Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Modern Materials: Plastics

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The development of plastics from the mid-nineteenth century to the present has profoundly changed the materials of our physical world. As plastics inundated the home, workplace, and every industry and profession, they also found their place as a material for the creation of art.

Plastic has become a general term for synthetic materials that, as their name connotes, can be bent, molded, or formed into any shape, be it rigid, flexible, or liquid. The earliest plastics were actually modifications of natural materials. Horn, amber, shellac, and tortoiseshell can all be manipulated into forms by heating. In the nineteenth century, the world of synthetic chemistry began to boom, resulting in the new technologies of the chemical, dye, paper, and textile industries.

Although developed in the mid-nineteenth century for commercial purposes, it is the twentieth-century artist who has adopted plastics as an art material.


Index Terms (40)

Art Movement/Style



Material and Technique


Related Field Subject Matter/Theme

Subject Matter/Theme


Cellulose Plastics
One of the first plastics manufactured, discovered in 1856 and refined in 1877, was cellulose nitrate, also known as Celluloid. It was made from chemically treated cotton and was easily molded into a myriad of shapes, from billiard balls to false teeth. Cellulose nitrate was so versatile that it also became a material for replicating tortoiseshell, ivory, and horn for the numerous mass-produced items that were being offered to the public through new institutions such as the department store and the mail-order catalogue. Additionally, cellulose nitrate was the first flexible transparent sheet for photographic negatives and movie film. This wonderfully adaptable material did have some problems: it yellowed, cracked, and soon after creation became highly flammable.

The demand for mass-produced items at an affordable price drove plastics industry innovations and the invention of a plethora of new materials and uses. One such material is cellulose acetate, a cotton-based synthetic plastic that was marketed as Secoid in the early twentieth century. It was tough and had a rich gloss, high transparence, and good hand feel. For these reasons, it was often used to make items that were frequently handled or had a preciousness about them, such as the lustrous red box by Lalique (24.145.3ab) Cellulose acetate was also adopted by the burgeoning movie industry as a film that did not "ignite" and therefore it was called "safety film." Another important solid plastic was Bakelite (phenolic resin), introduced into popular use in the 1920s for radios (2000.600.14), handbags, and jewelry and other small objects. The twentieth century, particularly from 1935 on, saw the invention of Styrofoam, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), acrylic, polyurethane, epoxy, cellophane, nylon, and synthetic rubber and textile fibers.

Solid Plastic as a "Drawing" Medium
As early as 1938, artist Charles Biederman used plastic sheeting to create the planar forms of his work New York, Number 18 (1980.419). This shallow relief uses plastic as the main medium. The shot of yellow from the dyed plastic illustrates the capacity of plastics to have bright intense colors even when transparent.

British artist Richard Hamilton and the Independent Group advocated the use of modern media to create modern art. This group was formed in 1952, not coincidentally around the time when synthetic paints began to replace traditional household paints in the United Kingdom. Hamilton expanded his use of synthetic media in his subsequent prints, drawings, and paintings. In Palindrome (2000.382), however, he used plastic as plastic (not as a paint coating or substitute for a natural material) as the principle "medium." Palindrome is made from a sheet of lenticular plastic laminated onto a print. Lenticular plastic is designed with a precise parallel array of lenticules or lenses. Each lens is capable of magnifying the image aligned below it. This allows a viewer, by a slight shift in position, to see another image. You see the artist, you see the artist looking in a mirror; he uses the technology of the plastic to amplify the idea of simultaneous seeing. Plastics are also used in the work of Agnes Denes (1983.501.3), where the clear and glossy properties of the overlaid sheet become integral to the multilayered drawing.

Plastics as Paint
In the early twentieth century, hard plastic materials were also chemically manipulated to create paints and coatings. The industrial demand was great and the scarcity of raw materials made synthetic alternatives very attractive. Early synthetic paints were made from either cellulose nitrate or by adding alkyds to traditional oil paints. These new paints are often called lacquer or enamel. Ripolin was one of the first brands of these synthetic paints and was used by Pablo Picasso (1996.403.1). These paints had faster drying times than traditional oil paint and could be used with oil and oil mixtures. At the time, this was important to the paint industry and artists alike. Painters knew how to work with oil paints and could predict their behavior. A synthetic paint that could simulate oil was a selling point during the early development of plastic paints.

Industrial Paints
In the United States, synthetic paints began to replace natural materials in household paints in the 1930s. Artists at this time also migrated toward these materials. They were cheaper and more readily available, especially during World War II, when natural raw materials were difficult to obtain. They also appealed to artists who wanted to experiment with nontraditional materials to create nontraditional art. David Alfaro Siqueiros, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning (1984.613.7) were some of the artists who turned to industrial paints in the creation of their works. In Jackson Pollock's ink and enamel drawing of ca. 1948–49 (1982.147.27), the red synthetic paint has a raised body and shiny appearance. The physical characteristics of this synthetic paint, which allow it to flow and drip, are integral to Pollock's unconventional methods. This paint can capture movement and gesture, from the finest line to the largest blobs, reflecting the speed and angle of application.

Cellulose nitrate—based paints were particularly well suited to spray application. In David Smith's DS 1958 of 1958 (1994.399), a preparatory drawing for a sculpture, the artist sprayed several colors, including a metallic copper paint, over partially masked paper to delineate the forms of the sculpture. The cellulose nitrate paint is rich in color, both transparent and opaque, and also relates to the type of paint Smith sometimes used to coat his large metal structures.

Acrylics for Artists
The development of acrylic paints specifically for artists by Bocour Colors in the late 1940s and early '50s was one of the most significant innovations in artists' materials. These first paints were acrylic resin solutions. Marketed as Magna, these highly pigmented paints, which could be thinned with turpentine and used with oils, made them immediately attractive to modern artists such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Roy Lichtenstein. Louis, a close collaborator in the development of Magna color, used it to create the strong colored stripes of his painting Alpha-Pi (67.232). The complete saturation of the unprimed canvas with the pure, high-tone color in thin transparent washes was only achievable with the new synthetic paint, an acrylic resin solution. Mark Rothko also used these paints. Like Louis, he experimented with this medium and was able to achieve matte, near-powdery surfaces with very strong saturated color (1985.63.5).

In the mid-1950s, acrylic emulsion paints, often referred to as "acrylics," were also being developed and marketed to contemporary artists. Andy Warhol and Helen Frankenthaler were among the first artists to use this new medium. Like other successful synthetic media, acrylics are highly versatile in terms of texture, gloss, and thickness. They can be diluted in water instead of turpentine or paint thinner, they dry very quickly, and, unlike Magna color, they do not resolublize with the addition of other layers of acrylic. This allows the artist to paint layer upon layer without disturbing the previously applied paint. Acrylics also cause less change to paper and textiles, giving the artist more freedom in choosing supports for the work of art.

Acrylic paint can be diluted or used in a highly viscous form to create heavy amounts of impasto. Lee Krasner's drawing Night Creatures from 1965 (1995.595) illustrates the rich color and thick impasto obtained with acrylic paints. Anselm Kiefer also explored the structural quality achievable with acrylics by using a synthetic gesso (a layer put down on canvas before painting, often called primer) to make the large, high-peaked mountain in the center of his 1975 work Wild Emperor (1995.14.11). This gessoed area in high relief is chalky rather than glossy, holds its peaks, and remains compatible with the watercolor.

Faith Ringgold's 1990 drawing Freedom of Speech (2001.288) shows a variety of effects in a single work. Some of the lettering is raised and shiny while other areas are a pale wash of matte color. The degree of gloss varies from section to section. The layered colors retain their vividness and purity. Ringgold's work illustrates the adaptability of acrylic paints as she used them to create her paintings, drawings, and textile quilts.

Although developed in the mid-nineteenth century for commercial purposes, it is the twentieth-century artist who has adopted plastics as an art material. Plastics in all forms are being developed and will continue to find their way into works of art in unique and varied methods.

Rachel Mustalish
Sherman Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photograph Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art