How to objectively define Contemporary Art in 2020?

[24 Jan 2020]

For the sake of coherence, clarity and transparency, Artprice’s editorial team has always divided Art History into five main periods with artworks being classified according to a simple and indisputable criterion… the birth year of their creators:

  • Old Masters’ … artists born up until 1760
  • 19th century’ … artists born from 1760 to 1860
  • Modern’ … artists born from 1860 to1920
  • Post-War’ … artists born between 1920 and 1945
  • Contemporary’ … artists born after 1945

2019 Contemporary Art auction turnover filtered by year of birth


As time advances, the period we refer to as ‘Contemporary Art’ is getting longer. It now covers artists as diverse as Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and Oscar Murillo (b. 1986), Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) and Kaws (b. 1974), Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) and Cory Arcangel (b. 1978). On the other hand, our classification excludes Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), David Hockney (b. 1937) and El Anatsui (b. 1944).

According to thierry Ehrmann, Artprice’s founder and CEO of “An objective ‘periodization’ of Art History helps us to study the market, its structure and its evolution, even if it means distinguishing – far too categorically sometimes – what is Contemporary from what is not. But the fact that Maurizio Cattelan generates thousands more Instagram posts than Marcel Duchamp and that a work by Kaws is suddenly as expensive as the best paintings by Pierre Soulages naturally raises numerous questions about the trends and contradictions that drive the Art Market, but also about the very notion of Contemporary art.”

In art, ‘Contemporary’ doesn’t mean ‘alive today’

How should we label the œuvres of Yayoi KUSAMA (b. 1929) or of Pierre SOULAGES (who has just celebrated his 100th birthday)? Although their careers began shortly after WWII, Kusama and Soulages produced some of their best works long after the deaths of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat… And yet, on the Art Market, Kusama’s and Soulages’s prices are growing gradually whereas those of Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, are still posting substantial volatility.

Perhaps we should see Contemporary art quite simply as art that has not yet become perfectly established. That’s the fundamental difference between Marcel DUCHAMP and Maurizio CATTELAN, between Duchamp’s Fontaine (1919) et Cattelan’s Comedian (2019). Whereas Duchamp’s famous urinal remains controversial, few question its place in Art History, whereas Cattelan’s banana taped to the wall still has a long way to go before it is accepted.

This distinction remains ambiguous for certain artists. Look at Jeff KOONS – there is a good chance today his work will be seen as having singularly marked the latter decades of the 20th century and his Rabbit (1986) sculpture is clearly already considered a kind of ‘classic’. However, his creations are still causing serious controversy and his approach to art has not yet been fully accepted. The recent Appeal Court ruling that Koons plagiarized the work of a French photographer in his work Naked (1988) is just the latest in a series of obstacles the American artist has faced.

Our birth-year analysis (based on 2019 results) throws up three exceptional dates… 1955, 1960 and 1974.

Born on the East coast of the United States exactly 10 years after WWII, Jeff Koons and Christopher Wool make 1955 the best ‘vintage’ in our Contemporary Art results ranking filtered by year-of-birth. Neither have ever represented the USA at the Venice Biennale, but their works have been acquired by major American museums for decades. Two other artists also made a significant contribution to the results of the 1955 vintage: Kerry James MARSHALL (born in Alabama), who has ranked among the world’s Top 100 artists by annual auction turnover (all periods combined) over the past two years, and the Chinese artist, ZHOU Chunya.

With an annual auction total of $129 million in 2019, Jean-Michel Basquiat still dominates the Contemporary Art Market. Almost alone, he made 1960 one of the best ‘vintages’ of the second half of the 20th century. Glenn LIGON, the second best performing artist born in 1960, contributed only $1.9 million.

Curiously, the new stars of Street Art, KAWS and BANKSY, were both born in 1974, on either side of the Atlantic… Kaws in Jersey City in the USA, and Banksy in Bristol, England.

So, despite its lack of flexibility and its limitations, the historical classification adopted by Artprice remains coherent with the auction results recorded in 2019 (filtered by birth-year). If a new start date were to be chosen for the ‘Contemporary’ category, it could be argued that the year 1965 would be a logical separation date. However, the continuing market volatility on works by several major artists born during the 20 years prior to 1965 – Albert OEHLEN (b. 1954), Rudolf STINGEL (b. 1956), ZHANG Xiaogang (b. 1958) and Damien HIRST (b. 1965) – suggests that their positions in Art History are still not yet fully established.