The 20th century was a time of rapid artistic change and development where preconceived, traditional concepts were challenged. The role of the artist, the relationship between representation and significance, and the growing relevance of mass-produced visual images were considered and redefined. Here, we list ten of the key figures who revolutionized the art of the 20th century.
Involved in a series of artistic circles throughout her life, Louise Bourgeois’ work only came to prominence in her later years, with powerful, highly evocative pieces such as Destruction of the Father (1974), an enclosed installation made of latex and plaster and reminiscent of a womb, or Maman (1999), a nine-meter-high bronze sculpture of a spider. Bourgeois’ works are deeply personal, drawing from childhood trauma and depicting themes of the subconscious, sexuality, and repressed emotion. Bourgeois translated these themes into often macabre, formidable visual symbols; her spiders, which she is perhaps best known for, are both predatory and protective. Her manipulations of the body recall ideas of sexuality and feminine pain. Through her work, Bourgeois revolutionized both feminist and installation art.
Marcel Duchamp’s oeuvre spanned many of the early 20th century’s key movements, including Dada and Futurism. Today, however, Duchamp is best remembered for his controversial work titled Fountain (1917) – a porcelain urinal upon which Duchamp added the false signature, ‘R.Mutt.’ Simultaneously outrageous and puzzling, Fountain is a seminal 20th century moment, removing art’s obligation to be aesthetically pleasing and calling instead for the intellectually provocative. Duchamp’s works were entirely expressive of his Dadaist attitude; alongside his literary, political, and artistic contemporaries, he revolted against the notion of artistic value and ‘fine’ taste, and advocated for art which appealed to the mind rather than the eyes.
Born in 1907 in Mexico City, Frida Kahlo’s legendary life was marked by drama, trauma, and tragedy. At the age of 16 she was involved in a near-deadly streetcar accident which left her in chronic pain and poor health for the remainder of her life. She suffered severe levels of emotional distress during her tempestuous relationship with political painter Diego Riviera, and due to her childhood accident, was never able to carry her pregnancies to term. These hardships found deep expression in her vibrant, often disturbing works, which are characterized by a bold, unflinching exploration of her own personal experience, identity, and sexuality. Frida Kahlo is widely remembered as a Surrealist, but Kahlo herself rejected that term, disliking the misogyny found in the Surrealist circles and in their Freudian, male-centric depictions of women. Instead, through her work, Kahlo revealed the complexity of female experience and asserted the validity of her own unique vision.
Born in 1954 in Bombay, India, Anish Kapoor is one of the highest-grossing contemporary artists and most successful contemporary sculptors of the century. His work incorporates an astounding variety of aesthetics; his early work combines Eastern and Western influences, using natural materials such as sandstone and granite infused with brightly-colored pigments and shaped into simple forms. His later, large-scale sculptures experiment with form on a monumental scale, using reflective surfaces to distort conceptions of perspective and structure. His use of red wax in installations, meanwhile, is shocking and visceral, while its malleability and constant transformation question ideas of form and artistic creation. Most recently, Kapoor was in the news for winning exclusive rights to the blackest pigment in the world: Vantablack.
One of the most highly divisive figures in contemporary art, Jeff Koons is self-described as the artist “who is trying to lead art into the 21st century.” Koons challenges all preconceived notions of what art is, seeking to revolutionize traditional distinctions between ‘high’ art and mass-produced, commercial art. Building on the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, Koons eschews the concept of the artist as an original creator; rather, Koons is well known for his highly technical recreations of advertisements and banal objects. His work also depicts objects that are widely considered ‘unattractive’, and provocatively places them in a context where the viewer is forced to consider them as ‘artistic.’ Criticized by many for the supposed demise of artistic talent and the rise of kitsch, Koons remains one of the century’s most influential, controversial, and highest-grossing artists.
Georgia O’Keeffe is credited as one of the leading figures in American Modernism, a movement which gained popularity and attention during the interwar years. Modernist painting sought to represent a multiplicity of meanings, rather than stopping at pure representation. O’Keeffe’s works famously eschew the boundaries between representation and abstraction; her paintings largely depict nature and the southwestern American landscape, but in such a way as to create new layers of significance. Her famous paintings of flowers represent these classic subjects in a new way, by focusing on close-ups of the centre of flowers and their reproductive organs. By removing context, her paintings become abstract and almost surreal, evoking new perceptions of the object.
One of the most famous and prolific artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was instrumental in creating the Cubist movement, thereby entirely revolutionizing the concept of art. His painting titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is a proto-Cubist work which rejects traditional ideas of proportion and perspective in favor of geometrical lines and forms which seek to represent emotion and impression, rather than reality. As his style developed, Picasso tested Cubism’s extreme limits, creating flat, almost two-dimensional paintings in which the subject matter was reduced to a series of shapes. Picasso continued painting until his death in 1973; spanning over 70 years, his oeuvre reflects some of the most important art historical and sociopolitical contexts of the century.
One of the leading figures of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock’s paintings reject the traditional narrative and subject-based nature of art in favor of an exploration into the medium itself. His paintings, created with his iconic drip technique where paint is dripped and thrown at the canvas without the use of brushes or tools, do not depict a particular object or story; rather, Pollock’s works explore the very act of painting, presenting a record of his relationship with the paint and his efforts to manipulate it at a particular moment in time. Pollock’s work went on to influence a generation of abstract artists, including Cy Twombly and Helen Frankenthal, starting a critical dialogue in the art world on the role of representation and meaning in art.
Widely acknowledged as the pioneer of the late 20th century’s photographic aesthetic, Cindy Sherman’s photographs are an arresting exploration of selfhood and identity. Sherman chose to focus on photography, both in her education and artistic work, believing it best epitomized contemporary means of expression. Sherman was particularly interested in the media and its modes of representation; her key works depict herself in a variety of costumes and scenarios, mimicking typical images of women found in the media. Her Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) series depicts her as famous screen icons, aligning identity with physical appearance, and thereby questioning the simplification and objectification of the female form in contemporary society.
Widely considered the leading figure of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol created some of the most iconic works of the 20th century. His works tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the 1950s and 1960s, using recognizable, in some cases banal, images of consumer products, advertisements, and celebrities in order to explore the relationship between art and commercial images. Warhol is particularly notable for introducing the silk-screen technique for artistic painting; the almost identical reproductions he could create echoed the mass produced nature of consumer products and the media. Rather than giving in to certain critics’ predictions that art would suffocate under the new consumerist culture, Warhol combined the two, exploring the nature of one through the other.