What was Contemporary Art?

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MIT Press, 2013 - Art - 361 pages

Contemporary art in the early twenty-first century is often discussed as though itwere a radically new phenomenon unmoored from history. Yet all works of art were once contemporaryto 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 Collegein 1927 as a key moment in the introduction of works by living artists into the discipline of arthistory, then turns to a series of exhibitions from the 1930s that put contemporary art in dialoguewith premodern works ranging from prehistoric cave pictures to Italian Renaissance paintings. Meyeralso treats the controversy that arose in 1948 over the decision by Boston's Institute of Modern Artto change its name to the Institute of Contemporary Art. By retrieving moments in the history ofonce-current art, Meyer redefines "the contemporary" as a condition of being alive to andalongside 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 andextend Meyer's narrative. These works were contemporary to their own moment. Now, in Meyer'saccount, they become contemporary to ours as well.


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The ArtHistorical Postmortem
2 Young Professor Barr 1927
3 Prehistoric Modern 1937
4 Midcentury Contemporary 1948
Not Now 19942005

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About the author (2013)

Richard Meyer is Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University. He is the author of What Was Contemporary Art? (MIT Press) and other books.

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