Contemporary Art in Context

Jenny Holzer. "Truisms," 1977–79. Spectacolor electronic sign. Times Square, New York, 1986. Text: "Survival" (1983-85), Photo: John Marchael, © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What do we mean when we say contemporary art?

ART21 defines contemporary art as the work of artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art mirrors contemporary culture and society, offering teachers, students, and general audiences a rich resource through which to consider current ideas and rethink the familiar. The work of contemporary artists is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenges traditional boundaries and defies easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform organizing principle, ideology, or -ism. In a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world, contemporary artists give voice to the varied and changing cultural landscape of identity, values, and beliefs.

Contemporary audiences play an active role in the process of constructing meaning about works of art. Some artists often say that the viewer contributes to or even completes the artwork by contributing his or her personal reflections, experiences, opinions, and interpretations. One of the cornerstones of the ART21 philosophy is to allow artists to present their work in their own words and to encourage viewers to access their own abilities to consider, react, and respond to visual art.

Contemporary art reflects a wide range of materials, media, and technologies, as well as opportunities to consider what art is and how it is defined. Artists today explore ideas, concepts, questions, and practices that examine the past, describe the present, and imagine the future. In light of such diversity, there is no simple or singular way to define contemporary art. Often recognized for the absence of a uniform organizing principle, ideology, or label, contemporary art can often seem overwhelming, difficult, or so simple that the viewer might wonder if they are missing something. Perhaps the most helpful defining characteristic is the most obvious: contemporary art is the art of today.

Elizabeth Murray. "Bop," 2002-2003. Oil on canvas, 9 feet 10 inches x 10 feet 10 1/2 inches. Photo by Ellen Page Wilson. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York.

Through the Lens of Art History

When we look at works of art, we inevitably think about things that we have seen, heard, or experienced before. Art is rarely created in a vacuum. Artists constantly reference the past—building on timeless themes, critiquing outmoded models, researching forgotten histories, or borrowing traditional methods and techniques to realize new ideas.

Walton Ford. "The Orientalist," 1999. Watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper, 60 x 40 inches. Private collection, New York. Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Understanding historical precedent is an important part of providing context and informing our experiences with art being made today. Since images were first painted in caves, artists have challenged our notions of what art is and how it can be made.

Consider the following statements and how the work of artists living today relates to historical notions of art. In what ways are contemporary artists maintaining or diverging from traditional notions or assumptions about art?

Do-Ho Suh. "Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home," 1999. Silk, 149 x 240 x 240 inches. Installation view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Seattle, 2002. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor and a gift of the artist. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York.


A work of art can be produced using many different working methods and processes. It can be created in isolation or in collaboration with assistants, specialists, fabricators, or audiences.

Oliver Herring. "TASK at the Former Federal Security Bank," 2003. January 31, 2003, 5 to 10pm with two short intermissions, Lake Worth, FL. Courtesy Meulensteen, New York.

Watch: Oliver Herring in "Play"; Jeff Koons in "Fantasy"


Art can serve as a form of critique—reframing, redefining, or disrupting traditional ideas and expectations about art and/or society, such as beauty, originality, representation, and authority.

Paul McCarthy. "Painter," 1995. Wood paneling, carpet, paint, furniture, canvas, kitchen utensils, over-sized paint tubes and brush, video projector, latex noses, and folding chairs, dimensions variable. Video tape, performance, and installation in Los Angeles with Brian Butler, Sabina Hornig, Paul McCarthy, Fredrik Nilsen, and Barbara Smith. Collection of the Rubell Family, Miami, Florida. © Paul McCarthy. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zürich London .

Watch: Paul McCarthy in "Transformation"; Kerry James Marshall in "Identity"; Alfredo Jaar in "Protest"


Art often references or appropriates elements from multiple disciplines and sources: popular culture (film, television, music), mass media (advertising, news, communications, graphic design, digital media), humanities (literature, history, intellectual history, natural history) and art history (fine art, architecture, craft).

Josiah McElheny. "Modernity circa 1952, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely," 2004. Mirrored blown glass, chrome metal, glass, mirror, electric lighting, 30 1/2 x 56 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches. Collection Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Tom Van Eynde. Courtesy Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.

Watch: Michael Ray Charles in "Consumption"; Josiah McElheny in "Memory"


Art often integrates new technologies (digital media, computers, the Internet) or unconventional materials (found objects, nature, the body).

Cao Fei. "i.Mirror by China Tracy (AKA: Cao Fei Second Life Documentary Film)," 2007. Production stills, Second Life Documentary Film, single-channel color video with sound, 28 minutes. © Cao Fei. Courtesy the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

Watch: Cao Fei in "Fantasy"; Janine Antoni in "Loss & Desire"


Art often blurs the boundaries between art and everyday life. Often an artwork will purposefully intersect with an environment, such as home, work, school, politics, and entertainment.

Gabriel Orozco. "Cats and Watermelons," 1992. Cibachrome, 16 x 20 inches. Wendy and Robert Brandow. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

Watch: Gabriel Orozco in "Loss & Desire"; Richard Tuttle in "Structures"


Art can exist outside of traditional exhibition forums—including public spaces, site-specific locations, non-art sites—and is often presented in innovative ways—as an installation, an event, a performance, online, or as documentation of an impermanent work.

Allora & Calzadilla. "Seeing Otherwise," 1998/2002. Color photographs, dimensions variable. Installation view: VII Havana Bienal, Cuba. Courtesy the artists.

Watch: Allora & Calzadilla in "Paradox"; Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen in "Place"


Art can unfold over time. It can be process-based (performative, collaborative, spontaneous), experiential, or interactive (video, Web-based, multimedia, socially engaged), or it can respond to its environment (public art, street art, environmental art).

Mark Dion. "Neukom Vivarium," 2006. Mixed-media installation, greenhouse structure: 80 feet long. Installation view: Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle. Gift of Sally and William Neukom, American Express Company, Seattle Garden Club, Mark Torrance Foundation, and Committee of 33, T2004.101. Courtesy the Seattle Art Museum.

Watch: Mark Dion in "Ecology"; Krzysztof Wodiczko in "Power"