Who are the most famous female artists in contemporary visual art today? And what are they known for?
In a male-dominated contemporary art world, it is undeniable that female artists are still underrepresented and under-appreciated. Despite that, some female artists still made their way up the elite circle of artists who will likely be included in art history texts a century from today. To celebrate International Women’s Month, let’s take a look at the life and work of seven of the most famous female artists in the contemporary art world today.
7 of the Most Famous Female Artists in Contemporary Visual Art
Cindy Sherman (b.1954) or Cynthia Morris Sherman is an American photographer and one of the most famous female artists from the USA, celebrated for her intricately disguised and executed self-portraits that usually depict herself in well-crafted characters often addressing social issues, social roles, and sexual stereotypes. She was born on January 19, 1954, in New Jersey, USA, and grew up in New York. She completed her studies in 1976 at the State University of New York majoring in photography.
Sherman’s rise to fame is said to be her Untitled Film Stills—a 69 series of 8 x 10-inch black-and-white film self-portraits of cinematic quality, portraying various roles reminiscent of film noir and mimicking the stereotypes of the films of that era. Soon after, in 1980, she started focusing her practice more on the details of her costume and lighting, especially when she started using color films in larger print variety.
Cindy Sherman’s piece Untitled #96 sold at Christie’s New York for $3.8 million in 2011, making it the third most expensive photo print in the market. Two years later, she received an honorary doctorate degree from the Royal College of Art in London. On behalf of the Japan Art Association, in 2016, she was also awarded by the imperial family of Japan the prestigious international Praemium Imperiale prize in painting—a category that also encompasses photography. And in 2019, a retrospective of her body of work was organized by the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) is arguably the most famous female artist alive today. Yayoi Kusama is a contemporary artist known for her profuse use of polka dots and her extensive body of work which includes paintings, sculpture, clothing, art objects, performances, and installations. She was born on March 22, 1929, in Matsumoto, Japan, and studied art briefly from 1948-49 at the Kyōto City Specialist School of Arts.
Yayoi Kusama decided to move to the USA inspired by her mentor Georgia O’Keeffe and driven by her desire to pursue international acclaim. She settled in New York in 1957 and soon after approached known artists and dealers to help her. She became a central figure in the New York avant-garde within a few years.
During her years in the USA, she has shocked the art world through her “Happenings” or the series of impromptu public performances that she organized that addressed socio-political issues. Yayoi Kusama also associated herself with artists and critics, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Lucio Fontana, and Joseph Cornell.
Yayoi Kusama became known internationally when she showcased her now-world-renowned Narcissus Garden—an installation consisting of dozens of plastic silver orbs—in the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966 making her the very first woman to do so. This project was financed by her friend Lucio Fontana and caused an uproar when Yayoi Kusama “peddled” each orb for $2 and handed out fliers about herself.
In 2017, Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC opened a 50-year retrospective for Yayoi Kusama and featured six Infinity Rooms. And in the same year, she launched Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo, Japan. To date, she has collaborated with big brands Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, and Lancome. Today, Yayoi Kusama voluntarily lives in a private mental health facility in Tokyo while she continues to create art in her studio a short walk away.
Jenny Saville (b. 1970) is one of the most famous female artists from Europe. She is best known for her body of work that consists of stylized dreamy nude portraits—often self-portraits—with fleshy plump bodies, totally reinventing figure painting. Her luscious yet distorted visual style of painting bodies have evoked similarities to Lucian Freud’s grotesque fleshy portraits. Jenny Saville was born on May 7, 1970, in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and completed her studies at the Glasgow School of Art.
Jenny Saville was granted a six-month scholarship at the University of Cincinnati in the United States and it was while she studied in America that she recounts seeing a lot of plump women, this would later spark her fascination with the exploration of their bodies as subject matter.
In 1992, her entire thesis collection was purchased by Charles Saatchi and after graduating, she became a part of the famed Young British Artists movement alongside Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Sarah Lucas. In 2018, Propped–a self-portrait that propelled her to international acclaim– sold for $12.5 million in an auction. Today, her works are housed in major collections worldwide.
Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972) is the youngest in our list of the most famous female artists in contemporary visual art today. Best known for her body of work that consists of Afro-futurist mixed media collages revolving around gender, race, environmental crises, and personal identity themes, often depicted through fusing organic and inorganic objects, juxtaposed to form very surreal imagery. She was born on June 22, 1972, in Nairobi, Kenya, and completed her BFA from Cooper Union in 1996. In 2000, she received her MFA in sculpture from Yale University.
Wangechi Mutu’s work also expands to include video, installation, performances, and sculpture. Her art practice also explores consumerism and excess. She was awarded the first “Artist of the Year” by the Deutsche Bank in 2010 and later presented her solo exhibition My Dirty Little Heaven at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Germany. In 2013, a major retrospective of her works opened in the Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina, USA. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Today, her work is housed in collections worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum both in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal or the Museum of Contemporary Art, Montréal, and in Tate Modern in London.
Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) is arguably one of the most famous female artists from the Middle East. Notable for her body of work that spans photography, video installations, and film explorations of the relationship between women, the religious and cultural traditions of Islam. Her most highly acclaimed piece Rapture (1999) is a 13-minute two-channel video and audio installation, created using 16mm film transferred to video. She was born on March 26, 1957 in Qazin, Iran, and completed her BFA and MA at the University of California in Berkeley.
Shirin Neshat’s powerful video and film work often focuses on narratives revolving around themes of gender and society and are more on the abstract or conceptual nature. Although her earlier photographs were political, Shirin expressed that she hopes viewers of her art “take away with them not some heavy political statement, but something that really touches them on the most emotional level.” In 1999, her split-screened video Turbulent (1998) won the First International Prize at the Venice Biennale and in 2009, she won the prestigious Silver Lion Award at the 66th Venice International Film Festival.
Shirin Neshat also opened her biggest solo exhibition in 2019 at The Broad in Los Angeles, California entitled Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again. Today, her works are housed in major collections worldwide including the Tate Gallery in London, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She currently lives in New York.
Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) is a contemporary portrait painter and one of the most famous female artists working today. Best known for the haunting, gestural quality of her oil and watercolor paintings, her body of work often explores difficult themes of sexuality, love, death, shame, political oppression and referencing popular culture and current events. She was born on August 3, 1953, in Cape Town, South Africa and studied art at the University of Cape Town until 1975 and then at the De Ateliers—an independent art school in Amsterdam when she moved to the Netherlands in 1976. Later, she studied psychology at the University of Amsterdam until 1980.
Marlene Dumas became a prominent figure in the mid-1980s art world in Amsterdam. Known for her intense, psychologically charged work, her haunting portraits of oil, watercolor, or ink often depict her friends and some prominent political figures. Her distinct visual style of ghostly figures—created using thin washes with gestural brushstrokes—highlights her work’s intimate subject matter.
Her piece The Visitor (1995) sold at $6.3 million at an auction at Sotheby’s London in July 2008. Marlene Dumas represented the Netherlands in the 1995 Venice Biennale, and in 2015, a retrospective of her work was organized at The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Adriana Varejão (b. 1964) is one of the most famous female artists from Latin America. Best known for her body of work that includes paintings, sculptures, and installations with motifs from Portuguese decors and Baroque Spain. Her work often explores themes relating to the complex history of Brazil, from the ornate styles brought by the conquistadors to the ones brought by the Chinese. She was born on November 11, 1964, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and studied art at the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage from 1983 to 1985.
In the late 1990s, Adriana Varejão came into prominence through her provocative large-scale series of paintings appropriating elements from azulejos—the traditional decorative Portuguese ceramic tiles. However, her most famous work are the slashes of bloody muscles and guts that spill from tiled walls of architectural ruins. Among these notable sculptural pieces is the Green Tilework in Live Flesh (2000), oil on canvas with polyurethane on aluminum and wood support, as part of the Jerked-beef Ruins collection.
Her piece Parede com Incisões a la Fontana II – Wall with Incisions à la Fontana (2001) sold for $1.8 million in 2011 at Christie’s London. Adriana Varejão’s works are housed in major collections around the world, some of which are the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
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If you enjoyed this feature, then you’ll also like our piece Successful Women Who Used Art as Empowerment, where we mentioned important female artists who shaped art history throughout centuries. Which among the famous female artists is your favorite? Share your thoughts below! We’d love to read your comments.
— MEET THE AUTHOR—
Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style—contemporary impressionism—share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it’s time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.
“My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums.”
Cindy Sherman, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cindy-Sherman
Untitled 199 (1989) by Cindy Sherman, https://www.wikiart.org/en/cindy-sherman/untitled-199-1989
Untitled 458 (2008) by Cindy Sherman, https://www.wikiart.org/en/cindy-sherman/untitled-458-2008
Yayoi Kusama portrait, By 文部科学省ホームページ, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63881752
Marlene Dumas portrait, by Bakhuysfoto, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66575283
Wangechi Mutu portrait, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wangechi-Mutu
Family Tree (2012) by Wangechi Mutu, https://www.wikiart.org/en/wangechi-mutu/family-tree-2012
Propped (1992) by Jenny Saville, https://www.wikiart.org/en/jenny-saville/propped-1992
Ruben’s Flap (1999) by Jenny Saville, https://www.wikiart.org/en/jenny-saville/rubens-flap-1999
Jenny Saville portrait, https://www.wikiart.org/en/jenny-saville
Shirin Neshat portrait by Manfred Werner – Tsui, CC BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8620426
Adriana Varejão portrait and art, https://www.facebook.com/AdrianaVarejaoAtelier