What Was Contemporary Art?
Contemporary art in the early twenty-first century is often discussed as though it were a radically new phenomenon unmoored from history. Yet all works of art were once contemporary to the artist and culture that produced them. In What Was Contemporary Art? Richard Meyer reclaims the contemporary from historical amnesia, exploring episodes in the study, exhibition, and reception of early twentieth-century art and visual culture.
Meyer analyzes an undergraduate course taught by Alfred Barr at Wellesley College in 1927 as a key moment in the introduction of works by living artists into the discipline of art history, then turns to a series of exhibitions from the 1930s that put contemporary art in dialogue with premodern works ranging from prehistoric cave pictures to Italian Renaissance paintings. Meyer also treats the controversy that arose in 1948 over the decision by Boston’s Institute of Modern Art to change its name to the Institute of Contemporary Art. By retrieving moments in the history of once-current art, Meyer redefines “the contemporary” as a condition of being alive to and alongside other moments, artists, and objects.
A generous selection of images, many in color—from works of fine art to museum brochures and magazine covers—support and extend Meyer’s narrative. These works were contemporary to their own moment. Now, in Meyer’s account, they become contemporary to ours as well.
About the Author
Richard Meyer is Professor of Art History at Stanford University. He is the author of Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art and Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles.
“Hard-hitting critical concerns blend into the narrative, the minutia of historical debates providing an opportunity to broaden our own art-historical moment and consider its possibilities.”—Publishers Weekly
“If, in recent years, the notion of a 'contemporary art' has attained something approaching a stable definition, then Richard Meyer's new book ... sets out to recall a time when such a consensus was not yet possible. ... By harking back to debates in the US much earlier in the century, Meyer's important intervention sets out to disturb and destabilize such a neat periodization. Eschewing the more theoretical speculations of Alberro and Smith in favour of a series of engagingly written narratives drawn from the history of the contemporary in American art, Meyer follows a path that is broadly chronological but full of interesting diversions, teasing out a series of provocative implications along the way in a tone at once warm and wry.”—Frieze
“In this deft and engaging account, Richard Meyer charts an entirely new path through the twentieth century to elucidate how 'the contemporary' has always been an anxious matter for art history. What Was Contemporary Art? is richly researched and persuasively argued, a book whose far-ranging theoretical implications are driven by an urgent attention to history. Whether looking to the past or speculating about the future, after reading Meyer’s book we’ll never think about contemporary art the same way again.”
—Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, University of California, Berkeley
“At a time when we are intoxicated by instant access to the present and when history seems ‘passé,’ it is rewarding to encounter a book like Richard Meyer’s What Was Contemporary Art?, which goes behind the cultural branding and flattening of terms like ‘modern,’ ‘post-modern,’ and ‘post-post’ to bring back the full complexity of the texture of those references. By analyzing several key figures and events of American cultural life in the late twentieth century, Meyer not only makes our past history exciting, complicated, and humorous, he also shows how linked—often unconsciously—our present is to our past, our history. This work should and will be discussed not only by the new generation who bank on the present, but also by older generations who often…forget.”
—Serge Guilbaut, Professor of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia
“Amidst the clamor over the increasingly disproportionate attention to contemporary art in the field of art history, Richard Meyer draws our attention to the history of contemporary art—that is, to how the terms modern and contemporary were reckoned with in the past. In the process, he uncovers unexpected stories about a Wellesley College trip to a candy factory, Persian wall frescoes shown in watercolor copies at the Museum of Modern Art, and a manifesto issued by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston decrying modern art as chicanery. What Was Contemporary Art? implicitly asks, ‘Just what is contemporary art?’”
—Douglas Crimp, author of “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol