ART AFTER WORLD WAR II
Note: Because the work of recent artists is usually still under copyright, I have not copied images
into this document. Click on the title links to get to an illustration; often there is a short video on
How do we discuss the art of our own time? How do we distinguish significant trends from mere fads? Art
history, like all history, is constantly sorting, reshuffling, adding, and eliminating ideas and people, trying to
trace coherent patterns in what seems like an impossibly chaotic jumble of events. Art historians have
never been more aware than they are today of how their choices reflect their own prejudices and external
pressures. Artists themselves have resisted categorization and denied connections to the past; many have
worked in ways that cannot be preserved for future generations. Yet most artists do want to be noticed by
critics, which in turn brings the notice of other artists and art historians.
In place of official, government-sponsored exhibitions and aristocratic patrons who paid for the great
monuments of the past, artists now generally work for galleries. This arrangement is a variant of the open
market system that has been developing since at least the seventeenth century. Galleries, however, are not
mere salesrooms. The gallery system, especially in places like New York, offers approval, publicity, and
connections for aspiring artists, even if the system is sometimes too controlling in deciding what will sell.
Architects still work for individual patrons, but most of the major architectural commissions today are
corporate commissions. Some artists have resisted the commercialization of art by making works that are
ephemeral, destroyed by the artist or natural processes; others have embraced commercialism, either by
making art that looks like advertising or mass-produced products or by using the junk of our lives to make
art (which can be quite beautiful).
The pace of change in the latter part of the twentieth century increased exponentially. We could list the
wars, social upheavals, and technical developments that have affected the world of art, but no single event
is more important than change itself. Artists now can choose to work in any medium (from extremely
traditional to high tech), for any purpose (from exploring their own bodies to changing society), and in many
styles (including appropriated styles of other artists). What follows in this chapter is only a sampling of the
rich variety of contemporary art.
Although the dominant style in American art before World War II was still realism, some artists, especially
in New York City, were exploring pure abstraction. Students of the German émigré artist Hans Hofmann
worked with the interaction of color, and works by Kandinsky and other members of the European avant-
garde were on exhibit in New York in the 1930s. During World War II many important European artists
moved to New York City, inspiring artists there to develop an art of pure form and direct expression.
Especially important were the surrealists whose experiments with automatic drawing and interest in
psychological theories intrigued many young artists. The style that resulted is called abstract expressionism,
and with it, the New York school became the most important movement in art immediately following the