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Bluffer's Guide to Contemporary Art

We untangle the knottier parts of “this thing called art” (you’re welcome!)

Image: Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994-2000)

Handy Definitions

Don't know your conceptual from your perceptual? Your MCA from your ARI? We're here to help

Contemporary art

The term’s literal meaning is art made now, but in art-speak it applies to work that is made from around the 1950s onwards (opinions differ, with some saying it’s ’60s onwards and others ’70s onwards). Apart from that, anything goes – but painting, drawing and traditional sculpture are rather out of fashion these days.

Modern art

Modernism as a school of thought begins with the Industrial Revolution and stretches to the end of the ’60s. In art, it manifests as the rejection of traditional subject matter and realism in favour of experimentation.

Installation

Involves an arrangement of different elements of the one work in three-dimensional space (for example, a sculpture, a video screen and a soundtrack).

Conceptual art

Is art where ideas are more important than images/tangibles, and the artist’s “personal touch” is irrelevant.

Performance art

Is less interested in character and narrative and more interested in social and relational experiments.

Biennale

A huge festival of art, held every two years. The best-known these days is the Venice Biennale.

ARI

Or ‘artist-run-initiave’ is used to describe galleries that are run by emerging artists and focus on emerging artists. Profit is secondary.

Commercial gallery

The majority of galleries in Sydney are commercial galleries – run by art dealers for the purposes of profit.

The Turner Prize

It was created by the Tate Gallery in 1984, named after 19th-century landscape artist JMW Turner, and is awarded to a British artist under the age of 50 ”who has made an outstanding contribution to art... during the previous year.” Past winners include Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor.

What’s it worth? When it comes to auctions, Bacon rules

Looking at sales results for contemporary art, you may note the price differential between works by men and women, and living artists versus dead ones. Apart from that, generally, sales at auction reflect tastes of private collectors, and therefore naturally run towards paintings, photography and sculpture (ie things that fit in the living room).

Francis Bacon 
‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ (1969, painting)

Francis Bacon 
‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ (1969, painting)

$148M

Nov 2013

Jeff Koons 
‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’ (1994-2000, sculpture)

Jeff Koons 
‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’ (1994-2000, sculpture)

$58M
Nov 2013

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Andy Warhol 
‘Four Marilyns’ (1962, 
screen print)

Andy Warhol 
‘Four Marilyns’ (1962, 
screen print)

$38M
May 2013

Roy Lichtenstein 
‘Woman with Flowered Hat’ (1963, painting)

Roy Lichtenstein 
‘Woman with Flowered Hat’ (1963, painting)

$56M
May 2013

Louise Bourgeois ‘Spider’ (1996, sculpture)

Louise Bourgeois ‘Spider’ (1996, sculpture)

$10M
Nov 2011

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Cindy Sherman 
‘Untitled #96’ (1981, photograph)

Cindy Sherman 
‘Untitled #96’ (1981, photograph)

$3.8M
May 2011

Mark Rothko 
‘No 1 (Royal Red and Blue)’ (1954, painting)

Mark Rothko 
‘No 1 (Royal Red and Blue)’ (1954, painting)

$75M
Nov 2012

Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Dustheads’ (1982, painting)

Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Dustheads’ (1982, painting)

$48M
May 2012

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Brett Whiteley, 
‘My Armchair’ (1976, painting)

Brett Whiteley, 
‘My Armchair’ (1976, painting)

$3.9M
Oct 2013

Strange moments in contemporary art

Technically, contemporary art didn’t kick in until around 1960s, but its granddaddy is Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917  broke the mould by entering an actual urinal into the Society of Independent Artists’ annual exhibition in New York. He signed the urinal ‘R Mutt’ and titled the work ‘Fountain’. It was rejected by the selection committee, but inspired countless artists for generations to follow. Here are some other amusing, confusing moments from contemporary art...

1962
Warhol flips the bird at the Abstract Expressionists with ‘32 Campbell’s Soup Cans’, using mass-production techniques.

1966
John Baldessari creates ‘Pure Beauty’: two words, painted in black capital letters by a sign writer on a white canvas.

1971
For his work ‘Shoot’, artist Chris Burden is in fact shot, by a friend (in his left arm).

1972
Baldessari sings Sol LeWitt’s 1969 manifesto ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’, to popular tunes.

1980
A young Jeff Koons fills the window of the New Museum in New York with vacuum cleaners, for his debut solo show The New.

1993
Young British artist Damien Hirst makes ‘Mother and Child Divided’ – featuring a calf and its mother preserved in formaldehyde tanks, displayed side by side.

2001
Scottish artist Martin Creed wins the Turner Prize, for ‘Work 
No 227, The Lights Going On and 
Off’ (which does just that, and nothing else).

2001
Californian artist Paul McCarthy’s bronze statue ‘Santa with Butt Plug’, created as public art for Rotterdam, causes a furor.

2005
Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal presents a piece at Venice Biennale in which gallery attendants dance and sing around visitors – and subsequently manages to sell it.

2013
Jay-Z raps ‘Picasso Baby’ continuously at Pace Gallery to individuals including performance-art pioneer Marina Abramovic. Reactions range from enthusiasm to others calling it “the day performance art died”.

2014
Actor Shia LaBeouf wears a paper bag with ‘I am not famous anymore’ written on it on his head to the premiere of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac at Berlin Film Festival, as part of his #IAMSORRY art project.

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