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Contemporary Art - History

Since World War Two, art movements have included Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Post-modernism, Minimalism and Feminist art. Characterized by no real common ground, contemporary art offers a wide range of styles.

A merger of surrealism and expressionism created Abstract Expressionism, with a move away from the personal towards monumental and heroic scales of work. Abstract Expressionism is not the same as early 20th century Expressionism in Europe. Abstract Expressionism as a term began "at the end of World War One to refer to Kandinsky and other Europeans who painted abstractly with expressionist brushwork".

Abstract Expressionism flourished in the 1940s and 1950s America and is sometimes referred to as the New York School. The artists involved resisted a definition as a cohesive style as they were very interested in achieving a distinctive personal style. Their common link was a "concern with varying degrees of abstraction used to convey strong emotional or expressive content". The Abstract Expressionists were a dynamic group with a diversity of style and it has been said that the works of the Abstract Expressionists "acted in the gap between meaning and words". An expressive quality could possibly be that link.

Robert Motherwell was probably the most intellectual of all the Abstract Expressionists, and in a sense was a chronicler of them as he gave them a voice. He tells us that the Abstract Expressionists totally disregarded the Renaissance tradition and their immediate goal was to create an art that was equal to European modern art. The influence of surrealism was chiefly in terms of its methodology, specifically its automatic technique and its use of chance elements. Motherwell calls attention to the qualities of truth and authenticity both of which he says the Abstract Expressionists sought, for it is these qualities that are at the root of American modern painting.

Abstraction means "to take from" and its function for the Abstract Expressionists was to emphasize the essence of an object or idea. The nature of abstraction was not really understood, even by the painters themselves, but they just strove to get rid of much of reality. This group wanted to express human feeling in any way possible, not necessarily through a specific subject matter.

Jackson Pollock was interested in the universal notions of the collective conscious and was also interested in the primitive imagery of Native Americans. He used, and is well known for his use of, the dripping and pouring technique. To him, the process was much more important than the finished work. In this way, thoughts turning into meaning on paper was much more significant than the end result. With the new notion of space, the individual was more important than the collective, and the artist's hand prints throughout make Pollock's mark, while connecting his desired meanings and words.

In this well known painting Pollock used metallic commercial paints, and his hope was that it would remind us of Native American sand paintings. His focus on the process rather than the finished work relates to a notion of existentialism and the Abstract Expressionists were the last of the Romantic painters to think in this way. Individuality was more important than the collective.

In this work, Pollock coated a pole with blue paint and laid it on the canvas. As usual he used the pouring method rather than drawing, and it seems as though the figure is beginning to assume a new importance to him and his work.

In her book American Artists on Art: From 1940-1980, Ellen Johnson gives us access to several interesting interviews that Pollock had over the years. His responses support the notion of varied expressiveness in contemporary art. When asked about the importance of technique in art Pollock replied, "Yes and No. Craftsmanship is essential to the artist. He needs it just as he needs brushes, pigments, and a surface to paint on". He defined modern art as "nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age that we are living in". He believed that classical artists did indeed have a means of expressing their age for "all cultures have had means and techniques of expressing their immediate aims- the Chinese, the Renaissance, all cultures. The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves. Most modern painters work from a different source. They work from within". He also said that "the modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing the inner world- in other words- expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces".

Pop Art began in England in the 1950s and emerged in a different way in the United States in the 1960s. Pop is short for popular, as pop art reflected and expressed popular culture of the time. American Pop Art was a unified movement that "insisted on a direct relationship between its use of the imagery of mass production and its adoption of modern technological procedures". Each artist established their own style and identity which we can see clearly through the works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Post-Modernism of the 1970s includes Feminist Art. Feminist art is "work that is rooted in the analysis and commitments of contemporary feminism and that contributes to a critique of the political, economic and ideological power relations of contemporary society". Feminist art was widespread on the west and east coast and was a highly organized movement that seemed to attract women artists quite rapidly. It did not die out in the 70s for Feminist Art is still being produced today as an attempt to revise history at that time and find evidence of matriarchy.

Judy Chicago is a well known feminist artist who placed great importance on the form of the image. She came to be known as an essentialist as she saw something innate and essential to the female species that could be represented by round objects and openings (i.e. female sex organs).

Chicago also experimented with environmental art and created some beautiful and often contemporary things. As she grew in this movement, her art became very political as we can see in Female Rejection Drawing. Here she is much more associative and specific in the central image, and it is a statement of her former oppression as a woman.

The dinner table's traditional association of women is represented in a twisted way in The Dinner Party. The feast has been prepared to honor great women of the world. Thirteen places are set on each side, and each place mat is embroidered with specific attributes of the woman. Hatshepsut, Emily Dickinson and Sacajawea are three of the women included.

Feminist Art offers a very personal and political expression of the later 20th century.

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