Modern Art History Essays

"Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal."


Modern art represents an evolving set of ideas among a number of painters, sculptors, writers, and performers who - both individually and collectively - sought new approaches to art making. Although modern art began, in retrospect, around 1850 with the arrival of Realism, approaches and styles of art were defined and redefined throughout the twentieth century. Practitioners of each new style were determined to develop a visual language that was both original and representative of the times.

Most Important Art

Impression, Sunrise (1873)

Artist: Claude Monet

In this seminal work of modern art, Monet's loose handling of paint and his focus on light and atmosphere within the landscape scene are all key characteristics of Impressionism, which is widely considered the first fully modern movement. Monet's use of abstraction evokes what the artist sensed or experienced while painting the scene, which was a highly unusual approach for a painter to adopt at the time. The title of the work, Impression, Sunrise not only provided critics with the name that the movement would later receive, but also conveys the transitory, fleeting and subjective nature of the painting. It is Monet's visual impression of what he observed during that sunrise.

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Modern Art Artworks in Focus:

Modern Art Overview Continues Below

Definition of Modern Art

Modern art is the creative world's response to the rationalist practices and perspectives of the new lives and ideas provided by the technological advances of the industrial age that caused contemporary society to manifest itself in new ways compared to the past. Artists worked to represent their experience of the newness of modern life in appropriately innovative ways. Although modern art as a term applies to a vast number of artistic genres spanning more than a century, aesthetically speaking, modern art is characterized by the artist's intent to portray a subject as it exists in the world, according to his or her unique perspective and is typified by a rejection of accepted or traditional styles and values.

The Beginnings of Modern Art

Classical and Early Modern Art

The centuries that preceded the modern era witnessed numerous advancements in the visual arts, from the humanist inquiries of the Renaissance and Baroque periods to the elaborate fantasies of the Rococo style and the ideal physical beauty of 18th-century European Neoclassicism. However, one prevalent characteristic throughout these early modern eras was an idealization of subject matter, whether human, natural, or situational. Artists typically painted not what they perceived with subjective eyes but rather what they envisioned as the epitome of their subject.

Age of Modernism and Art

The modern era arrived with the dawn of the industrial revolution in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, one of the most crucial turning points in world history. With the invention and wide availability of such technologies as the internal combustion engine, large machine-powered factories, and electrical power generation in urban areas, the pace and quality of everyday life changed drastically. Many people migrated from the rural farms to the city centers to find work, shifting the center of life from the family and village in the country to the expanding urban metropolises. With these developments, painters were drawn to these new visual landscapes, now bustling with all variety of modern spectacles and fashions.

A major technological development closely-related to the visual arts was photography. Photographic technology rapidly advanced, and within a few decades a photograph could reproduce any scene with perfect accuracy. As the technology developed, photography became increasingly accessible to the general public. The photograph conceptually posed a serious threat to classical artistic modes of representing a subject, as neither sculpture nor painting could capture the same degree of detail as photography. As a result of photography's precision, artists were obliged to find new modes of expression, which led to new paradigms in art.

The Artist's Perspective and Modern Art

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a number of European painters began to experiment with the simple act of observation. Artists from across the continent, including portraitists and genre painters such as Gustave Courbet and Henri Fantin-Latour, created works that aimed to portray people and situations objectively, imperfections and all, rather than creating an idealized rendition of the subject. This radical approach to art would come to comprise the broad school of art known as Realism.

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Modern Art Overview Continues

Also early in the nineteenth century, the Romantics began to present the landscape not necessarily as it objectively existed, but rather as they saw and felt it. The landscapes painted by Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner are dramatic representations that capture the feeling of the sublime that struck the artist upon viewing that particular scene in nature. This representation of a feeling in conjunction with a place was a crucial step for creating the modern artist's innovative and unique perspective.

Early Abstraction and Modern Art

Similarly, while some artists focused on objective representation, others shifted their artistic focus to emphasize the visual sensation of their observed subjects rather than an accurate and naturalistic depiction of them. This practice represents the beginnings of abstraction in the visual arts. Two key examples of this are James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874) and Claude Monet's Boulevard des Capucines (1873). In the former, the artist couples large splatters and small flecks of paint to create a portrait of a night sky illuminated by fireworks that was more atmospheric than representational. In the latter, Monet provides an aerial view of bustling modern Parisian life. In portraying this scene, Monet rendered the pedestrians and cityscape as an "impression," or in other words, a visual representation of a fleeting, subjective, and slightly abstracted, perspective.

Modern Art Themes and Concepts

Modern Artists

The history of modern art is the history of the top artists and their achievements. Modern artists have strived to express their views of the world around them using visual mediums. While some have connected their work to preceding movements or ideas, the general goal of each artist in the modern era was to advance their practice to a position of pure originality. Certain artists established themselves as independent thinkers, venturing beyond what constituted acceptable forms of "high art" at the time which were endorsed by traditional state-run academies and the upper-class patrons of the visual arts. These innovators depicted subject matter that many considered lewd, controversial, or even downright ugly.

The first modern artist to essentially stand on his own in this regard was Gustave Courbet, who in the mid-nineteenth century sought to develop his own distinct style. This was achieved in large part with his painting from 1849-1850, Burial at Ornans, which scandalized the French art world by portraying the funeral of a common man from a peasant village. The Academy bristled at the depiction of dirty farm workers around an open grave, as only classical myths or historical scenes were fitting subject matter for such a large painting. Initially, Courbet was ostracized for his work, but he eventually proved to be highly influential to subsequent generations of modern artists. This general pattern of rejection and later influence has been repeated by hundreds of artists in the modern era.

Modern Art Movements

The discipline of art history tends to classify individuals into units of like-minded and historically connected artists designated as the different movements and "schools." This simple approach of establishing categories is particularly apt as it applies to centralized movements with a singular objective, such as Impressionism, Futurism, and Surrealism. For example, when Claude Monet exhibited his painting Impression, Sunrise (1872) as part of a group exhibition in 1874, the painting and the exhibition as a whole were poorly received. However, Monet and his fellow artists were ultimately motivated and united by the criticism. The Impressionists thus set a precedent for future independently minded artists who sought to group together based on a singular objective and aesthetic approach.

This practice of grouping artists into movements is not always completely accurate or appropriate, as many movements or schools consist of widely diverse artists and modes of artistic representation. For example, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne are considered the principal artists of Post-Impressionism, a movement named so because of the artists' deviations from Impressionist motifs as well as their chronological place in history. Unlike their predecessors, however, the Post-Impressionists did not represent a cohesive movement of artists who united under a single ideological banner. Furthermore, the case can be made that some artists do not fit into any particular movement or category. Key examples include the likes of Auguste Rodin, Amadeo Modigliani, and Marc Chagall. Despite these complications, the imperfect designation of movements allows the vast history of modern art to be broken down into smaller segments separated by contextual factors that aid in examining the individual artists and works.

The Avant-Garde and The Progression of Modern Art

The avant-garde is a term that derives from the French "vanguard," the lead division going into battle, literally advance guard, and its designation within modern art is very much like its military namesake. Generally speaking, most of the successful and creative modern artists were avante-gardes. Their objective in the modern era was to advance the practices and ideas of art, and to continually challenge what constituted acceptable artistic form in order to most accurately convey the artist's experience of modern life. Modern artists continually examined the past and revalued it in relation to the modern.

Modern, Contemporary, and Postmodern Art

Generally speaking, contemporary art is defined as any form of art in any medium that is produced in the present day. However, within the art world the term designates art that was made during and after the post-Pop art era of the 1960s. The dawn of Conceptualism in the late 1960s marks the turning point when modern art gave way to contemporary art. Contemporary art is a broad chronological delineation that encompasses a vast array of movements like Earth art, Performance art, Neo-Expressionism, and Digital art. It is not a clearly designated period or style, but instead marks the end of the periodization of modernism.

Postmodernism is the reaction to or a resistance against the projects of modernism, and began with the rupture in representation that occurred during the late 1960s. Modernism became the new tradition found in all the institutions against which it initially rebelled. Postmodern artists sought to exceed the limits set by modernism, deconstructing modernism's grand narrative in order to explore cultural codes, politics, and social ideology within their immediate context. It is this theoretical engagement with the ideologies of the surrounding world that differentiates postmodern art from modern art, as well as designates it as a unique facet within contemporary art. Features often associated with postmodern art are the use of new media and technology, like video, as well as the technique of bricolage and collage, the collision of art and kitsch, and the appropriation of earlier styles within a new context. Some movements commonly cited as Postmodern are: Conceptual art, Feminist art, Installation art and Performance art.

Since the mid-1950s, Jasper Johns has depicted everyday icons and emblems—what he famously calls “things the mind already knows”—and, in the process, has fundamentally challenged ideas about what art can be. Johns has repeatedly used letterforms, either depicted individually or layered atop one another, to address modes of perception and knowledge. His 1956 painting Gray Alphabets (The Menil Collection, Houston) was his first engagement with the alphabet, as well as the first time he used the word gray, a recurring color in his oeuvre, in a title. In the painting, the 1960 drawing (private collection), and the 1968 print (68.689), Johns plays with the tension between the allover composition and the discrete forms within each unit. Due to the variation in colors, marks, and forms, the letters simultaneously reflect an established order—an effect amplified by the grid structure—and remain unique. The rectangular shapes and the illusion of a raised surface are reminiscent of children’s wooden alphabet blocks, which are literally the building blocks of language. Yet by showing line after line of the letters repeated in a standardized order without commentary or development, Johns negates this function, instead showing a stream of information without a resolution.

Johns’s Alphabet (1972.733), made the following year, is believed to be the first work in which he portrayed the entire set of twenty-six letters, superimposed in alphabetical order. The letters have an elegant yet impersonal feel and appear as if they were stenciled, thus signaling both an absence of the artist’s personal touch and the official information-granting capacity in which letters are employed. Despite the recognizable subject and elements, Alphabet becomes a nearly abstract composition because of the number and complexity of the various tangled and intertwined forms. Untitled (2015.399), made in 2013, also shows Johns’s engagement with the nature of perception and the ways in which thoughts are constructed and communicated. The print is composed of three distinct bands containing motifs found in his art throughout the decades: the top register houses numbers running from 0 to 9, the center features a map of the United States, and the bottom presents letters in American Sign Language. Although it is the first work Johns created using digital technology, he evokes the more traditional art of drawing through irregular gray and black tones and pools of ink, which represent his attempt to capture in a print the aesthetic of ink on plastic, a material he has depicted in his drawings since 1962.

Tony Fitzpatrick has also engaged the alphabet as a subject for his art. For Max and Gaby’s Alphabet (2010.268.1–.26), he created twenty-six etchings, each of which corresponds to a single letter of the alphabet. Inspired by suggestions made by his children, Fitzpatrick filled each letter’s page with multiple objects or figures that begin with the appropriate letter. “A,” for instance, contains the form of an atom in the center, below which is a small atomic bomb, while above is a rocket carrying an astronaut into space, perhaps representing both positive and negative potentials of this discovery. The prints use bold, contrasting colors and combine playful forms that make reference to superheroes, comics, tattoos, and everyday life. With experience in tattooing and printmaking, Fitzpatrick provides an abundance of details and witty juxtapositions, creating work that appeals to both children and adults.

Like Johns, Christopher Wool has examined the relationship, and subsequent tensions, between text and image and between reading and seeing. The large black stenciled letters of his “word paintings,” which contain either single or multiple words decontextualized and without punctuation, possess a graphic power and strangeness that is amplified by their stark white background. In Untitled (2014.237), he focuses on the forms of letters themselves, liberated from linguistic responsibilities. Rendered in gray tones against a background of muted pink and white, the letters vary in size, font, and orientation. Their gracefully curved forms frequently become entangled with one another as well as with the blurred gray skeins strung across the image’s surface. Decorative elements such as floral forms and beaded lines, interspersed across the composition, create a sense of levity. As opposed to the structure of Wool’s “word paintings,” which evoke the gridlike orientation of Gray Alphabets, the collagelike aesthetic, shifting planes, and layers of color and forms in Untitled introduce a dynamic tension that reverberates throughout the composition.

Glenn Ligon has also employed isolated fragments of texts—including passages from celebrated African American authors, quotations from political figures, and the artist’s own prose—to question how such writings and the meanings they convey function when removed from their contexts. Without altering the text itself, he stencils the letters, evoking both impersonal sign painting and Johns’s celebrated engagement with alphabets. By contrast, Ligon pushes letters to the point of abstraction in Debris Field II (2015.631); letters created in tones of black and gray are scattered across the surface and, despite their stenciled forms, lack uniformity in tone, finish, and structure. Unlike earlier work, the letters do not derive from a quotation and instead bring to mind things that are left over such as thoughts that remain after a text is written or words unspoken, an effect amplified by their proximity to seemingly randomly placed smudges, scrapes, and stains. By removing meaning and order, Ligon examines how letters and language function when emptied out and used purely as image.

Suzanne McClelland works with the appearance, sound, structure, and regulation of language by examining found passages, both written and spoken, from which she “lifts” fragments. In Mr. Man (2015.701), she distorts letters, turning them into near abstractions; while some hint at words, most represent only themselves, making up two towering mounds of discarded sounds or thoughts. McClelland defies the dictates for reading (which, in English, involve moving from left to right and from top to bottom, a structure Johns applied in Gray Alphabets), instead making visible stutters, repetitions, ellipses, and other irregularities of oral rhythms. The title, Mr. Man, derives from an insult hurled against a celebrated writer in Stephen King’s book Misery by a character memorable for her refusal to use crude language. However, it can also be read more broadly, as it calls attention to the underlying gender, racial, and social biases that often inform and structure language.

In Stamp of Memories I (1999.128), which derives from her 1990 print Ste Sebastienne, Louise Bourgeois drew a mythical female version of the martyred saint running naked and smiling despite the arrows that puncture her body. As the print progressed, Bourgeois added a menacing cat’s face and three eggs, perhaps alluding to her three sons, and covered the figure’s body with circular stamping. Acting as a kind of skin or protective armor, the stamp contains the interlocking forms of “LB.” Although the letters correspond to the artist’s initials, the stamp actually belonged to her father, Louis Bourgeois. The artist, however, sought her own stamp and, by extension, mark: one that would simultaneously make reference to and reject familial connections. In 1994, she produced Stamp of Memories II, where the female figure is covered by the less ornate and more easily read block letters of her own stamp.

Although their work reflects different processes, concerns, and references, Cy Twombly and Jacob El Hanani have both made art referring to the physical act of writing and mark making. Since the 1970s, El Hanani has created pen-and-ink drawings comprising thousands of minuscule marks—including geometric forms, patterns, and letters (often in Hebrew)—drawn without any mechanical assistance or magnification devices. El Hanani engages the technique and history of micrography, an ancient Judaic art practice that combines writing and drawing in extreme miniature and which was traditionally used for sacred texts. In these three works, whose titles refer to religious texts—Shir-Hashirim (Song of Songs) (1981.237), Mishley (the Book of Proverbs or the Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible) (1981.300), and Tehilim (a collection of Psalms) (1983.199)—El Hanani varies the application, density, and tone of his applications to create abstract designs. When viewed from a moderate distance, individual marks—which sometimes even include letters and written passages—are not visible. The shimmering surface and abstract patterns recall the work of Agnes Martin and other Minimalist artists, yet on closer examination, forms come into focus and reveal the astonishing diversity of lines and complexity of patterns in each work.

Central to Twombly’s art are allusions to the processes, gestures, and forms of writing. Whether tight and multiplied, as in Note I (68.523.2), or enlarged and loose, as in Untitled I (1974.657.6), his rhythmic glyphs and flowing lines evoke a range of associations, including graffiti, children’s doodles, and exercises for learning script, such as the Palmer Method, a technique that, using muscle training, promises greater efficiency and uniformity in handwriting. Yet, Twombly’s inimitable marks lack the perfected regularity promised by such exercises. Rather, by showing variations in the slanted, looped forms, densely layered in regulated horizontal lines compressed in a tight rectangular space, he alludes to the fatigue generated by the act of writing, while also revealing the poetry possessed by the wiry, irregular etched forms.

In Untitled I, Twombly focuses on the physical process of mark making, highlighting through exaggeration the rhythmic quality of the gesture. Despite mimicking script, the looped, linear forms convey neither information nor narrative, thus turning writing into an abstraction. The dark palette evokes a blackboard (a reference Twombly also explored in paintings during this period), an effect achieved by layering black ink over white before printing the etched plate. The allover composition and fluid lines recall works by Abstract Expressionists, yet the regularity and repetition of both horizontal bands and looped forms reject such influence. Unlike clearly articulated, finely modeled calligraphic marks, Twombly’s loosely drawn forms show variations in structure, size, and, tone, the latter of which he encouraged by using the open-bite etching technique.

These works show just some of the ways contemporary artists have engaged language and letterforms. Like the avant-garde artists who preceded them, these contemporary artists show how wordplay can be used as a means to address larger artistic, social, and political concerns.

Jennifer Farrell
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

August 2016

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