Types of art

Types of Art Styles

Contemporary Art  vs.  Modern Art


Making art nowadays may seem tricky to get around with as contemporary art may be the hardest period in art history to define. Not only it is subjective timewise, but also there is nothing that can pinpoint accurately what contemporary art is.

Contemporary art life span ranges from 100 years to 10 years old. Some galleries consider contemporary whatever has been produced during the past ten years. Others since the '70s or even whatever was made since 1900. The mid-term year that is most commonly recognised to mark the beginning of the era is 1946/47. TATE broadly defines it as

"art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature"

We are talking about a 60-year-old term that has lived through a lot of shifts and changes in our culture, which explains why it so hard to define. Contemporary art is then a period within art history, not a style in itself. Every living artist is considered contemporary because we can't change the cultural settings we belong to.

It is impossible for a living artist to make an artwork considered modern, for instance.

Contemporary art, modern art, and so on are defined by the social and cultural influences the artists are living under. Modern art relates to the art made around the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, which then had a massive impact on the art movements that are largely confused with contemporary art. The art movements were short-lived aesthetics that were primarily influenced by the fast-paced industry at the time.

Artist can ultimately say that their work is influenced by so and so art period/movement or artist.

But it is impossible that an artist is producing art from a particular period because what influenced "x" artistic choices cannot be replicated 50 years later.



As any art period, modern art and contemporary art have an overlapping transition period. And some art movements are considered to belong to contemporary art. The reason for that can be the fact that contemporary art is very vague and does not have just one aesthetical perspective. Art movements are easy to relate to as art styles for artists producing work nowadays because there is this difficulty to frame any current practice.

Due to the overlapping period between modern art and contemporary art, we may consider that some art movements have a tremendous influence in today's artworks within a contemporary art practice like Expressionism or Dadaism, for instance. But other art movements appeared after 1950 that define the unconventional thinking of the beginning of contemporary art, such as Conceptual Art or Performance Art.

Another thing that was vastly impacted throughout art history was the variety of mediums. Mediums until Dadaism (1916-1924) were very traditional, mostly paintings as we can see in Impressionism, Fauvism, etc. The forward-thinking brought to the art culture by the readymade still has a massive impact in contemporary thinking.

It opened doors to questioning the value of art beyond its aesthetics, causing this to be the most significant shift in art history, not only impacting the way we value art today but also making it harder to define.

Art nowadays tends to be evaluated through its ideas and concepts. These concepts attribute pressure for artists to create art that goes behind pleasure and aesthetics. That's why modern art and contemporary art so hand in hand because both art periods are a reflection and comment on the society of the artwork present time, but both are expressed differently.

Contemporary art is more open to exploration and experimentation of medium and concepts, as modern art is more an expression of values and ideals of the time through technical skills.

How can you correctly categorize your artworks?

First, remember that to categorize your artworks, you need to analyze what influenced you to make some decisions and mediums. You need to take a step outside your work to see it as others may see it and correctly see its influences. Artists can get too drawn in their practice and find it hard to analyze it properly. Of course, more than anyone else, artists know the path and process they took to get where the artwork is now, but that doesn't mean that it is something transparent to everyone.

And that's why it is essential to take a step back and look at your work as an outsider, as an art critic.

I've chosen some examples from different time periods, mediums, etc., to make the task clearer. 

These are the questions you should always ask about any work of art, including your own, to give it its correct categorization when selling it or describing it:

  1. Describe what you see and try to pinpoint the pictured theme/subject.
  2. What was the artist trying to explore? 
  3. What is the medium? 
  4. Lastly, are there any historical/cultural influences?

Categorizing your work: examples

After attentively analyse the artwork, these are my answers to the questions above:

  1. Landscape
  2. Exploration of colours; perception of the real
  3. Painting
  4. Fauvism

And, without knowing much about the artwork, we can still answer these four questions and automatically, the artwork is easily categorized and ready to be analyzed into more depth.

David Hockney might be the perfect example of what living through the transition period between Modern Art and Contemporary Art is like.

Hockney was born in 1937, a modern art baby; but he started producing art during the '60s.

He is a contemporary artist but with undeniable roots and influences on the late modern art period. His practice is defined by colourful, and mostly flat, simple patches which demonstrate influences of the fauvist movement. Also, the semi-abstract, bold expression shows influences of pop-art, towards an illustrative perspective. Semi-Abstract because the colours do not correspond to the exact representation of the real, but it is figurative/illustrative because you can point out elements of the picture as trees.

So how would you categorize David Hockney's artwork?

  1. Time Period: Contemporary
  2. Medium: Painting
  3. Theme: Landscape
  4. Influences: Fauvism

Again, the time period you are inserted in is impossible to change, so contemporary art is always the answer.

Medium is related to the form /material your work assumes in the world (Sculpture, Paintings, Drawing, Digital, etc.).

The theme is what is perceivable from the work.

Let's see another example.


So, let's do the same exercise and try to answer the four questions again

  1. Describe what you see and try to pinpoint the pictured theme/subject: Still Life
  2. What was the artist trying to explore? Meaning of objects and their use.
  3. What is the medium? Sculpture/Assemblage/Installation Art
  4. Are there any historical/cultural influences? Pop-art, Dadaism

Mike Kelley was born in 1954 which makes him contemporary art baby.

But although he started producing artworks around the late '70s, Pop-art had a considerable influence in his artistic practice.

He explores various themes, but he is mostly known for his use of soft toys in his works.

The soft toys are itself considered "still life" because they are non-living objects.

Also, the idea of soft toys explores the notion of utility and consumption brought to us by pop-art—colourful, bold, pleasurable critique to capitalist culture and the value of objects. We can associate some Dadaist influences because of the use of everyday objects lifting "material from mass culture and ‘pervert’ it to reverse or alter its meaning". 

The mediums here might be the trickiest part of analyzing this image: sculpture because it is a 3D object, something tactile; Assemblage because it involves some curation of objects; Installation because it is an immersive experience.

So how would you categorize Mike Kelley's artwork?

  1. Time Period: Contemporary
  2. Medium: Sculpture (easiest to understand)
  3. Theme: Still Life
  4. Influences: Pop-Art, Dadaism

As you can see by these two examples, the influences you assume on your work will, of course, impact the perspective the viewer on your work.

Framing your influences is essential to make your work more valuable and relatable to buyers, for example.

But never confuse copying to influences. Your work should be somehow new and relevant to today in relation to your influences. Pop-art was an enormous influence in Mike Kelley's practice; however, it will never be confused with Andy Warhol's works.

The other thing is, categorizing the medium is not always direct and uncomplicated. Some contemporary works are very much between the lines of being "a" or "b" and that is what makes contemporary art so fascinating.

This work from Steven Parrino, for example, is exposing the line between what is a painting and what is a sculpture, responding to the dictum "Painting is dead". But this is where the artists' statement on the work is necessary. Artist has ultimately the first and last word to take in consideration when it comes to describing what the artwork is.

Artist has ultimately the first and last word to take in consideration when it comes to describing what the artwork is. 

Other people may say that this is an installation. Still, if the artist is confident about why this is a painting, it will always be a painting.

Lastly, I will leave you with an example that I genuinely think is necessary and hard to understand.


Again, repeat the four questions exercise.

  1. Describe what you see and try to pinpoint the pictured theme/subject: Still Life
  2. What was the artist trying to explore? Questioning the value of art
  3. What is the medium? Sculpture
  4. Are there any historical/cultural influences? Dadaism/Conceptual Art

Maurizio Cattelan has been the most talked-about artist of the past year as Artnet states. The Italian contemporary artist sold this banana for millions, and the internet went crazy about it.

This piece categorized as still life because what is visible to the eyes is simply a banana: non-living nature.

Then although the artist considers this a sculpture, others may say that the displayed work became some sort of performance. Dadaist influence is evident because Cattelan is taking an ordinary object and presenting it as art, questioning its value. But conceptual? Yes. This artwork is mainly conceptual. Why? Because the artwork is not exactly the taped banana itself.

The artwork is a set of rules to make this work; it is purely an idea with copyrights. The banana was not sold, the idea was.

A lot of people confuse conceptual art with the fact that they had an idea for the artwork. Of course, you did! But that doesn't make your work conceptual.

Conceptual is a deeper, more rational term that goes behind material works and aesthetics. It is a pure and raw idea. Not something that was made out of an idea. Conceptual art is the idea itself, not a demonstration of an idea.

Terms explained

Now that you've got an insight on how to categorize your artworks in relation to it's medium, theme and time period, I will leave you with a list of terms that might explain in more depth what each thing means.


far away sceneries

non-moving nature/objects

related to buildings and its interiors

dreams, fantasy, illustrations, events, mythological, etc.- whatever tells a story

real-life situations with no perceptive changes

details of the reality to the extreme (usually based on photographs)

From Semi-Abstract to Abstract Expressionism. Any work depicting some kind of abstraction of the real world. 

a picture where it can be identified a person or a group of people.

Other terms explained

Some form of abstraction from the real. Loose in form, shape and colour. Depicts a perception, and interpretation of reality.

Impossible to pinpoint any figurative elements. Focus in form, shape and colour.

Complete abstraction and detachment from reality. Impossible to recognize any form or shape as seen in the world.

It’s a stimulus to the intellectual. Represents an idea. Not defined by an aesthetic. It can assume various mediums and forms. Not to be confused with the act of producing an art piece towards the idea. Conceptual artwork is the idea, the critique itself.

Focused on producing artworks that contain text. This text usually is the central point of the artwork and directs the viewer towards an intention. Text-based Art is very poetical, confrontational.

An exploration of the medium. Minimalist wants solely to explore the materials, the colours or shape with no other intention or idea beyond that.

Semi-abstract perception of the real taken into a fantasy world. These works tend to be more than a fantastic perception of the world, it usually is a curation of elements to explore certain meanings/tell a story as in dreams.

Uses references to the mass-production and critiques a mass-consumed culture. Usually are bold statements because it references design and advertisings.


To conclude, the 21st century is a tricky time to be living in, even more complex it is to be a contemporary artist.

It is essential to understand your historical precedents and its influences to fully comprehend the terms and make an accurate statement of your current practice.

With this article, you get a little idea of how to insert your artworks within contemporary terms. Hopefully, it will help you to post your works on ARTMO to be sold confidently!

Hopefully, it will help you to post your works on ARTMO to be sold confidently

If you want to know more information related to art movement periods and mediums in detail, head to our ARTMO page "Genres" to read more.


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