Post-conceptualism and digital art: the future of art?

Since the early 2010’s, a new generation of visual artists deeply influenced by the digital age has emerged. Most of them were born in the late 20th century, at a time were computers and high-tech equipment were spreading around the world. At the turn of the new millennium, they started using these tools to elaborate new forms of art, which are often referred to as post-conceptual or digital art, and soon gained critical acclaim and commercial success. You may have already heard their names: Wade Guyton, Cheney Thompson, Cory Arcangel, Kelley Walker or Jeff Elrod... and although some of them have seen their prices stagnate in recent years, their contribution to the History of art remains utterly important. We firmly believe that a bright future lies ahead of them.



When Wade Guyton broke his auction record with a $5,99 million canvas at Sotheby’s New York in 2014, the art industry realized that the new generation of post-conceptual artists could well become the future of art. Even though the movement lost momentum in the next few years on a commercial level, the technical and aesthetical innovations they introduced still have a great influence within the art world. 

Wade Guyton's record-breaking 5-million painting

The term « post-conceptual » was first coined at the California Institute of Art under the influence of John Baldessari. Indeed, the writer Eldritch Priest used the expression to qualify the artist’s works from the early 1970’s. The term regained popularity in the early 2010’s thanks to British philosopher and art critic Peter Osborne, who used it to describe a type of art that questions the traditional idea that art objects should convey a particular meaning. This interrogation has led post-conceptual artists to completely reinvent the way we perceive and make art.


On a technical level, this generation helped popularize the use of digital equipment as creative tools. For instance, Guyton developed his trademark style by using an Epson ink printer specialized in large-format prints to reproduce photographs, images and signs directly onto the canvas. Throughout the late 2000’s, Guyton explored a "vocabulary of simple shapes and letters drawn or typed in Microsoft Word" according to his own words, such as his signature « X » and flames, which can be seen on his record painting. 


An example of Jeff Elrod blurred computer painting

Computers also became a central tool for these artists, especially for Jeff Elrod, who regularly uses computer softwares such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to create futuristic abstract compositions which he prints on large-scale canvases. He then applies spray painting on the surface – he also uses brushes – to finish the work. During his digital experimentation, Elrod often reuses some of his past digital drawings, especially by zooming in and blurring certain elements. 


The process of digital printing combined with painting is also a key element of Albert Oehlen’s famous Computer Painting Series, which remains one of his most iconic series up to this day. Indeed, the auction record for these paintings was broken in 2017 with a $2.8 million large-scale work sold at Phillip’s London.


These new innovative techniques have transformed the art object itself by completely challenging the traditional aesthetic of two dimensional artworks. Indeed, an artist like Guyton, who calls his canvases « drawings, paintings and even sculptures », is using digitally manipulated and printed photographs to create his own visual grammar just like painters use paint to create compositions. 


Cory Arcangel broke his auction record with this $400,147 photoshop painting last October

This transformation is also visible in the works of an artist like Cory Arcangel, who explores the notion of reproducibility in the digital age. For instance, his most sought-after series Photoshop Gradient Demonstration uses the colour gradient tool of the software to create large colorful abstract prints. The name of each work contains the instruction to reproduce the same images with Photoshop, thus making it virtually possible to replicate the same composition over and over. With the help of new technologies, Arcangel questions the dogma of the uniqueness of the artwork, thus pushing the movement initiated by artists such as Andy Warhol – and his pioneering Campbell Soup Cans to name but a few – to the next level. 


The fascination towards systems and automated processes is another key characteristic of this artistic scene. Indeed, post-conceptual artists art often linked to generative art, which relies on autonomous systems to create artworks. Cheney Thompson’s work perfectly illustrates these concepts. Indeed, the American artist often uses paint stains on white canvases to explore the visual transcription of complex algorithms. For instance, his iconic abstract paintings from the Chronochrome series were composed using a colour system invented by Albert H. Munsell in order to determine the colour of each stain. Thompson also used a complex financial algorithm to create coloured clouds in his StochasticProcessPaintings series. 

One of Cheyney Thompson's Chronochromes, which was acquired for a record-breaking $317,000 in 2015

And yet, despite the revolutionary concepts brought by these artists, the movement failed to appear as a coherent artistic scene on a commercial level, contrary to the new generation of young figurative painters who have been performing very well at auction in the last few years. 


Indeed, the prices mostly depend on the artist's personal prestige rather his connection to the scene. While Oehlen’s Computer Paintings regularly cross the 1 million mark and Cory Arcangel’s Photoshop works keep rising at auction – the artist broke his auction record last October with a $400,147 painting sold at Phillip’s London – artists like Cheney Thompson, Jeff Elrod and Wade Guyton have stagnated recently.

This computer painting by Albert Oehlen sold for $2.81 million in 2017

And yet we believe that their work will gain momentum in the near future. Indeed, they will be remembered as the first generation who tried to reinvent painting and create a new visual vocabulary through the use of digital tools. We had not seen a more conceptually coherent artistic movement since the Abstract Expressionnists and the Pop revolution.


Post-conceptual artists are able to bring a positive response to these two major questions : do they say something about the world we live in ? Do they bring anything new to the History of art ? For this reason, we think that their works will perfectly fit in the museums of the future. And if they do, they market will most likely follow suit.

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