Contemporary Art is the art of today and it broadly encompasses the artworks produced in the late 20th century and the 21st century. Some define contemporary art as art produced within “our lifetime”. However, as these vary with time, it is difficult to put a period to it. The classification of “contemporary art” as a special type of art goes back to the early 20th century and in fact, the Contemporary Art Society was founded in 1910 in London. However, no art expert of today categories works of that period as contemporary art. Thus, it is difficult to define “contemporary art” and most efforts to do so are not precise. For the purpose of this article, we have included only artworks which have been produced by artists who are alive. Apart from paintings and sculptures, these artworks include modern forms of artistic expression like graffiti art, art installations and photographic self-portraits. Here are the 10 most famous artworks produced by contemporary artists.
#10 Untitled Film Still #21
Artist: Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman is one of the most revolutionary contemporary artists, who works exclusively in photographic self-portraits. To create her photographs, Sherman shoots alone in her studio. She assumes multiple roles as author, director, make-up artist, hairstylist, wardrobe mistress and model. The Untitled Film Still series, a series of 69 black-and-white photographs of herself, was the breakthrough work of Sherman which brought her critical as well as popular acclaim. In these photos, she presents herself as a female heroine in scenes which are like Hollywood films of the 1950s. Although the viewer feels that they definitely must have seen this scene, the images are entirely Sherman’s creations or, in other words, they are fiction about fiction. Untitled Film Still #21 is perhaps the most famous photograph of the series. It calls to mind a Hitchcockian “career girl” alone on the streets of the big city.
#9 Mobile Lovers
Banksy is an anonymous graffiti artist who has perhaps made the biggest contribution in making street art popular. This graffiti appeared in April 2014 on a wall owned by Broad Plains Boys Club, a 120-year-old youth club in Bristol which was struggling for funds and risked closing. The club owner Dennis Stinchcombe moved it into a corridor so that it wouldn’t be stolen. Banksy then took the unusual step of writing to Dennis Stinchcombe and confirming that the artwork was authentic and that he could keep it. Stinchcombe sold the mural to a private collector for £403,000. Mobile Lovers shows a man and a woman embracing each other. However, rather than looking at each other, they are looking at their phones. The mural thus comments on one of the most pervasive issues that our generation faces, i.e. the exceeding importance of technology in our lives where people are valuing it even more than other humans. Mobile Lovers is one of the most famous graffiti by the most famous contemporary artist.
#8 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)
Artist: David Hockney
Pop Art was an influential 20th century art movement which challenged traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture. David Hockney is regarded as one of most prominent figures of the Pop Art movement and this painting is one of his best known works. Swimming pool was a recurring motif in the paintings of Hockney while he painted a series of double portraits from 1968 to 1977. This painting thus brings together two of Hockney’s prominent themes in his paintings from the period: the swimming pool and the double portrait. Portrait of an Artist depicts two figures: one swimming breaststroke underwater and one looking down at the swimmer. The person outside the pool is well dressed in formal clothes. In November 2018, Pool with Two Figures was sold for US$90.3 million at Christie’s auction house in New York City, thus setting the record for highest price ever paid at auction for a painting by a living artist.
Artist: Jeff Koons
Neo-Pop is a postmodern art movement which took inspiration and extended the influential Pop Art movement. Like Pop Art, Neo-Pop focuses on recognizable objects and celebrities from popular culture with icons and symbols of the present times. Jeff Koons is perhaps the most famous artist of the Neo-Pop movement. In particular, he is best known for depicting everyday objects produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. Rabbit is a stainless steel sculpture by Koons which is regarded as one of his most iconic works. It is regarded as “shock art”, which blurs the boundaries between fine art and art which shows no intelligence or sensitivity. In May 2019, Rabbit was auctioned for $91.1 million at Christie’s, breaking the auction record for an artwork by a living artist. The previous record was held by Hockney’s painting as mentioned above. As of April, 2020, Rabbit remains the most expensive artwork by a living artist sold at auction.
#6 Sky Mirror
Artist: Anish Kapoor
Known for his abstract sculptures, Anish Kapoor is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary artists and he has been honored with numerous awards. Sky Mirror is a public sculpture installed outside the theater in Wellington Circus, Nottingham, England. Weighing over 10 tonnes and having a diameter of 20 feet, it is a concave dish of polished stainless steel angled up towards the sky. From September 19 to October 27, 2006, a larger version of Sky Mirror was installed at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. It had a diameter of 35 feet, weighed 23 tonnes and stood around 3 stories tall. Versions of Sky Mirror also exist in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia and De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art in Tilburg, the Netherlands. A breathtaking piece of artwork, which offers the viewers a dazzling experience and a vivid inversion of the skyline, Sky Mirror is one of the most famous public sculptures in the world.
#5 Balloon Dog
Artist: Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons is one of the most controversial artists in the world whose artworks, though some of the best known in the world, are derided by many for being crass and inartistic. A series of five artworks, the Balloon Dogs of Koons are his most famous sculptures. They are based on balloons twisted into shape to make a toy dog. They measure 307.3 × 363.2 × 114.3 cm and are made of mirror-polished stainless steel. Moreover, they are finished with a translucent coating of either blue, magenta, orange, red or yellow. On November 12, 2013, Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York City for US$58.4 million. This made it, at that time, the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction. Critic Amy Dempsey has described Koons’ Balloon Dog as “an awesome presence … a massive durable monument”.
#4 A Bigger Splash
Artist: David Hockney
The most famous work of Hockney, A Bigger Splash is a large pop art painting measuring 242.5 cm × 243.9 cm (95.5 in × 96.0 in). It depicts a sun-drenched swimming pool in Los Angeles. Apart from the swimming pool, the painting contains a pink modernist building, an empty chair and spindly palm trees. Moreover the reflection of the neighboring building may be seen on the glass of the window of the pink building. However, what makes the work interesting is that it is devoid of human presence. The splash is shown but the viewer is left wondering who dived in. A Bigger Splash was created with meticulous care by Hockney, simplifying but enlarging his earlier paintings titled “A Little Splash” (1966) and “The Splash” (1966). Hockey later said about the painting that he “realized that a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way.”
#3 Sunflower Seeds
Artist: Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei is regarded as an architect of Chinese modernism; and he is the most famous contemporary artist from China. He also remains a prominent activist who has been openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. Sunflower Seeds (Kui Hua Zi) is an art installation created by Weiwei which consists of over 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds that cover a 1,000 square meter floor with a depth of 10cm. The artwork was first exhibited at the Tate Modern art gallery in London from October 2010 to May 2011. Sunflower seeds were a common theme in the Chinese political propaganda during Ai’s childhood. In Chinese art of the period, Mao Zedong was represented as the sun while the people of China were represented as seeds on sunflowers. Weiwei’s grand art installation is thought to represent the vastness of China where an individual seed is instantly lost among the millions, symbolizing the conformity and censorship of the Chinese Communist Party. Sunflower Seeds has been exhibited in 12 exhibitions from 2009 to 2013 in museums and galleries across the world.
#2 Balloon Girl
This graffiti shows a young girl whose hair and dress are blowing forward in the wind. She is stretching her hand to clutch the string of her heart-shaped red balloon, which has been blown away. The image of Banksy’s Girl with a Balloon has been used numerous times on prints, t-shorts, as tattoos etc. Singer Justin Bieber got a tattoo based on the artwork. In February 2014, the Sincura Group removed the mural from the east London shop and sold it for £500,000. In November 2015, a print of the painting was auctioned for £56,250, more than twice its estimated value. In 2017, in a poll conducted by Samsung of 2,000 people from the United Kingdom, Banksy’s image of a girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon was voted the nation’s favorite artwork. The Balloon Girl, created by the best known graffiti artist, is the most famous graffiti art in the world.
#1 Cloud Gate
Artist: Anish Kapoor
Cloud Gate is a public sculpture that is the centerpiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park, Chicago, the most populous city in the U.S. state of Illinois. It is made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together and placed on the ground. It measures 33 by 66 by 42 feet (10 by 20 by 13 m) and weighs around 100 tonnes. The sculpture is nicknamed The Bean because of its shape, a name Anish Kapoor initially disliked, but later grew fond of. The Cloud Gate is visited by thousands of visitors every day who play around with the sculpture watching it from different angles and walking beneath it. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley declared the day of the sculpture’s dedication, May 15, 2006, to be “Cloud Gate Day”. Since its installation, the sculpture has become one of the most famous public works in the world. TIME magazine describes it as an essential photo opportunity and more of a destination than a work of art; the New York Times writes that it is both a “tourist magnet” and an “extraordinary art object“; while USA Today refers to it as a monumental abstract work. The Cloud Gate is the most famous artwork created by a contemporary artist.