Abstract, Contemporary and Modern Art – What’s The Difference? - Caroline Ashwood

July 26, 2021

‘Abstract’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ are three different terms you may hear being used in the art world. Contrary to what some people may think, they don’t all mean the same thing. That said, it is possible for a painting to be simultaneously abstract, contemporary and modern.

Below is a simple guide to what each of these terms means so that you know the difference between abstract, contemporary and modern art.

What is abstract art?

‘Abstract’ is a style of painting and sculpting. It is the complete opposite of ‘realist’ art - while realist art is made up of life-like paintings of everyday people and scenes, abstract art is often made up of shapes and patterns that cannot be as easily identified. 

jackson pollock

Abstract art was born in the early 20th century. Art movements such as expressionism and cubism were already moving away from the traditional ‘realistic’ painting style of artists beforehand by using distorted perspectives and colour schemes. This paved the way for abstract art in which this distortion of reality was taken to its extreme. Famous abstract artists include Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinksy, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian. 



What is contemporary art?

‘Contemporary art’ refers to any artwork created in recent years. This could include an abstract painting or a realist painting created within the last year. It’s not a style, but simply a way of describing whether a piece of art is new or relatively old. 

Just how old does a painting have to be before it is no longer deemed ‘contemporary’? This is a hard question to answer as the term can be a bit vague. Most people would agree that anything made after 2000 is contemporary. However, there are those that still refer to paintings from the 60s and 70s as contemporary. It’s widely agreed that anything made before 1945 is definitely not contemporary. Most of Picasso’s great works are not contemporary. However, an artist like David Hockney or Cindy Sherman could definitely be considered contemporary. 

David hockney


What is modern art?

Like the term ‘contemporary art’, the term ‘modern art’ refers to art made within a certain time period. However, it is generally used to describe a different time period to that of contemporary art. Or it could be that contemporary art is current and represents living artists, and that modern art represents both living and dead artists. 

Indeed, the modern art era often refers to art made beyond 1870. It was around this time that painters such as Monet and Van Gogh began taking a less realistic and more experimental approach to painting. During this era, movements such as impressionism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, fauvism and dada were all born. Some abstract artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian also emerged during this period. The modern art period is thought to have ended in the 50s and 60s after which postmodern art movements such as pop art took over. In other words, modern art could be seen as encompassing all art created between 1870 and 1960. That said, modern art in the loosest of terms, can be current and contemporary. 

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