Advanced Search | Search A!:
Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

A Brief History of Installation Art

From the Past to the Present


Installation art is a relatively new approach in contemporary art emerging out of the discipline-blurring, irreverent artistic experimentations of the 1960s and '70s.

Rather than being a distinct art object, like a painting or a sculpture, installation typically encompasses an entire room or architectural space and is often, but not always, situated in a gallery or museum setting. The materials used, constraints of a given space and, most importantly, the intentions of the artist have resulted in incredibly varied types of installations. Some artists paint, draw, collage or sculpt directly on gallery walls. Others integrate video or other digital and new media into the work. Often the architectural space itself is altered either permanently or, more often, temporarily. Many installations also incorporate lighting, sound, even smell or temperature into the work.

Installation art can be understood as a whole bodily experience, something you walk into and inhabit. It takes into account not just art objects, but the venue itself, and the spaces in between things. It is more puzzling and less familiar than traditional art forms, so has more potential to surprise or shift perspective in the way traveling to an unfamiliar place can be.

Although installation art may appear at first to be utterly distinct from traditional art forms, in fact it has direct antecedents with avant-garde art of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is also part of the larger art historical trajectory reaching right back to the Renaissance.

The Renaissance initiated a passionate artistic obsession to achieve ever more convincing depictions of visual reality. Most artistic innovations from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century are improvements or variations on this visual realism.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, though, something distinctly new begins to occur in visual art. Some artists start to question the Renaissance traditions. They are no longer convinced that the best art is necessarily the most realistic. These avant-garde artists look for new approaches and new potentials. They feel that the virtuosic realism of the Renaissance tradition has grown stale and overly academic. It has lost its power to inspire, awe, or surprise. The avant-garde artists hope to reclaim this power by exploring states of mind, emotions, psychological or spiritual experience, political aspirations, and philosophical insights in their art. They begin to intuit that abstraction and other expressive approaches are capable of conveying these sorts of poignant, important, and ephemeral truths.

The avant-garde experimenters are also natural outsiders and social rebels. They are contrarians who want to find not only new ways to make art, but also new ways to live and think. They are idealists, dreamers, and visionaries who believe better things than the status quo are possible, and that new ways of living and making art can transform and improve society.

Today's installation art should really be understood within this same art historical narrative. By the time artists start to venture into installation in the mid-twentieth century, there is a growing sense that all traditional art forms, including those from the avant-garde period, have been played out. Many artists who work with installations talk about wanting to make something unfamiliar, unsettling, and surprising. They also hope to confound and blur distinctions between art and life. In other words, like their avant-garde forebearers, they want to shake art up, renew it and make it powerful and unexpected again.

As different as these art periods may seem at first, artists from the Renaissance right up to the present all want to make deeply-affecting work that can move people, make them think, and delight them with aesthetic beauty or profound ideas. Installation approaches allow artists to reckon with all the same aesthetic and philosophical concerns that art has always engaged with, but to do so in new ways ways that free artists up from routine expectations.

Installation also releases artists from the typical constraints of the art market because most installation art is difficult to sell or collect. So artists worry less about the dollar value of their art and concentrate on the meaning and experiences they are creating. This allows them to return once again to the roots of art — to inspire, transform, rethink, and contemplate the human condition.


— Installation Art at Two Local Venues


About Heather Harvey: A native of Syracuse, N.Y, Harvey is an artist and the director of The Charles Harris Library Gallery in Wise, Va. In 2007 she earned her MFA in Painting and Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2009, she received a Professional Artist Fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Harvey had her own exhibition of site-specific installation art at Washington and Lee University, followed by a solo show at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, both in 2009. Her artwork was selected for the 2010 exhibition "From These Hills: Contemporary Art of the Appalachian Highlands" at the William King Museum in Abingdon.

Topics: Art

Installation art by Heather Harvey