Art Since 1950 (Part I)
First Things First...
This one hour and fifteen-minute lecture focuses on influential art movements that developed around 1950–1965. The historical context of the postwar era demonstrates the shift away from Europe as the center of avant-garde culture and highlights the political and economic dominance of the United States during the mid-twentieth century.
These conditions are reflected in the art historical emphasis often given to innovations in visual art that occurred in New York. This narrow viewpoint has expanded in recent years as scholars shed more light on concurrent activities in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and other regions, as well as to disciplines including dance, theatre, and music that have informed contemporary visual art.
The good news: Although the twentieth century is part of our historical past, its culture remains more closely linked to the lives of students today when compared to other topics in the introductory survey. Whenever possible, encourage students to draw connections from the art they are studying to the visual culture that surrounds them.
This is a great opportunity to assign students to visit a local gallery, museum, or even your school’s studio art department, either in preparation for class, or as a way to synthesize their experience of contemporary art with its position within art history. Have students reflect upon their visits in a short exhibition review, relevance paper, or group discussions in class. If your students have some technology skills, assign them to visit a museum in teams of two or three and record a five- or six-minute conversation about a work of art that can be uploaded and shared with the whole class.
The bad news: Unless you’re teaching thematically, this topic comes near the end of the semester when students (and instructors) are usually tired, stressed, and behind schedule. That means the material may need to be compressed, or presented in an even more abbreviated version than other areas of the art history survey.
The diversity of artistic styles, practices, and concerns that have emerged in the past seventy-five years resist the discrete groupings and narrative explanations that are often used to introduce students to art history. Therefore, in spite of the shorter timespan, the challenge is to select representative examples without overwhelming students with too much information, or confusing them with superficial explanations of complex ideas.
For these reasons, this lesson plan remains limited in scope. It does not address architecture, photography, design, or studio craft arts, and focuses primarily on artistic developments in the U.S. and Western Europe. Printmaking and sculpture are discussed only in the context of the blurring of art/life boundaries manifest in the emergence of Pop Art and Minimalism, thus neglecting sculptors like Louise Nevelson, John Chamberlain, and Anthony Caro, who explored more formalist concerns in their work. Likewise, the objects discussed demonstrate visual characteristics that evolved over time. This inevitably oversimplifies art of the period by obscuring the range of styles and influences found among different artists associated with key movements.
Instructors might consider using local museum collections or assigning students to research less canonical artists to highlight this issue and to expose students to lesser-known artists.
The strategy: Embrace the messiness of this period, and don’t try to force it into a tidy package. Students may find it empowering to realize the field of contemporary art history is actively evolving. There are ongoing debates not only about how to define the era, but also whether the discipline’s traditional methods may even apply to art produced today.
Encourage students to consider this problem as you focus on fundamental questions of art history as they apply to contemporary art:
- What motivated artists to develop new artistic styles and practices in the mid-twentieth century?
- How have these historical developments influenced the production of art today?
- How does contemporary art build upon, and depart from, its historical precedents?
Abstract Expressionism (The New York School)
Action Painting /Color Field (Color Imagist) Painting
Environments (term coined by Alan Kaprow to describe installation practices of the 1950s and 1960s)
Hard Edge Painting
Proto-Pop (Neo-Dada) (terms used to describe art of the 1950s that incorporated elements of material culture and served as a precursor to Pop Art of the 1960s)
These key terms and figures can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples, including:
- Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
- Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950–2, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1954, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
- Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Alberto Giacometti, Man Pointing, 1947, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Francis Bacon, Figure with Meat, 1954, The Art Institute of Chicago
- Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
- Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Red, 1963, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955–1959, Moderna Museet, Stockholm
- Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Shiraga Katsuo, Untitled, 1957, Centre Pompidou, Paris
- Allan Kaprow, Yard, 1961
- Richard Hamilton, What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956, Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany
- Andy Warhol, Campbell Soup Cans, 1962, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, Tate Modern, London
- Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam! 1964, Tate Modern, London
- Claes Oldenburg, Floor Burger, 1962, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Donald Judd, Untitled, 1966–68, Milwaukee Art Museum
- Robert Morris, L-Beams, 1965, Whitney Museum of American Art
Abstract Expressionism serves as the entryway to the period’s artistic and intellectual context. This movement underscores the concerns of a world coming to grips with the existential and political realities of the atomic bomb, the Nazi Holocaust, and entry into the Cold War, and prepares students for the philosophical emphasis of much contemporary art. Abstract Expressionism’s non-objective imagery reflects the influence of Surrealism, as well as Jungian theories of archetypal images, rooted in a collective unconscious.
Works by the Color Imagists (Color Field painters) Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman highlight the metaphysical dimensions of the movement and its relationship to the historical sublime. This connection can be demonstrated through comparison to nineteenth century Romantic landscape painting. Whereas artists like Frederick Church encouraged viewers to contemplate their place in the vastness of nature, Color Imagists relied on expansive canvasses awash in fields of color to generate similar responses among their audience.
The action painting techniques of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning , read through the ideas of critic Harold Rosenberg, reveal a connection to Existentialist philosophy and show how the Modernist concept of the artist/hero fed into the American values of individualism and democracy promoted during the Cold War.
Abstract Expressionism is further compared to European artists Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, who also explored Existentialist themes of isolation and anxiety through their figurative imagery.
The visual contrast between thew works of the Color Imagists and the Action Painters paves the way for a discussion of formalist painting, as well as the emergence of creative practices that blurred the realm of art with real life. Helen Frankenthaler‘s staining technique exemplifies the notion of post-painterly abstraction and the influence of critic Clement Greenberg. Ellsworth Kelly‘s hard edge style calls attention to artistic experiments with color, spatial illusionism, and perception.
Pollock’s action painting, and its implicit emphasis on the artist’s creative act, helps explain the shift to assemblage, installation, and performance. In Japan, Katsuo Shirago of the Gutai group relied on bodily interaction with materials to yield his final paintings (Extra Resource: Gutai: Splendid Playground, exhibition website, Guggenheim Museum, New York). In the United States, the ideas of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp and avant-garde musician John Cage also led artists to introduce elements of real life into their art. Robert Rauschenberg created “combine” paintings that rejected the flat picture plane and challenged the autonomy of Modernist painting (Extra Resource: Ovation Interview with Robert Rauschenberg); Jasper Johns‘s paintings of popular subjects like flags and targets collapsed the distance between the real object and its artistic representation (Extra Resource: Smarthistory Discussion). Allan Kaprow used found objects to produce immersive environments like Yard, and interactive “happenings” that invited viewers’ participation (Extra Resource: Artist’s website).
The lecture concludes with discussions of Pop Art and Minimalism. Although these movements appear formally at odds, they both reflect the rising industrialization, consumerism, and mass media presence that followed the economic boom in the U.S. during the 1950s. Richard Hamilton‘s collage What is it about today’s homes that makes them so different, so appealing? can be used to introduce this cultural context and explain Pop’s British origins. Works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg exemplify the subjects and techniques of American Pop Art, as well as the movement’s relationship to mass production and consumer culture.
Like the Pop artists, Donald Judd and Robert Morris (Extra Resource: Smarthistory) rejected Abstract Expressionism’s subjectivity and metaphorical associations in favor of the systemic methods, industrial fabrication, and spare geometric forms that characterize Minimalism. They questioned Modernism’s assumptions by creating three-dimensional structures that denied illusionism and emphasized literal qualities of the object which had to be experienced from multiple perspectives.
At the End of Class
A good way to end this class is around a comparison of representative examples of Pop and Minimalism: Have students write a one-minute essay addressing points of form and content, then use their essays as the basis for small group or class discussion.
Have students explore connections between popular culture, politics, social issues and art using The Andy Warhol Museum’s Timeweb. Share observations via a class blog, or under a Twitter hashtag.
If you want to reduce class lecture time, assign students to research objects produced later in the century (see Suggested Artists in the list below). Their findings can be used as an individual assignment to turn in or post online, or as preparation for the next class session. (I like to divide students into small groups to exchange their findings, and have them choose one they will present to the whole class.)
Research prompts might include:
- How does this object show the influence of art we’ve studied in class?
- How does it depart from these earlier practices in either form or meaning?
- When/where was this object produced?
- How does it reflect (or not) its historical context?
Peter Fischli and David Weiss