Artalistic has carefully curated a list of today’s top 10 most influential contemporary artists all known for their unique artistic techniques as well as the jaw-dropping sums of money that their pieces are able to fetch at auction. These artists are breaking sale records, exhibited in museums and galleries around the world and praised by art critics. Find out which modern artists will leave behind a lasting legacy.
A Disagreement About Dates & an Agreement Over Intention
Before revealing on our list of top contemporary artists it is important to first make a distinction between Modern and Contemporary art. People are often incorrectly led into thinking that because the terms may be used interchangeably in the English language that the artistic definitions of modern and contemporary art are also interchangeable. The truth is that, in the art world, a distinction can be made. However the topic is highly debated and different historians disagree about who should be considered a contemporary artist and who should be considered a modern artist. Some believe that art made following World War II is Contemporary art. There is another group of individuals that consider all art made by living artists to be “contemporary.” Some define Modern art as encompassing art created between the 1860s and the 1960s.
Putting this dispute about dates aside, let’s put forth a definition of Modern art as a radical departure from the kinds of art that had gone before by creating pieces that, for example, rejected traditional perspective and subject matter.
Most art historians agree that Modern art branched off into Contemporary art as the focus moved away from the content of the artwork and towards the process of making it. Contemporary artists did this by using innovative techniques to create and present artworks in unusual environments. They strived to use new media and dissect new topics through things like Performance Art, Street Art, Happenings and more recently, AI and augmented reality. However both modern and contemporary artists encourage experimentations and breaking away from tradition.
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Jeff Koons: Mass Culture Art
The American artist Jeff Koons is an iconic figure in the Contemporary art movement. He is known for using his work to explore sensitive topics like race, gender, sex and fame. Koons, a former Wall Street trader, is known as an “idea man” and is often criticized for his creative process because he does not make his own work and instead uses computers to design his ideas and hires out the actual construction of his pieces. His ability to take everyday items and elevate them to high art has made his name synonymous with the art of mass culture.
Damien Hirst: A Highly Provocative and Influential Contemporary Artist
Damien Hirst is one of the most famous British contemporary artists on the art market. He became famous for presenting dead animals cut in half and suspended in boxes filled with blue formaldehyde. Hirst is also fascinated by the themes of death, rebirth, beauty, technology and mortality. These themes were very present in his unbelievable, decade-in-the-making exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable that was featured at the 2017 Venice Biennale. For this exhibition Hirst filled two museums and outdoor spaces with hundreds of objects that were all supposedly lost in a legendary shipwreck two thousand years ago and now raised from the Indian Ocean. Damien Hirst is also well known for breaking records for the biggest sales of Contemporary art. For example, his diamond encrusted skull entitled For the love of God sold for $100 million.
David Hockney is another major contributor to the Pop art movement of the 1960s, technically placing him among modern artists. However he seemed to straddle both Modern and Contemporary movements when he later derived his own technique by combining influences from Pop art and photography, focusing on frank mundane realism and an infatuation with light. His work has been exhibited at numerous institutions around the world, including the Tate Gallery in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris and the MET in New York.
Christopher Wool: Renowned Post-Conceptualist
Christopher Wool is an influential post-conceptual Contemporary artist who has been working since the end of the 1980s. He is known for his word paintings, which featured alliterative statements laid out in grid patterns. His aesthetic style was heavily influenced by Urban and Abstract art. His work questions the banality of repetition by using an approach that could be described as drone art. His most famous piece is a text-based work called Apocalypse Now, based on Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same name, which sold for $26 million in 2013.
Jenny Saville is a remarkable English painter who was propelled to global prominence with the sale of her self-portrait Propped at Sotheby's. She is best known for her rich naturalistic portraits of overweight nude women. Saville wished to challenge the tabloids and newspapers that were selling a false and negative perception of the “acceptable” female form by presenting only images of what they deemed “the ideal female form,” dismissing images of “normal” women. She challenged these ideas and wanted to give more empowerment to how the female form should be represented.
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Cecily Brown: A Central Figure in the Resurgence of Painting at the Turn of the Millennium
London-born painter Cecily Brown creates vivid, atmospheric depictions of fragmented bodies that are depicted among swells of color and gesture. Her work is often compared to Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. She gives a personal touch to her unique technique that teeters between abstract and figurative. Erotic, violent and disturbing, her paintings sometimes depict people in erotic positions. Cecily Brown is highly regarded in the art market.
Yayoi Kusama: Polka Dots, Pop art and Minimalism
Yayoi Kusama, yet another of the world’s most influential contemporary artists, is a Japanese artist who was a self-described “obsessional artist.” Her work often includes polka dots and was her way of expressing a unique world that captured the experiences she had as a child when she suffered from hallucinations that often involved fields of dots. Kusama is also known for her works that she called “infinity net” paintings where she repeated tiny marks across expansive canvases without regard for the edges of the canvas, as if they continued into infinity.
Takashi Murakami: Manga Meets Traditional Japanese Painting
Takashi Murakami is another one of Japans’ most influential contemporary artists. Murakami is known for beginning the artistic movement known as Superflat – his original combination of simplified anime and manga inspired aesthetics with the flat composition of traditional Japanese painting. His work acknowledges the interaction between the art and commercial worlds. He has been dubbed the Japanese Andy Warhol. French gallery Perrotin represents him.
Ai Weiwei: A Modern Artists’ Fight for Artistic Freedom
Ai Weiwei is considered to be one of the most influential contemporary artists in the Chinese independent art world. Weiwei is also a political activist. His art is often very provocative, reflecting his fierce opposition of the CCP and their discriminatory practices against artists and those who practice free expression. In 2015, the Royal Academy of Arts in London devoted an exhibition to this brilliant photographer, sculptor and architect.
Anselm Kiefer: A Prominent Neo-Expressionist
Anselm Kiefer is a German Contemporary artist known for his large paintings and technique that uses thick layers of dark paint. His work used symbolism to make ironic comments about tragic aspects of German history and culture – in particular the Nazi period.