What are the Different Types of Contemporary Art?
A Clear Overview and Examples
Installation view of Ann Veronica Janssens at Bartolami in New York (2016). Photo: Biennale Art Magazine / Ann Veronica Janssens (c)
Ever since the shift of Modernism to Postmodernism there has been an explosion of different types of art. Back in the day, there were four types of visual arts: paintings, sculpture, drawing and printmaking. Simpler times one might say. And arguably you are right. New possible types of art emerged as technological developments were integrated by visual artists and new ways of thinking due to Postmodernism pushed the boundaries of the traditional art forms redefining what art can be.
Today, the different types of contemporary art include painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, collage, digital art/collage, photography, video art, installation art, land art, (public) intervention art and performance art.
A mouthful to say the least, however many of twelve types of art are connected to one another and it is often unclear where one type ends and the other takes over is they are strongly intertwined. Then, there are also certain types of combinations, such as the performance-based sculptor, a public intervention by manner of land art or a collage-based painter.
As a result, we have listed the aforementioned types of contemporary into a clear overview with an example and a clear definition. So without further ado, let's start with the first type of contemporary art.
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, 2015. Oil on canvas – 92 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist.
We set off with painting! Painting has been proclaimed to be dead multiple times in art history, think of Douglas Crimp's iconic article The End of Painting. However, painting isn't going anywhere and has been (and arguably still is) one of the most pertinent art forms.
With painting we have at one side of the spectrum abstraction and on the other side representational painting. Today, both types of painting – or a combination of both – are contemporary and highly relevant. Think of Gerhard Richter who switches from pure abstraction to photorealistic paintings, or the implementation of old master techniques in an utmost contemporary manner.
With painting, one works on a two-dimensional surface using a wet substance. This substance is most often paint, acrylic or oils, and is commonly applied on cotton or linen canvas, a wooden panel or on a copper/metal plate. However, today we have also painters such as Anselm Kiefer who paint with metal or incorporate found objects defying the boundaries of painting with sculpture.
We have a separate article on the most famous painters today, sketching the current state of the art when it comes to painting as a separate type or category in contemporary read. Read the article here.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red), 2013–2019. Courtesy David Zwirner / Jeff Koons (c)
Up next we have the traditional art form of sculpture in a contemporary context. Sculpture is a three-dimensional art form most often being practiced by using marble, wood, copper or bronze. Today, these traditional materials remain the most used by contemporary sculptors.
However, with recent technological developments there are more possibilities as new materials and techniques are used by contemporary artist due to their continuous quest of experiment and new paths to wander. As a result one may encounter sculptures made of plexiglass, epoxy, wax, steel or sometimes even electronic and kinetic devices.
As with painting, the sculptor can opt to make representational sculpture such as the renowned Jeff Koons sculptures (see image above) – for instance his balloon dogs or the giant heads by Mark Manders. For instance, in contemporary sculpture there is a subcategory of hyperrealism in which they recreate human figures as if they were actual human beings. On the other hand we have abstract sculpture such as the minimalist Donald Judd sculpture of cubical forms, the abstract steel sculptures of Frank Stella or the sculptural mirrors by Anish Kapoor, to name a few.
One must also add the thin line between contemporary sculpture and installation art (cf. infra). Very often a sculpture can be seen as an installation and vice versa. Both are three dimensional artworks made by various possible materials. However, a sculpture is most often rather seen as an installation when there is the use of ready-mades or when it takes in and creates it's own environment.
Rinus Van de Velde, Two years, ten hours a day, (...), 2021. Charcoal on canvas, artist frame – 180 x 180 cm. Courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery.
Art starts with drawing. An age old saying with a very strong ground of truth. Art begins where the artist makes a mark with his pencil on paper. It is the foundation of one's visual education.
Ever since Modernism has freed art from academic conventions, this notion of drawing as the foundation of the artist's trait has shifted slightly, as it is no longer common an artists needs to be a highly trained draughtsman. One might argue this is a negative tendency and reduces the practice of drawing to a trivial occupation. However, the opposite seems to be true.
With Modernism and up to today in a Postmodern era, drawing has conquered it's own place among the art forms. A drawing was often seemed as less valuable in relation to a painting or sculpture, as it was often just a step in the process of the creation of artworks or a part of the education of the artist.
Today, it is an art form an sich as contemporary artists dedicated their life and career to the medium of drawing. Think of the impressive oeuvre of Rinus Van De Velde and his monumental charcoal drawings based upon studio installations (see image above).
William Kentridge, Carnets d'Egypte, 2010. Original engraving, etching and drypoint with a copy of the book "Carnets d'Egypte" signed – 16 × 22 cm. Edition of 50. Courtesy Dilecta, Paris.
Up next we have printmaking. The genesis of printmaking can be found around 1450 in Gutenberg, Germany. Woodcarvings, followed by engravings, etchings and lithography made it possible to produce multiples of artworks which resulted in a grand distribution images functioning as a catalyst and xenogamy for art.
Up to this day printmaking has been an important art category when it comes to the distribution of images and art. Due to the fact printmaking offers multiple items, prices are lower and collectors can acquire works of artists whom are out of reach when it comes to the price range.
Even more, some artists perfect printmaking and elevate the practice to an art form an sich. Think of the South African draughtsman William Kentridge and his oeuvre of the finest prints honoring the medium.
Adrian Ghenie, Study for Bikini, 2018. Collage on paper – 18.2 × 22.4 cm. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac.
Collage is the artistic act of making an assemblage of different forms, materials or images. It has been an artistic practice in Europe since around the 1500s but was never seem as a true art form.
However, with the arrival of Modern Art collage as an art form flourished throughout the 20th century. Think of art movements such as Cubism, Dadaism or Surrealism in which collage was implemented into 'high art'. As a result, collage has become an important type of contemporary art.
Today, there are more collage artists than ever before. Collage has in fact become one of the most common practices when it comes to 'building an image'. In a Postmodern era where appropriation plays a huge role, collage is an essential strategy to construct a new image by borrowing second hand material. Think of the collages by Adrian Ghenie and how they have shaped his visual language when it comes to painting.
6. Digital Art/Collage
Jorg Karg, Dancing Fearless, 2020. Digital collage printed under Diasec – 130 x 120 cm. Courtesy CAI Gallery.
With the arrival of digital arts and software such as Photoshop, a new type of art emerged we call digital collage. Digital collage consists of composing a new image based upon second hand imagery or photography using digital software.
Although software such as Photoshop or Paintbox have been around for some while now, digital collage is only recently recognized as a true type of high art. Think of the mesmerizing collages by digital collage artist Jorg Karg (see image above).
Wolfgang Tillmans, Fragile Waves, 2016. Inkjet print on paper, clips – 138 × 207 cm. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
Further, there is the art form of photography. When referring to photography as an art form, most commonly one speaks of 'fine art photography'. Ever since the invention of the medium, the notion of photography as a form of visual art was present. The photographer as an artist.
Today, photography is omnipresent in the art world with leading photographers such as Dirk Breackman or Wolfgang Tillmans (see image above) leading the industry and receiving as many praise as their colleagues occupied with painting.
Further, many performance artists depend on photography to capture their art and freeze it in time and space.
8. Video Art
Bill Viola, Tempest (study for the Raft), 2005. Color high-definition video on LCD flat panel mounted on wall. Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Seroussi.
A similar story can be told when it comes to videography. Artists have been interested in moving images since it's genesis, experiment with film and video. Think of the abstract videos by Lásló Moholy-Nagy or the minimal films by Andy Warhol.
And then there are the genuine video artists, whom practice exclusively art with film. The video as a work of art and the director as the artist. Think of the cinematic pieces by the ubiquitous Bill Viola (see image above).
9 Installation Art
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", Chair 82 x 37.8 x 53 cm, photographic panel 91.5 x 61.1 cm, text panel 61 x 76.2 cm. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Up next we have installation art. Strongly associated with the art movement of Conceptual Art, installation artworks are three-dimensional works of art, existing of one or more objects in a space or as the space an sich.
With installation art, the use of ready-mades – such as the chair in Joseph Kosuth's iconic One and three chairs (see image above) – is a very common practice. Installation art can be seen as a contemporary type of sculpture in which various materials are used in an unconventional manner, distinguishing itself from traditional sculpture.
Today, installation art is one of the most practiced types of contemporary art.
10. Land Art
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Variable dimensions. Courtesy the artist.
The next type of art is also an art movement called Land Art. With land art, the artist acts as a landscape architect redesigning an environment. The best known example of this movement and type of contemporary art is the Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson from 1970 (see image above).
Land art can also be in a smaller scale, think of artists such as Jan Vercruysse designing a city park or a private garden incorporating sculptures and natural elements as building stones of their artwork.
11. (Public) Intervention Art
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971–95. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. Courtesy the artists.
Similar to Land Art, with Intervention Art the artist makes an intervention in a specific environment. Whereas with Land Art, the intervention takes place in a landscape or natural environment, (public) intervention art takes place in an urban environment.
By making an intervention, large or small, the artist makes the inhabitant of the era aware of it's own environment, think of Christo and Jeanne-Claudes wrapped buildings, bridges, sculptures and even islands (see image above).
12. Performance Art
Marina Abramovic, Performance during 'Marina Abramovic: The Artistis Present' (9 March, 2010, New York City). Museum of Modern Art. / Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images (c)
We conclude with the final type of contemporary art, which is performance art. Performance art emerged in the 60s and 70s and is dominant art form up to this day. With performance art, there is no object, rather a happening is the artwork itself.
Performance art is marked by its temporary character and is strongly linked with the performing arts such as theatre and dance. The artist acts a choreographer or – as with Marina Abramovic (see image above) – as the performer.