The World's 12 Most Important Women Painters

Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Louisiana Museum, Denmark
Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Louisiana Museum, Denmark | © Kristoffer Trolle/Flickr
Samuel Spencer

From the bold optical experiments of Bridget Riley to the calm photorealism of Vija Calmins, women around the world are making vital, varied work that totally belies the need for the category of ‘women artists’ at all; and yet, many continue to make significantly less money than their male contemporaries. While this may be the case, these powerhouse women stand at the forefront of the art world. We present the 12 most important female artists working today.

Marlene Dumas

One of the most important figurative painters of our age, South Africa-born contemporary artist Marlene Dumas rarely paints from life, and yet her paintings are full of the pains and shames of modern existence. Reconsidering the long tradition of the female form and the nude in art in terms of our modern world of pornography and celebrity, her work often has a hauntingly bleak quality all of its own that has taken audience by storm everywhere from the Venice Biennale to the Tate Modern in London and New York City’s Met Breuer.

Marlene Dumas Narutowicz. the President 1922

Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin’s transition from the subject of a tabloid campaign asking whether her famous piece titled My Bed (1998) could even remotely be considered ‘art’ to her current position as one of Britain’s most beloved artists says a lot about how the world has come to embrace contemporary art for all of its conceptual complexities – and Emin’s remarkable output is largely to thank for this shift. Although best known for her neon works and unusual installations, her paintings are her at her visceral best – many of which seem to have been almost coughed up from inside her very soul.

Jenny Saville

Although reviewers have long seen her as simply ‘the female Freud‘ (Lucian not Sigmund), there is far more to Jenny Saville’s large-scale portraits of nude women than this one-dimensional comparison. There’s a violence to Saville’s work, taken from the extensive studies of plastic surgery and trauma that make up her often disturbing, borderline abstract sketches and drawings. Since Charles Saatchi bought her entire postgraduate show, Saville has been considered a Young British Artist (a member of an elite group of visual artists who studied, worked, and exhibited together in London in the late 1980s) – yet her work also remains entirely unique and unlike that of her contemporaries.

[ S ] Jenny Saville – Interfacing (1992)

Yayoi Kusama

One of the most idiosyncratic oeuvres in the history art, Yayoi Kusama has long created work that is at once totally unique, yet completely fitting to its time. From her forays into abstract expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s to her Infinity Mirrors of today (perfect for the selfie generation), Kusama has always reflected our world – whilst living in a bright polka-dotted universe of her own. Her paintings are the best example of this; at once beautifully surreal, and yet also paranoid and troubling – either way, Kusama is one of the most beloved contemporary artists in history, and has the world clamoring to be a part of hers.

Julie Mehretu

Ethiopia-born painter Julie Mehretu’s work is so layered and so complex that the viewer could spend hours trying to unearth every detail on her chaotic yet entirely purposeful canvases. Favoring a very unique form of Abstract Expressionism, Mehretu’s whimsical, whirlwind paintings read like a mix of a Kandinsky, a Pollock, and a Dada collage; intricate details move at the speed of light, yet her work also exudes a stoic knowledge. In short, Mehretu’s works are like no others in the world of contemporary painting, and this has made her one of the most successful woman painters of our time.

2011-08-27 San Francisco 013 MOMA, Julie Mehretu – Stadia 1

Bridget Riley

When viewed on a computer screen Bridget Riley’s work may cause eye pain, but seeing it in person allows the viewer to appreciate her true artistic genius. The queen of Op Art – art created from abstract patters that create optical illusions – Riley’s work evokes visual sensations unlike any other. Colors are created from the merging of black and white components; her works seem to shiver, shimmer and pulsate; some have even described themselves losing their balance when confronted with one of her assemblages. Far from merely acting as a box of tricks, however, each painting is carefully planned, and deeply, theoretically rigorous.

Bridget Riley

Vija Celmins

A master in the art of photo-realistic painting, Vija Celmins (born in Latvia, based in New York) perfectly fits her medium to her message. Using the highly-skilled technique of hyper-realism to portray the wonders of nature, vast oceans, and starry skies, the incredible detail of Celmins’ work is akin to an Ansel Adams photograph – exposing the dramatic and inherent beauty of stunning natural vistas.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The child of Ghanaian parents raised in the United Kingdom, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work largely focuses on incorporating black faces into the contemporary art canon. Noting that the only BME faces depicted throughout art history were those of servants, Yiadom-Boakye’s profound yet playful work portrays BME subjects in portraits undeniably reminiscent of the works of the Old Masters to draw attention to the precise fact that these subjects have been missing from artists’ canvases for too long. Drawing inspiration from historical aesthetics but progressively looking towards the future, the artist was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2012.

DOO8 BIENNALE – Lynette Yiadom Boakye

Paula Rego

With an astounding career spanning over five decades as a member of artist collective The London Group alongside David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj and Frank Auerbach, Paula Rego’s work has changed and transformed from abstract to representational. She incorporates the themes and characters from the folklore of her native Portugal, creating intricate, colorful works teeming with vibrancy and political consciousness. Since becoming the first ever artist-in-residence at London’s National Gallery, her work has become simultaneously cleaner and more disturbing.

(1978) – Paula Rego (1935)

Maggi Hambling

British artist Maggi Hambling caused quite a stir upon erecting a provocative sculpture depicting Oscar Wilde outside of London’s Trafalgar Square. As one unsatisfied critic famously mused, “hideous is too gentle a word to describe it.” However, Maggi Hambling’s work as a painter is notably different from her sculptural pieces – moving and inspired, her seascapes, for which the artist is perhaps most famous, are at once a beautiful and violent tribute to the power of water.

Toba Khedoori

The mixed-media paintings of Australian-born Iraqi artist Toba Khedoori invite the viewer to analyze their every detail. Khedoori paints in such a way that the viewer must stand incredibly close to the image, picking it apart for its minute complexities, but appreciating the overarching images it depicts. As such, Khedoori’s work is both epic and intimate, bold and fragile, detailed and vague.

Sonia Boyce

Painter and draughtsman Sonia Boyce is perhaps the most famous painter to come from the British Black Arts Movement in the 1980s, although at that time she was better known for her work in pastels and collage. Now into her fourth decade in the art world, her canon offers one of the most in-depth looks at changing attitudes to race and multiculturalism in the UK – a shift that was foreshadowed in her work from its very beginnings, and continues to this day.

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