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?

Background Readings

Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? Collage, 1956.


These books may serve to orient the instructor in preparation for the course, or provide reading assignments for students:

David Cottington, Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) link to

Thomas E. Crow, The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) link to

Jonathan Fineberg, Strategies of Being: Art Since 1940, 3rd Edition (London: Pearson, 2010) link to

Barbara Haskell, Blam: The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance, 1958–1964 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984) link to

Irving Sandler, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (New York: Icon Editions, 1979) link to

Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, 2nd Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012) link to


In addition to survey texts, an extraordinary amount of material on this period is available online. Specific links are included with the content suggestions below, but other excellent resources include:

Art21: PBS mega-site on contemporary art. Features video interviews with artists, a critical blog, and an encyclopedia of artists and related information.

ArtBabble: A “channel” combining video content from major museums. Allows browsing by art period and style, medium, and museum. Hosted by Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Artsy: An online database of contemporary artworks and content developed in partnership with museums and galleries worldwide.

Hyperallergic: Serious and playful art commentary.

Khan Academy (Art History: Toward a Global Culture): Formerly Smarthistory, this site includes short videos and essays contributed by scholars with expertise in all areas of art history. Content-based quizzes offer students good self-assessment/study tools.

Museum Websites:

The Art Institute of Chicago
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Museum of Modern Art, NY (MOMA)
National Gallery of Art, Washington (NGA)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)
Tate Modern, London
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Content Suggestions


Abstract Expressionism (The New York School)
Action Painting /Color Field (Color Imagist) Painting
Benday Dots
Carl Jung
Clement Greenberg
Environments (term coined by Alan Kaprow to describe installation practices of the 1950s and 1960s)
Hard Edge Painting
Harold Rosenberg
John Cage
Pop Art
Post-Painterly Abstraction
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:

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, Kazuo Shiraga 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?

Suggested Artists:

Andy Goldsworthy
Ann Hamilton
Anselm Kiefer
Damien Hirst
Doris Salcedo
El Anatsui
Gerhard Richter
Glenn Ligon
Janine Antoni
Judy Chicago
Kara Walker
Kiki Smith
Maya Lin
Mona Hatoum
Nancy Spero
Peter Fischli and David Weiss
Richard Serra
Thomas Demand
Yinka Shonibare

Based in Washington DC, Virginia B. Spivey (author) received her A.B. in art history from Duke University, and M.A. and Ph.D. in art history and museum studies from the joint program at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Museum of Art. She has over 20 years teaching art history in museum and higher education settings, including MoCA Cleveland, UNC-Asheville, Georgetown University, and the Maryland Institute College of Art; and as an independent educational consultant, she developed expert content and learning resources for clients such as and Pearson-Prentice Hall’s Higher Education Division. Her professional service includes tenure as chair of CAA’s Education Committee and a member of ISSOTL’s Advocacy and Outreach Committee. 

Prior to her current position as Director of AP Art History and Social Sciences-Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at The College Board, she served on AHTR’s leadership collective as a contributing editor and editor in chief, and she spearheaded AHTR’s 2015 initiative to establish Art History Pedagogy and Practice, where she continues to serve as co-founding editor.   

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

Kaegan Sparks (editor) is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Publication Associate in Critical Anthologies at the New Museum, New York.