The 10 American Contemporary Artists You Should Know

Photo of Marcelina Morfin
28 December 2016

New talent is constantly trying to make its mark on the contemporary art scene either by pushing the boundaries or putting a modern spin on something classic. From painters to sculptors and film makers to photographers, we take a look at some of the American talent from the 21st century taking the contemporary art world by storm.

Brian Dettmer, New Books of Knowledge, 2009 | Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

Brian Dettmer

Brian Dettmer is a New York-based contemporary artist who transforms old books and other discarded forms of outdated media into intricate sculptural masterpieces. Working with tweezers, knives, and other surgical accoutrement, Dettmer seals all the edges of a book before carefully cutting away certain pieces — but never adds or moves things — creating incredible works of art that allow viewers to rediscover books in new and exciting ways. Receiving well deserved accolades throughout his career, Dettmer’s work is often featured in solo and group exhibitions around the nation and abroad and can be found in many private and public collections throughout the world, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.

Daniel Arsham

Also based in New York, Daniel Arsham creates unique art works — two, three, and four dimensional — many of which have an architectural element to them. Known for manipulating or distorting architecture, some of Arsham’s best known works challenge viewers to experience building elements like never before. From walls that drape over figures to sections that seem to have been wind-blown creating a rippling effect, his art is, indeed, exceptional. Arsham also takes everyday contemporary yet out-of-date objects — walkmans, cassette players, etc. — and casts them in volcanic ash and other materials producing decaying artifacts from the future. Having been a part of many group shows and awarded with solo exhibits as well, Arsham’s work can also be found in many collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami.

Diana Al-Hadid, Shadow Figures, 2015 | Courtesy of the artist and OHWOW Gallery, Los Angeles

Diana Al-Hadid

Working with polymer gypsum, fiberglass, steel, plaster and other materials, Diana Al-Hadid produces art pieces that are complex and hauntingly beautiful. Born in Syria and raised in Ohio, Al-Hadid is known for her large sculptures that appear to be melting but are actually solid. Al-Hadid constructs elaborate, abstract pieces reminiscent of elements found in art throughout history, including Northern Renaissance art works and Gothic architecture. Her work also includes panels — fluid materials poured onto a flat support and removed once dry creating pieces that seem to float. With her distinct style, it is no surprise that Al-Hadid has had many solo exhibitions along with group shows and is represented in prestigious collections like The Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC.

KAWS, MAN’S BEST FRIEND, 2014 | Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery Photo Brian Forrest


Starting out as a graffiti artist in New Jersey, Brian Donnelly, better known as his moniker KAWS, is a world-renowned artist who works in a variety of media, including painting and sculpting. Working with many companies over the years, he has also designed an array of limited edition toys and clothing items. Noted for his cartoonesque art works, KAWS often re-imagines pop characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, and SpongeBob SquarePants to name but a few. Often identifiable by their X-ed out eyes, KAW’s art is more often than not brimming with bold colors. Showcased in exhibitions around the world, his works are also found in many permanent collections — both private and public — including the Rosenblum Collection in Paris.

Kehinde Wiley, Le Roi a la Chasse, 2006, Oil on canvas, 96″ x 72″ | © Ed Uthman/Flickr

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is a New York-based artist known for his portraits inspired by Old Masters’ paintings. Originally painting black men from Harlem, Wiley’s work grew to include other black men from around the world and eventually black women. Allowing the models to choose a classical artwork depicting noblemen, aristocrats, and other imposing historical figures of their choosing, Wiley then poses the men who are wearing everyday clothes in the same heroic manner and paints them against a colorful backdrop based on decorative textiles. The result is a bold and powerful contemporary spin on classical portraiture. World-renowned, Wiley’s paintings can be found in numerous collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Mariah Robertson

A contemporary photographer, Mariah Robertson is doing things her own way. Throwing out all of the photographic rules, Robertson experiments with different non-traditional methods, including using glossy paper, which is often overexposed and torn. She also employs various chemicals either alone or mixed and ‘spills’ them on the paper to see what will happen, and the result is incredible: wild photographs that explode with intense colors. The majority of Robertson’s photographs are large scale, and rather than hang neatly on walls, these works are more often than not exhibited as impressive installations. In addition to various group and solo exhibitions, Robertson’s innovative photos are also found in several public collections.

Ryan Trecartin, Trill-ogy: Sibling Topics (Section A), 2009, video installation | © Julian Stallabrass/Flickr

Ryan Trecartin

Sometimes creating sculptures and installation work, Ryan Trecartin who is currently based in Los Angeles is best known as a video artist. Trecartin along with his constant collaborator, Lizzie Fitch, create experimental, multi-layered, and fast paced films, which are often shown in museums. Bursting onto the art scene in 2004 with A Family Finds Entertainment, a film that explores a boy’s ‘coming out’ adventure and finds Trecartin playing many characters along with family and friends, Trecartin received many accolades and was featured in the Whitney Biennial two years later. Interested in contemporary life and all that it entails, his films are unique and intriguing, hence, attracting the attention of many institutions, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, 2008-11 | © Sascha Pohflepp/Flickr

Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon is an acclaimed artist whose works combine photography, text and graphic design. Interested in exploring hidden things, Simon sets out to capture subject matter that is often deemed impossible and/or prohibited, and not one to back down, she identifies her subject and begins the tedious process of researching in order to gain access and make her project come to fruition. In one project, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Simon probes various things within the USA from the CIA’s art collection to a hibernating bear that are not only important to the country but also not often seen by Americans themselves. Art lovers can find her work all over the world, including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Tauba Auerbach

Exploring language and logic along with color and dimension, Tauba Auerbach is a multifaceted artist who works in a variety of media, including sculpture, photography, book design, and weaving. She is, however, best known for her paintings known as ‘fold paintings’ that play with perception and color. Setting scrunches and folds into her canvases with an iron, Auerbach then paints the canvases making sure to get into all the creases. Once dry, she meticulously stretches the paintings revealing a 2-dimensional work that mimics a 3-dimensional piece. Featured in numerous group exhibitions, Auerbach has also had many solo shows around the world and has pieces in several permanent collections, including the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

The 10th and final Under I-95 show by Zoe Strauss | © Pilar Berguido/Flickr

Zoe Strauss

Beginning her award-winning career at the age of 30 when she received her first camera, Zoe Strauss is an acclaimed, Philadelphia-based photographer who captures people and places that are often overlooked by society. Not shying away from real views of various economic and social truths, Strauss began photographing the people from her neighborhood and their every day life creating powerful and respectful portraits. Keeping her art accessible, she embarked on a 10-year journey where she taped many of her photos to support pillars underneath an I-95 bridge, ensuring that anyone who wanted to look at them could do so. Strauss’ photographs are also found on buildings and billboards for brief periods of time and are in many private and public collections worldwide.

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