The Most Influential Famous Contemporary Artists

Contemporary art, is a dynamic and diverse field, and involves the use innovative use of mediums, techniques, and themes. It reflects the society, politics, and culture of the present time. This article explores some of the most influential contemporary artists working as well as those who have passed - all of whom have left an indelible mark on the art world. Ultimately there are so many great artists and this is not the be all and end all. We've assed them based not just on their art but also on the impact they have had and the issues that they confront with their work.

The Pineapple Gallery top 50 Influential Contemporary Artists

Ai Weiwei

 Ai Weiwei is a versatile one of the world's leading contemporary artists and political activist, specialising in sculpture, installation, architecture, photography, film, and social criticism. His work tends to be both aesthetically powerful and politically charged, often challenging the Chinese government's stance on democracy and human rights. For example, his 2008 installation "Remembering" consisted of 9,000 children's backpacks, representing the young lives lost in the Sichuan earthquake due to poorly constructed schools—a direct critique of the Chinese government. Internationally, Ai's work has significantly influenced contemporary art, promoting a dialogue about the relationship between art, society, and politics. His activism and critical voice have not only made an impact in the art world but have also raised global awareness of social injustices, thus demonstrating the potential of art as a means of political resistance. His latest show is at the London Design Museum.

Marina Abramović 

Hailed as the "grandmother of performance art," Marina Abramović's works are intense explorations of the body, the self, and the limits of personal endurance. Her performances often involve strenuous physical and mental challenges and ask audiences to engage in previously unimaginable ways. Her most famous piece, "The Artist is Present" (2010), saw her sit silently in New York's Museum of Modern Art for over 700 hours, inviting visitors to sit across from her and share a moment of mutual, silent presence. Abramović's work has transformed understanding of what constitutes art, opening doors for the acceptance and understanding of performance art. By pushing the boundaries of the body and the mind, she's inspired viewers and other artists to question their own physical, emotional, and mental limits, thus broadening the spectrum of human experience in contemporary art.


Banksy, the pseudonymous England-based street artist, is known for his satirical and subversive street art, which combines dark humour with graffiti and distinctive stenciling techniques. His work frequently provides social and political commentary, drawing attention to various issues such as war, child poverty, and the hypocrisy of institutions. Despite maintaining anonymity, Banksy has become one of the most famous contemporary artists, bringing street art into the mainstream art world and transforming public spaces into platforms for artwork. Banksy's work challenges the norms of the art world and stimulates societal and political conversations, showing that art can be a powerful tool for social change. His murals, often appearing overnight, have inspired a democratisation of art, demonstrating that art is not limited to galleries but can be integrated into daily life and public spaces.

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. His work is associated with the Pop Art movement and is often characterised by its playful and ironic qualities. Koons' work serves as a critique of consumer culture, questioning the boundaries of taste within the art world, from the elite to the masses. Pieces like "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," a life-size gold-leaf plated porcelain sculpture, and his "Balloon Dog" sculptures have become icons of contemporary art. Koons has influenced modern art by redefining the concept of art as commodity and challenging the perceived dichotomy between high art and kitsch. His pieces have stimulated ongoing discussions around the role of the artist, the value of art, and the power of popular culture within society.

Cindy Sherman

 Cindy Sherman is an American photographer and filmmaker, recognized for her conceptual portraits. In her seminal "Untitled Film Stills" series (1977–1980), Sherman posed in various roles and settings, producing images reminiscent of film noir, European art-house films, and B-movies. This series, like much of her work, explored the construction and representation of femininity and identity. Sherman’s influence on contemporary art, particularly on feminist and postmodern critique, is immense. Her work challenged the male gaze prevalent in art and popular culture, empowering women by showing that identity is not a fixed state but rather a flexible construct. As a result, Sherman’s work has been central to the discourse on representation of women, influencing generations of artists exploring identity, gender, and the role of the image in contemporary society.

Gerhard Richter

One of the most significant living artists, Gerhard Richter has spent over five decades experimenting with a vast array of styles and ideas. His body of work spans photorealism based on photographs and magazine cutouts, large-scale abstract paintings created with squeegees, and stained glass windows. His 1988 cycle of 15 grey paintings "October 18, 1977" about the terrorist group Red Army Faction, forced viewers to confront Germany's post-WWII history. By refusing to commit to a single style, Richter's work has helped keep painting relevant, constantly re-inventing itself, and engaging with the political and cultural complexities of contemporary life.

Yayoi Kusama

Known for her immersive installations and fascination with dots, Yayoi Kusama's work transcends painting, sculpture, and performance. Her distinctive polka dot patterns and 'infinity rooms' offer a complex blend of conceptual and pop art. Despite long periods of obscurity, her work, particularly later in her career, has had a substantial impact on the art world. Not only has she influenced the development of minimalism, pop art, and feminist art, her openness about her mental health struggles brings a powerful personal narrative to her pieces, helping to highlight issues of mental illness.

Damien Hirst 

 A leading member of the Young British Artists (YBAs) who dominated the UK art scene in the '90s, Damien Hirst is known for exploring themes of life, death, and identity. His installations, often featuring preserved animals or recreations of pharmaceutical displays, are designed to provoke and challenge societal norms. Perhaps his most famous piece, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (1991), features a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. Hirst’s work has pushed the boundaries of art, redefining contemporary installation and conceptual art. His impact lies in his ability to create art that inspires conversation, whether positive or negative, questioning the role of the artist and the purpose of art.

Anish Kapoor

Known for his large-scale installations and sculptures, Anish Kapoor explores the concept of 'the void' in his works. Pieces such as "Cloud Gate" (2004), a public sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park, or "Sky Mirror" (2006) displayed at Rockefeller Center in New York, are significant contemporary landmarks. Kapoor's work impacts how we interact with art and the spaces we inhabit, creating opportunities for the public to engage with art in urban settings. His works also often stimulate a sense of wonder and encourage reflection on philosophical and existential concepts.

Kara Walker

Renowned for her candid exploration of race, gender, sexuality, and violence, Kara Walker’s art employs the traditionally charming medium of paper silhouettes to depict disturbing narratives, particularly focusing on America's history of slavery and racism. Her massive black-and-white silhouettes and installations confront viewers with the brutal realities of history and present racial and gender inequalities. Walker's work has revolutionised the field of contemporary art by challenging its lack of representation and tackling hard-hitting social issues. Her impact is seen not just in the way she uses her art to speak on social issues but also in her influence on a new generation of artists confronting these themes.

David Hockney

A central figure in the pop art movement of the 1960s, David Hockney is known for his vibrant, large-scale works that explore physical and metaphorical spaces. His famous pool scenes, such as "A Bigger Splash," capture the quintessence of Los Angeles living. In recent years, Hockney has embraced digital technology, creating works on his iPhone and iPad. His work has consistently pushed the boundaries of painting as a medium, influencing generations of artists and evolving with the times. Hockney's impact lies not only in his exploration of subject matter but also in his innovative approach to creating art, using the latest technologies to continue to challenge and redefine what painting can be.


Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer is a conceptual artist known for her text-based public art projects. Using words as her primary medium, Holzer explores themes like power, violence, and control. Her works, such as her iconic Truisms (1977–79), are presented in a variety of formats, from LED signs to benches to projections on buildings. Holzer's work has radically reimagined public spaces and highlighted the power of language in contemporary society. She has encouraged the democratisation of art by bringing it directly into social spaces, allowing it to be experienced beyond traditional venues.


Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin is a British artist known for her deeply personal and provocative works. Utilising a variety of mediums, including drawing, painting, sewing, sculpture, film, neon text, and installation, Emin explores her own life events, ranging from love, abortion, rape, and childbirth. Her most famous artwork, "My Bed" (1998), featured an unmade dirty bed, surrounded by detritus such as menstrual-stained underwear and used condoms, sparking controversy and debate. Emin's work has been influential in expanding the personal into the public, breaking taboos, and challenging societal norms around femininity and female vulnerability.


Takashi Murakami 

Known for his colourful, anime-influenced art, Takashi Murakami blends traditional Japanese painting techniques with contemporary imagery. Murakami's concept of "Superflat" describes the cultural commentary within his work, addressing the lack of depth in post-war Japanese culture. His work is known worldwide, through collaborations with fashion brands and musicians, and has revolutionised contemporary art with the successful blend of high art, commercialism, and popular culture.


Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist recognised for his large-scale installation artworks that use elemental materials like light, water, and air temperature to play with viewer perception and engagement. "The Weather Project," a 2003 installation in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, notably featured a giant sun-like disc emitting mono-frequency light. Eliasson's works actively engage viewers, encouraging awareness of natural phenomena and environmental issues, thereby democratising art and making it a communal experience.


Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese contemporary artist who primarily works with gunpowder and fireworks to create ephemeral "drawings" and explosive performances. His most renowned works, like "Sky Ladder," employ the use of firework displays, adding a temporal and performative dimension to the art experience. Cai's works are a significant exploration of culture, history, and the universe, challenging traditional art techniques and dimensions.


KAWS (Brian Donnelly)

Donnelly is a renowned artist who navigates the territory between fine and commercial art through his work in painting, sculpture, and design. His iconic "Companion" character—a grayscale, skull-and-crossbones Mickey Mouse-like figure—has been displayed in locations from small-scale urban murals to monumental sculptures in international art institutions. KAWS' impact is found in his ability to blend high and low culture, making contemporary art accessible and relatable to a broader audience.


Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu is an American contemporary visual artist known for her large-scale, abstract paintings. Layering maps, architectural plans, and urban cityscapes, Mehretu addresses the intersection of place, time, and identity in her works. Her impact lies in her visual exploration of cultural diaspora, migration, and global geopolitical changes, making her one of the most significant painters in contemporary abstraction.

El Anatsui

El Anatsui is a Ghanaian sculptor active for more than four decades. He's globally acclaimed for his intricate, draped metallic cloth-like works made from discarded bottle tops. Anatsui’s transformation of these everyday materials into high art confronts Africa's troubling colonial and post-colonial history. His sculptures have influenced the global art world by highlighting sustainability and commenting on consumption, waste, and the environment.


Wolfgang Tillmans

As a pivotal figure in contemporary photography, Wolfgang Tillmans’ work extends from portraiture and still-life to sky photographs and abstract works. His impact on the photography landscape was recognised when he became the first photographer and first non-British artist to receive the Turner Prize in 2000. His ability to find beauty in everyday life, and his explorations of gender, identity, and socio-political issues, continue to influence the trajectory of contemporary photography.

William Kentridge

An artist of a multivalent medium, William Kentridge's works span animations, drawings, film, and theatre. Rooted in the socio-political milieu of Apartheid-era South Africa, his monochromatic stop-motion films and charcoal drawings fuse personal and political narratives. Epitomizing this is his acclaimed series "Drawings for Projection" (1989–2011). Kentridge's impact in contemporary art echoes beyond his powerful exploration of South Africa's collective memory, seen in his innovative marriage of mediums, forming a new narrative of artistic expression.

Adrian Ghenie

Adrian Ghenie's paintings are characterised by their dramatic intensity and thick layering of paint, blending abstraction and figuration. His work often delves into the dark corners of 20th-century European history and the human condition, with art history, totalitarianism, and the horror of the Holocaust frequent themes. His impact is found in his mastery of the medium and his ability to weave historical narrative into his works, provoking viewers to confront the past's complex realities.


Richard Serra

Richard Serra is renowned for his monumental steel sculptures that redefine the viewer's relationship to space and environment. His works, like the "Torqued Ellipses" series, challenge the static nature of sculpture, emphasising materiality and viewer engagement. Serra's sculptures, installed globally, have transformed public spaces, pushing the boundaries of what sculpture can represent and how it can influence the environment. His legacy lies in his innovative approach to form and material and his influence on site-specific installation art.


Chris Ofili

A Turner Prize-winning artist, Chris Ofili, is known for his layered canvases incorporating diverse materials like resin, glitter, and even elephant dung. His provocative and politically charged works, such as "The Holy Virgin Mary" (1996), explore themes of race, identity, and religion. Ofili’s work is highly influential in its unique stylistic blend of high and low culture references, from biblical themes to hip-hop, breaking down boundaries and exploring British and African cultural identities.


Maurizio Cattelan

Maurizio Cattelan is a provocative contemporary artist known for his satirical sculptures and installations. His work often critiques institutions, societal norms, and conventions in the art world. From a fully functional 18-carat gold toilet titled "America" (2016) to a lifelike sculpture of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, "La Nona Ora" (The Ninth Hour) (1999), Cattelan's irreverent humour challenges viewers to question their beliefs about art and society. His influence is seen in his ability to create playful yet potent critiques of modern life.

Shirin Neshat

As a formidable creative force straddling Western and Middle Eastern cultures, Shirin Neshat's oeuvre includes photography, video installations, and films exploring the complexities of Muslim women's identities. Notable is her "Women of Allah" series, an audacious portrayal of veiled women bearing arms. Neshat provokes dialogue about gender, power, displacement, and the Muslim diasporic experience. Her impact reverberates in her capacity to humaniSe the often misunderstood and marginalised narratives of Muslim women.


Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry, a Turner Prize recipient, delves into the sociopolitical labyrinth with his ceramic works, tapestries, and transvestism. His vases, outwardly charming in their folk-art aesthetic, reveal intricate narratives of class, identity, and British cultural landscape upon closer inspection. Perry's influence lies in his innovative fusion of traditional crafts with contemporary themes, compelling viewers to confront their prejudices and the socio-cultural dichotomies of the modern world.


Antony Gormley

Gormley's sculptures and installations are profound engagements with the human form and its relationship with space. His seminal work, "Angel of the North," a monumental steel figure overlooking Gateshead, combines industrial heritage with human resilience. Gormley's exploration of body, environment, and collective experience in works like "Another Place" and "Field" redefines public art, grounding it in shared human experiences, creating communal connections, and stimulating philosophical contemplation.

Steve McQueen

An artist and filmmaker, Steve McQueen transmutes the screen into a canvas of social commentary. His film "12 Years a Slave" won the Academy Award for Best Picture, yet his earlier artworks like "Western Deep" also confront the viewer with visceral, often overlooked narratives. McQueen's work bridges the divide between art-house and mainstream cinema, with his socially conscious storytelling echoing the seismic shifts in contemporary societal issues.


Rachel Whiteread

 Rachel Whiteread's sculptures and installations turn negative spaces into tangible form. Her artwork "House" — a concrete cast of a Victorian house's interior — marked a radical innovation in sculpture. Her work, often described as "mummifying the air," addresses themes of memory, absence, and mortality. Whiteread's influence lies in her ability to subvert traditional sculpture norms and transform the familiar into the unexpected, challenging perceptions of space, material, and history. She was the first woman to with the Turner Prize in 1993.


Yoshitomo Nara

 Renowned for his beguiling illustrations of seemingly innocent children and animals infused with subtle hints of darkness and rebellion, Yoshitomo Nara is a leading figure in Japan's contemporary art scene. His distinctive style, often linked with Japan's 'Superflat' movement and popular culture, belies deeper critiques of societal pressures and conformity. Nara's internationally celebrated oeuvre challenges traditional perceptions of child-like innocence, impacting the discourse of contemporary Japanese art and beyond.


Sarah Sze

Sarah Sze's intricate, large-scale installations comprise everyday objects in a meticulous arrangement, reflecting on the overwhelming nature of contemporary life. Her celebrated work "Triple Point (Planetarium)" at the 2013 Venice Biennale was a stunning exploration of order, chaos, and memory. Sze's transformation of commonplace items into complex constellations deeply probes the dynamics of space, time, and the fleeting nature of existence, offering a profound critique of our material and information-saturated world.

Richard Prince

Richard Prince's appropriation art, particularly his 'Cowboys' and 'Nurse' series, have ignited debates on authorship, originality, and copyright. By rephotographing advertising images, Prince interrogates the construction of desire and consumer culture. His controversial practice, often pushing legal and ethical boundaries, has critically influenced contemporary art's engagement with mass media, capitalism, and the notion of artistic ownership.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Njideka Akunyili Crosby's mixed-media works intricately weave personal and political narratives, reflecting her cross-cultural experiences in Nigeria and America. Her collage and photo-transfer techniques layer cultural references, creating a hybrid visual language that echoes her multicultural identity. Crosby's contribution to contemporary art lies in her innovative exploration of diasporic experiences, breaking new ground in the representation of immigration, postcolonial identity, and the complexities of globalization.

Doris Salcedo

 Doris Salcedo's poignant sculptures and installations address the trauma of violence and displacement. Works like "Shibboleth"—a crack in Tate Modern's floor—and "Atrabiliarios"—a series of installations involving worn shoes—articulate the voiceless victims of political conflict. Salcedo's work fundamentally transforms public and gallery spaces into sites of memory and mourning, and her profound impact lies in her ability to materialise grief, absence, and resilience, compelling universal empathy for shared human sufferings.


Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford's abstract, large-scale 'collage paintings' convey a deep sense of urban archaeology, utilising materials like endpapers, string, and fragments of posters found in his Los Angeles neighbourhood. His layered compositions, revealing the complexities of socio-economic and political dynamics, notably culminated in 'Pickett's Charge', a monumental cyclorama at the Hirshhorn Museum. Bradford's art has substantially shaped the discourse around abstract painting, expanding its potential as a medium to explore and express social justice and urban narratives.


James Turrell

An undisputed master of light and space, James Turrell's immersive installations challenge viewer perceptions, blending art, science, and spirituality. His ongoing 'Roden Crater' project—transforming an extinct volcano into a celestial observatory—symbolises his groundbreaking exploration of light as a medium. Turrell's significant contribution to contemporary art lies in his redefinition of viewing experiences, crafting spaces that trigger self-reflection and a deeper understanding of the natural phenomena we often take for granted.


Wangechi Mutu

 A prominent figure in Afrofuturism, Wangechi Mutu's work spans collage, sculpture, film, and performance, synthesising postcolonial African identity with Western contemporary culture. Her intricate collages and sculptural assemblages, often featuring hybridized female forms, critique gender stereotypes and neocolonial attitudes. Mutu’s influence in contemporary art resides in her profound exploration of female identity, racial dynamics, and ecological concerns, offering a unique perspective on postcolonial African narratives.


Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden, often recognised as the godfather of 'Pop Surrealism,' blends pop culture references with historical painting techniques, producing a surreal world filled with innocent yet eerie figures. Works like 'The Meat Show' probe themes of nature, childhood, and societal taboos. Ryden's art has significantly impacted contemporary surrealism, employing an uncanny juxtaposition of innocence and darkness that both challenges and invites viewer interpretations.


Ron Mueck

Australian, Ron Mueck's hyperrealistic sculptures capture the human form in startling detail. His works, varying dramatically in scale, confront viewers with intimate depictions of life, death, and the uncanny essence of humanity. Renowned pieces like 'Dead Dad' and 'Mask II' push the boundaries of sculptural realism. Mueck's impact on contemporary sculpture is undeniable, bringing an unparalleled level of verisimilitude to the medium that compels viewers to engage with issues of identity, existence, and mortality.


Beatriz Milhazes

Celebrated for her vibrantly coloured, rhythmically intense abstract works, Beatriz Milhazes weaves together influences from Brazilian culture and Western Modernist traditions. Her signature collage technique combines geometric and floral patterns, evoking a carnival-like exuberance. Her impact is evident in her unique synthesis of her cultural heritage with a global art dialogue, challenging preconceived notions about Latin American art and contributing to a richer, more nuanced understanding of contemporary abstraction.


Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe's innovative installations, films, and public events challenge traditional boundaries between reality and fiction, nature and culture. His practice often involves living systems, as seen in his Venice Biennale piece, "A Journey that wasn’t," which included an ecosystem with a real, evolving ant colony. Huyghe's work has reshaped contemporary art's engagement with ecology and the interconnections of life, prodding us to reconsider our relationship with the natural world.


Ragnar Kjartansson

Ragnar Kjartansson’s performance-based practice combines music, theatre, and visual art to explore themes of emotion, repetition, and endurance. His long-duration performance pieces, like "The Visitors" and "A Lot of Sorrow," test the boundaries of time and sentiment. Kjartansson's influence on contemporary performance art lies in his powerful interweaving of spectacle and emotional authenticity, creating immersive experiences that linger in the memory long after their conclusion.


Pipilotti Rist

A pioneering video artist, Pipilotti Rist explores the female experience through immersive installations filled with vibrant, sensual, and often fragmented images. Notable works like "Ever Is Over All" and "Pour Your Body Out" combine video, music, and sculptural elements to transform ordinary moments into extraordinary, dreamlike sequences. Rist's groundbreaking influence on video art is evident in her creation of multi-sensory environments that playfully and poetically engage viewers, breaking down barriers between art, technology, and the human body.


Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall's extensive body of work confronts the historical omission of African Americans from Western art. Utilising a deeply black pigment to emphasize his subjects' skin color, Marshall's paintings, like "Mastry," present narratives from Black everyday life, pop culture, and history. Marshall has significantly influenced contemporary art by centralising Black experiences, opening avenues for more inclusive artistic representation, and challenging the Western canon's exclusivity.

Daniel Arsham

Merging art, architecture, and performance, Daniel Arsham's work straddles temporal boundaries. Known for his 'Future Relics' series—objects of the present imagined as archaeological discoveries from a dystopian future—Arsham prompts viewers to question their perceptions of time and the transience of material culture. His multidisciplinary approach, intertwining the realms of art, architecture, and stage design, has played a significant role in broadening contemporary art's scope and cross-disciplinary possibilities.


Sophie Calle

 Sophie Calle's conceptually driven work often blurs the line between art and life. From following strangers to inviting others to sleep in her bed for her project "The Sleepers," Calle's art investigates personal boundaries, surveillance, and identity. Her innovative, sometimes controversial methods have deeply impacted contemporary art, exploring the complex dynamics between private and public, observer and observed, leading to a reevaluation of interpersonal relationships in our increasingly watched society.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Although he tragically died young, Jean-Michel Basquiat left an indelible mark on the contemporary art world with his raw and expressive style. His pop art and graffiti-like work emerged neo-expressionist paintings, such as "Untitled (Skull)" and "Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump," delve into issues of race, class, and social injustice. Basquiat's influence is substantial, not just for his artistic style, but also for his critique of systemic racism and his representation of African American culture, bridging the gap between street and high art. At the age of only 22 his art was featured at the Whitney Museum in New York.


Nick Cave

Known for his vivid, wearable "Soundsuits"—sculptures that transform into performance art—Nick Cave creates a vibrant dialogue about race, identity, and social justice. His Soundsuits, often composed of found materials, serve both as a fantastical aesthetic spectacle and a shield against racial profiling. Cave's unique blend of sculpture, fashion, and dance has significantly broadened contemporary art's boundaries, inviting profound discussions about identity and transforming materials of the everyday into extraordinary embodiments of cultural critique.


Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, a German-born artist, punctuates the global contemporary art scene with a unique audacity. A daring conjurer of historical memory, Kiefer's colossal paintings and installations tangle with Germany's fraught past, yanking the shadows of World War II and the Holocaust into the piercing light of the present. He boldly wields materials such as straw, lead, and ash, creating textured layers that embody devastation, resurrection, and the cyclical rhythm of history.

His opus, "The High Priestess/Zweistromland," is an audacious bookshelf of lead books, marrying the symbolism of knowledge and the weight of history. Kiefer's works, like "Nuremberg," plunge into the abyss of Germany's National Socialist past, instigating a collective confrontation with uncomfortable historical truths. His dramatic "Athanasius" painting series, fusing landscape and architecture, embodies his deep-rooted interrogation of civilisation and destruction.

Kiefer's profound impact lies in his audacious handling of Germany's national narrative, forcing viewers into a headlong encounter with the past's irrevocable ghosts. His artistic trajectory incites a significant discourse around the role of art in processing collective trauma and the cyclical nature of history. He weaves a complex tapestry of remembrance and oblivion, whispering cautionary tales from the annals of human civilisation. Kiefer's work serves as an ominous reminder that the echoes of history perennially reverberate in our present.