Modern Art Movements of the Last 50 Years
The last half century has seen an explosion of new ideas and approaches within the world of art.
16:26 09 February 2024
The last half century has seen an explosion of new ideas and approaches within the world of art. As society and technology rapidly advanced, artists experimented with innovative techniques, styles and mediums to capture the zeitgeist of contemporary culture. Though too numerous to cover comprehensively, some of the most influential modern art movements that emerged or evolved in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are outlined below.
Minimalism first developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a response to the emotionally charged works of abstract expressionism. Artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt aimed to avoid metaphorical associations or personal expression within their work. Instead, they focused on extreme simplicity in form, colour and content, using basic industrial materials like metal, plexiglass and concrete.
Key features of minimalist creations are plain surfaces, geometric structure and a limited colour palette. By excluding superfluous elements, minimalists sought to reveal the intrinsic essence and beauty of the materials used.
Conceptual artists of the 1960s and 70s like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner used their work to explore ideas rather than prioritise aesthetics. Their art frequently consists of written or spoken instructions, definitions or diagrams. By deliberately avoiding traditional visual arts, conceptualists compel the viewer to engage intellectually with the concepts and questions their art conveys.
A seminal conceptual work is John Baldessari’s 1970 exhibition ‘The Cremation Project’, where he cremated his earlier paintings and then printed the ashes on acrylic sheets with plain engraved brass plaques - symbolically pronouncing ‘art dead’ and freeing himself to develop new creative ideas.
Graffiti & Street Art
Though humans have scrawled informal artworks on surfaces for millennia, graffiti developed into a major art movement on the streets of New York City in the 1970s. Artists like Taki 183 and Phase 2 began ‘tagging’ - quickly spraying stylised signatures or nicknames around the urban landscape to spread their identity. The basics of this street-smart calligraphic style were built on by later generations of graffiti crews, who progressed to creating increasingly elaborate ‘masterpiece’ paintings on subway carriages, building walls and vacant billboards with detailed spray-can imagery.
In the 1980s, street art emerged as a more accessible offshoot of graffiti, with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring exhibiting art publicly on shop shutters and other urban spaces. Today leading street artists like Banksy maintain some aspects of graffiti - stencilling non-permissioned public spaces to convey subversive political messages - whilst characteristically using irreverent visual wit and irony rather than graffiti’s raw aggressive style.
Other globally renowned 21st century street artists, like JR and Invader, adorn streets with paper photocollages or ceramic mosaics to brighten public spaces whilst showcasing their creativity. Anti-establishment disruption remains central to these contemporary art forms, though ironically, art collectors now pay huge sums for authentic works by influential street practitioners.
Neo Pop emerged in the 1980s as artists revisited the bold colours, commercial imagery and industrial methods associated with Pop Art three decades prior. Unlike Andy Warhol’s iconic screenprints though, Neo Pop creators like Jeff Koons employed new technology and mediums - creating highly polished metallic statuary replicas of kitsch vinyl inflatables and commonplace plastic trinkets.
Other leading Neo Pop figures like Takashi Murakami instead combined Pop Art’s easily accessible aesthetic with influences from Japanese manga and anime. Murakami’s signature ‘superflat’ style features thick black outlines rendering childlike characters in outrageously fluorescent palettes - conveying an impression of flattened form with symbolic meaning.
By amplifying popular culture to larger-than-life proportions with hyperreal colours and glossy surfaces, Neo Pop transformed mundane contemporary items into avant-garde fine art.
Installation art emerged in the late 1960s as a radical departure from traditional media like painting and sculpture. Ambitious in scale, installation work is designed to transform or activate the exhibition space it occupies, immersing viewers entirely within a constructed artistic environment.
Groundbreaking installation pieces often incorporate everyday materials in inventive configurations - such as Tracey Emin's notorious My Bed, which was exhibited exactly as the artist's real-life rumpled, litter-strewn sleeping space. Other defining works fuse sculpture, media technology and performance; renowned Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project filled the cavernous Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern with a dazzling artificial sun, mist and scrolling text for visitors to bask within.
By creating site-specific sensory experiences rather than discrete objects, installation artists challenge fundamental notions about what constitutes art. The genre remains impactful today through prominent practitioners like Chiharu Shiota, who intricately lattices entire rooms with yarn and thread to capture poetic ideas of memory, anxiety or journeys within surrounding networks of fibres. Often controversial, installation art overturns aesthetic conventions and invites audiences to engage directly with the environments and concepts conveyed.
There is a wealth of other significant late 20th-century art movements that merit further inspection by the avid culture vulture - from the emotional intensity of Feminist Art to the found object assemblages of Postmodernism. The above overview provides just a taster of some key styles pioneered by daring visionaries over the last 50 years.
As cutting-edge artists continue responding to our fast-changing world with daring and inventiveness, undoubtedly many more radical new genres lie on the horizon in decades to come.