Famous Contemporary Artists

Famous Contemporary Artists – Discover the Most Famous Modern Artists

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The contemporary art world is vast and continuing to grow.  Knowing about contemporary art is knowing about an important and present part of art being made today. The contemporary art world is big and filled with more and more artists every day. Below is a list of some of the most famous contemporary artists who lived and worked in the last century.

 

 

What Is Contemporary Art?

Contemporary art’s definition is not entirely clear, as it is a sticky term. It encompasses the art made after Conceptual and Pop art. The term contemporary refers directly to the art being made now, and if we look at the phrase in this way, the contemporary art era refers to art made since the second half of the 20th century.

This type of art responds to issues of current times – from war, identity politics, gender issues, and other major themes of the modern world. This means that many of the most famous contemporary artists’ artworks have strong conceptual reasons for being made.

These artworks have reasons and stories behind their making which make them so well-admired and loved. When referring to contemporary modern art in this list, we will use the terms contemporary and modern art interchangeably to refer to this time in history.

 

 

Famous Contemporary Artists and Their Important Artworks

Because of the vastness of the modern art world, there are so many important famous artists today, so we have narrowed it down to a list of fourteen modern artists who influence the art world today. The styles and themes of these artists vary, from using traditional media like paintings, to creating artworks with animation, interactivity, or other methods of creating that we haven’t seen used in art yet.

Their themes also vary. From being about the experiences of being a woman to opposing oppressive governments, or even very personal life stories, we have a list here of some of the most famous contemporary artists living today.

 

Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010)

Artist Louise Bourgeois
When the Artist Lived1911 – 2010
Nationality of the ArtistFrench-American
Where the Artist LivedParis and New York City
Associated MediumsInstallation, Sculpture, Printmaking, and Painting

The artist Louise Bourgeois is known for her large installations and sculptures that explored the themes of femininity, family, death, and the unconscious. The artist explored her subconscious through art and she often spoke about the way that art could heal trauma.

Her artwork, Maman (1999), is likely one of her most famous. A large sculpture, Maman was created and recreated with multiple materials, including bronze and marble.

Famous Modern Art ArtworksMaman (1999) by Louise Bourgeois, located outside the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada; Jeangagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The artwork is based on a drawing made by the artist in 1947. It refers to Bourgeois’ mother. The spider is a complex creature that is feminine, intelligent, and nurturing, but also can be dangerous. It also alludes to her mother’s work as a tapestry repairer, which in its core is very similar to a spider’s web-weaving.

Some of Bourgeois’ famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Femme Maison (1946 – 1947)
  • Torso (1963 – 1964)
  • Janus Fleuri (1968)
  • Destruction of the Father (1974)
  • Mamelles (1991)

 

Lucien Freud (1922 – 2011)

Artist Lucien Freud
When the Artist Lived1922 – 2011
Nationality of the ArtistBritish
Where the Artist LivedEngland
Associated MediumsPainting

Lucien Freud was a figurative artist known for his incredibly emotional portrait paintings. His artworks are known to be impastoed with thick layers of paint that create an intense and unsettling outcome in his portraits.

His artworks give viewers a glimpse into the inner lives of his sitters, through the harshness and brutalist nature of his style. His sittings were notoriously long and punishing for his models. The artist painted mostly from life.

His artwork Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) is an oil on canvas painting. The artwork shows a nude of an obese woman on a couch. The model was Sue Tilley, who worked at a Job Center, and weighed about 280 lbs. In 2008, this painting was sold for $33.6 million. At this time this meant Benefits Supervisor Sleeping broke the world record for the highest price paid for any artwork by a living artist.

After his death, his painting The Brigadier sold for $56.2 million, becoming the most expensive Freud painting sold at auction to date.

Some of Freud’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Girl with a Kitten (1947)
  • Girl with a White Dog (1952)
  • Reflection (Self-Portrait) (1985)
  • Portrait on a White Cover (2005)

 

Yayoi Kusama (1929 – Present)

Artist Yayoi Kusama
When the Artist Lived1929 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistJapanese
Where the Artist LivedJapan and New York City
Associated MediumsInstallation and Sculpture

Yayoi Kusama is likely one of the most eccentric artists of our time. Originally trained in the traditional Japanese style of nihonga, Kusama diverted from this route and became inspired by Abstract impressionism. Early in the 1960s, she moved to New York and became a part of the avant-garde movement. She hosted several happenings – an interactive performance artwork wherein nude participants were painted with colorful polka dots.

Kusama is known for expressing her mental health issues through her art practice. She draws polka dots and circles as a therapeutic expression to relieve herself from her mental illnesses.

Famous Modern ArtistsPhotograph of artist Yayoi Kusama, taken in November 2016; 文部科学省ホームページ, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Her most famous artworks are her Infinity Rooms, created throughout her life in different spaces. Infinity Mirror Room (1965) is one such immersive installation, where she used mirrors and repetition to create an overwhelming installation space. These are centered on the theme of infinity and endless possibility, expressed in a psychedelic and colorful way.

Some of Kusama’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Walking Piece (1966)
  • Narcissus Garden (1966)
  • Flowers (1983)
  • Yellow Pumpkin (1994)
  • Dots Obsession (2003)

 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude (1935 – 2020, 1935 – 2009)

Artist Christo and Jeanne-Claude
When the Artist Lived1935 – 2020, 1935 – 2009
Nationality of the ArtistBulgarian and French
Where the Artist LivedParis
Associated MediumsLand Art

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon were an art-making duo who were known for their site-specific Land Art. Land Art is a medium wherein the earth and our surroundings become the medium of creating an artwork. Artists no longer worked by painting landscapes or photographing the outside world. The earth itself became their medium.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s main work included wrapping architectural spaces (from buildings and landmarks to islands) in recycled plastic. Their latest work, completed by their team after the death of both the artists, was the Wrapped Arc de Triomphe (2021) in France.

These monumental projects took years to plan and develop, to be exhibited for a very limited time. The Wrapped Arc de Triomphe was only on display for 16 days in 2021. The artists stated that their reason for wrapping these spaces was purely for aesthetic enjoyment and to make people see spaces in a different light, putting joy and wonder back into familiar environments.

Some of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Air Package (1966)
  • Wrapped Kunsthalle (1967 – 1968)
  • Valley Curtain (1970 – 1972)
  • Surrounded Islands (1980 – 1983)
  • The Pont Neuf Wrapped (1975 – 1985)

 

David Hockney (1937 – Present)

Artist David Hockney
When the Artist Lived1937 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistEnglish
Where the Artist LivedEngland
Associated MediumsPainting

David Hockney is one of the most famous modern artists of our time. Hockney’s paintings portray colorful scenes of domestic life in Southern California. He has worked with many different mediums throughout his life, including iPads, laser photocopies, and more traditional mediums such as acrylic paint.

His painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), is one of the most expensive paintings ever sold by a living artist. In 2018 it sold for $90.3 million at auction.  This vividly colored painting shows a double portrait, something the artist is known for.

Famous Modern ArtMr and Mirs Clark and Percy (1971) by David Hockney, located in an unknown venue (possibly the Tate Modern in 2016); Francisco Anzola from United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He shows a young man swimming towards another, the man beside the pool a portrait of his lost lover. This painting displays his ex-boyfriend as being in a phase of moving on, something with which the artist had to make peace. Hockney also painted recurring scenes of swimming pools, and his A Bigger Splash (1967) painting depicts a pool and some splashes, suggesting that someone had just jumped into the pool.

The painting contains a flat modern space with only the suggestion of a story, leaving some room for interpretation by the viewer.

Some of Hockney’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • The Splash (1966)
  • Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971)
  • My Parents (1977)
  • Garrowby Hill (1998)
  • The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (2011)

 

El Anatsui (1946 – Present)

Artist El Anatsui
When the Artist Lived1946 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistGhanaian
Where the Artist LivedNigeria
Associated MediumsInstallation Art

El Anatsui is one of the most important modern artists from Africa. Anatsui takes materials used in our modern world and repurposes them and weaves them together to reimagine the story of material production, pointing out the colonial histories that linger in modern-day production. He makes large-scale installations.

One of his most famous contemporary artworks is Erosion (1992), a large wooden sculpture that has been burnt and carved in a destructive but delicate play on the themes of erosion.

Modern ArtistsArtwork of sewn metal sheets and other items by El Anatsui; Cliff from Arlington, Virginia, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The work is ten feet tall, a large totem-like sculpture.  His most famous style of working is with discarded bottle caps, which he cuts into strips or circles and weaves together with wire. These pieces are extremely labor-intensive. Bleeding Takari II (2007) is one such piece that is 20-feet wide and includes long strips which hang down to the floor.

Some of Anatsui’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Many Came Back (2005)
  • Dusasa I (2007)
  • Straying Continents (2010)
  • Looking for Connection (2013)

 

Antony Gormley (1950 – Present)

ArtistAntony Gormley
When the Artist Lived1950 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistBritish
Where the Artist LivedLondon
Associated MediumsSculpture

Antony Gormley is a British sculptor. He is interested in the human form and he often used his own body for his artworks. His works focus on tracing the stories of bodies and how a specific body can be seen as having a universally applied story. His work often questions the way that the human body is supposed to interact with the cosmos and the natural world.

One of his most famous artworks is Asian Field, an artwork made for the 2006 Sydney Biennale of Art. This work included around 200 000 small clay figurines. These were made with 100 tons of red clay, created by Chinese villagers over five days.

Contemporary Modern ArtAnother Place (1997) by Antony Gormley, located on Crosby beach near Liverpool in the United Kingdom; Andrew Dunn, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The artwork was controversial because Gormley had other people make the actual artwork. This installation was meant to be viewed from one specific angle, and the small clay figures seemed to look back at the viewers.

Gormley is famous for his larger-than-life sculptural works, especially his steel sculptures.

Some of Gormley’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Another Place (1997)
  • Event Horizon (2007)
  • One & Other (2009)
  • Another Place (2015)
  • Clasp (2018)

 

Sophie Calle (1953 – Present)

Artist Sophie Calle
When the Artist Lived1953 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistFrench
Where the Artist LivedParis
Associated MediumsPhotography and Relational Art

Sophie Calle is a French artist that explores the themes of intimacy and vulnerability. Her most famous artworks include work made around her ability to follow strangers around and investigate their lives. Her work is focused on the things that happen between people, and sometimes the only physical object in a work is her written documents about the artworks. One notable artwork by the artist was her work, Address Book (1983), wherein the artist was invited to write a series of articles for a newspaper.

She used an address book she had found on the street to call some of the numbers and create a picture of the address book’s owner, making photographs of his favorite activities. This became a type of portrait of a person she had never met.

What Is Contemporary ArtPhotograph of artist Sophie Calle, taken in June 2015; Pascal Ferro, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, the owner of the address book found these artworks and threatened to sue the artist for invading his privacy. In retaliation, he demanded that the newspaper print a nude photograph of the artist that he had uncovered. Calle has a unique way of getting into trouble!

Some of Calle’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Suite Venitienne (1979)
  • The Blind (1986)
  • The Mystery Guest: An Account (2006)
  • Prenez soin de vous (2007)

 

William Kentridge (1955 – Present)

Artist William Kentridge
When the Artist Lived1955 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistSouth African
Where the Artist LivedJohannesburg
Associated MediumsDrawing, Printmaking, and Animation

William Kentridge is a South African artist who specializes in various forms of printmaking, drawing, and animation. There is a strong graphic element in his work and the artist is known for his animations wherein he draws and erases and reworks the same drawings, creating stop-motion type of films.

His artworks usually tell emotional stories of a political nature. The artist often collaborates with large groups of people including puppeteers and other artists to create his more monumental works.

Famous Artists TodayPhotograph of artist William Kentridge at the opening of an exhibition in Melbourne, March 2012; Peter Campbell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, Kentridge hosted a monumental theater piece in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, titled The Head and the Load. This artwork combined dance, projections, music, sculptural works which could move, as well as shadows that told the story of Africans’ involvement in World War I. Kentridge creates these monumental pieces but also makes smaller artworks, such as his Universal Archive linocut series, made in 2012.

Some of Kentridge’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Felix in Exile (1994)
  • Ubu Tells the Truth (1996 – 1997)
  • Stereoscope (1999)
  • Rebus (2013)

 

Ai Weiwei (1957 – Present)

Artist Ai Weiwei
When the Artist Lived1957 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistChinese
Where the Artist LivedBeijing, New York City, Berlin, and Cambridge
Associated MediumsInstallation Art, Video Art

Ai Weiwei is a famous Chinese contemporary artist and activist, known as the leading artist in Chinese modern art. World renown for his criticism of the Chinese government’s policies on human rights and democracy, Ai Weiwei has even been arrested for his activism. The artist is known for using traditional Chinese art forms to critique the society he lives in and point out the political issues.

His most famous artwork to date must be the Sunflower Seeds (2010), which included millions of individually handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds, displayed in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern.

Contemporary Art DefinitionPhotograph of artist Ai Weiwei, taken in Prague in 2017; Jindřich Nosek (NoJin), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This work was exhibited in a ten-centimeter-deep square, filling the massive space. Viewers could walk on the seeds at the beginning of the exhibition, but had to stop due to the dangers of the porcelain dust after a few weeks.

Sunflower seeds were a typical metaphor used in Chinese propaganda when the artist was a child, where the leader of China was represented as the sun, and the people merely seeds on the sunflowers that revolved around the sun.

Some of Weiwei’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)
  • Remembering (2009)
  • Forever Bicycles (2011)
  • So Sorry (2011)
  • Fukushima Art Project (2015)

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)

Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
When the Artist Lived1960 – 1988
Nationality of the ArtistAmerican
Where the Artist LivedNew York City
Associated MediumsPainting and Street Art

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a famous American artist. He gained acclaim at a very young age, being the youngest artist to take part in the art fair Documenta when he was 21 years old. Basquiat’s work focused on themes such as wealth, poverty, and segregation, using both personal stories as well as overarching universal themes to tell his stories.

His style of painting was a rich mixture of text, abstraction, and imagery such as faces, as seen in works like Untitled (Skull) (1981). This painting baffled critics, as the work depicted a face that could be a skull.

The work was densely layered and colorful and showed both the inside and outside of a head, perhaps detailing some symbolism for what was happening inside the person’s head. This work also related to his life as a Black American and is linked with the idea of African masks.

Some of Basquiat’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Warrior (1982)
  • An Italian (1983)
  • Crown (1983)
  • Riddling with Death (1988)

 

Tracey Emin (1963 – Present)

Artist Tracey Emin
When the Artist Lived1963 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistBritish
Where the Artist LivedLondon
Associated MediumsDrawing, Painting, Sewing, Sculpture, and Film

Tracey Emin is a British artist known for her confessional and autobiographical work made with a variety of mediums. Her two most famous artworks are conceptual pieces which include Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995). This artwork is a tent exhibited in the gallery, with the names of more than 100 people sewn into the tent’s inside.

At first, audiences thought this was a list of people she had had sexual relationships with, but in truth, the names included anyone she had ever shared a bed with – including her grandmother, close friends, and two unnamed fetuses.

Modern Art ArtistsPhotograph of artist Tracey Emin at a Lighthouse Gala Auction in March 2007; Piers Allardyce, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The artist stated that sleeping with someone in any form is extremely intimate and this artwork told a story of her most intimate moments through an alternative means. Her other most famous artwork is My Bed (1998), wherein the artist recreated the scene of her own bed in the gallery. The artwork recounts the story of her depression and alcoholism, and her own disgust with her room as she recovered.

Emin believes that honesty is the most important part of making an artwork, even if it is hard to see.

Some of Emin’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Tracey Emin CV (1995)
  • Monument Valley (Grand Scale) (1997)
  • They Wanted You To Be Destroyed (1999)
  • I Promise to Love You (2013)

 

Olafur Eliasson (1967 – Present)

Artist Olafur Eliasson
When the Artist Lived1967 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistIcelandic-Danish
Where the Artist LivedNew York City, Berlin
Associated MediumsInstallation Art

Olafur Eliasson is a famous contemporary artist known for his large-scale projects focused on elements such as air, water, and light. He makes interesting spaces that include levels of interactivity for people to experience, such as The Weather Project (2003). For this artwork, Eliasson used humidifiers to create a mist out of a mixture of water and sugar inside the gallery space. The artwork also included a large round yellow light installation that resembled the sun.

Walking through this artwork felt like traveling through a thick mist, as viewers could barely see anything two steps beyond themselves.

This artwork is Eliasson’s most famous artwork and has been repeatedly recreated in many different spaces. Eliasson’s experiments with atmosphere and light have interesting effects on participants. In his work Room for One Color (1998), the artist uses a specific type of lighting that can make it seem as if participants can only see in one color.

Some of Eliasson’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • Regenfenster (Rain Window) (1999)
  • 60 degrees Room For All Colours (2002)
  • Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) (2010)
  • Moon (2013)

 

Kara Walker (1969 – Present)

Artist Kara Walker
When the Artist Lived1969 – Present
Nationality of the ArtistAmerican
Where the Artist LivedNew York City
Associated MediumsSilhouettes, Painting, Installation, and Printmaking

Kara Walker is a Black American artist who is considered one of the most famous artists today. She makes works that poke holes in interpretations of history, focusing on the lives of slaves and the depiction of race in the American South.

The artist takes racist stereotypes and reuses them to turn them on their heads. Her most notable mediums include painting, installation, silhouetting, and printmaking.

Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On) (2000) is one of Walker’s most famous modern art pieces. This work included silhouettes and colorful backgrounds that show racial stereotypes. She takes these typical racist stories and uses them against themselves. Her cut-paper mural of similar silhouettes, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, made in 1994, was her first of this type of artwork and was an instant hit in the art world.

Some of Walker’s famous contemporary artworks include:

  • The Emancipation Approximation (1999)
  • Darkytown Rebellion (2001)
  • A Subtlety (2014)
  • Fons Americanus (2019)

 

That concludes our list of 14 of the most famous contemporary artists, but this list is in no way completed. There are many more amazing contemporary artists out there from all over the world! The artists in this list show the diverse range of artworks being made today (and made in the past half-century). From Africa and Asia all the way to America, there are many such innovative artworks being made all over the world. The best part about contemporary art is that there will always be something that can touch someone’s heart.

 

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What Is the Definition of Contemporary Art?

Contemporary art is the name used to describe the art of today, marked by artworks that are focused on ideas and concepts instead of just focusing only on technical skills and experiments with different mediums.

 

What Is the Most Important Characteristic of Contemporary Art?

Contemporary art is marked by the fact that every artist makes something different, and as such, there is no defining characteristic as seen with earlier art movements. Perhaps we can say that contemporary art’s most important characteristic is that it is marked by individuality!

 

What Year Did Contemporary Art Start?

There is no specific date designated as the beginning of contemporary art, but most critics place it at around the same time as the Pop Art era, namely the 1960s.

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