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Avant-Garde – Art That Breaks Barriers

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.

By Artland Editors

“We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas.”

Henri de Saint-Simon

What is Avant-Garde Art?

Originally a French term denoting the vanguard of an army, the word ‘avant-garde’ entered the art vocabulary in early 19th-century France to indicate any artist, movement, or artwork that develops experimental concepts, processes, and forms questioning the status quo.
Radical by nature, avant-garde art pushes pre-existing boundaries and pursues unexplored artistic avenues.

The Origin of the Avant-Garde

It was political, economic, and socialist theorist Henri de Saint-Simon the first one who, believing in the social power of the arts, drew the analogy between radical art practices and an advancing military formation: “We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!”

Initially tied to social and political ideals, the concept of avant-garde subsequently shifted towards radical aesthetics and techniques.

Avant-Garde Art Movements

As applied to art, the term avant-garde concerns anything ahead of its time. In this sense, the radicals of yesterday have become mainstream today, creating the environment for a new generation of innovators to emerge. However, the idea of ‘avant-garde’ is often associated with the beginning of modern art and considered by many to be exclusively related to modernism, therefore indicating all those art movements that, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, went against the traditional way of looking at art and initiated a cultural revolution following a programmatic and ground-breaking set of aims. In this light, the origins of avant-garde art are also the origins of the contemporary notion of the ‘art movement.’ As contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou has stated, “More or less the whole of twentieth-century art has laid claim to an avant-garde function.”
Here are some of the major twentieth-century avant-garde art movements:

Famous Avant-Garde Works in Contemporary Art

Malevich, Black Square. Avant-garde
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915

Black Square by Kazimir Malevich, 1915

In 1915, Kazimir Malevich took a medium-sized canvas, painted it white around the edges, and filled the middle square with thick black paint. With this apparently simple act, Malevich became the author of the most impactful and terrifying work of art of the time. In his words, his Black Square reduced everything to the “zero of form.” It was his discovery and enactment of that critical point because of which and beyond which everything else ceases to exist, nothing can exist.

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920. Avant-garde
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920

Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, 1920

Paul Klee was a young artist when he created Angelus Novus, an angel made with Klee’s self-developed oil transfer technique and watercolour on paper in 1920, not long after the end of World War One. Barely known during his life, Angelus Novus became Klee’s most famous painting, mostly because of the exceptional story of its connection to German-Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin. Benjamin purchased Angelus Novus in 1921, frequently referring to the work as his most treasured possession.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Avant-garde
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

On 26 April 1937, at the very height of the Spanish Civil War, German and Italian armies bombed the Basque city of Guernica as a show of support for the nationalist forces which were fighting against the government of the Second Republic. Picasso’s iconic painting was one big cry of protest against the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and a forewarning of what was soon to become the Second World War. Due to the intensity of each suffering character in their muted colours and contorted expressions, Guernica soon became the emblem for all the tragedies of the modern world.

Piero Manzoni, Merda d’artista, 1961

Merda d’artista by Piero Manzoni, 1961

Produced in 1961, Manzoni’s Merda d’artista series comprises of ninety cans of shit, each numerically labelled, as one would expect a set of prints to be, with German, French and English titles describing the cans as ‘Artist’s shit’. In a letter to fellow artist and friend Ben Vautier, Manzoni humorously speculated that ‘if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit, that is really his.’ Although following a long conceptual tradition in which viewers are challenged to re-evaluate their preconceptions or perspective about familiar objects, Manzoni went one step further in showing d no effort to conceal the contents of the work, but rather provoke and confront the set of expectations we bring to art and the gallery space.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970.

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, 1970

Robert Smithson was one of the artists that forever changed received notions of sculptural form in contemporary art by removing art from the gallery context altogether, moving it into, and part of, the uncultivated landscape. His Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture constructed in April 1970 and was built on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah entirely of mud, salt crystals and basalt rocks. The work forms a 1,500-foot-long (460 m) anti-clockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake. It took six days to construct and multiple pieces of heavy construction machinery to haul 6,650 tons of rock and earth into the lake. The work was actually constructed twice; after contemplating the result for two days Smithson called the crew back and had the shape altered to its present configuration, an effort requiring moving 7,000 tons of basalt rock during an additional three days of construction.

Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974

I Like America and America Likes Me by Joseph Beuys, 1974

In his seminal work, I Like America and America Likes Me, German artist Joseph Beuys spent three consecutive days living, communing and forming a relationship with a coyote. The coyote was one of the most important symbols in Native American mythology, but European settlers saw it as a pest to be eradicated. With this action, Beuys believed he was helping to heal America’s racial and economic wounds. This performance was one example of what he called his ‘social sculptures,’ actions intended to change society for the better and was one of his first actions to use his artistic practice as forums for his political and environmental beliefs.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (detail), 1983.

Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983

By 1983, the year Basquiat painted Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, he was already considered an artist at the vanguard of a newly emerging artistic consciousness, one that was to revive the values of painterly expressionism as a new facet of postmodern art production. The five-panel painting, which measures 4.5 m in width, combines text, image, colour and form in Basquiat’s signature style, saturating every surface of the canvas. In Undiscovered Genius, the artist moves effortlessly between collective history, personal history, memory and emotion, redefining the genre of History Painting by placing himself in the work as Fig. 23 (Basquiat had turned 23 the year he painted Undiscovered Genius).

Marina Abramovic performing The House with the Ocean View, 2002.

The House with the Ocean View by Marina Abramovic, 2002

In 2002, the self-appointed ‘grandmother of performance art’ Marina Abramovic lived on three platforms for 12 days, consisting of three units representing her house – a bathroom, a living room and sleeping room – installed within Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. For Abramovic, The House With The Ocean View was an experiment in personal purification through restrictions, and an attempt to shift both her own energy field and the audience’s. During the 12 days of the performance, the artist never left the gallery, did not eat any food and did not drink anything else but water. Every day, the artist would put on a different coloured outfit, and every single thing she would do, including showering, sleeping and using the toilet, would be open to the eyes of the audience, able to watch her through a high-powered telescope. The performance was conceived as a gift for New York City post 9/11, through which Abramovic sought to provide a safe space of attention, connection, rest and meditation – an escape from the overwhelming fear and confusion of the period.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Bed-In for Peace, 1969

Bed-In for Peace by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1969

Yoko Ono’s “Bed-in for Peace” with late husband John Lennon remains one of the most famous performative peace actions of all time.
First held at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam for two weeks during the couple’s honeymoon in 1969, and then again at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, these performances were meant as nonviolent anti-war protests in light of the ongoing war in Vietnam. Lennon and Ono invited reporters into their hotel bedroom to publicise their bed-in and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Relevant sources to learn more

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