Many of the visual artists that most people know and can name at will are also long dead. We tend to associate “real art” with the old masters like Van Gogh, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Matisse, and many others.
But this focus on the art of years past draws attention away from the hundreds of talented artists who are still working and creating today.
That’s why we’ve put together this collection of famous contemporary artists and their work, to better acquaint our readers with living visual artists whose work has helped to define what art means to society today.
Takashi Murakami rose to worldwide art fame during the 1990s, when he premiered his own specific visual style and movement, which he called Superflat.
His 1996 piece, And then, and then and then and then and then, is a great example of his tendency to combine popular, commercial art styles with high-art presentation.
This piece and many others follow in the footsteps of pop artists like Andy Warhol, who repeated pop culture iconography ad nauseam in the 1960s and 1970s.
But while Warhol focused on American culture and imagery, Murakami focuses instead on Japanese culture, especially popular styles found in anime.
There was a time, in the early 2000s, when Banksy was just another graffiti artist. His work wasn’t taken very seriously by the fine art community in his native UK or abroad.
Then, as his work became more well known, he started to gain a reputation as one of the most accessible and politically relevant visual artists currently working.
His preference to stay largely anonymous, except to a few close friends, only fascinated the public even more.
The 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which Banksy himself directed, was a sort of introductory piece where the artist finally spoke to the public.
Since then, his pieces have been widely sought after in the fine art world, sometimes selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He has also inspired a string of high-concept graffiti artists who attempt to imitate his style of hyper-relevant work.
Although Marina Abramovic had been working in the area of visual and performance art for many years, it was her 2010 project, The Artist is Present, that made her a worldwide phenomenon of the art scene.
The Artist is Present was based on an incredibly simple concept. Essentially, Abramovic was given a space inside New York’s popular MOMA, and for a total of 736 hours over three months, she sat at a table and looked at any museum visitor who sat down at the table with her.
The performance aspect consisted only of Abramovic sitting almost completely still and remaining silent throughout.
She would never speak, even when spoken to. Her expression also remained largely blank, leaving visitors to place their own interpretation on her expression and posture.
Even Lady Gaga visited this exhibit and subsequently collaborated with Abramovic on several visual projects.
It’s hard to limit Laurie Anderson to just one medium. She has made experimental music, spoken word albums, and engaged in performance art that was often controversial.
Her 1982 album, Big Science, showcased how little Anderson cared for traditional musical structure and instrumentation.
She has since become a luminary in the area of electronic music and manipulation, making use of several custom MIDI instruments and borrowing many sounds from real life.
From the 1990s until his death in 2013, Anderson was also close friends with another major player in the New York music and art scene, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground (who in turn collaborated and recorded with Andy Warhol) and an extensive solo career.
Ragnar Kjartansson is an Icelandic visual artist who mainly works in performance art, often in the form of video installations.
In addition to being a beloved darling of the international art world, Kjartansson is also a talented musician.
His musical skill and love of collaboration is perhaps best showcased in his 2012 video installation, The Visitors.
The piece is made up of nine different projectors, projection screens, each of them with their own dedicated speaker.
The Visitors lasts for roughly one hour. Different musicians are scattered through different rooms in a large farm mansion.
Through the use of headphone monitors that are synced to the microphones of the other musicians, the group plays through a single song, written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife.
The song’s only lyric is “Once again I fall into my feminine ways.” Through intricate instrumentation, the song is stretched over the hour-long runtime, swelling and falling away quietly throughout.
The music is largely in the style of post-rock groups like Sigur Ros, and in fact members of the band are included in the performance.
Jenny Holzer is an American feminist artist whose work is also categorized as part of the neo-conceptual movement.
Her work almost always involves text, presented in very different ways. Sometimes it’s printed on a t-shirt or projected onto a public building in a major city over several nights.
And in the case of IT TAKES A WHILE BEFORE YOU CAN STEP OVER INERT BODIES AND GO AHEAD WITH WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO DO., the text is engraved on 28 different granite benches that are permanently installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
The text of her work strives to be both immediately relevant as well as somehow timeless. Much of it also aims to be encouraging for viewers.
While you may not feel an emotional reaction to the work of each of these artists, having any reaction is ultimately a major aspect of the experience of engaging with a work of art.
In fact, some of these artists’ work specifically aims to draw negative reactions from the public, an idea that the old masters would likely find confusing.
And while some would disagree that contemporary art is in touch with contemporary society, these artists and many others like them are constantly attempting to capture what it feels like to be alive today.
Whether they’re successful or not is up to you.
If you enjoy older artistic works, check out our article on some of the best abstract paintings of all time.