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History of Mixed Media

Part of the trouble that comes with defining mixed media is defining just what it is. For the sake of simplicity we’re going to define it as a work of art that contains two or more mediums which create a single, unified piece of art. Mixed media covers a wide spectrum of art. Although initial mixed media art was collage and adding material to two dimensional paintings it has grown to include art made entirely of recycled material, broad use of everyday materials and installation art. By this definition mixed media really began to come into it’s own during the early 20th Century. Many artists who prior to this time preferred canvas and paint began to explore adding different materials to their paintings. Early mixed media included the invention of collage and adding different materials to canvas paintings.

One such early contributor was Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). He began to explore collage around 1912, just as cubism was coming into popularity. These early forays into mixed media include the early piece Seated Harlequin (1901) which was simply oil on canvas mounted on cork board. By 1912 Picasso was creating works such as Man with Hat and a Violin. That piece utilized newspaper collage and charcoal and joined pieces of paper. Woman in White was another early exploration of mixed media. It was a mix of crayon, watercolor and oil on canvas. This mix created an interesting effect that was almost charcoal like in appearance. Picasso is, in fact, credited, at least in part, with the invention of collage.

Mixed media didn’t really start to come into it’s own until the mid-20th Century. The movement away from canvas based art was due in part to the American government supporting public art as part of the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression and a new generation of artists coming into their own all contributed to the rise. Movement away from the canvas and it’s inherent limitations meant many artists began using found objects to create sculptures and other three dimensional pieces, as well as installation art which can include technological elements, and is generally more permanent in nature. Even those who stuck to canvas often began exploring by using multiple mediums on the same canvas. One such mid-century artist is Jasper Johns. Born in 1930, in Augusta, Georgia he briefly attended the University of South Carolina and Parsons School of Design before serving in the Army during the Korean War. Upon returning to the states, Johns met Robert Rauschenberg, another prominent mid-century artist and the two quickly struck up a relationship. They would remain together until Rauschenberg’s death. Professionally, Johns is most famous for his work with flags, which are often depicted prominently in his work. In fact, one of his most famous works is called ‘Flag’. Johns’ prints in particular are famous for their revolutionary content of everyday objects. As such, in addition to being one of the first true mixed media artists Johns also helped drive forward pop art as well as minimalism and conceptual art. Johns relied on the viewer to interpret his art which allows for multiple interpretations and adds a layer of mystery to the true meaning of his art. He’s one of the most influential living artists, not only within his genre, but within art as a whole.

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Rhea Carmi is another artist whose work has featured prominently through the mid-20th Century. Born in Jerusalem, she is still active at 73 years old. She is known for her stunning, lively work that often has bright colors and utilizes basic shapes in new ways. Most of her work is mixed media and has included materials like old art supplies, nylons, natural materials like seeds and leaves, tar, and various forms of cloth. Often taking on a mix of collage and paint on canvas, her work has been featured prominently around the world. Some of her more interesting works include ‘Barren Earth’, made from tar, burlap, dirt, twine and paint on nine panels and her ‘Enchanted Forest’ series, which is evocative of various forests in different states of decay and in different seasons.

Modern mixed media art has seen a different sort of revolution in this millennium. In the past twenty years installation art, usually sculptures in a public place or other long term showing has become more and more popular. This is due in part to an increase in commissions. Digital and narrative art have also become key components of mixed media as artists have come up with new ways to infuse technology, both within more traditional pieces and as a medium on it’s own.

A great example of the use of technology would be Jeremy Lutes. Using a mixture of industrial products like steel and glass combined with LED lights and other electronics he creates replicas of various creatures, such as dragonflies and frogs. Pieces like ‘faerie’ light up a dark room beautifully and combine industry and the natural world in unique ways. Although he has lately moved to more sustainable art, Lutes remains a great mixed media artist.

Another modern mixed media artist is Laure Proust, a French born artist who currently works out of London. A Max Mara Art Prize for Women winner Laure Proust uses film as part of many of her installations. In addition, her installations have included motorbikes, sea shells, tapestries, and many of her video installations are shown within her art. This occurs by setting up a large screen and designing around it. Some of these installations have included cave-like structures with teapots on a shelf or take place in a large barn for a fully immersive experience.

Mixed media is only going to continue growing and evolving in new ways. The past century has been pivotal in mixed media emerging as a staying force in the art world. Even as once revolutionary ideas like collage become more commonplace there’s many more artists waiting in the wings to take mixed media to a whole new level.

List of Artists:

Adam Nisenson


Jasper Johns

'Flag' by Jasper Johns

Damien Hirst


Takashi Murakami







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