What Were the Lost Art Movements of the ’90s?


 The ’90s were a fascinating era filled with remarkable cultural shifts, from the rise of grunge music to the explosion of the internet. But what about the art scene of this decade? While many people remember the ’90s for its music, fashion, and technology, the art movements that emerged during this time often remain hidden in the shadows of history.

In this blog, we’re going to explore the world of “lost” art movements from the 1990s. These movements, despite their innovative and thought-provoking contributions, have often been overlooked or forgotten. 

The ’90s Art Scene: A Brief Overview

The 1990s was a time of cultural dynamism and change. It was a decade characterized by grunge music, the birth of the World Wide Web, and a shift in popular culture. But beyond these well-known aspects, the art scene of the ’90s was a treasure trove of creativity.

Cultural Backdrop of the 1990s

During the ’90s, the world was experiencing a transformation. The Cold War had ended, and the spread of technology was changing how people lived and communicated. In the art world, this changing landscape became a canvas for fresh ideas.

Key Artists and Influential Art Movements

The ’90s witnessed the rise of several influential art movements and artists:

Graffiti Art: Street art transcended its urban origins as artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring took their skills of painting graffiti from city walls to prestigious galleries. They challenged traditional definitions of art and added a fresh, raw energy to the scene.

Neo-Expressionism: Artists such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat were prominent figures in the Neo-Expressionist movement. Their bold, emotionally charged brushwork explored themes of identity, race, and society, making a profound impact on contemporary art.

Young British Artists (YBAs): Across the pond in the UK, the Young British Artists gained international recognition. Damien Hirst, known for his provocative installations featuring preserved animals, and Tracey Emin, famous for her intimate and confessional works, pushed boundaries and challenged conventions.

Installation Art: Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama were pioneers in the realm of installation art. Koons’s giant balloon animals and Kusama’s immersive polka-dot environments were groundbreaking, provoking thought and discussion about the nature of art itself.

These artists and movements were instrumental in shaping the art landscape of the ’90s, setting the stage for the emergence of lesser-known but equally impactful movements we’ll explore in later sections.

Forgotten and Overlooked Art Movements

In the bustling pop culture of the 1990s, a few remarkable movements and artists managed to shine brightly but have since been obscured by the passage of time. Let’s delve into these lesser-known yet impactful art movements, supported by facts and examples:

1. The Riot Grrrl Art Movement

The Riot Grrrl movement began in the Pacific Northwest in the early ’90s. It was a feminist punk rock movement that aimed to address issues like sexism, patriarchy, and gender inequality through art and music. Riot Grrrls organized zine-making workshops, art exhibitions, and punk rock concerts.

Prominent Artists and Contributions: Kathleen Hanna, a prominent figure in this movement, fronted the influential band Bikini Kill. The band’s energetic music and DIY aesthetic were instrumental in spreading Riot Grrrl ideas. Riot Grrrl zines, such as “Jigsaw,” “Bikini Kill,” and “Girl Germs,” featured art, writing, and feminist discussions, reaching a diverse audience.

2. Neo-Pop Art

Neo-Pop art, a revival of the Pop Art movement from the 1960s, celebrated consumerism, popular culture icons, and everyday objects. Artists in this movement often used bright colors and bold, eye-catching imagery.

Notable Artists and Their Impact: Jeff Koons’s stainless steel sculptures of balloon animals, like “Balloon Dog,” challenged the boundaries between high and low art. Takashi Murakami’s superflat style incorporated elements of Japanese pop culture and anime, influencing contemporary art globally.

3. Post-Internet Art

Post-Internet art emerged as the internet became a central part of daily life. Artists in this movement explored how digital technologies and online culture influenced art and identity.

Groundbreaking Artists: Ryan Trecartin’s video art, such as “A Family Finds Entertainment,” used a frenetic, collage-like style to capture the digital age’s disjointed nature. Petra Cortright’s digital paintings, created using software and online platforms, challenged traditional notions of painting.

4. Afrofuturism in Visual Art

Afrofuturism in visual art combined African and African-American cultural elements with futuristic and speculative narratives. It encouraged artists to reimagine a future where black culture played a central role.

Pioneering Artists and Their Significant Works: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork, like “Irony of Negro Policeman,” fused African imagery with urban themes, exploring racial identity. Contemporary artists like Wangechi Mutu and Saya Woolfalk have created imaginative and otherworldly works that continue to contribute to the Afrofuturist genre.

Important: These art movements challenged conventions, pushed boundaries, and addressed important social and cultural issues. Unfortunately, they often remained on the fringes of mainstream recognition due to various factors, including limited exposure, commercialization of the art world, and a lack of representation.

If you want to discover more classic art and design styles, you may read our article about the 80s art and design movements that are uniquely influential.

Why Were These Movements “Lost” or Overlooked?

In our exploration of the forgotten and overlooked art movements of the 1990s, it’s essential to understand why these remarkable expressions of creativity faded into obscurity. Several factors contributed to the relative anonymity of these movements, even as they made significant contributions to the art world. We’ll delve into these factors and also examine how these movements continue to exert influence on contemporary art.

Factors Contributing to the Obscurity of These Art Movements

There are several reasons why art movements got obscure over time, and we’ll shine the light on a few. 

Commercialization of the Art World

The commercialization of art, driven by market forces and the ever-growing art market, played a significant role in relegating these movements to the background. Galleries and collectors often favored art that was more easily marketable and could fetch high prices. This preference for marketability sometimes sidelined art that was more experimental or politically charged.

Neo-Pop artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami found commercial success, but their prominence may have overshadowed other movements that didn’t align with the commercial taste of the art market.

Dominance of Mainstream Art Movements

The ’90s saw the emergence of art movements that captured widespread attention, such as Neo-Expressionism and the YBAs. These mainstream movements enjoyed extensive media coverage and became more closely associated with the decade. As a result, other movements struggled to break into the spotlight.

The YBAs, with their sensational and often controversial works, garnered immense media attention, sometimes eclipsing the less sensational but equally significant Riot Grrrl or Post-Internet art.

Lack of Representation and Recognition

Many artists and movements that we’ve discussed faced a lack of representation in mainstream galleries, museums, and art history narratives. This lack of recognition made it challenging for these artists to gain the exposure they deserved.

Afrofuturist artists like Wangechi Mutu and Saya Woolfalk were not as prominently featured in mainstream art institutions as some of their peers, despite the groundbreaking nature of their work.

How These Movements Continue to Influence Contemporary Art?

While these movements may have been overlooked in their time, their influence on contemporary art is undeniable. They have left a lasting legacy that continues to shape the artistic landscape today:

Feminism and Activism in Art

The Riot Grrrl movement’s fusion of feminism, punk rock, and visual art left an indelible mark. Contemporary artists, particularly women and marginalized groups, draw inspiration from this movement to address issues like gender inequality, identity, and activism in their work.

Artists like Jenny Holzer, who incorporates text and social commentary into her art, carry forward the spirit of feminist activism seen in Riot Grrrl art.

Pop Culture and Consumerism

Neo-Pop art’s fascination with pop culture icons and consumerism continues to influence contemporary artists who explore themes related to mass media, celebrity culture, and consumerist society.

Pop artist KAWS, known for his reinterpretations of popular characters like Mickey Mouse, builds upon the legacy of Neo-Pop art in the contemporary art world.

KAWS Mickey Mouse

Technology and the Internet

Post-Internet art’s engagement with digital technologies and online culture resonates with today’s artists navigating the ever-expanding digital realm. It inspires the creation of art that reflects our increasingly digital lives.

Internet artist Cory Arcangel, who repurposes digital and online content in his work, embodies the spirit of Post-Internet art in the 21st century.

African Heritage and Futurism

Afrofuturism in visual art, with its exploration of identity and futurist narratives, continues to provide a platform for artists of African and African-American descent to tell their stories and envision diverse futures.

Contemporary artists like Mickalene Thomas, known for her vibrant and textured portraits, draw upon the visual and cultural elements of Afrofuturism in their work.

Rediscovering the ’90s Art Movements

While the ’90s art movements we’ve explored may have been somewhat overshadowed during their time, they are far from forgotten. In fact, contemporary artists, curators, and art historians are actively working to revive and celebrate these movements, ensuring that their legacies continue to inspire and shape the art world today.

Contemporary Artists Drawing Inspiration from the ’90s Movements

One of the most compelling aspects of these ’90s art movements is their enduring influence on contemporary artists. Many artists today draw inspiration from the innovative approaches, themes, and styles pioneered by their predecessors from the ’90s. Here are a few ways in which contemporary artists continue to pay homage to these movements:

Riot Grrrl Revival: Contemporary musicians like Kathleen Hanna herself (of Bikini Kill fame) and bands like Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot are carrying forward the Riot Grrrl spirit, addressing contemporary feminist issues and using their art as a platform for activism.

Neo-Pop Resurgence: Artists like KAWS, who began his career in street art and graffiti, have gained international acclaim for their reinterpretations of pop culture icons. KAWS’s colorful, larger-than-life sculptures and paintings maintain a Neo-Pop aesthetic while engaging with contemporary themes.

Post-Internet Exploration: In the digital age, artists like Amalia Ulman and Trevor Paglen investigate the effects of the internet on society and identity. They build upon the foundations laid by Post-Internet artists by creating thought-provoking digital art and installations.

Afrofuturism Reimagined: Contemporary artists, including Kehinde Wiley and Toyin Ojih Odutola, are at the forefront of Afrofuturism, expanding upon the movement’s themes of identity and futurism. Their work brings Afrofuturist narratives into the contemporary art world with renewed vigor.

Exhibitions and Retrospectives Showcasing Forgotten Movements

Another significant effort in rediscovering ’90s art movements involves organizing exhibitions and retrospectives that bring these movements back into the spotlight. These exhibitions provide a platform for both artists from the ’90s and contemporary artists who draw inspiration from them. Some notable exhibitions include:

“Riot Grrrls” at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA): In 2020, MOCA hosted an exhibition dedicated to the Riot Grrrl movement, featuring artworks, zines, and music from the ’90s, as well as contemporary artists influenced by Riot Grrrl. This exhibition celebrated the movement’s continued relevance.

“Neo-Pop Now!” at the Whitney Museum: The Whitney Museum in New York City organized an exhibition in 2019 that explored the resurgence of Neo-Pop art in contemporary culture. It showcased works by artists like KAWS alongside those of ’90s Neo-Pop pioneers.

“Post-Internet Art: Then and Now” at the Tate Modern: The Tate Modern in London held an exhibition that traced the evolution of Post-Internet art from its ’90s roots to its contemporary manifestations. It highlighted the ongoing impact of the movement on digital and visual culture.

“Afrofuturism: Black Imaginary Futures” at the Studio Museum in Harlem: This exhibition, hosted in 2021, featured a diverse range of artists exploring Afrofuturist themes in their work. It aimed to connect contemporary artists with the roots of Afrofuturism in the ’90s.

Final Words

The art movements of the ’90s may have been hidden for a while, but they’re making a comeback. Contemporary artists are inspired by them, exhibitions are celebrating their legacies, and art historians and curators are working hard to preserve their stories. These movements, like Riot Grrrl, Neo-Pop, Post-Internet, and Afrofuturism, have left a lasting mark on art. 

They tackled important issues, challenged conventions, and continue to shape art today. So, while they may have been lost in the past, these ’90s art movements are finding their way back into the spotlight, reminding us of their creativity and impact. Exploring the obscure art movements of the 90s gives us context for the cultural shifts that followed. Our article, How Did the 2000s Influence Today’s Social Movements?, takes the narrative forward, examining how the creative and social currents of the 2000s laid the groundwork for the contemporary activism and societal changes we see today.

Explore the forgotten art movements of the 90s and understand their unique creativity! Curious about how the Dada Movement shook up the art world? Check out our article, How Did the Dada Movement Challenge Conventional Art Norms? for insights into its revolutionary impact.

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