Postmodern art is a term coined roughly around the 1970s and was seen as a rejection of Modernism with its values of utopianism and sociological progression. It rejected standard definitions and modes of practice unlike the Modernist art movement, which was defined by more rigid principles around form (that took priority over the subject itself). Postmodernism sought to move away from themes of religion and idealism and was excited by the ‘phenomenological’ aspect to art; which is to say that the lived experience of the individual offered a better understanding of the world than any abstract concepts. It came to an end in the 1990s and was replaced with what we now refer to as Contemporary art, which is a broader term that encompasses art from the late 70s to present day.
One of the earliest influences of Postmodern art was Dada; an avant-garde artistic movement that sought to take a transgressive approach to its rejection of politics and other artistic movements. Two of the most well-known Dada artists are André Breton and Salvador Dali, both of whom were involved in the inception of Dadaism, which later evolved into Surrealism (with Breton being the principle theorist behind the movement). A famous example of this form of art is Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931) which depicts a melting clock face, indicating a dissonance in temporality and spatiality that the Modernist and Realist movements were founded upon. Dali’s subjects frequently involved everyday objects and subjects that are distorted into grotesque shapes and forms that were regarded as repugnant by many critics of the time.
Bombastic by nature, and often slapstick in its content, Postmodernism can be understood as a self-reflexive art form. This gave artists the opportunity to throw away the political and cultural rulebook and allowed them to mix different styles to achieve the most controversial and boundary-pushing work of their time. Others, like Andy Warhol, chose to utilise Postmodernism for its aesthetic freedom as was the case in his piece titled Marilyn Diptych (1962) that shows a silkscreen portrait of Marilyn Monroe in colour on one side, and the same image in black and white on the other to portray the vicissitudes of the actresses personal and professional life.
In the early 1980s Warhol collaborated with emerging African-American street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who gained recognition as part of the Neo-expressionist movement (a style of early postmodernism). Basquiat's bold and colourful work focused on issues around societal imbalance: class struggles, segregation versus integration, and wealth versus poverty. At just 21, he became the youngest artist ever to take part in Documenta, an exhibition of contemporary art taking place every 5 years in Kassel, Germany; and was one of the youngest to be featured in New York's Whitney Biennial exhibition of contemporary art just one year later. He is known for depicting heads or skulls in his work - posited to be influenced in part by his fascination with the book Gray's Anatomy, given to him by his mother during a childhood convalescence.
The advent and subsequent proliferation of the moving image also provided Postmodernists with the opportunity to move across mediums to establish new, three-dimensional ways to reify the avant-garde with the anthropological and surreal. Dali himself is famously known for his 1927 short film Un Chien Andalou (or The Andalusian Dog), which he made along with director Luis Buñuel, which tested the boundaries of art in parallel to psychoanalytic study. Another famous filmmaker is Maya Deren who was also a dancer and film theorist whose 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon embodies the Postmodern style with its lack of continuity, and heightened dream-like sequences that subvert mainstream Hollywood narrative.
What is striking about Postmodernism compared to other art movements is its heterogeneity has caused an ironic paradigm that sees a perpetuation of attempting to define the very thing that cannot be defined. Though Dadaism is thought to be the main influence, its dialectical approach means it cannot be placed within the timeline of an ‘art movement’ as we have previously known. Perhaps then, Postmodernism can be defined not by the content and subject matter of the art, but the psychoanalytic study that has emerged around the concepts of symbolism and the self whilst the boundaries between the personal and political become increasingly blurry.