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Contemporary art from A to Z
A closer look 16 Nov 2017

Contemporary art from A to Z

Contemporary art is vast, even infinite and puts together a set of unlimited styles, artists and meanings…Sometimes one even feels lost. To find one’s bearings, we have chosen an alphabet primer, with essential keywords, that sheds light on the subject.

A like Art

Questions, comments and twists. The paradigm of beauty is replaced by a different notion: idea. Pop art is like a manifesto as it breaks away from Modern art. During mid 60’s, media of today emerged: happenings, video art, performance art… Contemporary art wakes up the spectator: from passivity to activity (intellectual and physical). Andy Warhol or even Marcel Duchamp shout out to the spectator.


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1913

B like Bleu Klein

But why is this shade of color so famous? During the 50’s, Yves Klein the painter began looking for a deep sea blue color. With the help of a colour merchant, Edouard Adam, he was able to define the most adapted binder for blue pigment, capable of reducing the refractive index, therefore making it much more intense. An original combination, in the form of a fluid paste, which made Klein register the patent.


Yves Klein, blue Monochrome 1960

C like Chair

The reflection on the concept, including what is art, are the foundations of contemporary art. Conceptual art was brought alive from this reflection, including the work « One and Three Chairs » signed Joseph Kosuth promoting “art as an idea” and not academic beauty. The artist places a chair at the center, and a photo of this chair on its right and the definition of the chair on the left. Three types of representations for the same object, which lets out a fourth immaterial one, namely the concept of the chair.


Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965

D like Deluge

Who says contemporary art, says new media. This is the path Bil Viola, the artist embarked upon with her video work, a medium which makes room for movement but sound as well. Among them, one reckons the impressive.

“Deluge”, a video which lasts 35 minutes, depicting swell blaring water, pouring out from a house, picking up inhabitants and furniture on its way.

Bill Viola, The Deluge, 2002

E like Ecology

It’s a fact, climatic change is one of the biggest threat of the 21st Century, and it leads artists to question the lifestyles of contemporary societies. Through their work, the artists are capable not only of asking questions but of triggering general realisation. For example, Brendan McGillicuddy’s works are about the melting ice caps.

Anthropocene, Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, May 17, 2012.

Brendan McGillicuddy, Anthropocene, 2012

F like Fairey

He has become a true icon of street-art, Shepard Fairey the artist has marked the world of art, these last years. Initially, he became known for his stencil, Obey. The first version of this visual represents the face of the French wrestler, André Roussimoff, aka André the Giant. As he didn’t have the right to use his face or name, the artist reduced and transformed his strokes by adding “Obey” to his sticker, therefore thumbs his nose on this censor. Following this, his career shot off with the creation of his now legendary poster “Hope”, representing Barack Obama, during the American election campaign in 2008.


Shepard Fairey, Hope, 2008

G like Galbert

Contemporary art is a breeding ground for artists, works but also a market where items are passed from hand to hand, especially those of collectors, due to whom creation is still alive today. Antoine de Galbert is one of them, far from being insignificant. President of Maison Rouge, foundation and an exhibition space in Paris, he is a major art amateur, with an interest for raw art, which he has been collecting these for years.


Antoine de Galbert

H like Happening

Appeared during the 60’s in France, happening is a brand at odds with modern art and carries us along to contemporary art. It’s a spontaneous and artistic intervention, where the public is invited to be an integral part of the action. A one way performance, though it stands out due to it’s deliberate aspect.


Allan Kaprow and participants at ‘happening “Yard” of 1967, in New York

 I like Illusion

Illusion : optical and kinetic art are in the front line as they make our heads spin. The first one plays with our visual senses, taking hold of the flaws in order to make and re-make an impression. The second one is also able to create an illusion, through movement. Whether it’s due to a motor or wind strength, kinetic works dance around and bewitch us.


   Victor Vasarely, Halo, 1984

J like Jazzy game

Art is like a walk in the park.” If Max Ernst says so, one might be skeptical? It’s true that contemporary art envelops serious aspects, but the artists still retain their sense of humor. They also have a taste for games and are able to transform creation into recreation. The Dada movement allowed to set the first rules of the game, questioning artistic traditions and advocating “negativism”. The Fluxus movement followed this closely, just like Oulipo. Video games are no exception and bring happiness to contemporary artists like Julien Prévieux, who play around with the notion of error, in his Bug museum.


Julien Prévieux, Half-life 2, 2012

like Koons

He is the unquestionable leader of the contemporary art market…Initially a trader, Jeff Koons eventually put his financial talents at the disposal of art. His iconic works are sold like hotcakes, and are extremely expensive. It’ll cost you 58 million dollars to buy the famous Balloon Dog, his sculptures in stainless steel have a flashy and sparkling look of inflatable balloons.


Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, 1994-2000

L like Liberty guiding the people

More than just a painting, it’s a true symbol of revolt, an ode to the republic, this painting of Delacroix, in 1830 will remain contemporary forever. To prove this, she draws inspiration from current artists around the world, to begin with Jonone. The street artist restyled the famous Marianne, brandishing the French flag with spray paint. A challenge for sure, which turned out to be just brilliant: the work is exhibited at the heart of a prestigious institution today, the National Assembly.

19 janvier 2015 : Palais Bourbon, salon des Mariannes - tableau "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" réalisé par JonOne

JonOne, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, 2015

M like Mirror

Omnipresent and omnipotent in the contemporary space, the mirror multiplies the number of spectators. Playing around with the spectator is a major preoccupation for contemporary creation: Bill Viola, Jeff Wall, Dan Graham, Olafur Eliasson, Michelangelo Pistoletto….take advantage of this power: a real thinking tool, which allows to distort and throw the viewers off balance. Turbulent senses trigger a dizzying effect.


Anish Kapoor, Miroir reversed, 1997

N like Neon

It absorbs us and bring us to the world of night, but we expected it less in the contemporary art field, and for a good reason. Neon reveals another facet and becomes a full-fledged creative tool  which can even play on the volumes and writing. Claude Léveque leaves bright messages on the walls, inviting us to dance in multicolored shades.


Claude Lévêque, Dansez, 1995

O like Orphism

There is only one poet that can define art with as much lyricism and orinism. It was in 1912 that Apollinaire used this neologism to define the work of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. In front of so many incredible colors, he speaks of a luminous language that invades their artistic creation. Counterpart of Cubism and abstraction, the work of this couple of artists belongs to the rank of poetry.


Sonia Delaunay, Prismes Électriques, 1914

P like Pipe

This is not a Pipe. But then what are we looking at? A painting, an image, the representation of a pipe. The famous injunction of the painter implies that there is a difference between an image, an object and words. The semantic power serves or affects the interpretation that we can make of an image, a painting and its content. By representing an ordinary object in a realist and recognisable manner and affirming that it is not what we believe it is, Magritte puts art in question with a touch of humour.


René Magritte, La trahison des images, 1928-1929

Q like Question

“Is everything that surrounds us art?” A question that never ceases to challenge the world of art. A question without an exact answer, which almost always leads to debate. By choosing to write this question in white letters on a black background, the artist Ben was not making an innocent choice. In reality he is putting art in question and opening  a reflection spectrum. Writing becomes art between his fingers developing a meta-dialogue. Ben draws his inspiration from the entrenchments of art to address the concept more than the visual, even though conceptual art was only starting at that time.


Ben, Est-ce que tout est art?, 2015

R like Ready made

What if the wheel of a bicycle could turn into a sculpture and an urinal into a fountain? This is exactly what artist Marcel Duchamp wanted to do with his “Ready Made”, manufactured objects, ready to be used, he simply has to modify its main function in order to give it a new sense. No, not everyone can do the same. Marcel Duchamp revolutionizes the conception of art and opens our mind to new ways of creation. It is not so much the result that he wants us to admire, but the thinking behind it, the act of thinking and conceptualizing art differently.


Marcel Duchamp, Roue de byclette, 1913

S like Superimpose

Overprinting allows two different images to meet on the same surface. But what causes this disconcerting visual effect? Originally reserved to photographic cameras, this superposition, also called the double exposure, is based in a technical manipulation. Equipped with a reflex in the film, you just need to take a first shot, and then without advancing the film, take a second shot slightly overexposed so that the images intertwine. This practice is largely improved today with digital treatments and with reeditions made with lomographic devices.


Maurice Tabard, Le plongeon, 1948

T like Tones

It can indeed be annoying when an artist decides to use only one colour in particular. History has shown us that it is not impossible that a colour is patented by an artist, we immediately think of Bleu Klein, but he is not the only one. This year, the opposite has become possible. Artist Anish Kapoor is the creator of Vantablack, the darkest and most absorbing black that currently exist. The artistic community rejected this decision but artist Stuart Semple responded by creating himself the pinkest pigment in the world and allowing everyone except Anish Kapoor to use it.

U like Utensils

Artist Mona Hatoum creates sculptures and installations that can be described as banal. Made from kitchen utensils or organic material, she creates pieces that make reference to our everyday life pointing at the alienation of which the latter is victim. This is particularly evident in her work “La Grande Broyeuse”, depicting a food grater enlarged in a threatening way, suggesting how our deep fears can wake up when in front of innocuous objects.

76 Mild steel

Mona Hatoum, La grande broyeuse, 1999

V like Vortex

During the 2016 Nuit Blanche (White night), Anish Kapoor created a surreal spectacle in Paris. He placed a Vortex in the middle of the Seine, and made it swirled tirelessly, giving the impression to passersby that they could be sucked. A spectacular installation that reminds us of the work “Descension” of the same artist, which was installed in the gardens of the Château de Versailles in 2015.


Anish Kapoor, Vortex, 2016

W like Wei Li

Amongst the young photographers of today, there is one that makes us particularly lose balance, artist Li Wei. His photographs defy gravity to offer us impressive images belonging to science fiction. These images taken in a world with no gravity are a call of emancipation and openness to the world.


Li Wei, On the surface of the earth, 2004

X like X

Symbol of censorship or more precisely of pornographic content, because contemporary art is not an exception, it likes love with a big X. A polemical and sulphurous artist, Paul McCarthy held his biggest artistic debate at the Place Vendome, with his suggestive inflatable giant fir. With the sweet name of “Tree”, during Christmas season, this sculpture represented for some the embodiment of a gigantic anal plug. After recurrent attacks about the installation and the artist, the fir was taken off, leaving the question in suspense.

A picture taken on October 15, 2014 shows a 25 meters high inflatable sculpture by US artist Paul McCarthy on the Place Vendome in Paris, as part of the 41st edition of the FIAC Art Fair scheduled from October 23 to 26. AFP PHOTO/BERTRAND GUAYBERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **

Paul McCarthy, Tree, 2014

Y like Y

Generation Y represents the next generation of contemporary creation. With it, numerous new techniques and technologies are emerging on the artistic scene. Augmented reality and holograms are the works of tomorrow, some artists such as Dominique Gonzales-Foerster has already started paving the way with his digital characters projected in the real world or Larissa Sansour who immerses us in a futuristic world where Palestine is conditioned in an immense building in order to mitigate the society and military conflicts.


Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Lola Montez in Berlin (M.2062), film, 3’58 », 2015 © Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster © Adagp, Paris 2015

Z like Z

His signs his name with the point of a sword, a Z from Zorro, or is it Maurizio Cattelan? The Italian artist, this is not his first humorous work. He likes deriding art and its protagonist, starting with tutelary figures such as Picasso or Fontana. Is it the latter who he is making reference to in this piece. Following the creative process of Fontana, Maurizio Cattelan notches the canvas, but instead of leaving a crack like the Argentinian artist does, he does a Z that resembles that of the popular hero Zorro.


Maurizio Cattelan, Zorro, 1993