography as a “weapon”to expose the realities of Southern American life to a national audience. In this photograph, he subtly portrays the experiences of African American children, prohibited by law from entering a playground built for white children, even during their most innocent years. You can view the entire photo essay and other archives photos in the book Segregation Story.
9. Jacob Lawrence - Migration Series (1940-1941)
Jacob Lawrence - Migration Series, Panel 40 (1940-1941). Image - The Phillips Collection.
New Perspectives of the American Experience
Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series sheds light on The Great Migration when over a million African American’s migrated from the Jim Crow South to the North East in response to the demand for manufacturing labor during World War II. The paintings in the series use faceless, brown skinned subjects to depict the collective experience of the massive number of migrants taking similar journeys. Each painting shows different junctures and the harsh realities of food shortages, indentured servitude, the housing crisis and violent lynchings. With our knowledge of the existing racial and economic disparity in the cities that African Americans migrated to, and our nation's views towards migrants of any kind, the series takes on a daunting and prophetic meaning. In a global context, the work represents how migration patterns are determined by outside perceptions of democracy, equality and opportunity, which are often met by disappointing realities.
10. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Installation view of Marcel Duchamp'sFountain,1917. Photo by James Broad, via Flickr.
What is art?
In 1917, after claiming to accept any work of art as long as it was submitted with an application fee, the Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York rejected Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (an upside-down urinal, signed and dated with the name “R. Mutt, 1917”) on the grounds that it wasn’t art. This rejection, and Duchamp’s resignation from the Society, spurred a discourse on whether art is a concept or an object, how it is valued and whether the artists, the critics or the audience get to decide. Additionally, it questioned the importance of authorship, representation, and artistic agency in Western art.
Fountain is an example of a “readymade”, a term that Duchamp coined, which are existing objects taken from real life and modified or re-contextualized to function as works of art. Marcel Duchamp and this work have shaped art theory for decades and even influenced controversial works like Maurizo Cattalan’s Comedian and Tracey Emin’s My Bed.