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What do we mean by “contemporary art”? Perhaps it is because terms “modern” and “contemporary” in the English language essentially refer to the same thing that we think this applies to art as well. The truth is that, while contemporary art proposes clarity in terms of what we can recognize as new, or at least more recent work of art, and one that conveys a topic or a mood of our time, its definition has proven to be a little bit difficult to pin down.

Currently, there are a few explanations and descriptions as to what a contemporary artwork is, or who should be considered a contemporary artist. Perhaps it is best to first make a distinction between Modern and Contemporary art, as to avoid the aforementioned linguistic indication. Roughly, Modern art encompasses the artistic production between the 1860s and the 1970s, although for some, a few of the avant-garde movements from the beginning of the 20th century tend to lean towards the contemporary category rather than the modern one. Art made following World War II is also described as contemporary by some historians, while others think of contemporary artworks as those made since the 1970s, when the term “Post-Modernism” was also coined and introduced. Finally, there is a group of people calling artworks made by still living artists “contemporary”, and focuses its attention to “artworks of the late 20th and the 21st century”.

Indeed, time-wise we might not have precise information, and while both of these periods encourage experimentations and breaking away from tradition and art as we knew it up until the end of the 19th century, Contemporary art is significantly more specific than Modern art, both aesthetically and in meaning. With the constant advancement of societies and technologies, “the art of today” ushered new media, new topics, and innovative ways of envisioning, creating and presenting artworks in unusual environments. If we decide to mark its beginnings in, say, the 1960s, we will see that among the novelties we have Happenings, Performance art, Video Art, Street Art, digital photography, and most recently augmented reality and artificial intelligence, to name just a few. In the 1950s, we also witnessed the blossoming of Abstract art as a direct response to the ever-present realism, and even before that it was Cubism and Marcel Duchamp who shook the very definition of art itself. Therefore, it could be said that Contemporary art has been slowly infiltrating itself into history until finally taking over to still reign today - probably until someone invents the term “Post-Contemporary”, if they haven't already.

And so, we move on to find out who the most popular contemporary artists of today are.

For us, the list includes those living and deceased whose ideas changed our perceptions and whose art still greatly impacts the times we live in. 

 

Cindy Sherman

One of the living legends of photography and feminist art (although she doesn’t think of herself as a feminist), Cindy Sherman is best-known for her “Untitled Film Stills”, a series of self-portraits mean to tackle stereotypes regarding how women look in the media. Even today, she is her own protagonist, director, costume designer and make-up artist, and her work continues to influence many generations of young photographers of all sexes. Read more about Women in Contemporary Art...

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat

A young prodigy gone too soon at the age of 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat left a deep mark on contemporary art, but also the streets of 1980s New York, which he marked with his moniker SAMO. His Neo-Expressionistic paintings draw from his mixed descent and tackle topics such as racism, poverty, and the universal human experience. How Basquiat Became the Top-Selling American Artist?

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Baby Boom, 1982, by Yann Caradec via Flickr

 

Keith Haring

The playful figurines, radiant babies and barking dogs in Pop art-style made by Keith Haring during the 1980s surely are some of the most memorable artworks in the history of art. After covering the subway with his quick drawings, he moved out to paint large-size murals, but what we remember him by most was his commitment to political and social visual commentary, particularly on homosexuality and AIDS, of which he died in 1990.

 

Keith Haring's mural "We Are The Youth" in Philadelphia, 1987. © Keith Haring Foundation

 

Damien Hirst

The “enfant terrible” of contemporary art, Damien Hirst is a YBA who infamously held an auction of his own works in 2007, which was then sold out. We also still vividly remember the big blue tank containing an actual shark, as well as dot paintings, artworks featuring hundreds of butterflies, sculptures of dissected human anatomy and diamond skulls.

 

Damien Hirst at the exihibition Damien Hirst The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, Gagosian Gallery, NYC, 2012. Photo by Andrew Russeth via Wikipedia

 

Anselm Kiefer

A German sculptor and painter, Anselm Kiefer creates monumental works using less typical materials, such as ash, shellac, lead, straw, and glitter. These pieces often allude to collective memory and controversial facts from our history, such as the Nazi rule, literary works, mythology, as well as historical figures he admires, although perhaps not at first sight.

 

Anselm Kiefer, Ave Maria, 2007. Image via Wikipedia

 

Mark Bradford

The USA representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale, Mark Bradford is a contemporary artist working primarily with abstraction. His artworks, which he likes to call “social abstraction”, typically combine paint and collage, and paper picked up in Los Angeles, where he lives. They are often described by critics as “lyrical” and “raw”, reminiscing the pioneers of such art like Robert Rauschenberg and Sol LeWitt. The 58th Venice Biennale…

 

Jeff Koons

Is it the balloon dogs? Is it the sexually explicit “Made in Heaven” series he made with then-wife Cicciolina? Or perhaps it’s Lady Gaga and her ball? Whatever it is, it’s made Jeff Koons one of the richest contemporary artists, so much so that he even has his own factory of people helping him make his creative visions into reality.

 

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, by Kim via Flickr

 

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami’s “super flat” art inspired by the Japanese tradition in the arts and his country’s society following World War II can be found somewhere between high and low art - meaning that they grace Louis Vuitton bags and other fashion items, but they also come as paintings, sculptures, animations, and even music videos in some instances.

 

JR

For JR, the world is one giant wall on which he pastes up his famous projects - “Inside Out”, “Women are Heroes”, and “Wrinkles of the City” being only some of them. Hiding behind sunglasses and under the hat, this mysterious French artist uses photography and the concept of street art to bring voices to the marginalized, and to celebrate the individual.

 

JR, Inside Out NYC, May 2013

 

Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor’s name can be found in almost every aspect of art in the past four decades: he won the Turner Prize, represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, created commissions for the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, as well as Chicago’s “Cloud Gate”. Let’s not forget he also owns the rights to the “blackest black” color in existence and that your reflection is bound to get twisted in his sculptures. Discover more about Landscape Artists...

 

Anish Kapoor, Turning the world upside down, 2010 at Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Dr. Avishai Teicher

 

Marina Abramović

For more than four decades, Marina Abramović had been making art without getting almost any recognition. It all changed in 2010 with “The Artist is Present” exhibition at MoMA in New York, when she became widely known and is now something of a celebrity. Another moniker attached to her name is “the grandmother of performance art”, mostly referring to the radical body-related works from the beginning of her career. Read more about Marina Abramović...

 

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010, Museum of Modern Art. Image by Andrew Russeth via Wikipedia

 

Sean Scully

One of the most influential abstract artists of his generation, Sean Scully is famous for his grid-like paintings, but also watercolors, sculptures and prints. Inspired by the oeuvres of artists like Mark Rothko, he has been making recognizable art for over six decades, and is among contemporary artists with most artworks in major public collections worldwide.

 

Ai Weiwei

Often called “China’s dissident artist”, Ai Weiwei has gotten in trouble multiple times for being openly critical towards his country’s government. His studio has been destroyed, his passport confiscated, and he himself was also arrested, yet that never stopped him from making meaningful artworks commenting human rights, democracy and a variety of crisis we as society face on a daily basis.

 

Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles in Austin, Texas, 2017. Image via Wikipedia

 

Louise Bourgeois

Throughout her long, splendid artistic career, Louise Bourgeois has been creating a visual profile of her life through numerous artworks, many of which produced on a grand scale. Her childhood traumas and relationships with her parents are portrayed in such a delicate, yet haunting manner - think about the towering “Maman”, a giant spider meant to represent the artist’s mother. The Diary of Louise Bourgeois  "A life that turns into an artwork"...

 

Louise Bourgeois, Maman in Zürich, Switzerland, 2011. Image via Wikipedia

 

Tracey Emin

No artist approaches their art in such a deeply personal manner as Tracey Emin. Another YBA, she became famous with her “Bed”, an installation featuring her actual bed surrounded by a mess, figuratively and literally speaking alike. In almost every artwork ever made we can see some sort of crisis Emin is/was going through, through an array of media which include paintings, drawings, neon works, film, photography.

 

Tracey Emin, I never stopped loving you at Droit House, Margate, 2010. Image by Katie Hunt via Wikipedia

 

Yayoi Kusama

The most famous contemporary artist in the world in 2015 and one of Japan’s most important living art-makers, Yayoi Kusama is the woman behind the “Infinity Mirror Rooms” that have everyone taking selfies in them, the intriguing Pumpkins, and countless Polka dot paintings. Although apparently superficial, her art carries traces of deep inner unrest and an influence of a psychological disorder, as per the artist’s own admission.

 

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror, Image by Pablo Trincado via Wikipedia

 

Ed Ruscha

A Pop artist still more than relevant today, Ed Ruscha began by combining words and images in collages, using everyday objects as art materials. This text-based practice seems to put an equal emphasis on both the letters and the image in the background, as both contribute to an artwork’s general mood. This particular style can also be found in his photography, paintings, prints, drawings and films.

 

Christo (and Jeanne-Claude)

Born on the same day, Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked together for decades until she died in 2009. He then continued their adventure alone, and the works he made since then are almost as iconic as those they made together. Their environmental art, which usually involves wrapping of architectural objects in recyclable plastic or surrounding islands with it, could be enjoyed by audiences in cities like Miami, New York, Paris, and Basel, the most recent ones including Floating Piers in Italy and soon, the wrapping of L’Arc du Triomphe in Paris in 2020.

 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers, 2016. Image via Wikipedia

 

Taryn Simon

Combining photography, performance, text and sculpture, American contemporary artist Taryn Simon creates powerful social commentaries of peculiar subjects. She tells stories of those wrongfully sentenced to death; consequences of man’s inventions; sites relevant to the American history that are hidden from public… Simon is certainly no stranger to traveling the world in search for a story or its parts.

 

Kerry James Marshall

In a nutshell, Kerry James Marshall can be described as the chronicler of African-American history and life. He is particularly interested in doing it on a large scale, through paintings and sculptures that are often rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, and aim to create a complete picture of humankind by including black subjects as well.

 

Wolfgang Tillmans

A unique observer of our world, Wolfgang Tillmans is a German photographer working with photoreportage, portraiture and abstraction, for which he likes to test the limits of the medium. He was the first non-British person to receive the Turner Prize. Tillmans has also been working with video, and collaborated with music stars such as Frank Ocean. Don't miss our latest article about Wolfgang Tillmans... 

 

Nan Goldin

“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” might just be one of the most significant photographic artworks out there. It is a visual diary made by Nan Goldin and featuring members of underground culture, her family and friends, in a turmoil-taken New York City of the 1970s and 80s. More recently, the photographer was involved in staging protests at museums for accepting money from the Sackler family.

 

Jenny Holzer

Over the past few decades, many public spaces have often been taken over by one of Jenny Holzer’s works. This feminist artist typically produces billboards, projects works on buildings and streets, and uses LED to articulate her ideas - but her multilayered practice doesn’t end with that. In recent years, Holzer returned to her roots - painting, though her earlier works continue to gain most of the attention for her oeuvre.

 

Olafur Eliasson

The Danish-Icelandic contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson always makes art with the environment in mind, and with science as his helper. His public work can be found in cities around the world, while his portfolio also includes light pieces, photographs, urban installations such as the one in the Spree river in Berlin in 1998, but also the melting icebergs, as seen in the last couple of years in Paris and London, to remind us of climate change.

 

Olafur Eliasson, Rainbow Panorama, 2011, Aarhus. Image by Jens Cederskjold via Wikipedia

 

Hito Steyerl

Coming to prominence over the past ten years, Hito Steyerl is interested in technology and images, and the effect they can have on society. She is primarily known for her video works which often push the boundaries of filmmaking as such and are soaked in conceptuality. Steyerl’s works could be seen in prominent biennials including the ones in Venice, Istanbul and Shanghai.

 

Luc Tuymans

Luc Tuymans is a Belgian contemporary artist and one of the rare figurative painters still working today. His work is based on photographs and film stills and mostly consists of portraits and mundane objects painted with a bit of a washed-out palette. The paintings ooze with a sense of tension and constant fear; if they depict tranquillity, the disquieting titles of those artworks are there to disrupt it. The Baroque vision of Luc Tuymans at Fondazione Prada!

 

Liu Xiaodong

Another prominent painter, Liu Xiaodong is the chronicler of modern life. One of the figures within the Chinese Neo-Realist group in the early 1990s, he has been painting en plein air, relating his often large-scale paintings to a certain location and life that inhabits it. Xiaodong’s art could be perceived as painterly snapshot of an impressive immediacy and depth.

 

Shirin Neshat

The influence on her homeland Iran on the work Shirin Neshat has been doing for the past few decades is immense: her most notable series, the 1993 “Unveiling” and “Women of Allah” from 1993-97 deal with the women’s role in the Islamic society, in close connection with strong totalitarian governance. Her photographs, films and videos continue to deal with these subjects; in 2009, Neshat won the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival for her debut feature film “Women Without Men”.

 

Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, Women of Allah series

 

Robert Mapplethorpe

The spectacular duality that characterizes the images of iconic, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is something we will not see again in our lifetime; from the most delicate, sensual portrayals of flowers to the most explicit senes of BDSM, the range of the powerful impact is a vast one. Mapplethorpe’s life and career was unfortunately interrupted by his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1989. The Wonders of Fine Art Photography!

 

Ana Mendieta

"Through my earth/body sculptures, I become one with the earth ... I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body."

This is how Ana Mendieta once described her own art, which was more than often based on nature, but also her own life in Cuba and subsequently in the states, feminism, spirituality, violence, identity. Until her suspicious death in 1985 at the age of 35, she worked with performance, sculpture, painting and most prominently video - notable are her works “Silueta”, “Creek”, “Ochún”.

 

Barbara Kruger

Using advertising and mass communication, Barbara Kruger has been making conceptual contemporary art meant to grab attention, which it certainly has. The artworks, as big as billboards sometimes, mostly “scream out” bold text in strong color as powerful statements on photographic backgrounds, among the more famous ones being “I shop therefore I am”, “Your body is a battleground”.

 

Barbara Kruger at ACCA, Melbourne

 

Kehinde Wiley

In early 2018, official presidential portraits of the Obamas painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the first black artists to do so, were unveiled in Washington, DC. Wiley painted Barack, and as in his other highly stylized portraits of African Americans, former American president is also set against a patternly background.

 

Cao Fei

A vivid, quite contemporary portrait of the Chinese society today can be seen in the multimedia portfolio by Cao Fei. Belonging to a younger generations of artists, she reached an international acclaim for her cinematic approach to her environment and people in it.

 

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus was the first photographer to ever be included in a Venice Biennale exhibition in 1972, a year after her suicide. While this is certainly an honor, what we remember about this exceptional photographer is her keen eye for the marginalized - in her famous square photographs live people who stand out from the “normal”, those we often look away from - which is why with Arbus, they stand proud in the spotlight.

 

Lucian Freud

Perhaps taking from his grandfather Sigmund, Lucian Freud was interested in the phycological aspect of portraiture. His (often nude) models provided him with the chance to explore the interior of a person by depicting their exterior, and oh in what grand way he did that. Freud was also famous for having his sitters pose for hours at a time, in order for him to get the “right” painting.

 

Francis Bacon

Anguish, horror, disfiguration, haunting intensity, stuff of nightmares; but also immensely impressive and unique. These are the religious, sexual raw paintings of Francis Bacon, a man who wasn’t afraid of being honest through his art. The screaming mouth, a recurring topic for Bacon, is believed to be inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin film from 1925, and the famous still from it.

 

David Hockney

A legend of British and global art, David Hockney is someone who, at 81 years old, holds the record of the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction, thanks to the $90 million dollar-worth “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)”. What’s more, old age did not stop him from creating even more art, through a medium that seems to be very dear to him - iPhone and iPad.

 

El Anatsui

One of Africa’s most important artist and the first representative of Ghana at the 2019 Venice Biennale, El Anatsui pays homage to his heritage and culture through his works of many media. Working from his homeland and Nigeria, he gained international reputation though his installation art, featuring intricate woven cloths that are to be perceived as sculptures, rather than textile art.

 

El Anatsui, Man's Cloth, 2001. British Museum

 

Banksy

A planetary phenomenon, Banksy is a pseudonym of an artist whose identity is only known to his family, his closest collaborators and a handful of fellow artists. HIs anonymity has been the subject of actual academic papers, and the saga often overshadows his clever stencil art. Banksy’s new work always attracts headlines these days, and because he is insanely popular, the artist is using that to endorse change in the world too. Read more about Banksy...

 

Banksy, Shop Until You Drop, 2011. Image via Wikipedia

 

Maurizio Cattelan

If Marcel Duchamp were alive today, he probably would love Maurizio Cattelan, and the kind of satire he uses to shock the world of art. An Italian contemporary artist, he is best known for hyperrealistic sculptures of people such as the Pope (killed by a meteor) and Hitler (begging for mercy on his knees), but also things like the golden toilet he installed at the Guggenheim in 2016, which he aptly titled “America”. Can Art Ever Be Funny?

 

Maurizio Cattelan in 2012. Image via Wikipedia

 

Judy Chicago

A synonym for feminist art, Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” is thought to be one of the pivotal artworks of the 20th century. In 1979, the artist installed a table with place settings for 39 important women in history, each featuring a ceramic plate hand-painted by Chicago. Her wide-ranging practice includes needlework but also skills such as “welding and pyrotechnics”.

 

The Dinner Party, art installation by Judy Chicago, installed at the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Donald Woodman

 

Gilbert & George

Partners in life and art for more than 50 years, Gilbert & George met at an art college and have been inseparable ever since. If someone is living and breathing art, it’s these two individuals, who have often referred to their practice as one of “living sculptures”. Gilbert & George are famous for their large-scale photographic collage work in which they pour their opinions out in the world, without any take-backs.

 

Gilbert & George posing for a shot in Hanbury Street, London, in 2007. Image via Wikipedia

 

Andreas Gursky

Holding the record of the most expensive photograph ever sold in auction since 2011, the meticulous German photographer Andreas Gursky uses the digital technology and camera to obtain detailed shots of various subjects and scenery. Working in color, he typically takes pictures from afar, adopting birds-eye view resulting in mesmerizing abstractions.

 

Yoshitomo Nara

Yoshitomo Nara is a Japanese contemporary artist with quite a particular aesthetic. Using pastel colors and a minimalistic approach when it comes to details, he paints, draws and sculpts big-eyed children characters apparently innocent in their youth, only to reveal they carry some sort of weapon. Nara’s work evoke the Japanese manga and anime, but also Pop art and comic books.

 

Zeng Fanzhi

A prominent contemporary Chinese artist, Zeng Fanzhi went thought a few changed in style throughout his artistic career. Most of the 1990s were market by his “Mask” series, portraits and scenes in which the symbol of a mask plays the central role. After that, Zeng slowly moved towards a more complex abstraction, characterized by a plethora of lines and captivating colors.

 

Jenny Saville

A painter of female nudes, Jenny Saville is a YBA interested in the physicality of the human body, particularly the skin and the volume. Often compared to the work of the aforementioned Lucian Freud, her paintings mostly come large in size, and as a result of a research undertaken by the artist which sometimes involves observing plastic surgery operations, and investigations of physical deformities and traumas. Saville’s “Propped” painting sold for £9.5 million in 2018, turning her into the most expensive living female artist.

 

Christopher Wool

Large, black military-style words that often miss a letter or two on white canvas. These conceptual artworks belong to Christopher Wool, and they seem to be inspired by the technique of stenciling, and graffiti. This is not his only signature style, however: Wool also stands as the author of many abstract silkscreens and canvases that seem as though he changed his mind about an artwork and decided to white-wash it.

 

Christopher Wool at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, by Jules Antonio via Flickr

 

Liu Wei

Working across media like video, installation, video, painting, sculpture and drawing, Liu Wei gives life to multilayered works oozing with satire. Among his more famous works is his “Super Structure” series, which features miniature cities made of dog chews, but also the “Landscape Series”, in which one could recognize human buttocks.

 

Liu Wei, Love it, bite it, 2005 - 2007, by Marc Wathieu via Flickr

 

Cecily Brown

In Cecily Brown’s twirl of colors, brushstrokes and abstract shapes one can perhaps recognize her main themes: pornography, human relationships, sexuality, sensuality. Her work has been linked to those of Abstract Expressionists, but also Old Masters like Rubens. Brown’s paintings are often named after famous films and singers.

 

Sarah Lucas

In 2011, Sarah Lucas was described by the Guardian as “the wildest of the Young British Artists, partying hard and making art that was provocative and at times genuinely shocking.” It is impossible to describe the art of this YBA through only one medium or style, but I will say that her photographic self-portraits stand out in her vast, versatile oeuvre.

 

Sarah Lucas, Romans, 2011. Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

 

Andy Warhol

It seems only appropriate to finish this list off with the very icon of Pop art. Andy Warhol introduced the world to a brand new way of looking at art, and life, and how the two intertwine. Among his famous artworks are portraits of Marilyn Monroe, The Velvet Underground album cover, the Campbell Soup Cans silkscreens, the Interview Magazine… What would we possibly say that hasn’t already been said about this notable figure, a celebrity, an advertising genius and a clever businessman, except that his art will surely live on for many more generations of inspired artists to come. The Thousand Faces of Warhol...

 

Andy Warhol, by Jack Mitchell

 

Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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