What are the Most Important Aspects of the 70s Art Scene?

Art History

October 9, 2016

Changed by its movements, the face of art is a rich and colorful kaleidoscope of different concepts. One such rebellion, forever imprinting itself, is the period of 70s art. Such a historical time, influenced by the late 60s social events and challenges to the system, produced some of the most thought-provoking ideas. Owing the birth of new concepts to the hippie movement and student protests of the previous decade, art was forever changed. No longer was creativity accepting the dominance of its male authors, and the challenge to a long-standing tradition of male painters received the strongest blow ever. The challenges to the body, environment, the documentation of art, and the notion of the ephemeral, major figures of 70s art movements exposed and reflected[1].

As the merge between art and life entwined ever further, the original understanding of art landscape opened up. Offering a fresh view to the environment, creative production moved beyond the streets of its capital the New York City. Overthrowing Paris from such a spot in 1950’s, creativity branched itself into various directions. The influences of California art, Latin America, and even the distant Japan’s production were acknowledged.

The strong desire for change and the need to move away from the traditional canvas production offered the body of the author as its new surface. Performance art, a style distinctive from the theater, boomed. A similar occurrence happened with an investigation into the notion of the mediated image. The 1970’s pushed such investigation further, taking the lead from 60s Pop Art creatives and Photorealism, giving birth to the Pictures Generation.

mid century music terms such as pop rock retro vintage were applied for modern wall art.
Judy Chicago - Both images represent a new understanding to painting's subject matter. They stand to represent a female content.

The Major Issues That Shaped 70s Art

The period of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s is seen as the breaking point offering a fresh definition for creative production. This time marks the birth of the term contemporary art, also referenced as postmodernism art. In a period of such change, much is owed to the hippie movement and the student protests of 1968, which have pushed forward for the most thought provoking concepts[2].

Creativity, always a mirror of the world, could no longer accept the predisposed idea which placed a woman solely as an object within a piece. Until this time, only a few female artists are acknowledged. This all changed thanks to Judy Chicago and the famous question - Why Have There Been No Greater Women Artists? - transformed into a title of the essay written by American art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971. Asking for a change in the definition of a subject matter, offering a concept of a female content, feminism art shook the very ground art stood. As one of the best-known monuments, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party stands out.

While feminism art asked never before questions concerning the politics, identity, and gender stereotypes, 1970s production further challenged the importance of an author. Offering its body, body art and performance art were shaped. What is the space art is allowed to inhabit? What is the best way to shock and include the audience in the production of the work, and how important is the documentation and even visibility of the work, were only just a few of the questions creatives continued to ask[3].

in pop culture colors white and orange dominated home retro vintage rock poster production. they set the living.
Richard Long - Waking a Line in Peru. Image via richardlong.org

The Major Movements of the 70s Art Scene

The ideas of the most influential 1960’s movements, such as conceptual, minimalism, performance, and installation art, figures such as Judy Chicago, Barbara Kruger, and Robert Smithson extended even further. Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, Ulay, and Ana Mendieta while pushing the body to its limit, deconstructed some of the most important values in creativity. With such strong figures, the following major movements were born or re-defined.

The Land Art

The link to nature and its importance for the works of various authors dates from the beginning of time. The major development in painting occurred when Impressionism painters took their easels en plein air. But, with the birth of land art, nature was no longer just a setting but it was yet another surface creatives embedded the concerns of formal art making directly into. In 1970, with his stone construction Spiral Jetty implanted into a salt lake in Utah, Robert Smithson changed not only the face of art but its relationship to usual exhibition setting and the market[4]. The fixed outside location, used materials, and the fact that the visibility of the work depended on the water level of the lake, pushed away from the notion of the art object as an artifact.

Along with Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Richard Long are also associated with this movement. In Japan, the loose group Mono-ha was also influential in the re-shaping of the understanding towards sculpture, its materials, and the ephemeral quality of the work.

search for fresh creative terms took authors away from home and into the nature.
Robert Smithson - Spiral Jetty. Image via pinterest.com

Feminist Art

Amidst the passion of anti-war demonstrations, civil and queer rights actions, and the advent of the Women’s Liberation movement on the West Coast, feminist art stepped boldly forward. Addressing the social, political, and cultural concerns of womanhood, feminist artists sought to create a dialogue between the viewer and the artwork through the inclusion of a women’s perspective[5]. Fighting against the tradition that firmly denied female artists inclusion into the male run circles, authors such as Judy Chicago paved the way for further questions about equality, identity, politics, and the pressing need for the re-write of art’s history. Through thought-provoking works, such as Chicago’s Dinner Party, later text-based slogan works by Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman’s photography questioning stereotypes or the ad in the Artforum featuring Lynda Benglis naked and manipulating a massive dildo, feminist artists expanded the definition of fine arts.

Recently, many critics continue to ask, if the revolution movement such as this one, in the end created another gender dominated role, and have done yet another disservice to female artists?

group of famous female authors gathered at the table
Judy Chicago - The Dinner Party.Image via pinterest.com

Gutai Art

Allan Kaprow actively cited Gutai as an influence on his Happenings, and the famous Abstract Expressionism painter, Jackson Pollock was also aware of it. Even thought this Japanese proto-conceptual movement formalized in 1954, and was active until the 1980s, much of its groundbreaking work was produced during the 70s art period. Attempting to break away from the traditional art production, the group’s goal was in fact reflected in its name. The combination of the word gu meaning tool and tai meaning body, best helps to illustrate the focus on the production where the body of the creative was at its center and was the main tool. The artist Kazuo Shiraga, in fact, painted his canvases using only his feet, while Atsuko Tanaka combined household object, or found technology, for her sculptures, and performance art.

While the conceptual and performance art of the 1970s was heavily influenced by these Japanese creatives, it was only recently that their importance surfaced and has caught the eye of the Western market.

orange color set the standard among the gutai authors. it was used especially for wall decoration.
Kazuo Shiraga - Painting with his Feet. Image via widewalls.ch

Performance Art

Using the naked female body as a tool, as a living paintbrush, happenings of Yves Klein, experimental work of John Cage, and the thought provoking actions and work of Joseph Beuys helped to shape the performance art. Yet, in the decade of our focus, such a movement emerged with another goal in mind. Completely deconstructing the determent ideas about the time, space, place, and subject, performance art of this time was stricter. Echoing the feminist art, such events encouraged the release of frustration at social injustices and the discussion of the women’s sexuality[6]. Adding an element of endurance, artist Marina Abramovic truly pioneered. Recalling Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, Abramovic’s Rhythm O, a six-hour performance, pushed her body to its limit and commented on the injustices female bodies have been a subject to. The body was not spared in some of the most disturbing actions of the Viennese Actionism as well, while Chris Burden in the name of protest art, asked his friend to shot him with a .22 caliber rifle. Among the mentioned, Vito Acconci was also influential for the art that blurred the line between body and canvas, pain and creativity.

Seen as integral to the 1980’s New Wave scene were the recordings of Laurie Anderson. Along with Nam June Paik, and her combination of technology, poetry, absurdity, and the found object, the two artists added yet another dimension to this movement.

mid century for home made music poster making vintage and retro style dominated. give it a like.
Marina Abramovic - Rhythm O. Image via pinterest.com

  Editors’ Tip: Contemporary Art: Art Since 1970

Focused on attempting to answer the question concerning the central values of contemporary art, the book examines new art in the last three decades. Covering an international spectrum of movements, from minimalism and conceptual, to video and film, from painting and sculpture to performance art, the book reviews the major controversies of the late twentieth century. Calling upon international exhibitions, curatorial projects, and the growth of technology, the texts reflect the rapidly evolving experiments in the visual production of the time. Beautifully illustrated and with the inclusion of a timeline, Contemporary Art is a great read for students and professionals.


  1. Rorimer, A., New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality , Thames & Hudson, 2004
  2. Levin, K,, Beyond Modernism: Essays on Art from the '70s and '80s, Harper & Row, 1998
  3. Hoeveler Jr., J.,D., The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970s, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
  4. Tufnell, B., Land Art, Tate Publications, 2006
  5. Deepwell, K., New Feminist Art Criticism (Women's Art Library) , Manchester University Press, 1995
  6. Howell, A., The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice, Routledge, 1999


All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Marina Abramovic – Rhythm 5. Image via rudygodinez.tumblr.com; Barbara Kruger - Specific. Image via pinterest.com; Kazuo Shiraga Challenging Mud. Image via widewalls.ch; Robert Cottingham - Artwork. Example of the Photorealism style painting. Image via nytimes.com

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