Home Art magazine 41 Influential Contemporary Artists that Define our Age

What is Contemporary art? And how would you define a contemporary artist?

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The loose, simple definition is: art that has been made in the present day or in the relatively recent past. However, the term contemporary art indicates more than that. Before delving into it, it is necessary to understand the difference between contemporary art and its previous artistic period: Modern art.

The fact that “contemporary” and “modern” in vernacular English are synonyms does not help. In fact, it often leads to confusion and conflation of the terms modern art/artists and contemporary art/artists. In the art world, these two terms refer to two distinct times of creation and to very different scopes and approaches to art production. The term Modern Art describes art made from around the 1860s to the 1970s.  In this period, art started breaking rules and traditions as well as embracing experimentation with different materials. Modern artists developed a new way to intend art, moving away from figurative art towards abstraction. 

There is no definitive agreement on when contemporary art started. For many, the cut-off period marking the end of Modern Art, and so the beginning of contemporary art, is identified  with the birth of Postmodernism in the 1970s. Rejecting a uniform organising principle or label, contemporary art is eclectic and diverse. Contemporary artists usually work with different materials and methods as well as with a variety of concepts and subject matters that challenge the boundaries of what art and an artwork can be. In comparison to Modern Art and other historical art periods, contemporary art lacks a shared idea and vision as well as unified modes of expression: contemporary artists continue to experiment, question and re-evaluate the notion of art itself. Notwithstanding the wide scope of contemporary art, there are some common themes that are typical of contemporary artworks. The topics explored by contemporary artists very often reflect relevant and heated issues that define  our society, such as technology and the digital world, identity politics, the body, globalisation and migration, time and memory. Another important element of contemporary art, which really differentiates it from modern art, is the relevance given to the viewer’s experience of the artwork. Contemporary artists often center their works on the effect that they can have on the viewer. Art is not anymore about the “genius” artist behind it, or about the artwork’s beauty and form. Art now has different forms, sometimes ephemeral ones (such as performance art or street art) and lives outside conventional spaces.

41 Influential Contemporary Artists 

The aim of this list is to give a good comprehensive overview of the variety of forms of artistic expression found in contemporary art. The artists have been selected not only for their influential and groundbreaking contributions, but also as exponents of the prolific artistic movements and trends that characterise contemporary art. The list reflects a loose ranking, with the most influential artist at number one. The ordering is based on the impact of the artists’ contributions in the art world and in our culture, as well as on their value on the the market. So, stick until the end to know which artists are shaping contemporary art!
 

41. Anselm Kiefer

b. 1945 in Donaueschingen, Germany

Anselm Kiefer is a German sculptor and painter, who creates monumental works using unusual 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 the artist admires. In his work, Kiefer aims at confronting his culture’s dark past. 

 

Anselm Kiefer, The boundless tangle of nature, with a real axe … from’s series Der Gordische Knoten, 2019. Courtesy White Cube
 

40. JR

b. 1983 in Paris, France
 
JR is a French street artist and photographer, who is best known for his large black and white photographs flyposted in public places. His art comes from activism. While in his works he focuses on local and concrete issues, he always has a wider universal picture in mind, a strong (and idealistic) belief in the good of humanity. Among JR’s most important projects we find: Face 2 Face, in which he pasted on the West Bank barrier portraits of Palestine people next to Isreali people to fight against prejudices; Inside Out Project, which inspired people all around the world to use photographic portraits to narrate untold stories of their communities; and Women are Heroes, in which he highlighted the strength and resilience of women in the places with the highest rates of social distress.
 
JR, Inside Out NYC, May 2013
 

39. Hito Steyerl

b. 1966 in Munich, Germany
 
Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker, moving image artist and innovator of the essay documentary. She is interested in technology, the global circulation of images, and, in particular, in the effect that those images have on our 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. Her films are rich, mixing fiction and facts, computer-generated images and documentary footage. They explore heated issues of our time, among them militarisation, surveillance, corporate domination, alienated labor, but also protest culture and the rise of alternative economies. This dense political content is usually combined with appealing pop aesthetic and witty humor. 

 

Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun, 2015. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

 

38.  Njideka Akunyili Crosby

b. 1983 in Enugu, Nigeria
 
Njideka Akunyili Crosby creates compelling large-scale figurative compositions, drawing from political, art historical and personal references. She depicts familiar everyday scenes and social gatherings, in what appears as a quiet and pensive way. Her works are densely packed with reflections on postcolonial life and the urgency of the issues of global migration. 

 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Something Split and New, 2013.Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London.
 

37.  Mark Bradford

b. 1961 in Los Angeles 

Mark Bradford is a contemporary artist working primarily with abstraction. He is known for grid-like, large-scale artworks combining paint with collage, incorporating items of his daily life such as remnants of found posters or business cards. In his work, Bradford explores social and political issues such as marginalisation of communities and of vulnerable populations by those in power. He describes his styles as “social abstraction”. His last series “Quarantine Paintings” reflects on creativity in isolation and on the purpose of art in this complex time of societal indetermination.

 

Mark Bradford, Q1, 2020.Courtesy of the artist. Photo: JOSHUA WHITE/JWPICTURES.
 

36. Wolfgang Tillmans

b. 1968 in Remscheid, Germany
 
A unique and sensitive observer of our world, Wolfgang Tillmans is a German photographer working with photo-reportage, portraiture and large-scale abstraction. In his work, Tillmans constantly pushes the boundaries of the medium, creating a compelling and varied body of work. In 2006, he was the first non-British person to receive the prestigious Turner Prize. Tillmans’ works speak to the viewer, as the artist himself explained: “I want the pictures to be working in both directions, I accept that they speak about me, and yet at the same time, I want and expect them to function in terms of the viewer and their experience.”
 
Don't miss our latest article about Wolfgang Tillmans
 
WOLFGANG TILLMANS, DAN, 2008
 

35. Olafur Eliasson

b.1967 in Copenhagen, Denmark

The Danish-Icelandic contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson is widely known for large-scale, site-specific art installations that make use of water, light and air temperature to create an immersive viewer’s experience. The major themes of his body of work are our relationship with nature, especially now in the current climate emergency, and human perception. His most famous works are: The Weather Project (2003), a giant artificial sun installed inside the Tate Modern in London; and Ice Watch (2019), huge ice blocks left to melt in major cities, aiming to raise awareness about the climate crisis.

Read more about Eliasson's latest exhibtion at Fondation Beyeler. 

 

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, 2003 Courtesy of Studio Olafur Eliasson.
 

34. Luc Tuymans

b. 1958 in Mortsel, Belgium
 
Luc Tuymans is a Belgian figurative artist. His sparsely-coloured, mysterious and muted paintings explore the relationship between memory, history and people. He draws inspiration from film and television images that he translates with quick brush strokes and re-contextualises into paintings. He works with soft palettes of browns, whites and greys, creating blurred, emotional and haunting compositions. Tuymans investigates cultural memory and people’s ability to ignore it, and thus, he depicts primarily historically significant people and places.
The Baroque vision of Luc Tuymans at Fondazione Prada
 
Luc Tuymans, The Cry 1989
 

33. Shirin Neshat

b. 1957, in Qazvin, Iran

Shirin Neshat is a visual artist, working with photography, video and film. In her artworks, she explores the relationship between women and the Islamic cultural and religious system of values. In particular, her aim is that viewers “take away with them not some heavy political statement, but something that really touches them on the most emotional level”.

 

Shirin Neshat, Rahim (Our House Is on Fire), 2013 Courtesy Gladstone Gallery. Photograph: Larry Barns
 

32. Banksy

b. 1974 in Bristol, UK 

Banksy is the pseudonym of one of the most famous street artists and political activists, whose identity is only known to his family, his closest collaborators and a handful of fellow artists. Banksy’s artistic practice includes urban interventions and illicitly hung artworks in museums. His art is provocative, witty and irreverent. Through his street art and installations, he usually criticises consumerism, capitalism, political authority and the art world. He is also famous for having shredded his artwork “Girl With Balloon” immediately after it was bought at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018. The shredded artwork, now “Love Is in the Bin”, has been re-sold for $25.4 million. 

Read more about Banksy

 

Banksy, Love is in the Bin, 2018. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

 

31. Ana Mendieta

b. 1948 in Havana, Cuba. Died in 1985

"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 described her own art. She worked with photographs and video footage of her body immersed and camouflaged in a natural environment. Her works offer an interesting look on the relationship between the female body and landscape. 

 

Ana Mendieta, Alma, Silueta en Fuego, 1975. Courtesy of The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC, Galerie Lelong, New York.

 

 

30. Ai Weiwei

b.1957 in Beijing, China

Considered “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 on human rights and democracy as well as openly criticising the Chinese Government. Ai Weiwei’s oeuvre is provocative and controversial. His brilliant artwork, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”, where the artist smashed two precious artifacts from the Han Dynasty, shocked the art world.

Read more about Ai Weiwei

 

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. Courtesy of the Artist.

 

 

29. Tracey Emin

b. 1963 in Croydon, UK

Tracey Emin’s works are deeply autobiographical and confessional. Her practice includes drawing, paintings, film, photography, sculpture and sewn appliqué. Emin expresses timeless themes such as love, loss and grief in an intimate, visceral and honest way. “The most beautiful thing is honesty, even if it’s really painful to look at”, Emin remarked. In her famous artwork “My Bed”, the artist displays a bed with bodily secretions stain and messy bedroom objects such as condoms, underweres, that were inspired by Emin depressive yet sexual phase when she remained in bed for four consecutive days drinking only alcohol. The installation gained a lot of media attention, causing a furore. 

 

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998. Courtesy of the artists and White Cube. Photo: Stephen White.

 

 

28.  Liu Xiaodong

b. 1963 in Jinzhou, China

Liu Xiaodong can be described as the chronicler of modern life. One of the most prominent figures within the Chinese Neo-Realist group in the early 1990s, he often paints en plein air, exploring and documenting the developing economy of China. His style is characterised by loose, thick brushstrokes that, on the one hand, maintain a high degree of realism, and, on the other, emphasise the abstract nature of the medium. Xiaodong depicts scenes of everyday life. In particular, as the artist said: “When I paint someone, I want to capture their environment, their living state. I want to show the personal story behind the image of the person.”

 

 

Liu Xiaodong, Into Taihu, 2010.
 

27. Takashi Murakami

b. 1962 in, Itabashi City, Tokyo, Japan

Takashi Murakami’s “superflat” aesthetic is widely recognised. The artist has drawn from traditional Japanese painting and pop culture to create a distinctive colourful and bi-dimensional style. His oeuvre comprises paintings, sculptures, prints and even merchandise and collectibles. These include repeated motifs such as smiling flowers, cartoon characters (Mr. DOB), and animals. 

 

Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo – In Communication, 2014. Courtesy of Takashi Murakami, Kaikai Kiki Co, Gagosian gallery.

 

26. Sean Scully

b. 1945 in Dublin, Ireland

One of the most influential abstract artists of his generation, Sean Scully is famous for his grid-like paintings, consisting of brushy layers of brightly coloured stripes and squares. Scully’s artworks are inspired by the artist’s memories of objects and places. Yet, his work is non-figurative. Explaining his works displayed in the 2015 exhibition “Land Sea”, he affirmed: “In making these paintings I was preoccupied with my memories of Venice, the movement of the water, how it heaves against the brick and stone of the city”. 

 

Sean Scully, Paul, 1984. Courtesy of the artist.
 

25. Maurizio Cattelan

b. 1960 in Padua, Italy

If Marcel Duchamp were alive today, he would probably have loved 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 artworks like the golden toilet he installed at the Guggenheim in 2016, which he provocatively titled “America”. 

Can Art Ever Be Funny?

 

Maurizio Cattelan, America, 2016. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum, New York.
 

24. Edward Ruscha

b. 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska

Ed Ruscha combines words and images in collages, using everyday objects as art materials. In his work, Ed Ruscha is able to transform the ordinary in extraordinary. For his artworks, he takes inspiration from the imagery and techniques of commercial art and advertising, in a way that resembles the approach of Pop artists. His rich body of work is characterised by the use of words and phrases, playing with language and figures of speech such as puns, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and contrasting meanings. The result is a varied oeuvre infused with dry humor and coolness.

 
Always distinctively LA ... Ed Ruscha's The Back of Hollywood (1977). Photograph: Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon.
 

23.Nan Goldin

b. 1953 in Washington, D.C.
 
Nan Goldin is an influential American photographer, whose body of work focuses on LGBTQ+ bodies and intimacy, as well as on the HIV crisis and the opioid epidemic. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1986) is one of her most significant photographic artworks. It is a visual diary, documenting the post-Stonewall gay subculture and her family and friends, in a turmoil-taken New York City of the 1970s and 80s. More recently, the photographer lunched a series of  protests at Guggenheim Museum in New York against the museum’s decision of accepting money from the Sackler family. The family owns Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, a drug linked to the current American opioid crisis.
 
Nan Goldin Twisting at my birthday party New York City 1980 © Nan-Goldin

 

22. Jenny Holzer

b. 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio

Over the past few decades, many public spaces have often been taken over by one of Jenny Holzer’s works. Holzer is a feminist Neo-conceptual artist, who produces large-scale installations, such as billboards, projections on buildings and illuminated electronic displays. LED signs of provocative and powerful statements are her distinctive and most visible medium. Holzer’s choice of incorporating words in her artworks is motivated by the desire to “offer content that people – not necessarily art people – could understand”, as she explained.

Read more about one of the most known and provocative female artists on Kooness

 

© Jenny Holzer
 

21. Kara Walker

b. 1969 in Stockton, California. 

Kara Walker is a conceptual artist best-known for her vignettes of big cut paper silhouettes portraying images of racial stereotypes, such as mammies and pick ninnies. In her work, she explores the themes of race, gender, sexuality and identity, powerfully representing the origins of the systemic injustices and racial inequalities that are embedded in our cultural mores, in our history and in our myths.

 

Kara Walker, The Keys to the Coop, 1997. Courtesy of the artist
 

20. Marina Abramović

b. 1946 in Belgrade, Serbia

Marina Abramović, considered “the grandmother of performance art” is an influential conceptual and performance artist. She is a pioneer of body art, endurance art and feminist art. In her works, she explores the notion of identity, the limits of the body, the possibility of the mind. One of her most iconic performances is “The Artist is Present'' held at MoMa in 2010. Abramović sat immbile for eight hours a day for nearly three month in the museum’s atrium while visitors were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. She met the gaze of over 1000 sitters. Spectators described the experience as very powerful, intense and emotional. 

Read more about Marina Abramović

 

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

 

19. Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Christo b. 1935 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. Died in 2020. Jeannne-Claude b.1935 in Casablanca, Marocco. Died in 2009.

Born on the same day, Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked together for decades until she died in 2009. He then continued their adventure alone. Their environmental artworks, which usually involve wrapping architectural objects in recyclable plastic or surrounding islands with it, are visually impressive and controversial. The preparation of these site-specific environmental installations usually took years, even decades.

Their works could be enjoyed by audiences in cities like Miami, New York, Paris, and Basel. The most recent ones include Floating Piers in Italy and the wrapping of L’Arc du Triomphe in Paris in 2021.

 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers, 2016. 

 

18. Kehinde Wiley

b. 1977 in Los Angeles

Kehinde Wiley is best-known for his depiction of black subjects in traditional settings found in Old Masters’ paintings. In early 2018, he became the first Black and openly gay artist to paint the potrait of an American President, Barack Obama. Wiley adopts the visual vocabulary of glorification, heroism and familiar iconography to give his contemporary, “urban” Black figures the same power that was long detained only by white subjects.

 

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Barack Obama, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
 

17. Anish Kapoor

b. 1954 in Mumbai, India

Anish Kapoor is an influential and controversial conceptual artist, specialising in sculpture and art installations. He creates elegant sculptures with organic forms that are also challenging engineering works. He deals with mirrors, convex and concave surfaces, creating optical illusions. One of his most famous artworks is “Cloud Gate” (2006), a reflective stainless steel sculpture commissioned by the city of Chicago. 

Discover more about Landscape Artists

 

Anish Kapoor, Sky Mirror, 2018. Photo: Punkt Ø.
 

16. Robert Mapplethorpe

b. 1946 in Floral Park, New York. Died in 1989
 
Robert Mapplethorpe is an American photographer, best known for his iconic portraits of celebrities and moving self-portraits, as well as for his depictions of the gay male BDSM subculture and delicate photographs of flowers. He worked almost exclusively in black and white. Composition, light and shadow, and form were central aspects of all his body of work, since he focused on portraying the classical and traditional values of tone and beauty. He emphasised symmetry and balance.
 
The Wonders of Fine Art Photography!
Find out American Beat artist William S. Burroughs photographed by Mapplethorpe in 1982 on Kooness.
 
Robert Mapplethorpe, Dennis with flowers | Courtesy of Palazzo Reale di Caserta, Collezione Terrae Motus
 

15.  Yayoi Kusama

b. 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan
 
Yayoi Kusama is an incredibly influential Japanese artist, who became an art-world phenomenon in the age of social media and selfies. Her practice is based in Conceptual Art, Feminism, Minimalism, Surrealism, Art Brut, Abstract Expressionism and (of course) Pop Art. She works primarily in sculpture and installation, but she is also active in performance, film, fashion, poetry, fiction and painting. Kusama’s artwoks are infused with autobiographical, psychological and sexual content. Her immersive installations attract lots of visitors with tickets sold out in few hours after their release. One of Kusama’s largest installations, “Infinity Mirror Rooms”, is currently at Tate Modern in London and is sold out until 31 March 2022.  

 

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Rooms, 1965. Courtesy of Tate
 

14.  Louise Bourgeois

b. 1911 in Paris, France. Died in 2010

Throughout her long and prolific 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 way. “I need to make things. The physical interaction with the medium has a curative effect. I need the physical acting out. I need to have these objects exist in relation to my body.”

Read more about L. Bourgeois on Kooness.com

 

Louise Bourgeois, Maman in Zürich, Switzerland, 2011.
 

13.  Kerry James Marshall

b. 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama

Depicting subjects that are “unequivocally black, emphatically black”, Kerry James Marshall explores the idea of black identity in the US as well as in Western Art. He works with a wide array of pictorial traditions. His work portrays richly-textured narrative scenes inspired from his personal life or historical events, exploring the effects of the Civil Rights movement on the life of African Americans. His painting “Past Times” (1997), sold for $21.1 million in 2018, becoming the most expensive painting of a contemporary Black artist ever sold in an auction. 

 

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997. Courtesy of Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection.
 

12. Cindy Sherman

b. 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey

Cindy Sherman is one of the most influential living photographers and filmmakers. Her work offers a sharp critique of gender norms and identity. Sherman uses her own body to create roles and personas. Her groundbreaking series, “Untitled Film Stills”, consists of seventy black-and-white pictures of herself, portraying female stereotypes found in television, advertising and film. In her artworks, she explores the idea of femininity as a social construct, distorting it. As the artist explained: “It seems boring to me to pursue the typical idea of beauty, because that is the easiest and the most obvious way to see the world. It's more challenging to look at the other side.

Read more about Cindy Sherman and Women in Contemporary Art

 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #17, 1978. Courtesy of the artist. Via Tate
 

11. Judy Chicago

b. 1939 in Chicago, Illinois

Judy Chicago is a feminist artist, known for her large collaborative art installations in which she explores the role of women in culture and history. Her installation artwork “Dinner Party” (1974-79) is considered one of the pivotal artworks of the 20th century and the first epic feminist artwork. The artist, with the help of numerous volunteers, has installed a table with 39 place settings for 39 important historical and mythical women. Each table setting consisted of a table runner embroidered with the name and symbols relating to the woman’s applishments, together with utensils, a napkin, a globet and a ceramic plate hand-painted by Chicago. Dinner Party’s aim is to "end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record”.

 

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974–79. Courtesy of  Brooklyn Museum, photo: Eric Wilcox

 

10. Damien Hirst

b. 1965, in Bristol, UK

The “enfant terrible” of contemporary art, Damien Hirst is the richest British living artist. His practice explores themes such as religion, science, and death. The latter is a central topic of Hirst’s work; he, in fact, became famous for a series of controversial artworks in which he immersed dead animals, sometimes dissected, in formaldehyde in clear display cases. For instance, in the “Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991), he put a 4.3 m tiger shark in a clear tank. 

Discover more artworks by Damien Hirst on Kooness

 

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Courtesy of Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

 

 

9. Lucian Freud

b. 1922 in Berlin, Germany. Died in 2011
 
Lucian Freud is one of the most important figurative painters of the twentieth century. He depicted portraits, very often nudes, of friends, family and celebrities with honesty, tenderness and disturbing corporeality. Freud is best-know for his ability to translate the complexity of human psychology and the interior turmoils of his subjects into paintings. With loose brushstrokes and richly applied colours, Lucian Freud created raw, intense portraits and nudes that are now considered masterpieces.
 
Lucian Freud, Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985. Private Collection. On loan to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA Collection: Freud Project 2016–21 ©the Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images.
 

8. Keith Haring

b. 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. Died in 1990.

Keith Haring’s pop art and graffiti-like work emerged from the legendary New York subculture of the 1980s. His animated playful imagery, such as the barking dog or the radiant baby, has become an iconic, recognisable and distinctive visual language. Haring’s body of work responded to political and social issues. In particular, he fought to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic, to end Apartheid and to promote LGBTQ+ rights. He drew in the subway station, in empty poster spaces, with the aim of making art as accessible as possible, interacting with a diverse audience. As the artist himself commented: “All kinds of people would stop and look at the huge drawing and many were eager to comment on their feelings toward it. [...] These were not the people I saw in the museums or in the galleries but a cross-section of humanity that cut across all boundaries.

Discover here Keith Haring’s artworks on Kooness or read more about his career. 

 

Keith Haring, Silence = Death, 1989. Courtesy of Keith Haring Foundation.
 

7.  Barbara Kruger

b. 1945 in Newark, New Jersey
 
Barbara Kruger is an important conceptual contemporary artist. Her artworks, sometimes as big as billboards, use cropped, black-and-white photographic images, usually from advertisements, juxtaposed with bold, concise, and raucous aphorisms stated in white Futura bold or Helvetica Ultra Condensed typeface againsts black or bright red text bars. Among the more famous aphorisms there are: “I shop therefore I am”, “Your body is a battleground”, “Pro-life for the unborn, Pro-death for the born”. In her work, Kruger addresses and sharply criticises consumerism, sexism, cultural constructions of power and identity.  
 
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989. Courtesy the artist, The Broad Art Foundation and Sprüth Magers.
 

6. David Hockney

b. 1937 in Bradford, UK

David Hockney is one of the most recognisable and influential contemporary artists. Hockney is best-known for his vividly colored, large-scale portrays of domestic life and evocative images of Southern California lifestyles. Throughout his prolific career, he has worked with different mediums, including contemporary technology such as laser photocopies, and even iPad and iPhones. His painting “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was sold at Christie’s in New York in 2018 for $90.3 million, remaining the second most expensive work sold by a living artist at auction. 

 

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist ( Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Courtesy of the artists. Via Christie’s

 

5. Jeff Koons

b. 1955 in York, Pennsylvania

Jeff Koons is one of the richest living contemporary artists. He is widely known for his sculptures that depict everyday objects, such as vacuum cleaners and basketballs. By introducing these mass-produced, overlooked objects in his art, he elevates them from banal and ordinary to iconic. He draws inspiration from advertising, commerce and celebrity culture. Koons’ artworks are considered subversive and controversial, especially since they are created not by him, but by his large staff, raising questions about authenticity and authorship. One of his most iconic works is “Rabbit” (1986). In 2019, the sculpture became the most expensive artwork sold by a living artist at an auction. It was sold for $91.1 million. 

Discover all Jeff Koons’ artworks available on Kooness 

 

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. Courtesy of Christie’s.
 

4. Diane Arbus

b. 1923 in Manhattan, New York. Died in 1971
 
Diane Arbus was the first photographer to ever be included in a Venice Biennale exhibition in 1972, a year after her death. Arbus is most known for her portraits of people from the edges of society. She photographed a wide array of subjects in familiar settings, expanding the boundaries of acceptable subject matter in fine art photography. Her sensitivity and ability of capturing the psychology and emotions of her subjects, which she never objectified, made her one of the most important photographers of our time. Her imagery really helped to normalise marginalised people, highlighting how crucial it is to properly represent all people. One of her most famous artwork is “Identical twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967”, which inspired Stanley Kubrick’s iconic sisters in “The Shining” (1980).
 
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey 1967 a notable photograph by Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971).
 

3. Jean-Michel Basquiat

b. 1960 in New York. Died in 1988

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. Basquiat’s art is political, attacking structures of power and systemic racism. In his paintings, he explores his identity and his experiences as a member of the Black community. 

How Basquiat Became the Top-Selling American Artist?

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Versus Medici, 1982. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
 

2. Francis Bacon

b. 1909 in Dublin, Ireland. Died in 1992
 
Francis Bacon was a figurative painter, whose work focuses on raw and disturbing depiction of human forms, such as portraits of popes and crucifixions. Explaining his artistic style, Bacon said that he aimed at rendering “the brutality of fact”. Among his most important themes, we find: crucifixion, Popes, reclining figures and screaming mouths. The latter was inspired by the famous still of the screaming nurse in Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein.
 
Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, Londra, Tate Gallery.
 

1. Andy Warhol

b. 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Died in 1987
 
With his distinctive and irreverent style, Andy Warhol’s body of work still influences art, fashion and design today. He is an icon of Pop Art, who introduced the world to a brand new way of looking at art and life, and how the two intertwine. His “Marilyn Diptych”(1962) is one of the most famous contemporary artwork: a monumental work consisting of fifty images portraying Marilyn Monroe (//www.kooness.com/p/marilyn-monroe). His New York studio, the Factory, became a hive for celebrities and artists, resonating the effect of the Andy Warhol ‘brand’.
 
Discover more artworks by Andy Warhol on Kooness
 
Andy Warhol, by Jack Mitchell
 

This list of forty-one influential contemporary artists has shown a glimpse of the variety and richness of contemporary art. 

Thus, what is a contemporary artist? A contemporary artist is an artist that, through their work, represents our time and reflects on the complex issues that shape our society. A lot of contemporary artists play with the boundaries of what defines an artwork; others explore political themes such as racism, sexism and power structures; many artists reflect on technology. 

What mediums do contemporary artists use? Contemporary art has challenged the definition of artwork by adopting a variety of mediums. Often, these go beyond paintings and sculpture to include the artist’s body, large scale installations, collage and new technologies. 

How do contemporary artists use text in their work? Texts are usually incorporated in political artworks, expressing aphorisms (for instance in the cases of Barbara Kruger and Jean-Michel Basquiat) and forceful statements that strike the viewer with their wit. Artists also use language in their work to exploit the immediacy of words that make an artwork accessible to people not in the art world, for instance in the works of Jenny Holzer and Edward Ruscha.

 

Cover image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Victor 25448 (1987). Courtesy Phillips

Written by Francesca Allievi

 

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