David Smith
(American, 1906-1965)
Cubi XVII, 1963
Polished stainless steel; 107 3/4 x 64 3/8 x 38 1/8 in.
(273.7 x 163.5 x 96.8 cm)
Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 1965.32 McD
© 2002 Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York



is about the art of our own time. Contemporary art surrounds us in paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, and drawings. Contemporary design shapes the look of our furniture, silver, ceramics, and textiles. Post-1945 art was made specifically for contemporary culture and people. Yet, many today feel uncomfortable with it. They may ask, "but what is it about?" or "What does it mean?" Often it is difficult to find recognizable subject matter, and when there is something that looks familiar, the subject matter seems inappropriate to "art." People wonder if the artist is teasing them. It may appear as if the artist is not skilled in the way that artists of the Renaissance were, and we might wonder if he or she is really serious. However, like all art, contemporary art and design also reflect the time in which they were made. Paintings and sculpture which look very strange and chairs we wouldn't buy for our homes embody the ideas, values, politics, and history of the last half of the 20th century. This is our art; it's all about us.

Throughout history, artists have been drawn to thriving cities that are alive with ideas, cities that are the centers of political and economic power. During the 16th and 17th centuries, artists gathered in Rome. In the 19th century, they went to Paris. By the middle of the 20th century, New York had become the political and economic center of the world, and, for the first time, a U.S. city began to emerge as a cultural capital as well. During World War II, many European artists took refuge in New York; some stayed and became the nucleus for a new international art community. When U.S. artists moved to New York, they were able to learn from the work and ideas of these European artists.

Many of the U.S. artists who moved to New York worked during the 1930s on the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs for artists during the depression. The government paid artists to produce paintings and murals for government buildings, schools, and libraries. Because they were steadily employed as artists (receiving an average of $95 a month), they could concentrate on learning and developing their talents. Through the "Project," artists also had the opportunity to socialize, to talk about their work, and, thereby, to begin to build a sense of themselves as a community of professionals. During the 1940s, they gathered with their friends, both European and American, at the newly opened Art of This Century gallery, where they saw the work of the most influential European artists and where some of them, eventually, had their own work exhibited also.


This mix of talent, experimentation, encouragement, and excitement regarding new possibilities of art resulted in the development of Abstract Expressionism, the first avant-garde art movement to originate in the United States. The artists generally included in this movement are Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Mark Tobey, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning. Each artist in his or her own way explored the use of color, line, and abstract shapes in order to find new, more direct ways to express the energy and confidence as well as the anxiety of the post-war world. Many of these artists believed that the subconscious could be a source of abstract images and marks that would be universally understood. Through dreams and the process of automatism (an intuitive or spontaneous method of drawing or painting similar to doodling), they sought to probe beneath the rational, conscious mind and find a new visual language that would unify the modern world because all could understand it. They believed in the power of abstract art to directly communicate profound spiritual and philosophical truths.

Younger artists who directly followed the Abstract Expressionists doubted the ability of abstract art to effectively convey universal spiritual truths. During the 1950s Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns experimented instead with a new focus on the more concrete reality of everyday life. Rauschenberg used three-dimensional commonplace objects such as tires and quilts in his "paintings." Johns made works based on familiar objects such as flags, targets, and coffee cans.

The Pop artists of the sixties extended many of the ideas and methods of Rauschenberg and Johns with their use of mass-produced images from popular (meaning that they are seen and known by many people) culture. Comic strips, billboards, labels from products on supermarket shelves, and magazine advertisements became the inspiration for artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann. Seeing Robert Rauschenberg's Skyway provokes the public to see images in a new way. The use of mass media images by Pop artists changed the way we define "culture." Instead of referring only to the noblest achievements of the elite, culture became more widely understood as a description of the activities of an entire society.

While Color Field artists, also working in the sixties, retained the Abstract Expressionist interest in color, line, and non-representational shapes, they abandoned the idea that pure use of the visual elements could communicate the truth of the artist's innermost being. Color Field painters delighted in the visual effects of pure color and varied-shaped canvases. Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis applied flowing paint to unprimed canvas as if they were staining or dyeing the cloth. The effect of color embedded in large expanses of canvas allowed these artists to create works which seemed to envelop the viewer in a breath of color. Frank Stella's more structured canvases play with the effects of warm and cool colors and with overlapping flat shapes.

Minimalism, a third movement of the 1960s, also challenged some of the basic beliefs of the Abstract Expressionists. Artists such as Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris focused on the literal aspects of the objects they made. For these artists, their works exist only as objects, like any other object in the viewer's environment, without claiming any special cultural significance or meaning beyond their physical existence. By assembling repeating units or simplifying colors and shapes, Minimalist artists draw the viewer's attention to the "wholeness" present in their works of art. Often these works are industrially fabricated. If paint is applied, the viewer cannot distinguish brushstrokes that would indicate the personal touch of the artist. The viewer becomes a participant, not in interpreting meaning, but in his/her physical relationship to the object as an equal. "What you see is what you get."

The ceramics, glass, metalware, and furniture of the second half of the 20th century have also undergone radical changes. Design - or how an object looks - has become more important than the use of expensive, exotic materials and evidence of fine craftsmanship. As artists and architects turned to the design of functional objects, those objects tended to be less functional and more sculptural. Although today we can see these objects in most airports, libraries, and schoolrooms, most Americans do not choose them for their homes. As with painting and sculpture, contemporary design also can be difficult to appreciate and understand.

The Abstract Expressionists worked in new ways and investigated new ideas in order to stretch the possibilities of art. In turn, the artists of the 1960s who followed the Abstract Expressionists challenged the basic principles and beliefs of these earlier artists in a variety of ways. Pop artists, Color Field painters, and Minimalists made art radically different from that of the preceding generation. In a similar fashion, a more recent artist such as Christopher Wool challenges the assumptions of the artists who have gone before him as he responds to the values and conflicts of his world. Contemporary art and design continue to reflect the times in which they are made, and thus, continue to connect to contemporary Americans. Post-1945 art may often be difficult to decipher and intellectually challenging; nevertheless, it offers the exciting possibility of investigating our world and knowing ourselves better.


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