20th Century Art


Before the 20th century began, most art in the western world had followed traditional ideas laid out by art schools and the great artists of the times. There wasn't a lot of variety from one period in art to another. But modern times were different. Artists went off in many different directions doing many different things in many different ways. In the past, art could be lumped together into styles or "schools" according to how similar they were. The only similarity between artworks done in the twentieth century is that there is no similarity. The twentieth century could be called the "anything goes" age of art.

Check out some of these examples of 20th Century Artists.

Sculpture is three-dimensional art. You don't just look at a flat surface. Sculpture has a front, back, sides, top and bottom. You can move around the artwork. In the 1930s, American artist Alexander Calder made sculpture move around you. He created a kind of art called mobiles, sculptures of wire and metal shapes usually hung from the ceiling. The parts were hinged together so that each part can move on its own. The sculptures can be very small or very large. Some are moved by motors though most are pushed slowly by the air currents in a room. One thing all mobiles have in common is that they are all carefully balanced. The shapes hung from the wires must be just the right weight and stick out just far enough to keep the sculpture arms in the right position. Calder used curved shapes in his mobiles, like the "life" shapes used in surrealism. Where most sculptures have the three dimensions of height, width, and depth, Calder's mobiles add a fourth dimension: time. It takes time to enjoy these sculptures. You need to take time to watch how the pieces move.

Salvador Dali was a surrealist. Surrealism was an artistic movement as strange as its name implies. Basically, the surrealists wanted to paint images from dreams, or from places deep within the mind. They claimed to paint without any thought, just putting down what their unconscious mind allowed. This can't be taken very seriously, but they did paint some very strange and dreamlike pictures. Often, the surrealists used curved shapes in their art, the kind of shapes you find most often in life. They tended to stay away from straight line, machine type shapes, though this was by no means a rule. Weird images were a must, like Dali's melting clocks and the horse's skin draped on the ground.

"My little sister can do that! It's just paint thrown on a canvas!" That's what people say about Jackson Pollock's art if they don't bother to look at it. To be fair, that's what a lot of artists say about Pollock's art, too. Still other artists think that Jackson Pollock's "action paintings" are the work of a genius. In these paintings, part of what became known as abstract expressionism, Pollock tried to stay away from any image you could recognize, and he did it on purpose. He tried to paint not a picture of a thing, but a picture of his movements while painting, and of his feelings and his mood. Even though he tried not to show any recognizable image, you can see structure to his work in the patterns of lines and colors and in what looks like a rhythm of marks dancing across the canvas. Pollock did not paint his artwork the way most artists do, with a brush touching the canvas. Sometimes he did that, but he also threw paint down in patterns and dribbled it from sticks.

David Smith made large sculptures out of simple forms. In his Cubi sculptures, he used only cubes, rectangular prisms and cylinders made of stainless steel. He arranged those forms in many ways that made the steel seem almost weightless, or held together by magnetic force. These simple sculptures seem much like architecture for their large size, simple balance and simple shapes.

Henry Moore's sculptures are rounded, flowing things with surfaces that run naturally not only around the sculpture but through it, as well. Whether carved from wood or stone, the art seems to have been eroded by water. His sculptures often remind us of people in poses we can imagine, even though the figures are very abstract, not recognizable as real people at all.

Jackson Pollock,

Autumn Rhythm #30, 1950

Oil paint on canvas

8 feet 8 inches by 17 feet, 3 inches

David Smith,

Cubi XVIII, 1964

Stainless steel

9 feet 8 inches

Henry Moore,

Reclining Figure, 1936


8 feet, 10 inches long

Salvador Dali,

The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Oil paint

9 inches by 13 inches

Alexander Calder,

Lobster Trap and Fish Tail, 1939

Painted steel wire and aluminum

Size: 8 feet, 6 inches by 9 feet, 6 inches

Jasper Johns was a Pop artist. In pop art, the artist takes common public symbols and turns them into something more. Often it's just a matter of copying the symbol larger than life, or changing its colors, or repeating it over and over. In this case, Johns stacks the American flag three deep on top of itself. It's sometimes hard to see what the point is of a piece of pop art unless it's to make you look at what you would otherwise not notice. Pop art was a very popular style that was not highly respected by art critics. It lasted only a short time in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Victor Vasarely was the most famous of the so-called op artists. Op art, short for optical art, is an artistic style that uses the elements and principles of art to fool the eye. This painting by Vasarely is made to look 3-dimensional, like a dome built on to the flat board. Vasarely does this by using curved lines to show the form, shapes to emphasize that form, and brightness of color to make the eye think the dome is raised high off the board. In fact, the painting is perfectly flat. Some op art makes you see colors that aren't there. Some make it seem as if the picture is moving or the colors are shimmering. Some cause you to see afterimages of one sort or another after you look away.

Brancusi was an abstract artist. He did not want to make art that looked like anything in the real world. He wanted to make art that showed ideas, not things. Bird in Space is not a sculpture of a bird. It doesn't look anything like a bird. It is a sculpture about flight. The sculpture started out as a flying bird, but Brancusi took out things that weren't needed, taking away details that got in the way of his idea. After many small changes, the "bird" has disappeared from the sculpture and only the "flying" is left. The curved metal sculpture seems to swoop up from its base, graceful and streamlined. Even the reflections in the metal seem to fly upwards into the air.

Louise Nevelson is an assemblage artist. Assemblage is where the artist finds things that are not normally intended for artwork then puts them together into something new. Nevelson collected scraps of wood littering the streets of New York City. If you look at the sculpture above, you'll see she found old, busted hunks of wood, old toilet seats, lamps, spindles from stairs and table legs. She builds these found objects into a single work of art, a series of panels or boxes in which the objects create a shallow space and a rough texture. They pull your eye through the sculpture from one thin line of wood to a circle to a blanked wall of scrap. Nevelson's art is abstract, not meant to be anything in the real world, but it often reminds you of an idea such as a movement or religion. Unlike much sculpture, which invites you to look at it from all sides, Nevelson's work is meant to be seen mainly from the front.

Chuck Close took photographs of himself and his friends then painted images of those photographs. The photo may have been just a tiny Polaroid shot, but the painting made from it is huge. Every detail is included, every hair, sweat pore and wrinkle. The paintings are very in-your-face, like billboard-sized police mug shots. The most amazing thing about these super-realistic paintings is that Chuck Close suffers from a rare brain condition that makes him unable to recognize human faces. He was painting these faces though he couldn't see them. To do this, he concentrated on the elements of art: color, value, line. He painted not people, but the colors, lines, and darknesses he saw in their pictures.

Jasper Johns,

Three Flags, 1958

Encaustic on canvas

2 feet, 7 inches by 3 feet, 7 inches

Victor Vasarely,

Vega-Gyongiy-2, 1971

Acrylic paint

2 feet, 7 inches by 2 feet, 7 inches

Constantin Brancusi,

Bird in Space, 1928


4 feet, 6 inches by 8 inches by 6 inches

Louise Nevelson,

Royal Tide IV, 1960

Wood and gold spray paint

10 feet, 7 inches by 14 feet, 6 inches by 1 foot, 10 inches

Chuck Close,

Mark, 1978

Acrylic paint

9 feet by 7 feet

Alexander Calder



Salvador Dali



Jackson Pollock



David Smith



Henry Moore



Jasper Johns



Victor Vasarely



Constantin Brancusi



Louise Nevelson



Chuck Close