Art has always had an evasive relationship with self-definition. Artists have never liked being pigeonholed into a single art movement or category and, in an attempt to prove the critics wrong, they develop styles and ideas that continually push the boundaries of definition. Never has this been truer than in what we like to call “contemporary art,” a category that itself defies definition through a slippery vagueness of terms. Not only are all styles and media included in this classification, it doesn’t even set a temporal boundary. If we take “contemporary” to mean the present and recent past, as Phaidon did for its latest survey, 25 years seems about right, so since 1986. Taking into account this dilemma of definition and categorization, Defining Contemporary Art presents a history of recent art not in the traditional style of overarching trends but as specific moments in time and the pivotal artworks that resulted.
To determine the most important works of the past 25 years, Phaidon commissioned eight world-renowned curators, each of whom picked 25 pieces to write about. Each work is presented on a two-page spread—one page for the essay and the other for images of the work—arranged in chronological order. The authors also contributed short introductory essays for each of the 25 years in question, summarizing important events in the international art world.
Their choices are sometimes obvious, sometimes confusing. I was rather taken aback, for example, at the number of Jeff Koons pieces (three) included in the volume, while Cai Guo-Qiang and Takashi Murakami are left out. Furthermore, no mention is made of the resurgence of street art, made immensely popular by the mysterious Banksy, and its acceptance into the mainstream art world. Most likely because the book was written by traditional curators, Defining Contemporary Art fails to address work created beyond the confines of the mainstream gallery/market-driven art world, despite the fact that more and more artists have been inching in that direction since the early 2000s. I would be very interested to read a similar compilation of 200 pivotal works chosen not by curators, but by artists, and see if the works perceived as pivotal from an art historical standpoint are also the ones that have most inspired present-day artists.
Limitations and omissions aside, what I found most intriguing about Defining Contemporary Art was that, although its format stresses individual works over trends, the trends cannot help but reveal themselves. According to the authors, pivotal works of the 1980s tended to address gender, sexuality, and the AIDS epidemic, often using controversial and even sensationalist means. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, visual rhetoric turned toward race and identity politics, leading to the increased popularity of video and performance art in the late-’90s. In the 2000s, the remix culture was in full swing, with artists reusing and referencing iconic people, objects, and past histories. Later in the decade, new technologies, public art installations, interventions, and interactive sculpture increased in popularity, as did works referencing the capitalist art market. In the end, by presenting the last 25 years of art in individual works, the authors leave readers to notice and make decisions about the trends themselves. In other words, readers come to discover their own definitions of contemporary art—from a curatorial perspective, that is.
Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks
by Daniel Birnbaum, Cornelia Butler, Suzanne Cotter, Bice Curiger, Okwui Enzwezor, Massimiliano Gioni, Hans
Ulrich Obrist, and Bob Nickas
New York: Phaidon, 2012
480 pages, 800 illustrations, $75