Contemporary art with orange, white and blue rectangular blocks

The world of art can seem a complex place, especially for anyone new to the medium. With the vast array of forms, types, movements, and styles, it can be a rather intimidating prospect to become a part of. But this can be even more daunting when confronted by the unique and diverse palette of works that fall under contemporary art.

Whether you’re seeking to take your first step into the art world or simply looking to buy a new piece that breaks from more traditional styles, this informative article will help to define contemporary art through deconstructing its component pieces to assist your understanding.

What is contemporary art?

Contemporary art is a tricky style to pin down. It can be everything and anything, having only very loosely defined characteristics unlike genres such as Modernism, Impressionism, and Realism. Yet this loose collective of themes has in many ways become the hallmark of contemporary art.

Broadly speaking, contemporary art refers to any form of art that is made today who’s artists are still alive and making work. It blends a variety of both modern and old styles, materials, and mediums to create pieces that are wholly unique to the artist, while allowing for varied interpretations of what the piece represents. It is typically avant-garde and highly innovative, challenging traditional forms of art through the freedom of fresh experimentation that embraces technological change. However, it often uses the past to inspire and create art that looks to the future.

Contemporary art is the collective term for all of this and more. This has allowed for a flourishing of unique pieces across the globe. Much of contemporary art is culturally influenced and diverse, reflecting on all aspects of society and the impact of complex issues upon our rapidly changing world. Many pieces are created with the intent to convey an idea or message, giving the contemporary style a rich and varied selection of pieces to engage with. 

Discover what makes a piece of art contemporary

What makes a contemporary style?

Style in art is defined as the means, material, and techniques used to create a piece of work.

Much like its definition, contemporary artwork has no rigidly adhered to style. But this is where the beauty of the contemporary style lies. Having the freedom to choose their medium allows contemporary art artists to experiment with multiple different techniques and forms to produce something truly distinct that represents their vision.

Contemporary art styles can lean towards the entirely abstract and the relatively mundane, but the particular choice of colours and techniques are often crucially important in eliciting the specific emotions an artist wishes to convey, or to enable the viewer to come away with their own interpretation of a piece’s meaning.

So, while one artist might prefer the traditional tools of paint and canvas, the piece they create could blend elements of the real and absurd to form a painting themed around the problems of consumerism. Alternatively, another artist might combine the use of theatre and music for an interpretive performance piece about the struggles of a particular group.

Other examples of contemporary artwork might include the use of rusted metals or discarded vehicle parts to create a sculpture, or a timelapse of photographs to represent change. Cinema and video art are becoming increasingly popular within contemporary circles, as is the use of architecture. The number of possible styles within contemporary art is staggering, resulting in some truly unique and fascinating pieces. 

Popular contemporary art movements

While the definition and style of contemporary artwork is rather loose, a variety of movements have formed within the genre since the late 1950s. In the art world, a movement is a particular grouping of mediums and techniques melded together to form a style with a particular philosophy or goal that is adhered to by multiple artists for a brief period of time.

As fascinating as it is to engage with more modern contemporary artwork, understanding classic contemporary artwork’s meaning is vital to comprehend some of the nuances present in modern work, as plenty of new pieces often pull elements from older movements. Classic contemporary artwork is also highly distinct and lends itself well to those who want a more defined vision or meaning in their art. Below are five of the more famous and popular contemporary art movements. 

An example of pop art

Pop art

The first movement associated with a contemporary style, pop art, sprung up in the late 1950s. Defined by artists drawing inspiration from comics and mass media, with commercial products being reimagined as art, it portrays how these elements influence the population. It is often seen as being critical of society at the time while taking an ironic jab at traditional art values. Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg are particularly well-known pop art artists. 


Emerging in the late 1960s, minimalism has never truly gone away, often being incorporated into more abstract works of modern contemporary artwork. The core essence of minimalism is creating work that challenges the traditional process of making, disseminating, and viewing art. Rather than having a clear direction of what the piece stands for, those viewing it are encouraged to come to their own conclusions about what a particular piece means or represents. Contemporary art artists known for their minimalistic artwork include Yayoi Kusama and Frank Stella. 

Performance art

Being very popular in the 1960s and seeing a resurgence today, performance art is rather unique compared to all other forms of contemporary artwork. Performance art often involves some form of dramatic, acted display, though not necessarily in the form of a stage show. Performance art is predominantly made with the intention of conveying a message or ideal from the artist that makes the viewer think. Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim are renowned for their more obscure pieces. 

Installation and earth art

Installation art has become particularly popular in more recent years. Rather than being a singular piece of work, installation art occurs within a large-scale construction that mixes a variety of artistic mediums. This creates an immersive 3D experience designed to alter the viewer's perception and sense of space while allowing them to interact with the exhibit in a tangible way not possible with other works. Many a striking installation has been created by the likes of Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei.

Earth art is a particular spin-off progression of installation art and takes it to the next level by creating large external pieces of art in nature. These pieces are often temporary but can be permanent depending on where the piece is constructed.

An example of street art style

Street art

Street art has come a long way from its rather humble graffiti origins in the 1980s. Street art is now represented across a huge spectrum, taking on the form of murals, installations, and stickers in and around public spaces. Social activism is a key element of street art and can be seen in the works of world-famous creatives like Banksy.

There are many other contemporary art movements out there, such as photorealism, conceptualism, and more, and they’re worth researching to see if their unique styles interest you. 

Finding your contemporary style

Now that we’ve covered what contemporary art is, its approach to style, and some of its well-known movements, let’s talk about how a beginner can start researching and building their own collection to enhance their living room or bedroom.

Firstly, you need to decide what type of contemporary art is your preferred style. Visiting galleries, exhibitions, and attending artist talks will give you an idea of what style you like and help you find the pieces that speak to you. Attending graduate exhibits in particular is a great way to find new and unique works without having to pay a gallery commission and could potentially result in you picking up a piece that becomes rare down the line.

The important thing to remember is to buy small and buy what you like. There’s no point in paying large sums of money for something you’re unsure of only to ultimately find it to be against your tastes. You want to find pieces you’ll love to look at years down the line.

Here at Tall Boy Prints, we have a diverse range of carefully curated prints for you to choose from, including original work from various artists, as well as works from external creatives like Stuart Cox, Kate Heiss, and Rachael Hibbs.

Add some flair and thought to your walls. For more inspiration and information about other factettes of the art world, browse our blog.

October 04, 2021 — James Mace