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What is Postwar and Contemporary Art? An Introduction

Artists, Editorial

When asked to imagine a painting, we might imagine an ethereal canvas crafted by a Renaissance master, or a vivid rendering of sunflowers by Van Gogh. Few, perhaps, would imagine a massive abstract canvas splattered with globs of red, white and blue, or a quiet black square with thin, parallel silver lines.

Unlike works by Old Masters, postwar and contemporary artists have fundamentally transformed what art looks like, introducing new ways of conceiving of and executing the artistic process. In the art market, these artists have also overtaken collectors’ consciousness; the UBS Art Market Report reports Post-War and Contemporary art to comprise 53% of global art sales in 2023. What makes it so appealing to investors, collectors and researchers? How can we make sense of the lasting legacy of these seminal artists?

Postwar Art

Generally speaking, Postwar Art refers to art created between 1945 and 1970, and (as its name suggests) is catalysed by the experience of the Second World War. Rather than being limited to a single set of recognisable characteristics, Postwar Art is a loose coalition of contemporaneous, conflicting movements, each with its own aesthetic, manifesto and group of dedicated followers.

Abstract Expressionism


Jackson Pollock’s Convergence (1952)

Many attribute the beginnings of Postwar art to the Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were actually Surrealist artists forced from various parts of Europe by the Second World War. Arriving in New York in the 40s, these artists transformed the city into the cultural centre of the Western world, bringing their radical new ideas to American shores.

Influenced by the Surrealist manifesto, Abstract Expressionists sought to express inner reality as the only reality and to express their psyches in terms of non-representational, abstract forms, which would enable them to access a universal and subconscious bridge with the audience. Most notable artist of the period was Jackson Pollock, whose action painting process led to improvisational, expressive and vibrant canvases. At the same time, Pollock’s contemporaries Williem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman were developing a different approach through colour field paintings, producing large, vibrant blocks of contrasting hues on large canvases.

Pop Art

Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl (1963)

The Pop Art movement emerged as a challenge to Abstract Expression’s perceived snobbery and highfalutin status in the fine art world. Influenced by consumerist and materialist forces, Pop artists drew on the visual vocabulary of so-called low art like advertisements, commercials, cartoons and so on. While the Abstract Expressionists looked inward to the soul, the Pop artists engaged with the exterior world.

Emerging in 1950s London, pioneers like Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Lawrence Alloway, Alison and Peter Smithson first created and named Pop Art. Their initial works drew attention to the popular visual vocabulary of pop culture, appropriating commercial symbols and comic book images into their collage-like canvases. The Americans soon followed suit, and the Pop Art movement began to generate attention in the art world.

The biggest name in Pop Art was undoubtedly Andy Warhol, who incorporated silkscreen printing as a key part of his artistic process and appropriated marketing images from famous films, shows and advertisements -- most famously Marilyn Monroe, Mao Zedong and the Campbell Soup Can. Another significant Pop artist was Roy Lichenstein, whose work appropriated the vibrant colour palette and dynamic black lines of popular comic books. His paintings mimicked a single panel, but his manipulation of the characters and composition of the works generated intense drama, tension and mystery.


Frank Stella, The Reason for Marriage and Squalor II, 1959

The Minimalist movement actually descended from various early 20th-century European art movements like De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and Supremativism, all of which were experimenting early on with basic geometric forms and limited colours. Their efforts were picked up nearly 50 years later by young artists in America, possibly as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism’s maximalist aesthetics.

The Minimalists deliberately embraced a removed, objective approach to their works, which was a stark contrast to the charismatic and turbulent personalities of the Abstract Expressionists. Rather than focusing on interior or external realities, the Minimalists instead sought to create perfect, harmonious forms. They did so by relying on simple, geometric forms and simple colors, with painting and more often sculpture as their preferred media. Notable artists included Frank Stella, whose early paintings consisted of precise thin white stripes on muted black canvases, creating concentric and nearly imperceptible rectangles. Another well-known Minimalist artist was Donald Judd, who created statues of industrial metal and Plexiglas shaped into geometric cubes.

Contemporary Art

Contemporary art refers very loosely to art made after 1975, and constitutes a very diverse and complex part of art history with vastly different movements, camps and communities. At its core, however, contemporary art includes art that challenges the very notion of art itself, deconstructing assumptions that art must have specific tangible forms and be placed in an art museum or gallery setting. Contemporary artists have embraced various radical new mediums, bringing art out of stuffy galleries and into the streets, the forests, the theatres, and the television.

Performance Art

Performance art subverts notions that art must be a material, physical and lasting three-dimensional object, instead situating art exclusively in the present through the artist’s body and actions. It has also sought to move outside of the gallery space and into the community, occurring in live settings and often incorporating audience members into their works. Sometimes called ‘actions’ or ‘happenings’ (depending on the time period and the artists’ affiliations), these events were often subversive, shocking and provocative, with artists using their bodies as canvases to reflect abstract, humanistic concerns, but often also reflected the movements of everyday life.

A pioneer of the avant-garde movement was John Cage, whose 1952 performance 4’33” consisted of 4 minutes of deliberate silence, allowing the audiences’ own sounds to become the performance itself. Artists also began to push the extremity of their works, capitalising on performance art’s capacity to shock its audience. Joseph Beuys incorporated a live coyote into his performances. Teh Ching Hsieh locked himself in a cell for a year. Marina Abramovic, perhaps the most prolific artist of this category, famously invited audiences to use different objects (including a rose, a knife and a gun) upon her body without fear of legal consequences.

Land Art

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)

Among the various subsets of conceptual art, none are as ambitious as land art, which saw artists manipulating the natural landscape into sculptural elements that would deteriorate over time and re-merge with the landscape. Their work therefore relied heavily on photographic documentation of these works by the artist, as the work would be long gone by the time any viewer would be able to reach its location. Their work shifted the focus of art away from its sheltered home in art museums and institutions and toward the great outdoors, and emphasised the artist’s processes and ideas as the core element of any artwork rather than any final tangible product.

Artists include Robert Smithson’s famous Spiral Jetty, which was a massive artificial landmass in the shape of a spiral, created off the shore of the Great Lake of Utah. Another well-known artist would be Andy Goldsworthy, whose work consists of intricate but ephemeral sculptures made from melting snowflakes, fallen leaves and loose stones.

Video Art and New Media

Nam June Paik's TV Buddha (1974)

New Media refers to “the use which artists have been able to make of technologies that were already fully available to the commercial sphere”. The release of the portable video camera allowed artists to utilize video, alongside other technologies, to preserve performance art and other happenings, but also to reflexively examine the types of video, commercial or otherwise, which had begun to pervade society in the late 20th century, reforming the way in which people experienced reality.

The father of video art was undeniably Nam June Paik, who had extensively experimented with manipulating images of cathode-ray televisions and created assemblages out of video cameras, dissembled televisions and other technological elements. Paik was also notable for being the first to use the phrase “electronic superhighway” in 1974, predicting the extent to which the World Wide Web and the subsequent Internet would come to connect different communities across the planet. Members of this movement also include Ed Emshwiller, Chris Cunningham, Bill Viola, Mona Hatoum, Gary Hill.

Street Art

Andy Warhol’s Crack is Wack (1986) mural in New York

Handprints on cave walls, crude doodles on Roman doorposts and poetry on ancient Sri Lankan monuments: graffiti has and will always exist as a way for people to leave their mark on their environments. However, it was only in the late 20th century when graffiti became increasingly recognised as a legitimate art form in its own right. Building upon the work set out by Pop artists, street artists incorporated the visual vocabulary of mass media into their work, recontextualising these popular motifs into their own unique messaging.

Most street artists originated in the New York graffiti scene in the 80s and 90s, where artists tagged subway walls with their own unique signatures in order to gain recognition. As the scene progressed, these works became more sophisticated, incorporating images and motifs. The most influential artists that emerged from this movement were Keith Haring, and JM Basquiat, and subsequently included Banksy, KAWs and Invader, among others.


In attempting to understand why Postwar and Contemporary Art is the most valuable category in the fine art market, we may want to consider its distinct variety and complexity. Since 1945, art has exploded into an unprecedented range of media and philosophies, each with their distinct traits and credos. When buying works, art collectors aren’t simply buying physical pieces but investing in the movement itself, often influenced by their own personal outlook on art and aesthetics. Thus, the market becomes much more elaborate, more exciting and engaging -- each purchase is a declaration of belief in who the artist is and what they stand for.

Postwar and Contemporary Art as a whole has also proven itself to be self-reflexive and subversive, often critiquing its own institutions (including the art market itself) and long-held beliefs on what art should be and how it should be displayed. Collectors of contemporary art are thus able to immerse themselves in an ongoing debate on the very fundamental tenets of aesthetics, situating themselves in a unique and unusual position amidst what many consider a fundamental revolution in art history.

Published on May 28, 2024
Yu Ke Dong

Ke Dong is a seasoned art writer and current double major in English Literature and Art History at NTU. Having worked with esteemed art institutions in Singapore, Ke Dong now regularly contributes his keen research skills, adept writing abilities and passion for art to the Art Works discourse.


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