An imprecise term which has sometimes been applied to art that is concerned with exploring new ideas and/or technology. It is sometimes used virtually synonymously with *‘avant‐garde’, but ‘experimental’ usually suggests a more explicit desire to extend the boundaries of the art in terms of materials or techniques, whereas ‘avant‐garde’ can include novel and provocative ideas expressed through traditional techniques. Most writers today would prefer more precise terms such as Kinetic or installation art for such activities.
The term implies a link with science. In 1923 Picasso said ‘I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research in connection with modern painting. In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find, is the thing’ (A. H. Barr Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art, 1946). These magisterial words are hardly an end to the matter. In practice the scientific notion of experiment or research has, legitimately or not, frequently been invoked by avant‐garde artists. Picasso himself spoke of a period in 1912 when ‘the studio became a laboratory’ (J. Richardson, Braque, 1959). In its early days the Surrealist movement conducted what it called a ‘Bureau of Surrealist Research’ and its first journal, La Révolution surréaliste, was modelled on a scientific journal.
Stephen Bann's 1970 book Experimental Painting uses the idea to cover a very wide range of art. It begins with Constable and Monet (because of their ‘scientific’ approach to nature) and goes through to Constructivists and abstract artists with a methodical or technological bent such as Vasarely. Then he takes in some figurative artists such as Giacometti and Auerbach, whom he sees as having an approach in common with the ‘auto‐destructive’ art of Gustav Metzger.
John A. Walker (Glossary of Art, Architecture and Design Since 1945, 1973, 3rd edn, 1992) writes of ‘experimental’: ‘It is a word with both positive and negative connotations: it is used to praise and condemn. Those writers for whom it is a term of praise often mean by it an empirical practice in which the artist plays with his materials and adopts chance procedures in the expectation that something of value will result…Those writers for whom “experimental” is a pejorative description mean by it “a trial run”, “not the finished work”, “something transitional”.’ Walker points out that in E. H. Gombrich's celebrated book The Story of Art, first published in 1950, the whole of 20th‐century art was originally embraced in a chapter called ‘Experimental Art’. Paradoxically it was Gombrich, in Art and Illusion (1960), who made one of the most thoroughly worked‐out attempts to relate the artistic process to that of scientific experiment. He was concerned here, not with strictly technical experimentation, but to argue for an analogy between the processes of representation as a series of experiments and that of the scientific ‘testing’ of a theory. Artists, in this model, test their theories (representations) against experience. As in science, therefore, there can be a kind of ‘progress’ as mistakes in the ‘theory’ are gradually corrected. There is no contradiction whatsoever between this notion of ‘experiment’ and Gombrich's generally conservative view of 20th‐century developments (see abstract art).