Junk Art - Art History 101 Basics

Mid 1950s-Present

From a distance, it looks like any other 2-D painting. There is a face replete with flesh tones on top of a neck rising out of a collared blue shirt. The face is capped with nondescript brown hair, and the background is simply dark. Moving closer, anomalies begin to creep in. This painting is larger than first glance suggested, and something is off with its highlights. The shading seems ... hyperreal.

Coming closer still, you realize that this isn't a painting, it's a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood covered with things. And only when you are as close as you can get do you realize that those "things" are recognizable. The flesh tones are naked dolls and pink tennis shoes; the hair includes brown toy cars and discarded combs; the shirt consists of blue marbles and a damaged Sonic the Hedgehog figurine; and the background contains broken pieces of LP records -- among other things. Many, many other things. It's a veritable "I Spy" game on steroids.

Congratulations! You have just had a close encounter of the Junk Art kind.

How Long Was the Movement?

Junk Art became an "official" movement when the critic Lawrence Alloway assigned those two words to one of Robert Rauschenberg's combines in the mid-1950s. This is shortly before other movements away from abstraction -- Pop Art, and Junk's kissing cousin Funk Art -- were born.

Of the three, Junk Art has proved itself the most durable movement: it continues to be made. In fact, there is no end in sight, seeing that we keep manufacturing items that end up in the trash.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Junk Art?

  • Illusion of Worthlessness

    When one takes the time to look closely, the junk in Junk Art can be confusing because, well ... it's junk! If it hadn't been welded, glued, stitched, or otherwise affixed to other pieces of junk, it would be taking up space in a landfill. Separately, the pieces are useless and unwanted; together they make art. By the way, the "worthlessness" is truly illusionary. Those Rauschenberg combines mentioned above? You would need to have well over $10 million US in liquid assets to begin to seriously bid on one at auction.

  • Deliberately Ugly Materials

    Only a sociopath would argue that pink plastic hair rollers, un-spooled cassette tape, or the electronic guts of a VCR are beautiful. Nearly any object utilized in Junk Art is unremarkable and unsightly in and of itself. The magic comes from the composition. The way the artist assembles the castaway pieces is frequently tantalizing.

  • Commercial and Urban Waste

    Though unstated, Junk Art implies that the human race lost its way at some point during the modern era and conflated "material goods" with "cheap." We will buy a pair of poorly-made shoes, for example, and throw them out when the glue (not the stitching) lets the sole flap free. When inventory doesn't move, stores pitch it into dumpsters and take tax write-offs. Appliances, electronics, and even automobiles have a planned obsolescence factor -- they are built to eventually fail, thus ensuring that we will buy more things to replace them. Junk Art provides irrefutable evidence that, yes, we behave this way.

  • Consumerism on Trial

    This characteristic is also implied. What does it say about society in developed nations that we throw things out at a staggering rate? And what does it say about Junk artists that they take the discarded, repurpose it, and elevate it to "fine art?"

    Historic Precedent

    Again as with Pop and Funk Art, Junk Art can be traced back to Dada (specifically the large scale assemblages of Kurt Schwitters). Credit for the invention of collage must of course go to Synthetic Cubism.

    Artists Associated with Junk Art

    • Robert Arneson
    • Wallace Berman
    • Lee Bontecou
    • Joan Brown
    • Alberto Burri
    • César
    • John Chamberlain
    • Ettore Colla
    • Bruce Conner
    • Jay Defeo
    • Lucio Fontana
    • David Gilhooly
    • Allan Kaprow
    • Kenneth Kemble
    • John Latham
    • Eduardo Paolozzi
    • Harold Paris
    • Noah Purifoy
    • Robert Rauschenberg
    • Carolee Schneemann
    • Richard Stankiewicz
    • Jean Tinguely


    Hoptman, Laura (et. al.). Unmonumental (exh. cat.).
         New York: Phaidon Press, 2007.

    Kulka, Tomáš. Kitsch and Art.
         University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1996.

    Purifoy, Noah and Michels, Ted.

    66 Signs of Neon (exh. cat.).
         Los Angeles, 1966.

    Stiles, Kristine. "Junk Art"
         Grove Art Online, accessed 25 Apr. 2012.

    Vergine, Lea. When Trash Becomes Art: Trash Rubbish Mongo.
         New York: Skira, 2007.

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    Esaak, Shelley. "Junk Art - Art History 101 Basics." ThoughtCo, May. 7, 2012, thoughtco.com/junk-art-art-history-182922. Esaak, Shelley. (2012, May 7). Junk Art - Art History 101 Basics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/junk-art-art-history-182922 Esaak, Shelley. "Junk Art - Art History 101 Basics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/junk-art-art-history-182922 (accessed December 11, 2017).