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  • Learn the Lingo

    Learn the Lingo
    Click on any term to read an extended definition on The Museum of Modern Art’s website.

    Abstract Expressionism : A movement advanced by American artists in the 1940s and 1950s that was characterized by large, abstract painted canvases. The movement had two groups: Action painters such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Helen Frankenthaler, and Color Field painters such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Action painting work is characterized by sweeping, gestural lines; the work of the Color Field painters is characterized by large, unmodulated areas of color.

    Abstraction: The process of creating art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.

    Constructivism: Developed by Russian avant-garde artists during the October Revolution of 1917, the goal of this idealistic movement was to make art universally understandable and essential to everyday life. Outside of the newly formed Soviet Union, the term Constructivism has frequently been used in a looser fashion by artists such as Alexander Calder in order to evoke a continuing tradition of geometric abstract art that is “constructed” from autonomous visual elements such as lines and planes, and characterized by such qualities as precision, impersonality, a clear formal order, simplicity, and economy of organization, and the use of contemporary materials such as plastic and metal.

    Cubism: An early-twentieth-century style of representation developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque that abandoned the traditional, three-dimensional representation of space and objects, focusing instead on the geometric depiction of three-dimensional form.

    Dada: An artistic and literary movement that grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and conventional artistic practices during World War I. Dada artists such as Marcel Duchamp were disillusioned by the social values that led to the war and sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic by shocking people into self-awareness. This international network of artists used unorthodox techniques and materials to create new forms of visual art, performance, and poetry as well as alternative visions of the world.

    De Stijl: A Dutch word meaning “the style,” de Stijl was the name of a fine-arts magazine published in Leiden from 1917 to 1932. The term also refers to a group of architects and artists, including Piet Mondrian, whose style of expression was based on the use of primary colors, rectangular shapes, and asymmetrical balance. The de Stijl movement was a direct response to the chaotic and destructive events of World War I, and its members believed that developing a new artistic style represented a means of rebuilding and creating a harmonious order.

    Fauvism: With Henri Matisse as its principal protagonist, Fauvism was a movement in French painting characterized by a violence of colors, often applied unmixed from commercially produced tubes of paint in broad, flat areas; by a spontaneity and even roughness of execution; and by a bold sense of surface design. It was the first of a succession of avant-garde movements in twentieth-century art, and it was influential to later trends such as Expressionism and the development of abstract art.

    Metaphysical Art: An artistic movement characterized by a recognizable iconography: a fictive space, modeled on illusionistic one-point perspective, but deliberatively subverted. Objects such as classical statues and toys are juxtaposed with this perspective to give a disconcerting image of reality and capture the disquieting nature of the everyday, as seen in the work of Giorgio de Chirico.

    Modernism: A typical strategy of modernist artists was to provoke the shock of the new, to reveal the present as replete with blindingly self-evident value, and to consign the recent past to anachronism. Modernist artists insisted on art’s autonomy and its obligation to secure a space for unbridled creativity. The basic impulse of modernism within modernity is the drive to create previously unimagined objects and new ways of seeing them.

    Pop Art: An artistic movement and style that started in England in the 1950s and moved to the United States in the 1960s. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol were influenced by the media and advertising and used familiar objects from popular culture as their inspiration.

    Primitivism: Celebrated certain values or forms regarded as primal, ancestral, fertile, and regenerative and used mostly in relation to art from Africa and the Pacific Islands. The interest that Western artists took in ethnic arts around the turn of the century led to the beginning of a more formalized study of this subject by anthropologists and art historians. Research in this field allowed non-Western arts to be seen and appreciated more easily within their own context, rather than as secondary to Western art.

    Surrealism: A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.

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