Guide to Mid Century Modern Art

Paintings, Wall Hangings, and Sculpture

In terms of home decor, Mid-Century Modern usually falls into the period from the mid-1940s through 1965. Some decorative arts historians and dealers extend that range to the late 1960s and early '70s when styles are appropriate. Keep in mind that not every work of art, whether high style or humble kitsch, will take on the Mid-century modern label, however.

The furniture deemed Mid-Century Modern that meshes with this art includes pieces, not surprisingly, that were often sculptural, yet very...MORE functional. The Eames Lounge Chair, for instance, is said to be one of the most comfortable loungers ever designed, but it has a distinctively forward-thinking look about it. 

Art objects created during this period were also as distinctive as the furniture deemed Mid-Century Modern. Some drew on Modernism principles defined earlier in the century by famed artists such as Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), while others reflected the post-war "atomic" style or popular culture of the 1960s. This artistry ranges from paintings, to sculptures, to textural wall hangings made of various materials. 

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    Mid-Century Paintings

    Man looking at Liz #6 by Andy Warhol
    A visitor looks at a painting by artist Andy Warhol entitled "Liz #6" during the press opening of the exhibition "Icones Americaines" (American Icons) at the Grand Palais on April 07, 2015 in Paris, France. Chesnot/Getty Images

    Comparing Mid-Century Modern painters encompasses a wide range of styles. Take Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Jackson Pollack (1912-1956) as two examples exhibiting the vast differences in artwork created during the Mid-Century period. And while their works are nowhere near the same, and Pollack was already deceased before Warhol hit the big time, both fit in with the current day homage to Mid-century style in their own unique ways. 

    Warhol's pop art renditions reflected the culture of the day...MORE with his famous Campbell's Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych, among many other iconic images. His bold use of color in most of his work, and repeating patterns in many of his paintings, give his art a very distinct look.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollack. Using drips and splatters of paint, he created works of art in a new way that brought him considerable fame during his lifetime and beyond. Today his original works, like Warhol's, are held in private collections and museums. Luckily, canvas prints and art posters are available for those wanting to enjoy the art of these and other Mid-Century painters in contemporary homes.

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    Mid-Century Wall Art Crafted of Wood, Glass, and/or Metal

    Erwin Walter Burger "Fish" Wall Panel
    "Fish" Wall Panel by Erwin Walter Burger, c. 1950s, made with Italian glass mounted on wood. 1stdibs

    Not all objects intended for the wall crafted from the mid-1940s through the early 1970s fall into the Mid-Century Modern category. Most that do, have an atomic feel that transforms ordinary geometric shapes into curves and waves. Or, they may have a Brutalist look about them with jagged edges and an artsy roughness that coordinates with furniture by Paul Evans, for instance. Sometimes they're just plain kitschy, featuring modernist images of long-necked cats, stylized fish, and the like.

    One...MORE of the best things about this type of wall art is that it shows up frequently at estate sales. You won't always find this wall decor at a bargain price. But objects of this nature weren't always created by an identifiable artist, so you can sometimes get the same great look without paying thousands for known works by big names in the field. 

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    Mid-Century Sculpture

    Whimsical Mid-Century Sculpture with Owls
    Whimsical Mid-Century Sculpture with Owls by an unknown artist, c. 1960s. 1stdibs

    Sculpture from the Mid-century period also runs the gamut from high to low in style as well as value. 

    Sculptures by Harry Bertoia (1915-1978), who is also known for his furniture designs manufactured by Knoll, are avidly sought by modernism aficionados. He is associated with his "sound art" along with free-form works and bush-shaped designs made of welded metal. Some of these large-scale installations once decorated massive walls in office buildings. Many of these use large wires, either...MORE straight or curved, that are welded into position to form modern masterpieces. These can sell for sums well into the six figures. 

    There are many other examples of sculptural works from this period that cost far less. You can also find at these estate sales, and if you're really lucky, at thrift stores. Pieces with superb design and craftsmanship can sell into the low thousands through a knowledgable dealer. Amateur sculptures, which actually may be signed by the artist, can sell for far less. Some of them are quite colorful and fun in the right home setting, like the owl sculpture shown here.