Need help with Art Discussion Assignment: Chapters and video links to answer questions are attached
- Locate the artwork you want to discuss and post an image of the artwork in the discussion (please embed the image if possible).
- Explain what it is about the work of art that you either like or dislike.
- Conduct an online search and share one fact about the artwork that was not mentioned in the textbook
Video: Is There a Difference Between Art and Craft?
Video: William Morris – The Arts and Crafts Movement
Video: A Journey into the World of Charles and Ray Eames
Video: Abstract Expressionism – Why is that important? Looking at Jackson Pollock
Video: Pop Art – Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans
Video: The (Awesome) History of Animation
Video: Guerrilla Girls Talk the History of Art vs. the History of Power
Video: Fred Wilson: Beauty and Ugliness
Introduction to Art Chapter 10: Time Based Media: Film, Video, Digital 105
Chapter 10: Time Based Media: Film,
With traditional film, what we see as a continuous moving image is actually a linear progression
of still photos on a single reel that pass through a lens at a certain rate of speed and are
projected onto a screen. We saw a simple form of this process earlier in the pioneering work of
Eadweard Muybridge, Sequence of a Horse Jumping, 1904. Image is in the public domain
The first motion picture cameras were invented in Europe during the late nineteenth century.
These early “movies” lacked a soundtrack and were normally shown along with a live pianist,
organ player or orchestra in the theatre to provide the musical accompaniment. In the United
States, film went from being a novelty to an art form with D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in
1915. Griffith presents a narrative of the Civil War and its aftermath but with a decidedly racist
view of American blacks and the Ku Klux Klan.
Film scholars agree it contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical
effects and artistic advancements, including a color sequence at the end. It had a formative
influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of
film as art. In addition, at almost three hours in length, it was the longest film to date (from
Filmsite Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation).
Unique to the moving image is its ability to unfold an idea or narrative over time, using the same
elements and principles inherent in any artistic medium. Film stills show how dramatic use of
Introduction to Art Chapter 10: Time Based Media: Film, Video, Digital 106
lighting, staging and set compositions are embedded throughout an entire film.
Video art, first appearing in the 1960s and 70s, uses magnetic tape to record image and sound
together. The advantage of video over film is its instant playback and editing capability. One of
the pioneers in using video as an art form was Doris Chase. She began by integrating her
sculptures with interactive dancers, using special effects to create dreamlike work, and spoke of
her ideas in terms of painting with light. Unlike filmmakers, video artists frequently combine their
medium with installation, an art form that uses entire rooms or other specific spaces, to achieve
effects beyond mere projection. South Korean video artist Nam June Paik made breakthrough
works that comment on culture, technology and politics. Contemporary video artist Bill Viola
creates work that is more painterly and physically dramatic, often training the camera on figures
within a staged set or spotlighted figures in dark surroundings as they act out emotional gestures
and expressions in slow motion. Indeed, his work The Greeting reenacts the emotional embrace
seen in the Italian Renaissance painter Jacopo Pontormo’s work The Visitation below.
Jacopo Pontormo, The Visitation, 1528, oil on canvas. The Church of San Francesco e Michele, Carmignano, Italy.
Image is in the public domain.
Computers and digital technology have, like the camera did over one hundred and fifty years
ago, revolutionized the visual art landscape. Some artists now use digital technology to extend
the reach of creative possibilities. Sophisticated software allows any computer user the
opportunity to create and manipulate images and information. From still images and animation to
streaming digital content and digital installations, computers have become high tech creative
In a blending of traditional and new media, artist Chris Finley uses digital templates – software
Introduction to Art Chapter 10: Time Based Media: Film, Video, Digital 107
based composition formats – to create his paintings.
The work of German artist Jochem Hendricks combines digital technology and human sight. His
eye drawings rely on a computer interface to translate the process of looking into physical
Digital technology is a big part of the video and motion picture industries with the capability for
high definition images, better editing resources and more areas for exploration to the artist.
The camera arts are relatively new mediums to the world of art, but their contributions are
perhaps the most significant of all. They are certainly the most complex. Like traditional mediums
of drawing, painting and sculpture they allow creative exploration of ideas and the making of
objects and images. The difference is in their avenue of expression: by recording images and
experiences through light and electronics they, on the one hand, narrow the gap between the
worlds of the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’ and on the other offers us an art form that can invent its
own reality with the inclusion of the dimension of time. We watch as a narrative unfolds in front of
our eyes. Digital technology has created a whole new kind of spatial dimension: cyberspace.
License and Attributions
- Chapter 10: Time Based Media: Film, Video, Digital
- Early Developments
- Video Art
- Digital Arts
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 424
Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements
Mark Rothko, No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black), 1958, oil on canvas, 8′ 10 5/8″ x 9′ 9 1/4″ (The Museum of Modern
Art) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The New York School
The group of artists known as Abstract Expressionists emerged in the United States in the years
following World War II. As the term suggests, their work was characterized by non-objective
imagery that appeared emotionally charged with personal meaning. The artists, however,
rejected these implications of the name.
They insisted their subjects were not “abstract,” but rather primal images, deeply rooted in
society’s collective unconscious. Their paintings did not express mere emotion. They
communicated universal truths about the human condition. For these reasons, another term—the
New York School—offers a more accurate descriptor of the group, for although some eventually
relocated, their distinctive aesthetic first found form in New York City.
The rise of the New York School reflects the broader cultural context of the mid-Twentieth
Century, especially the shift away from Europe as the center of intellectual and artistic innovation
in the West. Much of Abstract Expressionism’s significance stems from its status as the first
American visual art movement to gain international acclaim.
Art for a world in shambles
Barnet Newman, an artist associated with the movement, wrote:
“We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world destroyed by a great depression and a
fierce World War, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings that we were
doing—flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello.” 
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 425
Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51, oil on canvas, 242.2 x 541.7 cm (The Museum of Modern Art,
Although distinguished by individual styles, the Abstract Expressionists shared common artistic
and intellectual interests. While not expressly political, most of the artists held strong convictions
based on Marxist ideas of social and economic equality. Many had benefited directly from
employment in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. There, they found
influences in Regionalist styles of American artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, as well as the
Social Realism of Mexican muralists including Diego Rivera and José Orozco.
The growth of Fascism in Europe had brought a wave of immigrant artists to the United States in
the 1930s, which gave Americans greater access to ideas and practices of European
Modernism. They sought training at the school founded by German painter Hans Hoffmann, and
from Josef Albers, who left the Bauhaus in 1933 to teach at the experimental Black Mountain
College in North Carolina, and later at Yale University. This European presence made clear the
formal innovations of Cubism, as well as the psychological undertones and automatic painting
techniques of Surrealism.
Whereas Surrealism had found inspiration in the theories of Sigmund Freud, the Abstract
Expressionists looked more to the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and his explanations of primitive
archetypes that were a part of our collective human experience. They also gravitated toward
Existentialist philosophy, made popular by European intellectuals such as Martin Heidegger and
Given the atrocities of World War II, Existentialism appealed to the Abstract Expressionists.
Sartre’s position that an individual’s actions might give life meaning suggested the importance of
the artist’s creative process. Through the artist’s physical struggle with his materials, a painting
itself might ultimately come to serve as a lasting mark of one’s existence. Each of the artists
involved with Abstract Expressionism eventually developed an individual style that can be easily
recognized as evidence of his artistic practice and contribution.
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Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950, 1950, oil and enamel paint on unprimed canvas, 269.5 x 530.8 cm (The
Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Artists of the New York School fall into two broad groups: those who focused on a gestural
application of paint, and those who used large areas of color as the basis of their compositions.
The leading figures of the first group were Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning,
Lee Krasner, and above all Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s innovative technique of dripping paint on
canvas spread on the floor of his studio prompted critic Harold Rosenberg to coin the term action
painting to describe this type of practice. Action painting arose from the understanding of the
painted object as the result of artistic process, which, as the immediate expression of the artist’s
identity, was the true work of art. Helen Frankenthaler also employed experimental techniques
by pouring thinned pigments onto untreated canvas.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on unsized, unprimed canvas (National Gallery of
Art Washington). Image by Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 427
Color Field Painting
The second branch of Abstract Expressionist painting is usually referred to as Color Field
painting. Two central figures in this group were Mark Rothko, known for canvases composed of
two or three soft, rectangular forms stacked vertically, and Barnett Newman, who, in contrast to
Rothko, painted fields of colour with sharp edges interrupted by precise vertical stripes he called
“zips” (see Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, above). Through the overwhelming scale and
intense color of their canvases, Color Field painters like Rothko and Newman revived the
Romantic aesthetic of the sublime.
Mark Rothko, No. 3/No. 13, oil on canvas (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) Image by Steven Zucker CC BY-
Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines and Assemblage
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 428
Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959, oil, pencil, paper, metal, photograph, fabric, wood, canvas, buttons, mirror,
taxidermied eagle, cardboard, pillow, paint tube and other materials, 207.6 x 177.8 x 61 cm (The Museum of Modern
Art, New York) © 2014 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Is Canyon a painting or sculpture? Its upper half is a mass of materials that include bits of a shirt,
printed paper, a squashed tube of paint, and photographs all seemingly held in place by broad
slashes of house paint, while its lower half consists of a stuffed bald eagle with outstretched
wings about to lift off from an opened box. The box seems to balance precariously upon a beam
that tilts downward to the right; its end point meets the frame. As if that were not enough, that
beams suspends a pillow dangling below the frame and squeezed in half by the cloth string that
Canyon belongs to a group of artworks called “Combines,” a term unique to this artist who
attached extraneous materials and objects to canvases in the years between 1954 and 1965.
What makes Robert Rauschenberg so significant for this period—the postwar years—is how he
challenged conventional ways of thinking about advanced modern art; especially the art of “The
New York School,” who were praised for their heroic abstraction. Rauschenberg’ s art violated
Rauschenberg did know other artists who took a similar approach and challenged the narrow
parameters of the formalists wing of the New York School and its rejection of popular culture and
illusionism. His immediate circle included the painter Jasper Johns, the choreographer Merce
Cunningham and the avant-garde composer John Cage. On the West Coast Edward Keinholz
and Wallace Berman were creating artworks that would come to be called “Assemblage”—think
collage on a large scale. In Paris, Arman, Jean Tinguley and Jacques de la Villeglé incorporated
the debris of the city; junk and cast off commodities incorporated into artworks that became know
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 429
as Nouveau réalism (New realism).
Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55 (dated on reverse 1954), encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood,
three panels, 42-1/4 x 60-5/8″ /107.3 x 153.8 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Edward Kienholz, Back Seat Dodge ’38, 1964, Paint, fiberglass and flock, 1938 Dodge, recorded music, and player,
chicken wire, beer bottles, artificial grass, and cast plaster figures. ( Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Image by
Amaury Laporte CC BY-NC 2.0
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 430
Canyon is more than an accumulation of debris, however. Note the skeins of paint, brushed,
scribbled, clotted, dripping in the style of the abstract expressionists. Rauschenberg was also
closely aligned with the New York School—particularly the older abstract expressionists—whose
work he admired. But he nevertheless expressed a profound ambivalence towards this group:
“There was something about the self-assertion of abstract expressionism that personally always
put me off, because at that time my focus was as much in the opposite direction as it could
Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon (detail), 1959, oil, pencil, paper, metal, photograph, fabric, wood, canvas, buttons,
mirror, taxidermied eagle, cardboard, pillow, paint tube and other materials, 207.6 x 177.8 x 61 cm (The Museum of
Modern Art, New York) © 2014 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
At first glance, Pop Art might seem to glorify popular culture by elevating soup cans, comic strips
and hamburgers to the status of fine art on the walls of museums. But, then again, a second look
may suggest a critique of the mass marketing practices and consumer culture that emerged in
the United States after World War II. Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962) clearly reflects
this inherent irony of Pop. The central image on a gold background evokes a religious tradition of
painted icons, transforming the Hollywood starlet into a Byzantine Madonna that reflects our
obsession with celebrity. Notably, Warhol’s spiritual reference was especially poignant given
Monroe’s suicide a few months earlier. Like religious fanatics, the actress’s fans worshipped their
idol; yet, Warhol’s sloppy silk-screening calls attention to the artifice of Marilyn’s glamorous
façade and places her alongside other mass-marketed commodities like a can of soup or a box
of Brillo pads.
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 431
Andy Warhol, Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962, silkscreen on canvas, 6′ 11 1/4″ x 57″ (211.4 x 144.7 cm) (Museum of
Modern Art, New York)
Genesis of Pop
In this light, it’s not surprising that the term “Pop Art” first emerged in Great Britain, which
suffered great economic hardship after the war. In the late 1940s, artists of the “Independent
Group,” first began to appropriate idealized images of the American lifestyle they found in
popular magazines as part of their critique of British society. Critic Lawrence Alloway and artist
Richard Hamilton are usually credited with coining the term, possibly in the context of Hamilton’s
famous collage from 1956, Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?
Made to announce the Independent Group’s 1956 exhibition “This Is Tomorrow,” in London, the
image prominently features a muscular semi-nude man, holding a phallically positioned Tootsie
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 432
Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?, 1956, collage, 26 cm × 24.8
cm (10.25 in × 9.75 in) (Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany)
Pop Art’s origins, however, can be traced back even further. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp asserted
that any object—including his notorious example of a urinal—could be art, as long as the artist
intended it as such. Artists of the 1950s built on this notion to challenge boundaries
distinguishing art from real life, in disciplines of music and dance, as well as visual art. Robert
Rauschenberg’s desire to “work in the gap between art and life,” for example, led him to
incorporate such objects as bed pillows, tires and even a stuffed goat in his “combine paintings”
that merged features of painting and sculpture. Likewise, Claes Oldenberg created The Store, an
installation in a vacant storefront where he sold crudely fashioned sculptures of brand-name
consumer goods. These “Proto-pop” artists were, in part, reacting against the rigid critical
structure and lofty philosophies surrounding Abstract Expressionism, the dominant art movement
of the time; but their work also reflected the numerous social changes taking place around them.
Post-War Consumer Culture Grabs Hold (and Never Lets Go)
The years following World War II saw enormous growth in the American economy, which,
combined with innovations in technology and the media, spawned a consumer culture with more
leisure time and expendable income than ever before. The manufacturing industry that had
expanded during the war now began to mass-produce everything from hairspray and washing
machines to shiny new convertibles, which advertisers claimed all would bring ultimate joy to
their owners. Significantly, the development of television, as well as changes in print advertising,
placed new emphasis on graphic images and recognizable brand logos—something that we now
take for granted in our visually saturated world.
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 433
1950s Advertisement for the American Gas Association
It was in this artistic and cultural context that Pop artists developed their distinctive style of the
early 1960s. Characterized by clearly rendered images of popular subject matter, it seemed to
assault the standards of modern painting, which had embraced abstraction as a reflection of
universal truths and individual expression.
Irony and Iron-Ons
In contrast to the dripping paint and slashing brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism—and even
of Proto-Pop art—Pop artists applied their paint to imitate the look of industrial printing
techniques. This ironic approach is exemplified by Lichtenstein’s methodically painted Benday
dots, a mechanical process used to print pulp comics.
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 434
(L) Roy Lichtenstein, Girl with a Ball, 1961, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 36 1/4″ (153 x 91.9 cm) (Museum of Modern Art,
New York); (R) Detail of face showing Lichtenstein’s painted Benday dots)
As the decade progressed, artists shifted away from painting towards the use of industrial
techniques. Warhol began making silkscreens, before removing himself further from the process
by having others do the actual printing in his studio, aptly named “The Factory.”
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, acrylic on canvas, 2054 x 1448 mm (Tate) © The Andy Warhol Foundation for
the Visual Arts, Inc. 2015
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 435
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans (detail), 1962. Synthetic polymer on canvas. Image by Steven Zucker CC BY-
Similarly, Oldenburg abandoned his early installations and performances, to produce the large-
scale sculptures of cake slices, lipsticks, and clothespins that he is best known for today.
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 436
Claes Oldenburg, Clothespin, 1976, cor-ten steel, 14 x 3.73 x 1.37 m, Philadelphia (photo: Ellen Fitzsimons, CC:
Minimal Art and Earthworks
A reductive abstract art
Although many works of art can be described as “minimal,” the name Minimalism refers
specifically to a kind of reductive abstract art that emerged during the early 1960s. At the time,
some critics preferred names like “ABC,” “Boring,” or “Literal” Art, and even “No-Art Nihilism,”
which they believed best summed up the literal presentation and lack of expressive content
characterizing this new aesthetic. While scholars have recently argued for a broader definition of
Minimalism that would include artists in a number of disciplines, the term remains closely linked
to sculpture of the period.
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 437
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1969, ten copper units, each 9 x 40 x 31″ with 9″ intervals (Guggenheim Museum, New York)
Donald Judd’s Untitled (1969) is characteristic in its use of spare geometric forms, repeated to
create a unified whole that calls attention to its physical size in relationship to the viewer. Like
most Minimalists, Judd used industrial materials and processes to manufacture his work, but his
preference for color and shiny surfaces distinguished him among the artists who pioneered the
Lack of apparent meaning
What most people find disturbing about Minimalism is its lack of any apparent meaning. Like Pop
Art, which emerged simultaneously, Minimalism presented ordinary subject matter in a literal way
that lacked expressive features or metaphorical content; likewise, the use of commercial
processes smacked of mass production and seemed to reject traditional expectations of skill and
originality in art. In these ways, both movements were, in part, a response to the dominance of
Abstract Expressionism, which had held that painting conveys profound subjective meaning.
However, whereas Pop artists depicted recognizable images from kitsch sources, the Minimalists
exhibited their plywood boxes, florescent lights and concrete blocks directly on gallery floors,
which seemed even more difficult to distinguish as “Art.” (One well-known story tells of an art
dealer, who visited Carl Andre’s studio during the winter and unknowingly burned a sculpture for
firewood while the artist was away.) Moreover, when asked to explain his black-striped paintings
of 1959, Frank Stella responded, “What you see is what you see.” Stella’s comment implied that,
not only was there no meaning, but that none was necessary to demonstrate the object’s artistic
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 438
Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, 1959, enamel on canvas, 230.5 x 337.2 cm (The Museum of
Land art, earthworks (coined by Robert Smithson), or Earth art is an art movement in which
landscape and art are inextricably linked, so in this way it is site-specific. It is also an art form
created in nature, using organic materials such as soil, rock (bed rock, boulders, stones), organic
media (logs, branches, leaves), and water with introduced materials such as concrete, metal,
asphalt, or mineral pigments. Sculptures are not placed in the landscape; rather, the landscape
is the means of their creation. Earth-moving equipment is often involved. The works frequently
exist in the open, located well away from civilization, left to change and erode under natural
conditions. Many of the first works of this kind, created in the deserts of Nevada, New Mexico,
Utah or Arizona, were ephemeral in nature and now only exist as video recordings or
Robert Smithson was an American land artist. His most famous work is Spiral Jetty (1970), a
1,500-foot long spiral-shaped jetty extending into the Great Salt Lake in Utah constructed from
rocks, earth, and salt. It was entirely submerged by rising lake waters for several years, but has
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 439
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. (Great Salt Lake, Utah) Image by Soren.harward License CC-BY-SA-2.0
Using rocks and earth, Smithson built a spiral-shaped relief in the lake bed. Best viewed from
above, the piece is altered by the shifting waters over time and in this way is forever linked to the
environment it was intended for.
Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude, known as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are a
married couple who created site-specific environmental works of art. Their works nearly always
entail wrapping a large area of space or piece of architecture in a textile, and include the
wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, the 24-mile (39 km)-long
artwork called Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in
New York City’s Central Park. The purpose of their art, they contend, is simply to create works of
art for joy and beauty and to create new ways of seeing familiar landscapes.
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 440
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, 1971-95, © Christo (photo: Jotefa, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Conceptual and Performance Art
In 1972 the De Saisset Art Museum at Santa Clara University in the San Francisco Bay Area
gave the artist Tom Marioni several hundred dollars to help cover expenses for mounting an
exhibition of his work at the institution. Instead of using the money to purchase art materials,
Marioni bought an older model used car, a Fiat 750, which he carefully maneuvered into the
museum for the opening of his show. The vehicle, parked on top of an oriental rug, formed the
centerpiece for this exhibition, titled My First Car. Was this really art, or was it a scam to get the
museum to pay for a car the artist wanted? After learning about the show, the University
President concluded that it was more of the latter and ordered the show closed. Presumably he
was put off by how My First Car profited Marioni without involving any technical skill or hard work
on the part of the artist.
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 441
Tom Marioni, My First Car, 1972, De Saisset Gallery, Santa Clara, California (photo from Performance Anthology:
Source Book of California Performance Art, eds. Carl E. Loeffler and Darlene Tong)
Marioni’s work was in many ways typical of the late 1960s and early 1970s art practices that
came to be known as Conceptual art. As the term suggests, Conceptual art placed emphasis
upon the concept or idea, and deemphasized the actual physical manifestation of the work. Thus
an artist did not need manual skill to produce his work, and in fact could get away with not
making anything at all. Rather than being a mere prank (as many dismissed it at the time),
Marioni’s work was a proposal for a new kind of art that deliberately disavowed art’s traditional
role as a showcase for the creative genius and technical abilities of the artist.
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Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965, wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted
photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of “chair” (MoMA)
In the case of One and Three Chairs, by artist Joseph Kosuth, the central idea was to explore
the nature of representation itself. We know instinctively what a “chair” is, but how is it that we
actually conceive of and communicate that concept? Kosuth presents us with a photograph of a
chair, an actual chair, and its linguistic or language-based description. All three of these could be
interpreted as representations of the same chair (the “one” chair of the title), and yet they are not
the same. They each have distinct properties: in actuality, the viewer is confronted with “three”
chairs, each represented and experienced—read—in different ways.
Today there are few female artists who are more visible to a wide range of international
audiences than Yayoi Kusama, who was born in 1929 in Japan. Kusama is a self-taught artist
who now chooses to live in a private Tokyo mental health facility, while prolifically producing art
in various media in her studio nearby. Her highly constructed persona and self-proclaimed life-
long history of insanity have been the subject of scrutiny and critiques for decades. Art historian
Jody Cutler places Kusama’s oeuvre “in dialogue with the psychological state known as
narcissism,” as “narcissism is both the subject and the cause of Kusama’s art, or in other words,
a conscious artistic element related to content.”
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Installation view, Infinity Mirror Room–Phalli’s Field (or Floor Show), (no longer extant) Castellane Gallery, New
York. 1965 (photo ©Eiko Hosoe)
In 1965, she mounted her first mirror installation Infinity Mirror Room-Phalli’s Field at Castellane
Gallery in New York (above). A mirrored room without a ceiling was filled with colorfully dotted,
phallus-like stuffed objects on the floor. The repeated reflections in the mirrors conveyed the
illusion of a continuous sea of multiplied phalli expanding to its infinity. This playful and erotic
exhibition immediately attracted the media’s attention.
Following World War II, performance emerged as a useful way for artists to explore philosophical
and psychological questions about human existence. For this generation, who had witnessed
destruction caused by the Holocaust and atomic bomb, the body offered a powerful medium to
communicate shared physical and emotional experience. Whereas painting and sculpture relied
on expressive form and content to convey meaning, performance art forced viewers to engage
with a real person who could feel cold and hunger, fear and pain, excitement and
embarrassment—just like them.
Some artists, inspired largely by Abstract Expressionism, used performance to emphasize the
body’s role in artistic production. Working before a live audience, Kazuo Shiraga of the Japanese
Gutai Group made sculpture by crawling through a pile of mud. Georges Mathieu staged similar
performances in Paris where he violently threw paint at his canvas. These performative
approaches to making art built on philosophical interpretations of Abstract Expressionism, which
held the gestural markings of action painters as visible evidence of the artist’s own existence.
Bolstered by Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock in his studio, moving dance-like
around a canvas on the floor, artists like Shiraga and Mathieu began to see the artist’s creative
act as equally important, if not more so, to the artwork produced. In this light, Pollock’s distinctive
drips, spills and splatters appeared as a mere remnant, a visible trace left over from the moment
Shifting attention from the art object to the artist’s action further suggested that art existed in real
space and real time. In New York, visual artists combined their interest in action painting with
Introduction to Art Chapter 30: Postwar Modern Movements 444
ideas of the avant-garde composer John Cage to blur the line between art and life. Cage
employed chance procedures to create musical compositions such …
Introduction to Art Chapter 12: Craft and Design Media 117
Chapter 12: Craft and Design Media
Craft requires the specific skilled use of tools in creating works of art. These tools can take many
forms: words, construction tools, a camera, a paintbrush or even a voice. Traditional studio crafts
include ceramics, metal and woodworking, weaving and the glass arts. Crafts are distinguished
by a high degree of workmanship and finish. Traditional crafts have their roots in utilitarian
purposes: furniture, utensils and other everyday accoutrements that are designed for specific
uses and reflect the adage that “form follows function”. But human creativity goes beyond simple
function to include the aesthetic realm, entered through the doors of embellishment, decoration
and an intuitive sense of design.
In the two examples below, a homeowner’s yard gate shows off his metal smith skills, becoming
a study in ornate symmetry. In another example, a staircase crafted in the Shaker style takes on
an elegant form that mirrors the organic spiral shape representing the ‘golden ratio’.
Yard gate; metal, concrete and glass. Image used by permission.
Introduction to Art Chapter 12: Craft and Design Media 118
Shaker style staircase, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Boucher, National Parks Service. Image is in the
Utility is not the sole purpose of craft. The Persian carpet below has its use as a utilitarian object,
but the craftsmanship shown in its pattern and design gives it a separate aesthetic value. The
decorative element is visually stimulating, as if the artisan uses the carpet as simply a vehicle for
his or her own creative imagination.
Introduction to Art Chapter 12: Craft and Design Media 119
Antique Tabriz Persian carpet. Licensed through Creative Commons
Quilts made in the rural community of Gee’s Bend Alabama show a diverse range of individual
patterns within a larger design structure of colorful stripes and blocks, and have a basis in
graphic textile designs from Africa.
Even a small tobacco bag from the Native American Sioux culture (below) becomes a work of art
with its intricate beaded patterns and floral designs.
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Tobacco pouch, Sioux Licensed through Creative Commons
The craftsmanship in glass making is one of the most demanding. Working with an extremely
fragile medium presents unique challenges. Challenges aside, the delicate nature of glass gives
it exceptional visual presence. A blown glass urn dated to first century Rome is an example. The
fact that it has survived the ages intact is testament to its ultimate strength and beauty.
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Cinerary Urn, Roman. C. 1st century CE. Blown glass. National Archaeological Museum, Spain. Photo: Luis Garcia
Zaqarbal. Image is in the public domain.
Louis Comfort Tiffany introduced many styles of decorative glass between the late 19th and first
part of the 20th centuries. His stained-glass window The Holy City in Baltimore Maryland has
intricate details in illustrations influenced by the Art Nouveau style popular at the turn of the 19th
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Louis Comfort Tiffany, The Holy City, stained glass window, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, Baltimore,
Maryland. 1905. Image is in the public domain.
The artist Dale Chihuly has redefined the traditional craft of glass making over the last forty
years, moving it towards the mainstream of fine art with single objects and large scale
installations involving hundreds of individual pieces.
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Dale Chihuly, Saffron Tower. de Young Museum. San Francisco California. Image by Darren Kumasawa Liscense:
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
On any given day, you can look around your surroundings and come in contact with design.
Information comes to you in many forms: the graphics on the front of a cereal box, or on the
packaging in your cupboards; the information on the billboards and bus shelter posters you pass
on your way to work; the graphics on the outside of the cup that holds your double latte; and the
printed numbers on the dial of the speedometer in your car. Information is communicated by the
numbers on the buttons in an elevator; on the signage hanging in stores; or on the amusing
graphics on the front of your friend’s T-shirt. So many items in your life hold an image that is
created to convey information. And all of these things are designed by someone.
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Times Square, New York, New York. Image by Terabass License CC BY-SA 3.0
Traditionally referred to as graphic design, communication design is the process by which
messages and images are used to convey information to a targeted audience. Design itself is
only the first step. It is important when conceiving of a new design that the entire workflow
through to production is taken into consideration. And while most modern graphic design is
created on computers, using design software such as the Adobe suite of products, the ideas and
concepts don’t stay on the computer. To create in-store signage, for instance, the ideas need to
be completed in the computer software, then progress to an imaging (traditionally referred to as
printing) process. This is a very wide-reaching and varied group of disciplines.
Product Design: The dictum “form follows function” represents an organic approach to three-
dimensional design. The products and devices we use every day continue to serve the same
functions but change in styles. This constant realignment in basic form reflects modern aesthetic
considerations and, on a larger scale, become artifacts of the popular culture of a given time
The two examples below illustrate this idea. Like Tiffany glass, the chair designed by Henry van
de Velde in 1895 reflects the Art Nouveau style in its wood construction with organic, stylized
lines and curvilinear form. In comparison, the Ant Chair from 1952 retains the basic functional
form with more modern design using a triangular leg configuration of tubular steel and a single
piece of laminated wood veneer, the cut-out shape suggesting the form of a black ant.
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Henry van de Velde, Chair, 1895. Wood, woven fiber. Image is in the public domain.
Arne Jacobsen, Ant Chair, 1952. Steel and wood. Licensed through Creative Commons.
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Conditions and Products of the Industrial Age
Before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840 in Britain) most aspects of design and all aspects of
production were commonly united in the person of the craftsman. The tailor, mason, cobbler,
potter, brewer, and any other kind of craftsman integrated their personal design aesthetic into
each stage of product development.
The Arts & Crafts movement emerged in the second half of the 19th century in reaction to the
social, moral, and aesthetic chaos created by the Industrial Revolution. William Morris was its
founder and leader. He abhorred the cheap and cheerful products of manufacturing, the terrible
working and living conditions of the poor, and the lack of guiding moral principles of the times.
Morris “called for a fitness of purpose, truth to the nature of the materials and methods of
production, and individual expression by both artist and worker” (Meggs & Purvis, 2011, p. 160).
These philosophical points are still pivotal to the expression of design style and practice to this
day. Design styles from the Arts & Crafts movement and on have emphasized, in varying
degrees, either fitness of purpose and material integrity, or individual expression and the need
for visual subjectivity. Morris based his philosophy on the writings of John Ruskin, a critic of the
Industrial Age, and a man who felt that society should work toward promoting the happiness and
well-being of every one of its members, by creating a union of art and labor in the service of
society. Ruskin admired the medieval Gothic style for these qualities, as well as the Italian
aesthetic of medieval art because of its direct and uncomplicated depiction of nature.
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William Morris, Trellis. Designed 1862, first produced 1864. Morris & Company. Block-printed Wallpaper. Source:
Metropolitan Museum of Art. License Public Domain
Many artists, architects, and designers were attracted to Ruskin’s philosophy and began to
integrate components of them into their work. Morris, influenced by his upbringing in an agrarian
countryside, was profoundly moved by Ruskin’s stance on fusing work and creativity, and
became determined to find a way to make it a reality for society. This path became his life’s
Roycroft, Reclining Morris Chair. c.1903. Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain
In 1860, Morris established an interior design firm with friends based on the knowledge and
experiences he had in crafting and building his home. He began transforming not only the look of
home interiors but also the design studio. He brought together craftsmen of all kinds under the
umbrella of his studio and began to implement Ruskin’s philosophy of combining art and craft. In
Morris’s case, this was focused on making beautiful objects for the home. The craftsmen were
encouraged to study principles of art and design, not just production, so they could reintegrate
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design principles into the production of their products. The objects they created were made and
designed with an integrity a craftsman could feel proud of and find joy in creating, while the
eventual owner would consider these products on par with works of art (an existing example is
the Morris chair above). The look of the work coming out of the Morris studio was based
specifically on an English medieval aesthetic that the British public could connect to. The English
look and its integrity of production made Morris’s work very successful and sought after. His
organizational innovations and principled approach gained attention with craftsmen and artisans,
and became a model for a number of craft guilds and art societies, which eventually changed the
British design landscape.
Design and New Technologies
The look of graphic design changed through advancements in photography, typesetting, and
printing techniques. Designers felt confident in exploring and experimenting with the new
technologies as they were well supported by the expertise of the print industry. Designers began
to cut up type and images and compose directly on mechanical boards, which were then
photographed and manipulated on the press for color experimentation. As well, illustration was
once again prized. Conceptual typography also became a popular form of expression.
Milton Glaser, I Love New York Logo. Source:
Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain
Milton Glaser, Dylan. 1966. Image by David License
CC BY 2.0
An excellent example of this expansive style can be found in the design output of New York’s
Push Pin Studios. Formed by Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, Push Pin was a studio that
created innovative typographic solutions — I♥NY— brand identities, political posters, books, and
albums (such Bob Dylan’s album Dylan). It was adept at using and mixing illustration,
photography, collage, and typography for unexpected and innovative visual results that were
always fresh and interesting as well as for its excellent conceptual solutions. The influence of
Push Pin and Late Modern is still alive and has recently experienced a resurgence. Many young
designers have adopted this style because of its fresh colors, fine wit, and spontaneous
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Apple Store, Opéra, Paris, France. Image by Florian License: CC BY-SA 2.0
The technological revolution of the 1990s brought the mobile phone and computer to every home
and office and changed the structure of our current society much as manufacturing in the 1800s
changed Britain and the Western world. As with the Industrial Revolution, the change in
technology over the last 20 years has affected us environmentally, socially, and economically.
Manufacturing has slowly been moved offshore and replaced with technology-based companies.
Data has replaced material as the substance we must understand and use effectively and
efficiently. The technological development sectors have also begun to dominate employment and
wealth sectors and overtake manufacturing’s dominance. These changes are ongoing and fast-
paced. The design community has responded in many novel ways, but usually its response is
anchored by a look and strategy that reduce ornament and overt style while focusing on clean
lines and concise messaging. The role of design today is often as a way-finder to help people
keep abreast of changes, and to provide instruction. Designers are once again relying on
established, historic styles and methods like ITS (International Typographic Style) to connect to
audiences because the message is being delivered in a complex visual system. Once the
technological shifts we are experiencing settle down, and design is no longer adapting to new
forms of delivery, it will begin to develop original and unique design approaches that complement
and speak to the new urban landscape.
License and Attributions
- Chapter 12: Craft and Design Media
- Craft Media
- Design Media
- Product Design
- Conditions and Products of the Industrial Age
- Design and New Technologies
- Design Today
Introduction to Art Chapter 31: Postmodernity and Global Cultures 448
Chapter 31: Postmodernity and Global
“Getting” Contemporary Art
It’s ironic that many people say they don’t “get” contemporary art because, unlike Egyptian tomb
painting or Greek sculpture, art made since 1960 reflects our own recent past. It speaks to the
dramatic social, political and technological changes of the last 50 years, and it questions many of
society’s values and assumptions—a tendency of postmodernism, a concept sometimes used to
describe contemporary art. What makes today’s art especially challenging is that, like the world
around us, it has become more diverse and cannot be easily defined through a list of visual
characteristics, artistic themes or cultural concerns.
Minimalism and Pop Art paved the way for later artists to explore questions about the conceptual
nature of art, its form, its production, and its ability to communicate in different ways. In the late
1960s and 1970s, these ideas led to a “dematerialization of art,” when artists turned away from
painting and sculpture to experiment with new formats including photography, film and video,
performance art, large-scale installations and earth works. Although some critics of the time
foretold “the death of painting,” art today encompasses a broad range of traditional and
experimental media, including works that rely on Internet technology and other scientific
John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971, lithograph, 22-7/16 x 30-1/16″ (The Museum of Modern
Art). Copyright John Baldessari, courtesy of the artist.
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Contemporary artists continue to use a varied vocabulary of abstract and representational forms
to convey their ideas. It is important to remember that the art of our time did not develop in a
vacuum; rather, it reflects the social and political concerns of its cultural context. For example,
artists like Judy Chicago, who were inspired by the feminist movement of the early 1970s,
embraced imagery and art forms that had historical connections to women.
In the 1980s, artists appropriated the style and methods of mass media advertising to investigate
issues of cultural authority and identity politics. More recently, artists like Maya Lin, who
designed the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., and Richard Serra, who was
loosely associated with Minimalism in the 1960s, have adapted characteristics of Minimalist art
to create new abstract sculptures that encourage more personal interaction and emotional
response among viewers.
These shifting strategies to engage the viewer show how contemporary art’s significance exists
beyond the object itself. Its meaning develops from cultural discourse, interpretation and a range
of individual understandings, in addition to the formal and conceptual problems that first
motivated the artist. In this way, the art of our times may serve as a catalyst for an on-going
process of open discussion and intellectual inquiry about the world today.
Postmodern and Contemporary Architecture
Postmodern architecture began as an international style whose first examples are generally cited
as being from the 1950s, but did not become a movement until the late 1970s and continues to
influence present-day architecture. Postmodernity in architecture is generally thought to be
heralded by the return of “wit, ornament and reference” to architecture in response to the
formalism of the International Style.
Michael Graves’s Portland Building from 1982 personifies the idea behind postmodernist
thought. A reference to more traditional style is evident in the patterned column-like sections.
Overt large-scale decorative elements are built into and onto the exterior walls, and contrasts
between materials, colors and forms give the building a graphic sense of visual wit.
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Michael Graves, Portland Municipal Services Building, 1982, Portland, Oregon. Image by Steve Morgan, licensed
through Creative Commons.
We can see how architecture is actively evolving in the contemporary work of Frank Gehry and
Zaha Hadid. Gehry’s work is famous for its rolling and bent organic forms. His gestural, erratic
sketches are transformed into buildings through a computer aided design process (CAD). They
have roots in postmodernism but lean towards a completely new modern style. They have as
much to do with sculpture as they do with architecture. Seattle’s Experience Music Project is an
example of the complexity that goes into his designs. Its curves, ripples and folds roll across
space and the multi-colored titanium panels adorning the exterior accentuate the effect. It’s even
designed for a monorail train to run through it!
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Frank Gehry, The Experience Music Project, 2000. Seattle Washington. West façade with the monorail passing
through. Image by: Cacophony. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.
Hadid’s designs use soft and hard geometry with lots of cantilever and strong sculptural quality.
In 2004 Hadid became the first female recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s
equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Her work defines and influences architectural style in the 21st
century. For example, her design for an inclined rail station in Innsbruck, Austria is futuristic,
balancing abstract forms and ornament with utility.
Zaha Hadid, Norpark Rail Station, Innsbruck, Austria. 2004-2007. Image: Hafelekar. Licensed through Creative
Introduction to Art Chapter 31: Postmodernity and Global Cultures 452
Appropriation and Ideological Critique
In 2011, artist Ai Weiwei was arrested in China following a crack down by the government on so-
called “political dissidents” (a specific category that the Chinese government uses to classify
those who seek to subvert state power) for “alleged economic crimes” against the Chinese state.
Weiwei has used his art to address both the corruption of the Chinese communist government
and its outright neglect of human rights, particularly in the realm of the freedom of speech and
thought. Weiwei has been successful in using the internet (which is severely restricted in China)
as a medium for his art. His work is informed by two interconnected strands, his involvement with
the Chinese avant-garde group “Stars” (which he helped found in 1978 during his time in the
Beijing Film Academy) and the fact that he spent some of his formative years in New York,
engaging there with the ideas of conceptual art, in particular the idea of the readymade. Many of
the concepts and much of the material that Weiwei uses in his art practice are informed by post-
Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, one hundred million hand painted porcelain seeds (Tate Modern)
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Handpainted seeds (detail), Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, one hundred million hand painted porcelain seeds
Weiwei has exhibited successfully in the West in many major shows, for example, the 48th
Venice Biennale in Italy (1999) and Documenta 12 (2007). He also exhibited Sunflower Seeds
(October, 2010) in the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern. In this work, Weiwei filled the floor of the
huge hall with one hundred million porcelain seeds, each individually hand-painted in the town of
Jingdezhen by 1,600 Chinese artisans. Participants were encouraged to walk over the exhibited
space (or even roll in the work) in order to experience the ideas of the effect of mass
consumption on Chinese industry and 20th-century China’s history of famine and collective work.
However, on October 16, 2010, Tate Modern stopped people from walking on the exhibit due to
health liability concerns over porcelain dust.
The Art of Kara Walker, a “PBS Culture Shock” web activity, tests the participant’s tolerance for
imagery that occupies the nebulous space between racism and race affirmation. Though the
activity gives the participant only two options at the end (whether or not to feature one of
Walker’s silhouettes on the “Culture Shock” homepage), the activity explores the multiple and
complex reactions Walker’s work elicits. Yet to focus solely on the controversy Walker’s art
generates is a disservice to her artistic training and the strength of her art, especially in a
stunning and absorbing installation like Darkytown Rebellion. Here, a brilliant pattern of colors
washes over a wall full of silhouettes enacting a dramatic rebellion, giving the viewer the
unforgettable experience of stepping into a work of art. Walker’s talent is not about creating
controversy for its own sake, but building a world that unleashes horrors even as it seduces
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Kara Walker, Darkytown Rebellion, 2001, cut paper and projection on wall, 4.3 x 11.3m, (Musée d’Art Moderne
Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg) © Kara Walker
Identity and the Body
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Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face), 1981
Has an artwork ever been more direct in acknowledging that the simple act of looking is a
gendered (and gendering) act? “Your gaze hits the side of my face,” admonishes Barbara Kruger
in Untitled (1981). The phrase is made stark and impersonal by arranging the words in a vertical
stack, like those of a ransom note, to the left of a photograph of a female portrait bust in profile.
Notice how the head is equally depersonalized; a stylized version in the classical tradition whose
neck disappears into a block of stone, the suggestion here is that women are rendered inert in
the act of being looked at. With an assumed male viewer — the subject of the possessive phrase
“your gaze” — the subject of the portrait bust readily conforms to patriarchal fantasies of the
passive female object.
Kruger’s art is characterized by a visual wit sharpened in the trenches of the advertising world
where the savvy combination of graphic imagery and pithy phrasing targeted a growing
population of consumers in the post-World War II years. The portrait bust she uses for Untitled
(Your gaze hits the side of my face) is a found picture, one of any number the artist would have
encountered in her early career in graphic design. This included a stint at Mademoiselle
magazine, whose glossy pages were a virtual catalogue of stereotypical images of femininity. In
the late 1970s, Kruger began to choose for her photomontages images of women that were often
heightened examples of such stereotypes to which her addition of text would, often humorously,
expose and thereby deconstruct the supposed realism of such imagery.
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Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018 (Geffen Contemporary; photo: rocor, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Much like the factory murals and posters of Russian avant-garde art, Kruger sought a broader
audience outside the gallery. Her work would appear on billboards, train station platforms, bus
stops, public parks, and even matchbook covers. In the early 2000s the street clothing brand
Supreme acknowledged that Barbara Kruger was an inspiration for their logo, a white Futura font
within a red box. Despite its critical stance toward the advertising industry, Kruger’s unique
graphic style couldn’t help but ultimately become influential in packaging and product design.
Logo for the clothing brand Supreme
Did the promotional and publicity structures of a consumer society eventually absorb
postmodernism and thereby render its critique neutral?
Shirin Neshat’s photographic series Women of Allah examines the complexities of women’s
identities in the midst of a changing cultural landscape in the Middle East—both through the lens
of Western representations of Muslim women, and through the more intimate subject of personal
and religious conviction.
While the composition—defined by the hard edge of her black chador against the bright white
background—appears sparse, measured and symmetrical, the split created by the weapon
implies a more violent rupture or psychic fragmentation. A single subject, it suggests, might be
host to internal contradictions alongside binaries such as tradition and modernity, East and West,
beauty and violence. In the artist’s own words, “every image, every woman’s submissive gaze,
suggests a far more complex and paradoxical reality behind the surface.” 
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Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, Women of Allah series, 1994, black and white RC print and ink, photo by Cynthia
Preston ©Shirin Neshat (courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)
Banality and Kitsch
Jeff Koons, Pink Panther, 1988, glazed porcelain, 104.1 x 52 x 48.2 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)
(photo: LP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Imagine walking into an art gallery and seeing overgrown toys, or cartoon characters presented
as sculpture. If, in 1988, you had wandered into the Sonnabend Gallery on West Broadway in
New York City, this is indeed what you would have witnessed: it was an exhibition entitled
“Banality” by New York artist Jeff Koons presenting some twenty sculptures in porcelain and
A glazed porcelain statue entitled Pink Panther belongs to that body of work. It depicts a smiling,
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bare-breasted, blond woman scantily clad in a mint-green dress, head tilted back and to the left
as if addressing a crowd of onlookers. The figure is based on the 1960s B-list Hollywood star
Jayne Mansfield—here she clutches a limp pink panther in her left hand, while her right hand
covers an exposed breast. From behind one sees that the pink panther has its head thrown over
her shoulder and wears an expression of hapless weariness. It too is a product of Hollywood
fantasy—the movie of the same name debuted the cartoon character in 1963. The colors are
almost antiquated; do they harken back to the popular culture of a pre-civil rights era as a
politically regressive statement of nostalgia? And what about the female figure—posed in a state
of deshabille (carelessly and partially undressed)? At a time of increased feminist presence in
the still male-dominated art world this could only be perceived as a rearguard move. Or was
Koons—a postmodern provocateur like no other—simply parodying male authority as he had
done in some of his other work?
Artists—postmodern artists—were supposed to counter the banality of evil that lurked behind
public and popular culture, not giddily revel in it as Koons seemed to do. There appeared to be
nothing serious about any of the works in the “Banality” exhibition: a life-sized bust of pop icon
Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles; a ribbon-necked pig—especially egregious—in
polychromed wood escorted by cherubic youths, two of which are winged. And of course Pink
Panther, a work that seemed destined to insult rather than inform. It all seemed like kitsch posing
as high art.
Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, ceramic, glaze and paint, on view at Versailles, 2014 (photo: Jean-
Pierre Dalbéra, CC BY 2.0)
But postmodernism stopped short of fully embracing kitsch by insisting on a degree of self-aware
critical distance. This is where Koons found a fault line that he fully exploited with works like Pink
Panther. Hummel figurines and other popular collector’s items are the basis for the art in
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“Banality.” Koons rendered these saccharine and sentimental little figural groupings—cartoonish
emblems of childhood innocence—at a life-size scale as an assault upon sincerity but also as an
assault upon taste, and it is here that even the most daring of postmodern advocates drew a line
in the sand. Like the modernist distinction between art and an everyday object, Pink Panther
challenged the distinction between an ironic appropriation of a mass-culture object and the
object itself (seemingly without critical distance) thereby challenging the whole critical enterprise
of postmodernism itself.
Ritual, spirituality, and transcendence
Left: Bill Viola, The Crossing, 1996, video/sound © Bill Viola (photo: stunned, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Bill Viola,
The Crossing, 1996, video/sound © Bill Viola (image: SFMOMA)
Bill Viola’s The Crossing is a room-sized video installation that comprises a large two-sided
screen onto which a pair of video sequences is simultaneously projected. They each open in the
same fashion: a male figure walks slowly towards the camera, his body dramatically lit from
above so that it appears to glow against the video’s stark-black background. After several
minutes he pauses near the foreground and stands still. He faces forward, staring directly into
the lens, motionless.
At this point the two scenes diverge; in one, a small fire alights below the figure’s feet. It spreads
over his legs and torso and eventually engulfs his whole body in flames; yet, he stands calm and
completely still as his body is immolated, only moving to raise his arms slightly before his body
disappears in an inferno of roaring flames. On the opposite screen, the event transpires not with
fire but with water. Beginning as a light rainfall, the sporadic drops that shower the figure build up
to a surging cascade of water until it subsumes him entirely. After the flames and the torrent of
water eventually retreat, the figure has vanished entirely from each scene, and the camera
witnesses a silent and empty denouement.
Between 1974 and 1976, Viola lived in Italy, where religious paintings and sculptures are often
displayed in-situ, in the cathedrals for which they were commissioned. The continuing integration
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of historical art into contemporary public and religious life inspired Viola to design installations
that mimicked the forms of devotional paintings, diptychs, predellas and altarpieces—formats
that encourage intimate contemplation of religious icons. Later traveling throughout Japan and
other parts of East Asia, Viola observed the same active level of engagement with art. In Tokyo,
for instance, he witnessed museum visitors placing offerings at the feet of sculptural
bodhisattvas or other religious statuary.
For viewers, the experience of viewing Viola’s works need not be spiritually inscribed. In many
cases, his works appeal to or reflect raw human emotions (the theme of his acclaimed exhibition
The Passions) or universal life experiences. While The Crossing can be interpreted in light of a
host of religious associations, the act of “self-annihilation” represented in the figure’s
disappearance at each conclusion also serves as a metaphor for the destruction of the ego. In
the artist’s words, this action “becomes a necessary means to transcendence and liberation,” 
especially in the face of life’s inevitable unpredictability.
Histories, Real and Imagined
“I can’t see it…is it me?” I watched a young woman step closer to the canvas titled, Uncle Rudi.
She was now physically closer and she was looking hard, but the image kept its distance.
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Gerhard Richter, Uncle Rudi, 1965, oil on canvas, 87 x 50 cm (Lidice Gallery, Lidice, Czech Republic) used with
permission of the Gerhard Richter studio
Meaning in Gerhard Richter’s art can also keep its distance. The elusiveness of meaning is, in
some ways, a central subject of Richter’s art. Since the early 1950s, Richter has painted a huge
number of subjects in wildly conflicting styles. For most artists, one style emerges and evolves
slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the course of their career. This is because artists often
continue to work through problems that remain relevant and perhaps, because they achieve a
degree of recognition and the market then demands that style. In other words, collectors often
want what is known. Artists who abandon their signature style do so at some risk to future sales.
Still, some artists do push in startlingly new directions. Willem de Kooning abandoned
abstraction for the figure against the advice of his dealer, and Pablo Picasso famously pursued
opposing styles simultaneously—think of his volumetric, even bloated Neoclassicism compared
to the collages where he pressed flat every volume in sight.
Uncle Rudi, the painting the woman had stepped closer to see, is painted in the grays of a black
and white photograph. It is small and has the intimacy of a family snapshot. We see a young
man smiling proudly and awkwardly. He is clearly self-conscious as he poses in his new uniform.
One has the sense that a moment before he was talking to the person behind the camera, likely
a friend or family member. Rudi would die fighting soon after the photograph that is the basis for
this painting was taken. This is the artist’s uncle, the man his grandmother favored and the adult
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the young Richter was to model himself after. But nothing in this painting is clear. Not the
relationship between the artist and his uncle, not the tension between Rudi’s innocent
awkwardness and his participation in Nazi violence, not even in the relationship between the
photograph and Richter’s painting. The artist has drawn a dry brush across the wet surface of
the nearly finished painting, and by doing this, he obscures the clarity of the photograph, denying
us the easy certainty we expect. Richter reminds us that Uncle Rudi, like all images, promise and
then fail to bring us closer to the people, things or places represented.
Confronting Art History
Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005, oil paint on canvas, 274.3 x 274.3 cm (108 x 108
in) (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York) © Kehinde Wiley
In this large painting, Kehinde Wiley, an African-American artist, strategically re-creates a French
masterpiece from two hundred years before but with key differences. This act of appropriation
reveals issues about the tradition of portraiture and all that it implies about power and privilege.
Wiley asks us to think about the biases of the art historical canon (the set of works that are
regarded as “masterpieces”), representation in pop culture, and issues of race and gender. Here,
Wiley replaces the original white subject—the French general-turned-emperor Napoleon
Bonaparte (below)—with an anonymous black man whom Wiley approached on the street as
part of his “street-casting process.” Although Wiley does occasionally create paintings on
commission, he typically asks everyday people of color to sit for photographs, which he then
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transforms into paintings. Along the way, he talks with those sitters, gathering their thoughts
about what they should wear, how they might pose, and which historical paintings to reference.
Napoleon Leading the Army is a clear spin-off of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of 1800-01
(below), which was commissioned by Charles IV, the King of Spain, to commemorate
Napoleon’s victorious military campaign against the Austrians. The original portrait smacks of
propaganda. Napoleon, in fact, did not pose for the original painting nor did he lead his troops
over the mountains into Austria. He sent his soldiers ahead on foot and followed a few days
later, riding on a mule.
Left: Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1803 version, oil on canvas 275 × 232 cm (Österreichische
Galerie Belvedere); right: Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005, oil paint on canvas,
274.3 x 274.3 cm (108 x 108 in) (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)
Through his demonstration of extraordinary painting skill and his use of famous portraits, Wiley
could be seen as wryly placing himself in line with the history of great master painters. Here, for
example, he has signed and dated the painting just as David did, painting his name and the date
in Roman numerals onto the band around the horse’s chest. Wiley makes another reference to
lineage in the foreground where he retains the original painting’s rocky surface and the carved
names of illustrious leaders who led troops over the Alps: NAPOLEON, HANNIBAL, and
KAROLUS MAGNUS (Charlemagne). But Wiley also includes the name WILLIAMS—another
insistence on including ordinary people of color who are often left out of systems of
representation and glorification. Not only is Williams a common African-American surname, it
hints at the imposition of Anglo names on black people who were brought by force from Africa
and stripped of their own histories.
License and Attributions
- Chapter 31: Postmodernity and Global Cultures
- “Getting” Contemporary Art
- Postmodern and Contemporary Architecture
- Appropriation and Ideological Critique
- Dangerous Art
- Brilliant patterns
- Identity and the Body
- Banality and Kitsch
- Ritual, spirituality, and transcendence
- Histories, Real and Imagined
- Refusing Style
- Confronting Art History