What Was Contemporary Art?

Hardcover (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $19.20
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 48%)
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (14) from $19.20   
  • New (11) from $19.91   
  • Used (3) from $19.20   


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.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Meyer (Outlaw Representation) seeks to put the contemporary art world in honest conversation with its past, presenting the study and making of art as a "relation between an ever-shifting present and the volatile force of history." His triptych congeals around three moments in 20th century American art: the first college course on contemporary art, taught at Wellesley College in 1927 by Alfred H. Barr; the 1937 exhibit Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa, mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, also by Barr; and the 1948 controversy surrounding the name change of Boston's Institute of Modern Art to the Institute of Contemporary Art. 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. An extended introduction and afterword frame Meyer's story, the latter of which focuses on artist Glenn Ligon's recent work—ostensibly to solidify earlier arguments regarding the slipperiness of time and the potentials that come from diachronic art-making. Like Barr before him, Meyer finds room for the historical in the contemporary and the contemporary in the historical, all the while convincing us it's in the art world's as well as the layperson's best interest to do so. Color illustrations. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

"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

The MIT Press

"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." --

The MIT Press

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.
Library Journal
Art historians grapple with the problem of defining contemporary art. One favored approach is periodization—locating the artwork's historical origins in a recent time and place, e.g., 1989 Berlin. Here Meyer (art history, Stanford Univ.; Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered) proceeds differently. Rather than presenting the contemporary as a new historical epoch, he examines select moments from the first half of the 20th century, when the issue of displaying and studying new art arose with a newfound urgency, and when the term "contemporary" began to gain currency. Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is a central figure in Meyer's episodic history, which charts a path from Barr's groundbreaking 1927 Wellesley College seminar on recent art, to his directorship at MoMA, and concludes with the controversy surrounding the Boston Museum of Modern Art's 1948 decision to rename itself the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). VERDICT Meyer demonstrates that the often-opposed categories of modern and contemporary art in fact developed conterminously, in the process giving historical studies of the early 20th century a newfound relevance for scholars of the present.—Jonathan Patkowski, CUNY Graduate Ctr.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262135085
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2013
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 999,893
  • Product dimensions: 7.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet 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.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt


By Richard Meyer

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-262-13508-5



Introduction: The Art-Historical Postmortem

In 1969, a young woman named Rosalind Krauss filed a dissertation in the Department of Fine Arts at Harvard University. Fifteen years later, after she had emerged as one of the leading critical and art-historical thinkers of her generation, Krauss would explain the unorthodox means by which she had devised her dissertation topic:

I was in fact thinking of a topic in nineteenth-century European art that would have been much more palatable to my professors at Harvard, but it was going to be difficult for me to go to France for a year in the middle of this marriage [she had recently wed Richard Krauss]. I didn't know what to do until one morning I woke up to an announcement on my clock radio that a sculptor had been killed in Vermont. I thought it was Tony Caro, because they said "Bennington, Vermont" where he was teaching. I thought, "Oh, how terrible," because I knew Tony. Then, after a couple of sentences, they repeated the name and I realized it was [David] Smith. I thought, "Um, I now have a thesis topic." I knew they would never allow me to do a dissertation on somebody who was still alive, but he had just died. I went rushing to Harvard to announce this as my topic.

Within the logic of this anecdote, the shift from the imagined death of Anthony Caro to the actual one of David Smith constitutes a passage from personal loss to professional opportunity, from the register of friendship to that of scholarship, from the "terrible" thought that a sculptor Krauss knew firsthand had perished to recognition of the use value of an entirely different sculptor's demise. Death here delivers the artist into history, or at least into the history of art. Sealed off from the possibility of new works, stylistic shifts, imaginative breakthroughs, or creative disappointments, Smith's artistic output could at last be scrutinized, interpreted, and catalogued by the art historian. Krauss could now write a thesis on David Smith—but only, and almost literally, over his dead body.

Even here, however, there was a catch. To make Smith "more palatable," Krauss's advisors approved her topic on the condition that she prepare a catalogue raisonné of Smith's sculpture as part of the thesis. Krauss dutifully researched and photographed some seven hundred sculptures dating from 1932, the year that Smith turned from painting to three-dimensional construction, or what he called "drawing in space," to 1965, the year in which he was killed in an automobile accident (he missed a turn in a road and was crushed inside his pickup truck)—a range represented here by Construction, one of Smith's earliest three-dimensional works (no. 4 in Krauss's catalogue raisonné), and Cubi XXVIII, the last work he completed before his death.

Given the exhaustive scope of Krauss's catalogue raisonné, the logic that guides the rest of her dissertation is brilliantly paradoxical. In the three-chapter essay that precedes the catalogue, Krauss argues that art-historical chronology and biographical sequence are precisely the wrong tools for understanding Smith's "preeminence" as a modernist sculptor. To explain the absence of biographical narrative from the essay, Krauss writes, "I feel the simple succession of events in Smith's life is as mute and unrevealing about his art as are the simple facts of his sculptural chronology." As though in response to the advisors who required her to locate, photograph, and date some seven hundred sculptures, as well as dig up every public statement, lecture, and radio interview by this famously loquacious artist, Krauss positions her interpretation of Smith's modernism "against the testimony which a brute chronological succession of works provides" and against "any simple idea of symbiosis between David Smith and his historical context." (The first chapter of Krauss's dissertation is titled "Defining Smith's Career: Beyond an Historical Context.")

In describing the parameters of her study, Krauss notes that "while the catalogue of Smith's sculpture which follows this essay contains nearly 700 items, I have dealt explicitly with only about 40. This is because I believe that the quality of Smith's work derives from a particular attitude he had toward sculpture—an attitude which is fully embodied in the masterpieces of his career." 6 Note the self-assurance of Krauss's voice in this passage—the certainty with which she identifies and separates the forty "masterpieces" of Smith's sculptural output from the remainder of his oeuvre.

For Krauss, Smith's best sculptures exemplify how "certain objects or occurrences detach themselves from their historical background and strike [the scholar] with their overwhelming importance." The scholar's task, Krauss continues, "is to understand and to account for their sharpness of focus within his own view." With such statements, we see art history moving away from comprehensive cataloguing toward critical accounts of selected artworks; away from the seven hundred in favor of close readings of the forty. By unraveling the structural logic of the very catalogue raisonné she had compiled, Krauss helped launch the self-critical turn in contemporary art history. In her writing as in that of other leading figures in the field, the present-tense encounter between object and scholar increasingly came to take precedence over the "brute chronological succession" of artworks and the monographic logic of biography.

Like her Harvard colleague Michael Fried, Krauss wrote art criticism while pursuing her doctorate in art history in the mid to late 1960s. And like Fried, she was a disciple of the New York critic Clement Greenberg. The preface to Krauss's dissertation notes her debt to modernist criticism above and beyond any academic advisor or art-historical training: "My knowledge of modern painting and sculpture was largely formed and nurtured by the critical essays of, and discussions with, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. With their aid, I began, while a graduate student at Harvard University, to write criticism. It was during the kind of contact with modernist works of art involved in that endeavor that my own conviction about American sculpture strengthened, and with it, my desire to write about the work of David Smith." The term "conviction" surfaces repeatedly in Krauss's dissertation. It draws attention to the self-assured judgment of the critic rather than to the purported objectivity and temporal remove of the art historian. As Greenberg would succinctly put the point years later, "The first obligation of an art critic is to deliver value judgments."

Shortly before filing her dissertation at Harvard, Krauss published a two-part article drawn from it in the February and April 1969 issues of Artforum magazine. Titled "The Essential David Smith, Parts One and Two," the article blurred the boundary between contemporary art criticism and doctoral research in art history. The intervening Artforum issue, March 1969, was given over to the publication of Fried's dissertation in its entirety. Artforum readers expecting coverage of contemporary art and film (such as that included in every prior issue of the magazine) were instead offered a book-length treatise titled "Manet's Sources: Aspects of His Art, 1859–1865." Apart from several pages of gallery advertisements and a few letters to the editor, nothing appeared in the issue other than Fried's fourteen-part thesis (complete with 258 endnotes as well as the author's extensive translations of the French sources cited in his text). No explanation for the special issue was offered by the editors.

The anomaly marked by Fried's issue may be suggested visually by comparing the covers of the February 1969 and March 1969 issues. Where the former presents Richard Serra's site-specific, molten-lead sculpture Splashing (created earlier that same winter at the Leo Castelli warehouse), the latter reproduces a large detail from Edouard Manet's The Dead Torero of 1864. Fried's special issue of Artforum bracketed the currentness of contemporary art such that the "clock" of art criticism could be wound back a century.

In another sense, however, "Manet's Sources" was no less contemporary than Serra's Splashing. While Fried's subject was over a century old, his project had only just been completed: his dissertation was filed at Harvard two months prior to its publication in the magazine. Like Krauss's two-part article on Smith, the all but instantaneous appearance of Fried's thesis in Artforum challenged the divide between art-historical scholarship and contemporary art criticism in 1969.16 Fried would later comment on his dual practice of art writing at the time: "I kept my activity as an art critic distinct from my work in art history; I never considered writing a dissertation on a living artist or seeking academic credit for my New York reviews. Intellectually, however, it was another story: from the start the distinction between art criticism and art history seemed to me a matter of emphasis rather than of principle, and my understanding of contemporary art had implications for the questions I began to put to the past." At the beginning of this passage, Fried locates criticism and scholarship as separate spheres of production. By the end, however, the two spheres have intersected to such a degree that only a matter of "emphasis" distinguishes them.

Krauss likewise understood the practices of art history and criticism to be "mutually inclusive," but only when realized "in their most supreme examples." In lesser cases, she warned, the art historian's dogged insistence on "systematic objectivity" limited his method to bloodless chronology and deadening taxonomy. What remains dazzling about Krauss's dissertation essay is the confidence of her critical voice, the magisterial conviction with which she passes judgment not only on artworks but also on other critics and historians.

Krauss set contemporary critical judgment (or "conviction") against the reductive logic of chronology and biographical determinism. As though rendering this opposition in concrete form, the two halves of her dissertation would ultimately appear as freestanding publications. In 1971, a revised version of the essay was published by the MIT Press as Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith. Six years later, Garland Press published the catalogue as The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné. In the gap that opened between these two accounts of "The Sculpture of David Smith," and in the far greater degree of professional attention that Terminal Iron Works received, we see one model of scholarship displacing another. We see art history becoming criticism. And we see art history becoming contemporary.

As the dissertations I now advise attest, artists no longer need to be dead—or even very old—to be the subject of intensive scholarly analysis. Today, dissertations are routinely written on artists who are mid to late career, on recent museum exhibitions and biennials, and on current critical debates in the art world. Tenured and tenure-track jobs are posted for historians of contemporary art, and endowed chairs have been established in the field. In 2009, a new professional society was founded in order to "foster strong scholarship and to promote collegiality within the vital field of contemporary art history." In the United States, at least, contemporary art has emerged not only as a viable area of art-historical study but as, by far, the most popular. In an analysis based on the annual listing of dissertations in progress issued by the College Art Association (CAA), the art historian Michael Lobel observes that "in 1996, American and Canadian dissertations in progress, in all art history fields, numbered 210; by 2005, dissertations in progress, in post-1945 art alone, numbered 214." The number of dissertations on contemporary art history thus exceeded the sum of all dissertations in the discipline a decade before.

In keeping with Lobel's findings, an article by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter reported in 2011 that "an overwhelming number" of applicants to art history graduate programs "now declare contemporary art their field of choice: 80 percent was a figure I heard repeatedly—but unofficially—in conversations during the annual College Art Association conference this winter." One source for that figure may well have been Patricia Mainardi, a scholar of nineteenth-century European art, who convened a panel called "The Crisis in Art History" at the 2011 CAA conference. In her opening remarks, Mainardi lamented the preponderance of art history doctoral students ("eight of out every ten") specializing in contemporary art. "Maybe we should drop the word 'history' from 'art history,'" she proposed, a bit caustically, to a hotel ballroom full of art historians.

Consider the following anecdote as further evidence of the rise of what might be called "now-ism" within art history. In 2009, I offered a graduate seminar at the University of Southern California that sought (much as this book does) to historicize the idea of contemporary art. At the first meeting of the course, I was taken aback when a Ph.D. student expressed the hope that we would not have to endure "that long slog through the '90s" before arriving at the current decade of art and criticism. Prior to that semester, I had rarely taught a seminar that reached the 1990s, much less "slogged through" them to arrive at the millennium on the other side.

The students in the class understood the designation "contemporary" differently than I had expected. Rather than referring to art since 1945, art since 1960, or even art since 1970, "contemporary" meant to them the work of artists exhibiting today and in the immediate past. Banksy, Mathew Barney, Sophie Calle, Patty Chang, Sam Durant, Nikki S. Lee, Glenn Ligon, and Catherine Opie were some of the artists on whom students in the seminar had already written or declared their intention of doing so in upcoming projects. In one or two cases, the students were nearly the same age as the artists they wished to study. The history they proposed to chart neatly coincided with the time of their own lives.

In response to this emphasis on the present, I posed to the students a series of questions at once straightforward and admittedly aggressive: "Why are you studying art history if what you really want to do is write about the contemporary moment?" "Where are the archives for your research on contemporary art-in the files of a commercial gallery, in a drawer in the artist's studio, in a theoretical paradigm, in a series of interviews that you intend to conduct with the artist, or in the testimony of the works of art themselves?" "What, if anything, distinguishes your practice as a historian of contemporary art from that of an art critic?" And, finally, "How does the history of art matter to the works you plan to write about and to the scholarly contribution you hope to make?"

One student (not the '90s "slogger") effectively redirected these questions to me. During her admissions interview the previous year, she recalled, faculty had emphasized the close association the doctoral program in art history enjoyed with contemporary art museums, curators, and artists as well as its location in an international center of early twenty-first-century art (namely, Los Angeles). Since "the contemporary" had been used as a device to attract graduate students to the program, she reasoned, perhaps it was the professor (rather than those very students) who should define and defend the relation between contemporary art and art history.

She was right. If graduate students and emerging scholars now take contemporary art for granted as an area of specialization, it is because the discipline of art history invites them to do so. When I started graduate school in 1988, no such invitation was forthcoming. It was understood that "modernists," like everyone else in the program ("medievalists," "classicists," "early modernists," "Americanists," "Asianists"), worked on historical artists, issues, and objects. It might have been conceivable for a modernist to study the early work of a living artist who had reached a certain, golden age. In that case, however, the work at issue would have been old enough for sufficient "historical distance" (say, about forty years) to have been achieved.

None of these ground rules were spoken aloud, nor did they need to be. At the time, there were no professional societies for historians of contemporary art, nor were there tenure-track jobs in the field to which one might aspire. Had someone proposed the practice of something called "contemporary art history," I could only have understood it as an oxymoron. Somewhere along the line, sometime in the (long) 1990s, things changed. The discipline of art history embraced the work of living artists. This book is an attempt to reckon with that shift. But it is also an effort to grapple with the broader dialogue between contemporary art and the historical past. It does so by investing in the power of particular pictures, people, and institutional episodes to illuminate larger patterns of art and culture. By looking in detail at selected art-historical episodes, What Was Contemporary Art? ignores others that might have been equally illuminating. Rather than a definitive survey, the book is presented as a modest proposal for putting the "history" back into contemporary art history.

When Is Contemporary Art?

In the last few years, several scholars and critics have situated "the contemporary" as a distinct period in the development of art and culture. According to the art historian Alexander Alberro, for example, "the contemporary" may now be traced to specific sources and a date of origin:

The years following 1989 have seen the emergence of a new historical period. Not only has there been the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states and the heralding of the era of globalization, but technologically there has been the full integration of electronic or digital culture, and economically, neoliberalism, with its goal to bring all human action into the domain of the market, has become hegemonic. Within the context of the fine arts, the new period has come to be known as "the contemporary."


Excerpted from WHAT WAS CONTEMPORARY ART? by Richard Meyer. Copyright © 2013 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     ix     

1 Introduction: The Art-Historical Postmortem....................     1     

2 Young Professor Barr (1927)....................     37     

3 Prehistoric Modern (1937)....................     115     

4 Midcentury Contemporary (1948)....................     191     

Afterword: Not Now (1994/2005)....................     259     

Notes....................     283     

Index....................     341     

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)