90s Art and Its Bequest to Contemporary Art

Art History

October 17, 2016

The last ten years of the second millennium impacted numerous ways in which we function as a society, leaving a mark we feel even today. The shifts caused by the digital revolution and globalization made the Earth feel like a smaller place whilst various life choices that were considered to be taboo became a normal occurrence. Ultimately, such deeply rooted changes within our mindsets and societies shaped our modern lives for the long run. They also had a massive impact on the scenes in all corners of the planet, setting new norms and standards to follow. This revolutionary period was marked the most by the aforementioned globalization. Additionally, the social and political issues the 90s art addressed resulted in some of the most iconic and awe-inspiring pieces the 20th century has ever seen - and poetically speaking, the last artworks this century offered to history.

For the most of us, the times of the 90's nostalgic seem to be something that ended only recently. This may be a great indicator that we are all slowly getting older but it also helps to put the artists of that period in a certain new light - first pieces of the 1990s occurred over twenty-five years ago. No matter how you contextualize it or may be in denial about your age, this is a long period of time and much has changed since then. As a matter of fact, our museums and universities which can be described as guardians of the past have started treating this period as ancient history. So, let us leave the sentimental emotions aside for the moment and dive right into the 90s art from a certain perspective that may prove to be a painful one for some - a standpoint which imposes historical rigor on a period we still commonly call recent.

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Daniel J Martinez - Admissions Button, 1993 - Image via huffingtonpost.com

Global Circumstances of the 1990s

Surprisingly enough, if one desires to investigate the pieces that originated from the 1990s time frame, that person would not need to start with aesthetics or concepts behind the pieces. They would need to begin by understanding the economics of the period. The period that occurred before the 90s was marked by a strong note of frenzied stock market happenings as the over the top aggressive sales of pieces was a regular occurrence[1]. But in the year of 1991, however, the market crashed spectacularly. Galleries around the globe started shutting their doors due to bankruptcy, prices of pieces plummeted by more than 50% of their original worth and investors simply stopped putting in so much cash into the scene. The situation became so dire that Mary Boone, the influential 80s dealer, stated the following in the midst of the crash: Value in everything is being questioned. The psychology in the 80's was excess; in the 90's, it's about conservation. Subsequently, the pieces went through numerous hoops of retrenchment and rethinking.

Putting the financial strain the scenes of the 1990s were plagued with aside for the moment, there were many other aspects that shaped and defined what the current period would treat as artistic expression. For starters, topics such as race, sexuality and multiculturalism were hotly debated at the start of the 90s, providing a unique creative battlefield for all those feeling brave enough to express themselves in such roasting hot themes[2]. The stage was truly set during the year of 1993, at the now iconic and controversial Whitney Biennial. During this historic event, the by far most famous artwork was designed by the famous Daniel J Martinez - he presented the public with an admissions button upon which he wrote I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White. This controversial piece now enjoys a cult status, but back in 1993, there were many debates about whether Daniel J Martinez's creation was a notable artwork or just a cheap provocation and attention magnet.

Of course, the globalization also had a massive impact on the scene as well, arguably the greatest alteration this aspect of our lives had ever fallen victim to. The rise of the WWWW had a strong influence on quite a few characteristics of creative making. For starters, it opened a window of opportunity to literally anyone to present their pieces to the wider public. Anyone who desired to test themselves in any field had an opportunity to do so, additionally seeking out any online help they needed in the process as well. The invention of the Internet alter-existence also provided an additional hit to the market as suddenly going to galleries and museums became an alternative to just simply sitting at your home and clicking on your computer. Finally, the World Wide Web completely got rid of any financial investing in the creation production process - at least for some mediums and fields within them. Logically, this was a process and it took some time for the Web to develop and establish itself - but after it was through with the introduction, the scene was never quite the same again.

Elizabeth Peyton - Kurt (Left) ---- David Bowie (Right) - Images via york exhibition
Elizabeth Peyton - Kurt (Left) / David Bowie (Right) - Images via newcriterion.com and pinterest.com

Notable Qazi-Movements

Symbolically reflected by the Berlin wall event that occurred about a year before the 1990s even begun, the last decade of the second millennium was the time when national boundaries came crashing down in a glorious blaze of fire[3]. Besides this changing the entire worldwide situation, this was also a meaningful way of delineating the artistic style. In the book titled Relational Aesthetics (1998), the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud stated that artsitic expression had become no longer a collection of objects but a state of encounter - the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. Interestingly, only a handful of people from the 1990s worked in traditional media - Elizabeth Peyton is one of the first names that comes to mind, as well as Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Most of the artists we now think of as representing the 1990s abandoned a commitment to any one medium and started to work on creating objects, events or experiences that visitors interacted with directly. They’ve also enjoyed combining different movements together[4], as the case was with Massurrealism.

Advancing the Digital

This comes as no surprise, but the field that advanced itself the most during the 1990s was the digital expression. Although there were earlier takes on creating computer pieces, underlined by Andy Warhol's digital creation made using a Commodore Amiga in July 1985, the technological advancements of the last decade of the 20th century was able to provide the artists with an incredibly large amount of variety. There were some who questioned the validity of digital creation, especially in the early stages of the 90s, but this method eventually transformed activities such as painting, drawing, sculpture and sound into approachable and manageable techniques. Poetically speaking, the digital expression of the 90s set the stage for the computer medium of the early third millennium, which ultimately proved to be the golden time for this particular field.

Andy Warhol - Campbell's - Image via computerhistoryorg
Andy Warhol - Campbell's - Image via computerhistory.org

Immersive Step Forward With Installations

Whilst the representatives of the Young British Artists (YBA) such as Damien Hirst had already cemented a name for themselves during the previous decade, their pieces made in the 90s broke new grounds. Their Installation practices of this period explored new veins of Minimalism, Conceptual, Performance and Body art. Through their works, these British young creative forces desired to dissolve the distinctions between creation and life, while also cutting new metaphors for the market. Although the YBA presented us with numerous provocative pieces, other individuals such as the famous Maurizio Cattelan took it to another level - this Italian artist became an over the night controversial sensation when he decided to steal the entire content of a nearby gallery and then pass it off as his own work.

Be sure to check out works by Damien Hirst on our marketplace!

Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of exhibition in New York exhibitions, 2016 - Image courtesy of the artist
Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,1991- Image courtesy of the artist

New Takes on Photography

Photography, too, reached towards immense size and complexity as well as installations. The true highlight of the decade in that regard was the moment Andreas Gursky touched the nerve of postmodern aesthetics by manipulating his vast photographs, often aimed at capturing globalized systems of commerce with digital technology. Canadian photographer Jeff Wall had his own take on the new large-scale images by showing how color transparencies could work with cinematic and documentary approaches. By doing so, Wall managed to stage the amazing scenes that gave a nod to banner works of history, as was the case with A Sudden Gust of Wind in 1993.

Contact the home support and like the video
Andreas Gursky - 99 Cents, 1999 - Image via crafthubs.com


With a rather unique theory placed behind it, Toyism was a qazi-movement that originated in the 1990s in Emmen, Netherlands. As one may suppose, the title was coined as to symbolize the playful character of the artworks and the philosophy it represented. Regardless of that fact, Toyism was and still is a serious matter that shows a new, critical and sensitive perspective on our present-day world. This movement was a reaction to the post-modern realm of individualism regularly attributed to the 90s. Historians agree that Toyism's name originated in the year of 1990 when Toyist Dejo made a graphic work which was titled Escape of computer spiders.

Toyist Dejo - Berlage pink - Image via toyismcom
Toyist Dejo - Berlage pink - Image via toyism.com


Stuckism was an international movement established in the year of 1999 by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. The duo of artists wanted to promote figurative painting as an opposite and better alternative to conceptual creations. When Childish and Thomson issued several manifestos and realized they had many supporters, they formed a group of 13 British authors that literally exploded into 233 groups in 52 different countries. The group and the movement they've represented eventually grew into Remodernism, which basically had the same goals as Stuckism - to get back to the true spirit of modernism, to produce pieces with spiritual value regardless of style, subject matter or medium.

York museum held an exhibition in 2016, meant to be just like the 90s exhibitions
Billy Childish - Man and Woman Leaning on Boom - Image via flavorwire.com

Ever-lasting 1990s

Although this theory is indeed a bit dark, it still serves as an interesting perspective from which we can observe and analyze the 90s. In one of his finest written pieces, political theorist Francis Fukuyama claimed that history as we know it ended in the year of 1989 - all the big questions had all been answered, making the 90s effectively the first decade of human existence of a final era of democratic capitalism[5]. Although this concept was proved to be false by the beginning of the 21st century, one can't help but wonder if Fukuyama's theory might be applicable to culture. For as long as there are humans, there will be artists and this is not even remotely debatable, but the 1990s were indeed the period that put an end to the regular succession of periods and movements typically found in history. When observed from such a grim perspective, the 90s really do seem to have introduced a long era of stasis to our culture. These years defined how we as a society see and treat authors and their pieces, how galleries are attended, the way it interferes with other aspects of our society and, of course, the relationship it has with the Internet. The ever-lasting presence of these norms is more than present in our current scenes and artistic circles. Whether this is a sign that the 90s art did an extremely good job of defining the standards and rules of the creation playground or if more recent periods were simply as not imaginable remains to be seen[6]. Regardless of that possibly dire theory, the legacy of the 90s art is visible in almost all fields of the modern scene and we do not see this changing any time soon.

Editors’ Tip: Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s

Come as You Are is the first major museum survey to historicize art made in the United States during this pivotal decade. Showcasing approximately sixty-five works by forty-five artists, the book includes installations, paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, video, sound and digital. Come as You Are offers an overview of pieces made in the United States between 1989 and 2001, a period bookended by two indelible events: the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. The book is organized around three principal themes--the “identity politics” debates, the digital revolution, and globalization; its title refers to the 1992 song by Nirvana and to the issues of identity that were complicated by effects of new technologies and global migration.


  1. Sandler, I., Postmodern Era: From The Late 1960s To The Early 1990s, Westview Press, 1997
  2. Weintraub, L., On the Edge and Over, 1970s-1990s, Insights, Inc., 1996
  3. Orozco, G., Davies, H., Kamps, T., Lateral Thinking, Museum of San Diego, 2002
  4. Cork, R., Breaking Down the Barriers, Yale University, 2002
  5. Welchman, J., After Appropriation, London: Routledge, 2001
  6. Allen, J., Berrebi, S., von Bismarck, B., Right About Now, Valiz, 2008

Featured images: Damien Hirst - Mother and Child (Divided),1993- Image courtesy of the artist; Jeff Wall - A Sudden Gust of Wind, 1993 - Image via imageobjecttext.com; Maurizio Cattelan - Ave Maria, 2007 - Image via art21.org

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