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Modern Art, painting, sculpture, and other forms of 20th-century art. Although scholars disagree as to precisely when the modern period began, they mostly use the term modern art to refer to art of the 20th century in Europe and the Americas, as well as in other regions under Western influence. The modern period has been a particularly innovative one. Among the 20th century’s most important contributions to the history of art are the invention of abstraction (art that does not imitate the appearance of things), the introduction of a wide range of new artistic techniques and materials, and even the redefinition of the boundaries of art itself. This article covers some of the theories used to interpret modern art, the origins of modern art in the 19th century, and its most important characteristics and modes of expression.
Modern art comprises a remarkable diversity of styles, movements, and techniques. The wide range of styles encompasses the sharply realistic painting of a Midwestern farm couple by Grant Wood, entitled American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois), and the abstract rhythms of poured paint in Black and White (1948, private collection), by Jackson Pollock. Yet even if we could easily divide modern art into representational works, like American Gothic, and abstract works, like Black and White, we would still find astonishing variety within these two categories. Just as the precisely painted American Gothic is representational, Willem de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe (1954, private collection) might also be considered representational, although its broad brushstrokes merely suggest the rudiments of a human body and facial features. Abstraction, too, reveals a number of different approaches, from the dynamic rhythms of Pollock’s Black and White to the right-angled geometry of Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1937-1942, Tate Gallery, London) by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose lines and rectangles suggest the mechanical precision of the machine-made. Other artists preferred an aesthetic of disorder, as did German artist Kurt Schwitters, who mixed old newspapers, stamps, and other discarded objects to create Picture with Light Center (1919, Museum of Modern Art, New York City).
Thus 20th-century art displays more than stylistic diversity. It is in the modern period that artists have made paintings not only of traditional materials such as oil on canvas, but of any material available to them. This innovation led to developments that were even more radical, such as conceptual art and performance art—movements that expanded the definition of art to include not just physical objects but ideas and actions as well.
Characteristics of Modern Art
In view of this diversity, it is difficult to define modern art in a way that includes all of 20th-century Western art. For some critics, the most important characteristic of modern art is its attempt to make painting and sculpture ends in themselves, thus distinguishing modernism from earlier forms of art that had conveyed the ideas of powerful religious or political institutions. Because modern artists were no longer funded primarily by these institutions, they were freer to suggest more personal meanings. This attitude is often expressed as art for art's sake, a point of view that is often interpreted as meaning art without political or religious motives. But even if religious and government institutions no longer commissioned most art, many modern artists still sought to convey spiritual or political messages. Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, for instance, felt that color combined with abstraction could express a spiritual reality beneath ordinary appearances, while German painter Otto Dix created openly political works that criticized policies of the German government.
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