What is Postmodern Art?

Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Image courtesy of Art Siegel on Flickr.

Born out of scepticism and a suspicion of reason, Postmodernism emerged around 1970 to smash any existing artistic notions of style and tradition, as a select group of artists shredded the already torn art rule book in a reaction against Modernism. They produced art that defied definition, flinging open the idea that anything can be art. 

One of four Shuttlecocks (1992) by Claes Oldenburg, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Flickr)

One of four Shuttlecocks (1992) by Claes Oldenburg, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Image courtesy of Jpellgen via Flickr.

Rules didn’t apply to Postmodernism. There was no one style or theory on which the movement was hinged, as experimentation with new media and art forms helped to stretch the definition of art. 

Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Traces of drawing media on paper, SFMOMA.

Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Traces of drawing media on paper, SFMOMA. Image courtesy of Rob Corder via Flickr.

Encompassing intermedia (works of art that integrate multiple artistic mediums), installation art, conceptual art, multimedia, performance art, and even identity politics, Postmodernism challenged all artistic notions that had preceded it. Specifically, it was a reaction against Modernism. In the years following World War II, Postmodernists rejected outright the ideas and values of Modernism, along with any description of its cultural dominance in the early to mid-1900s. 

Postmodernism didn’t accept the idealism and reason on which Modernism was based. Instead, it challenged notions of universal certainties or truths through scepticism, irony, and philosophical critiques of objective reality. And it was Robert Rauschenberg who provided a landmark moment for the movement in 1953, when (with the artist’s permission) he erased a William de Kooning drawing to produce the artwork, Erased de Kooning Drawing in a Postmodern moment that subversively appropriated another artist’s work and rejected traditional drawing as the foundation of art.

It’s Charles Jencks and Jean-Fraçois Lyotard, however, who have been credited with establishing the term “Postmodernism”, which was first used around 1970. But, by the early years of the 21st century the movement had been usurped by what some art historians imaginatively call Post-postmodernism. Despite its rejection of artistic convention, the roots of the movement can be traced to Pop Art in the 1960s and over the years it took in a range of other styles including, Conceptual Art, Feminist Art, Neo-Expressionism, as well as the Young British Artists of the 1990s.

One of the greatest influences on Postmodernism wasn’t actually an artist, but rather a prominent French psychoanalyst and theorist. Jacques Lacan’s (1901–1981) ideas significantly impacted 20th century critical theory. Lacan questioned the traditional boundaries between the irrational and rational. And it’s this emphasis on the irrational that Postmodernism embraced. 

Postmodern Characteristics 

Kara Walker – Untitled.

Kara Walker – Untitled. Sold for $150,000 via Christie’s (October 2020).

More than a typical approach and attitude toward art, culture, and society, Postmodernism can be characterized by an anti-authoritarianism stance and refusal to recognize the authority of any artistic style or expectation. Often confrontational, controversial, funny, and ludicrous, it challenged boundaries of taste. Fusing popular styles and media, Postmodernism was a less than cohesive movement that consciously and self-consciously borrowed from a range of historical styles to create art in its own uncompromising image. 


The first rule of Postmodernism? There are no rules.

The second rule…. Any rules of style, or any idea or definition of what art should be was ignored.

Postmodernists didn’t care for rules, and this rule-breaking approach meant that the distinction between high culture and popular culture, between everyday life and art fell apart, in a positive sense. Without this, art wouldn’t have its broad freedom today.


Coinciding with the emergence of feminism, the civil rights movement, and the fight for LGBT rights, Postmodernism brought with it a desire for a more pluralistic and multifaceted approach to art, which called into question the existence of a singular objectively comprehensible reality. Kara Walker and Felix Gonzalez-Torres are two artists who addressed subjects from multiple perspectives, resulting in an increased representation of multicultural identities and a playful approach to identity. Similarly, Cindy Sherman focused on the rift between the lived experience of women and their identity in film. Keeping reading for more on that.


Exemplifying a Postmodern disenchantment, irony was one the movement’s main forms of expression. Humor and irony were both visually exciting reactions to the mundane objects of consumerism. Claes Oldenburg channeled irony through gigantic soft forms, like shuttlecocks, and Andy Warhol through his iconic depictions of cultural icons. Similarly, Gilbert & George’s absurd short film, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (1972) pokes fun at the advertising industry and traditional notions of identity as the pair, expressionless, get drunk on gin.

Postmodern artists and key Postmodern works

Not necessarily related in their artistic style, but united in their critique of reality and rejection of universal certainties, truths, and Modernism, a band of influential artists changed the course of art history and re-defined what can be termed as art.

Andy Warhol – Marilyn Diptych (1962)

Andy Warhol – Marilyn Diptych

Andy Warhol – Marilyn Diptych. Public domain image.

Making use of a press photo of Marilyn Monroe from the 1950s, Andy Warhol’s repetitive color, and black and white portrait challenged classical representations of what constituted modern art. The repetition offers an ironic commentary on mass production and art authenticity. Its aesthetic is typical of the advertising industry and the technique is reminiscent of newspaper printing, which calls into question traditional approaches to art.

Roy Lichtenstein – Whaam! (1963)

Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, November 1967

Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, November 1967. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Consisting of two parts, this (very) large form painting onomatopoeically blows apart the distinction between high culture and pop culture in a painting that confronts the classical method of painting, but with the motifs and the speech bubbles of a comic strip. Borrowed from a panel called All-American Men of War (1962) by comic artist Irv Novick, Roy Lichtenstein’s piece reflects post war society with the playful pop aesthetics providing an ironic commentary on the glorification of war.

Carolee Schneemann – Interior Scroll (1975)

Carolee Schneemann was a radical artist. Her performance of Interior Scroll consisted of her undressing in front of an audience, before reading naked from her book Cézanne, She Was A Great Painter (1967) and later slowly pulling a strip of paper (an interior scroll) out of her vagina. I told you she was radical. She then read aloud the text on the recently revealed strip of paper. You won’t find this among any classical ideas of art and high culture and that’s the precise Postmodern point. The choice of a Cézanne book was also significant as a Postmodern swipe at the father of modern art.

Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Still #21 (1977-1980)

Forming part of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series from between 1977 and 1980, she portrays a number of stereotypical female characters in black and white photography, including a vamp, victim, and lover. Dealing with fragmented, post-modern identity, the 69 genre defining stills gave voice to a second wave of feminism that had shifted focus from suffrage towards the home and workplace. “Any woman was a role model, but not in a positive way,” Sherman said. “It frustrated me in terms of what was expected of me as a young girl turning into a woman.”

Cindy Sherman - Untitled Film Still #21.

Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Still #21. Sold for $746,500 via Sotheby’s (March 2012).

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

Also known as The Shark, Damien Hirst used a real tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde to produce a provocative and shocking work of art that was first exhibited in 1992 as part of the Young British Artists show at the Saatchi Gallery, London. Influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades, post-war assemblage, and Conceptual Art of the 1970s, Hirst’s piece is boldly anti-authoritarian in its refusal to recognize the authority of any artistic style, as it questions interspecies communication, marine heritage, and death.

Diverse and disparate influence

Together, the Postmodernists were an eclectic bunch of artists that incorporated collage, bricolage, simplification, appropriation, performance art, and historic styles into their work. The Postmodern art movement was diverse and disparate, ironic and playful, as it joyfully collapsed the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, between art, and everyday life. 

It was punk to its rule-breaking core, as it smashed any and all established notions of style, and while the movement itself only burned brightly for a short period of 40 years or so, it shepherded in a new era of artistic freedom and the concept that ‘anything goes’. The fact that Postmodernism can be appreciated without any aesthetic training, makes it freely accessible to everyday people, while also undermining notions of value and artistic worth, much like Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades almost 60 years prior. So, while it no longer enjoys quite the same recognition it did at the tail end of the 20th century, it’s ethos of artistic freedom remains just as potent.