The term postmodernism is used to describe the changes that took place in Western society and culture from the 1960s onwards that arose from challenges made to established structures and belief systems. In art, postmodernism was specifically a reaction against modernism which had dominated art theory and practice since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Jeff Koons, 'Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off)' 1985

Jeff Koons
Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) 1985
Mixed media
unconfirmed: 1536 x 1238 x 336 mm
Purchased 1995© Jeff Koons

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Introduction

What is postmodernism?

The term postmodernism, was first used in around 1970. As an art movement postmodernism to some extent defies definition – as there is no one postmodern style or theory on which it is hinged. It embraces many different approaches to art making; and a host of art groups and movements from the 1960s onwards can be described as postmodernist. It is therefore perhaps easiest to define postmodernism by looking at its main characteristics. Anti-authoritarian by nature, it refuses to recognise the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be. It collapses the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture and it tends to get rid of the boundary between art and everyday life. Resultantly, postmodern art can be characterised by its self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, and an eclectic mixing of different artistic and popular styles and media.

When did postmodernism happen?

Postmodernism may be said to begin with pop art and to embrace much of what followed including conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art, and the Young British Artists of the 1990s.

Modernism vs postmodernism

Theo van Doesburg, 'Counter-Composition VI' 1925

Theo van Doesburg
Counter-Composition VI 1925
Oil on canvas
support: 500 x 500 mm frame: 690 x 691 x 80 mm
Purchased 1982

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David Salle, 'Satori Three Inches within Your Heart' 1988

David Salle
Satori Three Inches within Your Heart 1988
Acrylic and oil on canvas
displayed: 2142 x 2910 mm
Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996© David Salle/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2002

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Postmodernism was a reaction against modernism. Modernism was generally based on a utopian vision of human life and society and a belief in progress. It assumed that certain ultimate universal principles or truths such as those formulated by religion or science could be used to understand or explain reality. Modernist artists believed that by negating the subject and experimenting instead with form, technique and processes they could find a way of purely and simply understanding and reflecting the modern world.

If modernism was based on idealism and reason, postmodernism was born of scepticism and a suspicion of reason. It challenged the notion that there are universal objective certainties or truths that will explain everything for everybody. Postmodern art advocates that individual experience and interpretation of our experience is more concrete than abstract principles and is the best way of understanding and responding to reality. While the modernists championed clarity and simplicity; postmodernism embraces complex and often contradictory layers of meaning.

What does postmodernism look like?

Because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that ‘anything goes’. It is often funny, tongue-in-cheek or ludicrous; it can be confrontational and controversial, challenging the boundaries of taste; but most crucially, it reflects a self-awareness of style itself – often consciously borrowing from a range of styles from the past.

Browse the slideshow below to see a selection of postmodernist artworks and read the picture captions to find out how the movements they are associated with reflect some of the key characteristics of postmodernism:

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  • Roy Lichtenstein, 'Whaam!' 1963

    Pop artists broke down the separation between fine art and popular culture in their work: Lichtenstein borrows the language of comics for his painting Whaam.

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  • Joseph Kosuth, 'Clock (One and Five), English/Latin Version (Exhibition Version)' 1965, 1997

    Conceptual artists reacted against the modernist emphasis on the importance of the art object. Instead they emphasised the idea or concept behind the work…in doing so they championed the postmodern approach of interpretation and experience over universal truths.

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  • Gilbert & George, 'Gordon's Makes Us Drunk' 1972

    Performance allowed artists to create work that eliminated the need for process and technique and also offered a way of making art more accessible to the masses. In this performance Gilbert & George’s deadpan expressions and repeated declaration that 'Gordon's makes us very drunk' creates an absurd scene that ironically questions identity, nationality and 'good behaviour'.

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  • Guerrilla Girls, '[no title]' 1985-90

    In the 1970s women artists began to make art in response to the developments in feminist theory. They used their personal experiences of being women to inform their work.

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  • Sandro Chia, 'Water Bearer' 1981

    Neo-expressionism saw painters returning to mythical and historical subjects (in reaction to the negation of the subject by modernist painters). It was anti-intellectual and individualistic and referenced earlier painting styles.

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  • Jeff Koons, 'New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker' 1981-7

    Another postmodernist art movement with a ‘neo’ prefix…not surprising as postmodernism borrowed styles from various earlier movements without adopting their principles: Neo-geo art was influenced by the style of minimalism, conceptual art and op art.

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  • Damien Hirst, 'Away from the Flock' 1994

    The YBAs stormed the art world in the 1980s and became known for their openness to materials and processes, shock tactics and entrepreneurial approach. In true postmodern spirit, no one style is evident in their work, though certain shared approaches can be seen such as the use of appropriated objects and images.

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Watch Tate Curator Helen Little as she explores British artworks from the 1970s and 1980s, a period in which a new generation of artists re-negotiated the art obejct in the spirit of postmodernism.

Postmodernist artists in focus

Jeff Koons: Commodity, kitsch and glamour

Following the example of the pop artists of the 1960s, Jeff Koons is inspired by the commercial systems of the modern world. He often uses ordinary manufactured objects or creates immaculate replicas of domestic products, advertisements, kitsch toys and models – apparently enthusiastically endorsing consumption and the voracious appetite of Western civilization for glamorous commodities.

Visit Jeff Koons’s studio – a place where where anything seems possible!

Pop Life: Jeff Koons’s Rabbit
Watch a giant inflatable version of Jeff Koons’s iconic sculpture Rabbit (which is itself based on an inflatable rabbit – well what do you expect? Postmodernism is about complexity and confusion!) takes shape in central London.

Who paints bread better than Dalí?
In this feature for Tate Etc. Jeff Koons discusses how he was inspired by of surrealist Salvador Dali early on his his career.

Jeff Koons in Tate’s collection
Read the artist’s biography and explore his extraordinary artworks by Koons in Tate’s collection.

Cindy Sherman: Performing identities

Cindy Sherman, 'Untitled Film Still #48' 1979, reprinted 1998

Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still #48 1979, reprinted 1998
Photograph on paper
image: 710 x 955 mm support, secondary: 920 x 1140 mm
Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996© Cindy Sherman

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Photographer Cindy Sherman uses make-up, costume and lighting effects to create portraits of herself in various scenarios that parody stereotypes of woman. Her characters and settings are drawn from sources of popular culture: old movies, television soaps and pulp magazines. Her approach forms an ironic message that creation is impossible without the use of prototypes and that identity lies in appearance, not in reality. Her work implicates the viewer in the meaning of the work, inviting us to project our own interpretations.

Studio: Cindy Sherman
Tate Etc. visited Cindy Sherman’s studio, and found out about how and why she started dressing up for her photographs.

Cindy Sherman in Tate’s collection
Read the artist’s biography and explore more of her work.

Other perspectives

Postmodernist artists reacted against the modernist emphasis on formal qualities and technique…but is the work they made still art? Find out what the people of Liverpool thought when they encountered Jeff Koons’s Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank.

‘You’re so sheer, you’re so chic, teenage rebel of the week’
Postmodern pop music? This Tate Etc. article explores the eclectic style of pop music in the 1970s.

Rudely transgressing the boundaries between the elevated and the profane
The history of the grotesque is inevitably tangled in postmodernist theory…Find out how it has been used in recent art to break down the barriers between high art and popular culture…and how women artists used it to break down the masculine domination of the genre.

Postmodernist art in context

Simon Martin, 'Carlton' 2006

Simon Martin
Carlton 2006
Single screen colour video projection, audio track
duration: 9min
Purchased 2008© Simon Martin

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Carlton 2006 by Simon Martin
Postmodernism was not just an art movement…it straddled various aspects of Western culture. For his video Carlton, artist Simon Martin explores an iconic piece of postmodern design by Ettore Sotsass of the Italian Memphis Group. Find out more about postmodern design in this article from the V&A

Is postmodernism over? The 2009 Tate Triennial exhibition Altermodern claimed that the period defined as postmodernism has come to an end and a new culture for the twenty-first century is emerging. Watch exhibition curator Nicholas Bourriard discuss his ideas and themes for the exhibition.

In detail

Production in View: Allan Sekula’s Fish Story and the Thawing of Postmodernism
Research article exploring the work of photographer and theorist Allan Sekula and his effort to renew realist art in the wake of the postmodern culture of the 1980s.

When history collapses Into the present
This article looks at the paintings of Dexter Dalwood who borrows from earlier artistic modes in order to explore contemporary society’s postmodern predicament that change is all there is and that history seems to have collapsed into the present.

Dexter Dalwood, 'Situationist Apartment May '68' 2001

Dexter Dalwood
Situationist Apartment May ‘68 2001
Oil and chalk on canvas
support: 2464 x 3552 x 53 mm
Purchased 2002
© Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London

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Related glossary terms

Modernism, pop art, conceptual art, performance art, neo-expressionism, neo-geo, feminist art, identity politics, YBAs