The art world has undergone a profound transformation in the 21st century. As contemporary art cements itself as the dominant artistic style, certain artists have quickly risen to prominence through highly original and conceptual approaches. Though only two decades into the new millennium, we can already distinguish the most influential 21st-century artists who have redefined the scope, medium, technique and accessibility of art.
From painters to sculptors to multi-disciplinary artists, these contemporary creators are expanding how we experience and think about art. Some utilize cutting-edge technology and unconventional materials to transport the viewer. Others highlight provocative themes to challenge societal assumptions about identity, commercialism, history and power structures. Several artists on this list have even spurred changes in the art market itself.
Artists Expanding Concepts of Art
Some artists have quickly risen to influence by radically expanding the conceptual possibilities of art. By breaking free of conventions, their groundbreaking works alter how audiences engage with and even define art.
No artist has done more to expand photography as an artistic medium this century than Cindy Sherman. Sherman pioneered conceptual photography back in the 1980s with her “Untitled Film Stills” series. However, her self-portraits are still shocking audiences and fetching record prices at auction decades later.
Sherman uses photography, prosthetics, costumes and make-up to shape-shift into various characters. In her unsettling photographs, she metamorphosizes across age, race, gender and class. Usually placing herself as the sole subject, her work investigates notions of identity, society’s obsession with physical appearance, and the propagation of female stereotypes.
“I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear.” - Cindy Sherman
By completely transforming and disguising herself, Sherman has created one of the most seminal bodies of conceptual portraiture. Her ongoing influence through photography cannot be overstated.
The iconoclastic Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has also vastly stretched public perceptions of what art can address. Ai is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s record on human rights and censorship. He frequently uses his experimental artwork as social commentary to highlight government corruption, refugee issues, the global migrant crisis, and more.
Ai helped design Beijing’s famous Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium but later regretted his role, calling it propaganda. When the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed thousands of children due to shoddy building construction, Ai launched a “Citizen’s Investigation” to collect the names and birth dates of the dead. He then installed 9,000 children’s backpacks on the façade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum representing each victim. Such conceptual, activist pieces demonstrate art’s capabilities to educate, challenge, and affect change.
“I act on daily issues in Chinese society like Ai Weiwei.” – Artist Quote
“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” – Ai Weiwei
Weiwei continues to make globally recognized art while enduring government surveillance and detainment. His courage and conviction paired with conceptual mastery has stretched art into bold new territories this century.
Artists Innovating Technique and Medium
Other highly influential artists of the 21st century have reimagined artistic approaches through pioneering uses of unconventional materials and innovative techniques. Their envelope-pushing vision and execution in sculpture, installation, and aesthetics transports audiences, often blurring the line between art and experience.
The Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson creates magical, large-scale installations that integrate sculpture, light, projection, photography and space itself as raw artistic materials. Natural phenomena like light, water, fog and rainbows feature prominently in his work to produce transcendent viewer experiences inside museum galleries.
Some of his most seminal installations this century include:
- The Weather Project – An enormous, glowing orange sun shrouded in mist occupies the massive Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern while hundreds of mono-frequency lights radiate the ceiling in shifting colors.
- Waterfalls – With man-made waterfalls installed at 4 sites along New York’s East River, Eliasson brings the wonder and turbulence of Iceland’s glacial waterfalls to an urban public space.
Eliasson’s work envelops audiences in optical sensations using principles of physics and perception. The intersection between manmade constructs and the natural world further highlights environmental fragility. As one of the century’s preeminent installation artists, his visually and emotionally immersive creations expand sculpture into more experiential realms auguring the future of contemporary art.
The confrontational American contemporary artist Kara Walker produces cut-paper silhouettes and shadow puppets exploring America’s racial history and power dynamics. She exhumes imagery depicting the antebellum South, the fallacy of the “Gone with the Wind” era, racial and gender stereotypes, and acts of extreme racial violence for provocative examination.
Though Walker works in the delicate medium of paper cutting, her artwork is far from subtle with its searing portrayals of humanity’s cruelty throughout history. As critic Jerry Saltz describes:
“Silhouettes have always had an outsider status in art. Walker popped them from their flattened ghettos into high visual discourse like no one had ever done.”
By injecting potent themes of racism, bondage, and oppression into an overlooked art form, her jarring works aim to upend assumptions. The recurrent debates and controversy surrounding her art continue Walker’s influence in keeping national dialogues of history and race active through remarkable technical execution and conceptual mastery.
Artists Redefining Painting and Sculpture
Other 21st-century art luminaries have reinterpreted painting, sculpture and other classical mediums to pioneer new aesthetic terrain. By subverting traditional notions of fine art materials and approaches, their bold contemporary works have opened wider critical dialogues.
Kerry James Marshall
The contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall has been dubbed by some as the greatest living black painter. Marshall explores aspects of African American life in his monumental history paintings, while challenging Western norms of figurative painting through his signature matte-black surfaces.
In European classical painting, a dark black background historically signalled gloom, malignancy or the supernatural. By instead using this traditionally negative space as his canvas, Marshall’s black figures appear luminously positive as affirmations of black beauty, dignity and grace.
“We all grow up...with a certain kind of lie about the nobility of the history of Western Europe and America. My project has been to introduce blackness as a central character...” – Kerry James Marshall
Marshall’s iconic works also reject art world notions that figurative painting is no longer relevant. As curator Ian Alteveer describes, “He shows how the genre still has the ability to speak to social and political issues in an incredibly forceful way.” Marshall’s large-scale paintings centering the black figure and experience in art history have been hugely impactful in the 21st century reinterpreting painting.
Jeff Koons has also stretched definitions of high art this century through pioneering pop art sculpture. No contemporary artist utilizes everyday consumer objects quite like Koons in his subversive commentaries on society’s obsessions. Items like Hoover vacuum cleaners, rows of basketballs floating in tanks, inflatable toys, and glitzy mirrors featuring kitschy figurines comprise his glossy works.
“I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it.” – Jeff Koons
By embracing commercialism and erasing hierarchies between fine art and mass-produced commodities, Koons helped pop art transcend from a movement to the art establishment norm. As radio station WNYC describes, “Jeff Koons is the most influential, prominent, celebrated artist since Warhol.” While critics remain divided on his legacy, Koons undoubtedly helped redefine sculpture’s potential by pulling directly from consumer culture.
Most Promising 21st Century Artists Still Evolving
Given the young century, the trajectory of influence for contemporary artists continues shifting rapidly. Many creatives early in their careers or continuing to produce significant new bodies of work show immense promise to deeply impact art’s future direction.
The Ethiopian-American abstract painter Julie Mehretu only burst onto the art scene in the early 2000s. Yet her soaring large-scale canvases exploring history, capitalism, revolution and the urban landscape have already secured her status as one of today’s most renowned painters.
Mehretu layers gestural marks, architectural sketches, graffiti, mechanical drawings and photography silkscreen prints. She then deconstructs these fragmented elements across monumental abstract canvases alluding to humanity’s mark on the world over time.
With solo museum exhibitions on four continents already under her belt at just age 49, Mehretu is an ascendant art world superstar. Her visual language referencing shifts in geopolitics and human civilization continues pushing abstract painting into new terrain.
The playful Swiss multi-media artist Olaf Breuning has built a strong artistic reputation across Europe but only recently started garnering acclaim stateside. Just as the art world was taking itself too seriously, Breuning arrived at the turn of the millennium poking holes in pomposity.
Much of his photography, videos, installations and sculptures use slapstick wit and absurdism to subvert expectations. He continually devises clever ways to highlight the ridiculousness innate to art and modern existence. For example, in his photograph “Car Accident,” two totalled vehicles face each other as if engaging in conversation about their collision.
As Breuning builds momentum with major solo shows and public artworks bending perceptions, his rising influence as the 21st century’s court jester of the art world continues opening unexpected possibilities for conceptual art.
British Influential Artists in the 21st Century
The expansion of artistic boundaries is a hallmark of 21st-century art so far. As contemporary art solidifies as the predominant style of this era, these standout artists have guided its evolving terrain.
Cindy Sherman, Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson, Kara Walker and other conceptual innovators have radically stretched the limits of artistic medium and subject matter. Their groundbreaking use of photography, installation, readymade and delicately cut paper silhouettes articulate contemporary issues and events.
Painting and sculpture also continue evolving in visionary new directions this century guided by luminaries like Kerry James Marshall and Jeff Koons. By subverting classical approaches to re-center marginalized groups in figurative art and pioneer mass-produced consumer objects as high art material, they’ve paved promising paths forward.
Meanwhile, ascendant talents like Julie Mehretu and Olaf Breuning presage the future of painting and conceptual art. Their early influential works portend the continued manifestation of fresh aesthetic terrains and sensory experiences from today’s youthful creative generation.
As with any burgeoning art era, only the passing of substantial time Allows for definitive judgements on the most culturally impactful artists. But the creators mentioned illuminate the groundwork being laid for 21st-century art’s wider societal reverberations in decades hence. Their penetrating visions expanding contexts for understanding identity, commercialism, history and more will surely echo through coming generations.