MMoCA Collects MMoCA Collects


MMoCA Collects

Modern Art/Contemporary Art: MMoCA Collects is an online exhibition that highlights 36 works of art from the permanent collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Artists, works of art, themes, styles, media, chronology, and geography come together in an interactive study that forms an introduction to modern and contemporary art.


The terms "modern art" and "contemporary art" have had a variety of meanings over time. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, artists, museums, art critics, art dealers, and collectors reached general agreement on the definition of these two art traditions and their relationship to each other.


Modern art refers to a major phase in the history of western art that began in the later nineteenth century and reached a culminating point in the 1960s. Modern art was based on the notion that a work of art is a personal record of an artist's experiences. The previous tradition in western art that originated with the Italian Renaissance held that a work of art reflected the artist's direct observation of nature. Artists sought to depict nature and the human figure in perceptual terms, creating a facsimile in painting or sculpture of our optical experience of the world. This representational approach was put to the service of primarily visualizing a shared public culture of religion, mythology, and history.

Renaissance realism in art continued into the modern era, but revolutionary new attitudes led to stylistic developments that allowed artists to express private states-of-mind through the simplification and exaggeration of natural color and shape. Some artists took this idea further and created an art of pure color and shape that did not represent the world as seen by the eye.

Art writers in the modern tradition presented the history of new art as a sequence of art movements and radical styles that was progressive–with a premium on innovation. Oil painting dominated discussions of modern art; its contributions were the most significant.

Modern art was also largely a history of male artists of European descent. There were, however, notable exceptions. A small number of women artists got around the tastes of the art market and the restrictions of art institutions to achieve recognition and a degree of celebrity.


Contemporary art had its beginnings in the early 1970s, resulting in part from a general challenge to the authority of state and cultural institutions dominated by men and exclusivist policies. Contemporary art, also identified with the term postmodernist art, has been in many ways a continuation of the ideals of modern art–its themes, styles, and, most importantly, the concept of the work of art as private expression. The contemporary work of art, however, tends to be more confessional and autobiographical as it explores personal identity in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. There has also been no simple chronological or linear progression of styles and art movements that marked modern art. Artists and art writers have placed a new premium on the acceptance of a diversity of styles and outlooks. A new pluralism characterizes contemporary art.

Oil painting has sustained its importance in contemporary art but is perceived as traditional. Critical recognition of photography, sculpture, the print, and new media and formats–such as video art, electronic-based media, and installation art–challenged the high status oil painting held in the modern tradition.

In the wake of the social reforms of the 1960s, women gained greater recognition in the market place and cultural institutions. A new standing for women artists reflected western culture's changing attitudes to the roles of women in society. It also helped pave the way for the inclusion and economic viability of artists of color, non-European ethnicity, and diverse sexual orientations.


Modern Art/Contemporary Art/MMoCA Collects has been funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent Federal grant-making agency dedicated to creating and sustaining a nation of learners by helping libraries and museums serve their communities; and generous support from the Steinhauer Charitable Trust and American Family Insurance.

Richard H. Axsom, PhD, was principle author of MMoCA Collects; Faith B. Miracle edited the text; Greta Seckman designed the website; Jeanell Dailey, Susan Hoffman, Ann Perry Parker, Susan Sewell, and Larry Stephens developed lesson plans for works of art in the exhibition; and Hyperion Studios provided photographic services.

Modern Art/Contemporary Art/MMoCA Collects is a project of the MMoCA Education Department. © 2005.