The Important Artists and Works of Postmodern Art

Progression of Art
Andy Warhol: Marilyn Diptych (1962)

Marilyn Diptych

Artist: Andy Warhol

This series of silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe was taken from her image in the film, Niagara and reproduced first in color, and then in black and white. They were made in the months after her death in 1962 by Warhol who was fascinated by both the cult of celebrity and by death itself; this series fused the artist's interests. The color contrasted against the monochrome that fades out to the right is suggestive of life and death, while the repetition of images echoes Marilyn's ubiquitous presence in the media.

This work can be conceived of as postmodern in many senses: its overt reference to popular culture (and low art) challenges the purity of the modernist aesthetic, its repetitive element is an homage to mass production, and its ironic play on the concept of authenticity undermines the authority of the artist. The use of a diptych format, which was common in Christian altarpieces in the Renaissance period, draws attention to the American worship of both celebrities and images. All of these translate into an artwork that challenges traditional demarcations between high and low art and makes a statement about the importance of consumerism and spectacle in the 1960s.

Acrylic on Canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Claes Oldenburg: Shuttlecocks (1994)


Artist: Claes Oldenburg

Oldenburg's explorations of banality and art began with soft sculptures such as Giant Hamburger (1962) and Soft Toilet (1966), where he recreated common objects using cushioned materials that belied their solid structures. His works are monumental but placed directly on the floor, dispensing with the pedestal or plinth normally associated with sculpture in a way that literally places the work of art in the viewer's own space. His work use the absurdity reminiscent of Dada's "readymades" to elevate a piece of everyday life to the status of art Shuttlecocks is a later work installed in front of the classical architecture of the Kansas City museum. Through these objects he underscores the larger-than-life quality of popular or low culture - in this case a simple game of badminton on an open lawn - in everyday life. Oldenburg's essay entitled, 'I Am for an Art,' (1961) succinctly expresses his belief that anything can and should be considered art.

Canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, painted with acrylic paint - Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Marina Abramović: Rhythm 0 / Seven Easy Pieces (1974)

Rhythm 0 / Seven Easy Pieces

Artist: Marina Abramović

Marina Abramovic positioned herself passively in a gallery and invited her viewers to do what they liked to her without any response from her. They were offered a range of objects - each selected for either pleasure or pain, including knives and a loaded gun. After initially provoking a playful reaction, during the six-hour performance she was subjected to an increasing level of aggression, resulting in violent and disturbing occurrences. This pioneering piece broke new grounds in the postmodern shift towards audience participation through its total relinquishing of authorship and control from the artist to the audience, thus challenging the modernist notion of the unique and autonomous artist figure. This piece was typical of Abramovic's tendency to push herself and her body to physical and mental extremes in her performance.

72 materials of pleasure and pain including a gun, a bullet, a comb, a saw, olive oil, cake, wire and sulphur

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)

Untitled Film Still #21

Artist: Cindy Sherman

This black and white photograph shows a young woman from the 1950s framed by the skyscrapers of the big city, her expression ambiguous - part determined, part apprehensive. We recognize the era from her dress and wonder if this is a still from a film we have seen. This image forms part of an early series of photographs by Cindy Sherman, who plays with the notion of fragmented postmodern identity by taking the role of both photographer and subject. In each shot, she poses as an actress in a range of different settings from different eras, all styled to evoke a moment in time or genre that the audience can recognize and identify with, though these do not originate from any particular film. These therefore exist as simulations or signs with no referent, echoing philosopher Jean Baudrillard's concept of the "hyperreal" society in which it is impossible to identify the real. Sherman's photographs are postmodern in their lack of authenticity and representation of a fluid identity, as well as in their borrowing of historic styles.

This series emerged into a second wave of feminism in which female representation, particularly in cinema, was being questioned. Sherman ironically positions herself both within and outside this media, providing a critique of the notion of a fixed feminine role through her reflexive technique and also subjecting representation itself to question: must women always be shown as victims and martyrs? By bringing this question to the fore, she reduces the power of representations of women.

Black and white photograph - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Philip Johnson: The AT&T Building, New York (1984)

The AT&T Building, New York

Artist: Philip Johnson

The iconic 1980s skyscraper is similar in form and scale to its high rise counterparts, but is distinct through its embellishment with a classical broken pediment, Art Deco inspired vertical banding, kitsch pink granite, and elaborate entrance and facade. The design caused notoriety in 1980s America through its stubborn rejection of the Modernist emphasis on clean lines, geometric form, and the idea that "form follows function." Instead, the work appropriates past artistic styles, most notably by Johnson's use of a broken pediment at the crown. This detail is derived from Greek or Roman art, but has also been described as reminiscent of a grandfather clock and a Chippendale highboy. This gesture, along with the use of brick rather than steel as a facing, harkens back to classicism and renounces the purity of form that modernists had worked so hard to achieve. This earned it the title of the first major showcase of postmodern architecture on an international stage.


Barbara Kruger: Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987)

Untitled (I shop therefore I am)

Artist: Barbara Kruger

This image is characteristic of Barbara Kruger's style - the juxtaposition of found photographs with aggressive or provocative slogans in a photolithograph that appropriates the direct style and visual form of mass media communication and thus undermines strict distinctions between the imagery, aesthetic and audience for high art and that of advertising. This is evident in the work's stark red, black, and white color scheme and block text that betrays Kruger's graphic design and commercial background. The statement, I shop therefore I am, subverts René Descartes' philosophical claim I think therefore I am, critically referring to the notion that consumerism rather than human agency is now the force that shapes identity - what you buy not your inner life makes you who you are. The work thus underscores in a stark manner the new focus on image and spectacle - a person's value and identity runs no deeper than the surface, encompassing their purchases and the labels they wear.

Silkscreen - Private Collection


Apples Trees

Artist: Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter is known for his mixing of aesthetic codes and his refusal to maintain a cohesive artistic style, experimenting with gestural painting, sculpture, photo collage, and various other media. At a time when many artists had abandoned painting for performance or installation art, Richter was one of several German artists who revived the medium, but in ways that challenged its traditional qualities, using his experiments to question basic assumptions about the notion of representation itself. He would appropriate his subject matter from newspapers or photographs so that he could focus on the act of painting rather than on deciding what to paint. In Apple Trees, for example, Richter produces a traditional landscape such as one might find in German Romantic landscape painting, but he blurs the image so that details and information about the landscape are not obvious or even available, thus calling into question the point of representational art, which is to represent. He argues that this method keeps interpretational possibilities open by not limiting what the viewer can see.

Oil on canvas - n/a


Michael Jackson and Bubbles

Artist: Jeff Koons

In this piece, Michael Jackson and his pet monkey (and closest friend), Bubbles, are shown life-size sitting on a bed of flowers. The work is a good example of the excesses that characterize Koons' art in terms of color, size, and theme. At the time, Jackson was at the height of his popularity, which Koons underscored by painting the figures in gold in order to make Jackson into a "god-like icon." The gold and white coloring is also reminiscent of Byzantine, Baroque, and Rococo art; this hearkening back to past styles and deliberate theatricality is typical of the camp aesthetic that characterizes some postmodern art. The work was done as part of Koons' "Banality" series and serves as a good example of the kitsch aspect of much of Koons' art in that it valorizes the garish and the sentimental. Like most postmodern art, the work seems to be a deliberate challenge to conventional notions of taste and to the modern separation of high art and popular culture.

Porcelain - The Broad Art Foundation


"Untitled" (Loverboy)

Artist: Felix Gonzalez-Torres

The work of the Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres addresses many postmodernism issues including originality, the importance of the viewer, the concern with minority identities, and the ephemeral nature of art. "Untitled" (Loverboy), is a stack of paper, from which visitors are encouraged to take a piece. The installation instructions give specific directions to maintain the stack at a certain weight. While the pile shrinks on a daily basis as visitors - with some trepidation - take paper from the pile, it is restored to its full size each morning. Thus, there is no solid, commoditized, always-existing work of art in the traditional sense; it is reconstructed at each installation site with new paper, and the entire piece reconstituted. The work thus questions originality and authorship, while involving the viewer very profoundly in the meaning of the work, which is about the death of Gonzalez-Torres' lover, Ross, from AIDS. As the weight of the pile of paper shrinks each day, this diminution represents Ross's wasting away from the AIDS virus, which he died from two years after the work was first shown. Thus the piece also deals with issues important to the LGBT community - a minority group of people whose rights were just beginning to be recognized.


Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Artist: Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst's shark preserved in formaldehyde is perhaps the most famous work of the Young British Artists movement in the 1990s. Hirst's presentation of a once deadly beast as a carcass that has been preserved to appear lifelike, forces the viewer to confront their fears in the institutional setting of a gallery rather than in a private space, while also playing on Baudrillard's notion of the real and its image. The viewers would have likely only seen an animal of this size and ferocity as an image in a book or on television. Even by having an actual shark placed in the gallery, it may have been difficult for viewers to see the animal as "real" rather than as a replica or simulacra, in Baudrillard's terms, because the shark is dead and has lost its power to harm. The sheer monumentality of the creature and the sense of spectacle - its to-be-looked-at quality - derived from its new status as a commodity art object along with the fact the work was commissioned by dealer, Charles Saatchi at an expense of over 6,000 Pound Sterling in 1991 marked a new era in postmodern conceptual art that did not just draw on the consumerist boom, but wholeheartedly embraced it. This piece was included in the infamous Sensations exhibition along with works by Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread.

Glass tank, Steel, Tiger Shark, Formaldehyde - Private Collection

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Postmodern Art Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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