Defining Contemporary Art

25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks


A revolutionary history of the past 25 years in art


Daniel Birnbaum, Cornelia Butler, Suzanne Cotter, Bice Curiger, Okwui Enzwezor, Massimiliano Gioni, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Bob Nickas


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Price: USD$75.00



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About the book
Rising from the ashes of modernism and encompassing a staggering diversity of new forms, the twenty-five-year period beginning in 1986 is one of the most vibrant episodes in the history of art. It is also one of the least understood. Interpreting recent events is seldom easy, but making sense of today’s advanced art — decentred, complex and contrarian — requires innovative techniques and new approaches.

As the first comprehensive account of this period, Defining Contemporary Art is a groundbreaking study of the emergence of art as we now know it. The book’s radical approach to art history starts with its structure. Assembled and written by eight of the most highly respected curators working today, each of whom has both witnessed and shaped the period in question, Defining Contemporary Art tells the story of two hundred pivotal artworks from the past quarter century. These works, from the well-known to the quietly influential, share one achievement: they have irrevocably changed the course of art. Collected here, they provide a chronological depiction of art in our era, a mosaic in which readers may find their own patterns.

Each author has also profiled a single year as a key point in the trajectory of this period, tracing the shifts in the creative climate and examining the artistic breakthroughs that serve as the seeds of more conventional histories. Completing the book is a round-table discussion in which the eight authors deliberate the historical conditions and principal themes of this period.

In an era when artistic developments no longer proceed via tidy movements, when narratives of progress no longer hold sway, when the art world has not one centre but many, Defining Contemporary Art provides the reader with the essential materials to compose a picture of the most vital period in art: our own.


Defining Contemporary Art
Defining Contemporary Art


In The Press
'...the reader is tempted with an array of dazzling images and supporting essays to tease out their own grand narratives. Whether you are an art historian, collector or a casual art peruser, this survey of the past 25 years from a curatorial perspective is certainly a feast for the eyes.' The Huffington Post

'not only addresses the obstacle of pinning down the nebulous term "contemporary art," but also manages to pull off a legible presentation of it in a single book. . .Ultimately, Defining Contemporary Art functions as both a demonstration of contemporary curation and a poly-contextualized historical view.' Art Log


About the author(s)
Daniel Birnbaum is Director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Formerly Director of Portikus in Frankfurt, where he was also Rektor at the Staedelschule from 2001 to 2010, he has organized numerous international exhibitions, including the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009) and the 1st Moscow Biennial (2004). He writes regularly for a range of magazines, including Artforum and Domus, and he has contributed to a number of Phaidon publications, including Doug Aitken (2001) and Olafur Eliasson (2002).

Connie Butler is Chief Curator of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she has curated such exhibitions as ‘Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave’ (2008-09) and ‘Paul Sietsema Figure 3’ (2009) and co-curated ‘On Line: Drawing Through the 20th Century’ (2010-11). As Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from 1996-2005 she worked on numerous exhibitions, including ‘Afterimage: Drawing Through Process’ (1999), ‘Rodney Graham: A Little Thought’ (2004) and the major touring exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ (2007).

Suzanne Cotter is Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Curator of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project. In 2011 she co-curated the 11th Sharjah Biennial. From 2002 to 2010 she was Senior Curator at Modern Art Oxford, where her exhibitions included ‘Mike Nelson: Triple Bluff Canyon’ (2004), ‘Out of Beirut’ (2006) and ‘Pawel Althamer: Common Task’ (2009). She was curator of the Hayward Gallery in London from 1998 to 2002.

Bice Curiger has been Curator at the Kunsthaus Zurich since 1993, where her exhibitions have included ‘Birth of the Cool’ (1997), ‘Hypermental’ (2000) and ‘The Expanded Eye’ (2006). She is Editor-in-Chief of Parkett, which she co-founded in 1984, and Publishing Director of Tate etc. magazine. Her writing on contemporary art has been published in a range of magazines and books, including Phaidon’s Franz West (1999) and Fresh Cream (2000). In 2011 she was Artistic Director of the 54th Venice Biennale.

Okwui Enwezor is Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and Adjuct Curator at the International Center of Photography in New York. His exhibitions as an independent curator include ‘The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994’ (2001-02), ‘Global Conceptualism’ (1999-2000) and ‘Mirror’s Edge’ (1999-2000). He served as the Artistic Director of the 7th Gwangju Biennial (2008), Documenta 11 (2002) and the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1999). He writes regularly for a number of magazines and journals, and his books include Contemporary African Art Since 1980 (2009) and Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008).

Massimiliano Gioni is Associate Director at the New Museum, New York, and Artistic Director at Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan. He curated the 8th Gwangju Biennial in 2010, and in 2006 he curated the 4th Berlin Biennial with Ali Subotnick and Maurizio Cattelan, with whom he founded the Wrong Gallery in New York in 2002. His publications include contributions to Phaidon’s Maurizio Cattelan (2003), Ice Cream (2007) and Unmonumental (2007).

Bob Nickas is an independent curator based in New York. He has organized more than eighty exhibitions since 1984 and served on the teams responsible for Aperto at the Venice Biennale in 1993 and for the 2003 Biennale de Lyon. From 2003-06 he was Curatorial Advisor at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. The author of numerous essays in catalogues and monographs, his books include Phaidon’s Painting Abstraction (2009); a complete survey of his shows, Catalog of the Exhibition (2011); and two collections of his writing, Live Free or Die (2000) and Theft is Vision (2007).

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-Director of the Serpentine Gallery in London. Previously he was Curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and since 1991 he has curated over 250 exhibitions around the world, including ‘Utopia Station’ (2003), ‘Laboratorium’ (1999) and ‘Cities on the Move’ (1997). He is a contributing editor at magazines including Abitare, Artforum and 032c and has written for numerous Phaidon books, including including Ai Weiwei (2009), Anri Sala (2004) and Cream (1998). In 2011 he received the Bard College Award for Curatorial Excellence.


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