The 30 Most Popular Modern and Contemporary Artists

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat

By Shira Wolfe

Based on Artprice’s 2017 international report on popular artists in the contemporary art market, we compiled a list of 30 modern artists, seen through the prism of auction sales. From abstract paintings of faces to street art, these popular artists have developed unique ways of displaying their famous modern art.

30. Cindy Sherman (b. 1954)

Cindy Sherman made a name for herself with her “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980), a series of self-portrait photographs of her acting out 20th-century pop culture female clichés. Her work examines women’s roles throughout history and in contemporary society and can be related to other modern artists and their abstract paintings of faces. Like some other popular artists today, she leaves her work open to interpretation. However, it is generally perceived as a feminist symbol.

29. Liu Xiaodong (b. 1963)

Liu Xiaodong, perhaps one of the greatest painters of all time, is known for his strong brushwork, rich colours, and precise forms. He started out with traditional brushwork to create extremely realistic subjects, but later changed his approach and started working with cropped framing, an unusual use of perspective, and the use of colours to strengthen emotion. Liu paints his subjects in their natural settings, capturing everyday people in complex places such as Israel-Palestine, Tibet, and rural China. His intimate, on-location approach and sensitivity to his subjects are what make his painting style so moving and powerful when compared to works by other contemporary artists.

Liu Xiaodong
Liu Xiaodong

28. Cecily Brown (b. 1969)

Among the best contemporary artists, London-born painter Cecily Brown is often compared to popular artists of today like Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon, and comparisons are also made between her large-scale modern art paintings of faces and bold brushwork and the works of Abstract Expressionists. Brown is credited as one of the main influences in the resurgence of painting at the turn of the millennium. Her paintings are filled with erotic, fragmented bodies amidst vivid, pulsating colours. Critical reception of her contemporary painting is mixed, but she is certainly an important presence among modern artists and on the art market, recently having broken her auction record with a sale for $2.2 million.

27. Liu Wei (b. 1965)

Beijing-born Liu Wei is considered to be one of the most talented modern artists in China. In the early ‘90s, Liu Wei and Fang Lijun created an artistic style known as cynical realism. His work confronts the boredom and aimlessness in contemporary society, and transcends binaries like Eastern/Western culture. It is this smashing of boundaries, this not being tied to any one school of thought, that creates his unique style and makes him and his famous modern art so beloved around the world today.

Liu Wei
Liu Wei

26. Miquel Barcelo (b. 1957)

Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo is best known for his installation on the ceiling of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Chamber at the UN Palace of Nations in Geneva. These multicoloured stalactite forms symbolise the sea and a cave, in opposition yet simultaneously in union. His works explore decomposition, metamorphosis, and the passage of time and take the form of abstract paintings of faces, among other things. In 2004, Barcelo became the youngest artist ever to have exhibited works in the Louvre in Paris.

Miquel Barcelo  Modern artists
Miquel Barcelo

25. Takashi Murakami (b. 1962)

Takashi Murakami, also known as the “Warhol of Japan”, is famous for his merging of fine art and popular culture, often referencing colourful anime and manga cartoons to create abstract paintings of faces. According to Murakami, “Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended.” It is the West that imposes such a severe hierarchy when it comes to art. Despite this, Murakami has been fully embraced in the Western art world as well, and his work is extremely in demand in the art world today.

24. Günther Förg (1952-2013)

Günther Förg was part of the post-war generation of German popular artists who reacted against Modernism and was one of the pioneers in exhibiting multi-disciplinary works. Förg’s modern art paintings are often concerned with the political climate of his era in Germany and are known for their brightly saturated solid colours. He was considered to be one of the most interesting contemporary artists of his time.

23. Luo Zhongli (b. 1948)

Luo Zhongli is one of China’s leading realistic modern artists. As opposed to other artists’ abstract paintings of faces, his powerful photorealistic portraits of people in rural southwestern China have deeply moved people all over the world; it is as though they open up a window into the lives and souls of these people. Zhongli is best known for his contemporary painting “Father”, depicting the face of a Chinese peasant in incredible detail. He is one of the most popular artists today among Chinese art collectors today.

Luo Zhongli
Luo Zhongli

22. Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983)

The universe Nigerian-American Njideka Akunyili Crosby depicts in her work is, according to her, neither Nigeria nor America, but some other space, the space that every immigrant occupies. Akunyili Crosby creates colourful collage paintings which weave together intimate moments with commercial images from Nigeria, and reference Nigeria’s history and postcolonial present. The paintings live and breathe her trans- and multicultural fine arts fascination and identity. Akunyili Crosby became the talk of the contemporary art world when the price of her work soared dramatically. Last year, her pieces went from selling for around $100.000 to selling for more than $3 million, clearly demonstrating she is one of the most popular artists today.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Njideka Akunyili Crosby

21. Sean Scully (b. 1945)

Irish artist Sean Scully often works with stripes, grids, and dark tones to create his characteristic abstract works. There is always a dialogue between geometry and soft edges, something that Scully himself describes as the “battle between system and emotion.” Born in Dublin, raised in London, and based in the United States since the ‘70s, Scully carries a fascinating collection of cultural influences with him. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he stated that his big Chinese retrospective in 2015 was the most important show to him, because, as he said himself, “I’ve always wanted my art to be global, not local.” And he certainly succeeded in achieving this.

20. Zhou Chunya (b. 1955)

Chinese artist Zhou Chunya is best known for his Green Dog series, in which he depicted a green German Shephard in various poses and settings. His style is often described as a hybrid between Western Modernism, traditional Chinese painting, and Socialist Realism, which is what makes his art so gripping. Zhou considers himself, above all, to be a colourist, and is fascinated with the meanings colours beget when people think of them. He became the youngest artist to top the Hurun Art List in 2013, which ranks the top 100 Chinese popular artists today by their sales revenue at public auctions.

Zhou Chunya
Zhou Chunya

19. George Condo (b. 1957)

In his abstract paintings of faces and bodies, George Condo plays with the human form. Unique among modern artists, his paintings are graced with absurd, cut-up, often carnivalesque characters. Though references to the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Cy Twombly, Goya, and Velazquez are evident in his aforementioned abstract paintings of faces, there is no doubt that Condo has developed his own very significant style. In his own words, he is exploring “the private, off-moments or unseen aspects of humanity.” After first winning over Europe, Condo later returned to New York where he had started out in the ‘80s and became recognised for his contemporary painting all over again.

18. John Currin (b. 1962)

John Currin, one of several famous American painters on this list, and photographed above while working on a portrait of his wife, is known for his seductive yet also repelling paintings of lustful women. He combines the beautiful and the grotesque, and influences ranging from Renaissance paintings to magazine ads from the ‘50s can be found in his often erotically charged works. It could be precisely his ability to create contemporary art that defies taste, that makes you both hate and love it, which has helped make Currin one of the most popular artists today, and maybe one of the greatest painters of all time.

John Currin
John Currin

17. Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958)

One of many contemporary artists from China, Zhang Xiaogang’s haunting paintings engage with the notion of identity within the Chinese culture of collectivism. His work centres around the concept of family, taking inspiration from family photos from the Cultural Revolution period. It is as though through memory, Zhang is creating an extremely personal version of China’s history.

Zhang Xiaogang
Zhang Xiaogang

16. Thomas Schütte (b. 1954)

Thomas Schütte, who studied fine arts with Gerard Richter in the 1970s and has been leaving his mark on the art world ever since, explores the human condition through his art. Like other contemporary artists, he offers a critical perspective on social, political, and cultural issues, challenging the viewer with his evocative figures and expressions. In 2016, he opened his own private museum (joining an elite group of modern artists including Damien Hirst who have established private museums) in Hombroich, Germany dedicated solely to his sculptures.

Thomas Schütte
Thomas Schütte © Photo Albrecht Fuchs

15. Jeff Koons (b. 1955)

Jeff Koons is one of the most famous contemporary artists for turning banal objects into fine arts icons by utilizing concepts like celebrity, media, and commerce. In doing so, he holds up a mirror to society and reveals it in all its grotesque contradictions. His fascination with these subjects is also reflected in the commercial materials he uses. Whether you love him or hate him, he succeeded in taking the art world by storm and securing a permanent spot for himself as one of today’s most popular artists.

14. Mark Bradford (b. 1961)

Mark Bradford combines his interests in modern abstraction and the urban community in his signature mixed-media collages. His famous modern art, spanning the breadth of collage, public art, installations, and video work, explores high art and popular culture. He is always seeking out the uncomfortable and confronting topics in society. Bradford created one of the most talked about displays outside the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, referencing the Virginia plantation owned by Thomas Jefferson and inspired by topics such as the rise of Trump, police violence, and Black Lives Matter.

Mark Bradford Studio Los Angeles
Mark Bradford Studio Los Angeles

13. Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)

German artist Albert Oehlen, who became prominent in the ‘80s as a part of Hamburg’s burgeoning art scene. Oehlen uses impulse and eclecticism in his work, often starting with a set of rules or structural limitations and using his fingers, brushes, collage, and computers as his tools. In recent years, the demand for his art has risen in the luxury zone of the art market, calling some to question whether this will change the reception of his famous modern art.

Albert Oehlen

12. Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)

Anselm Kiefer, the German artist who studied with the likes of other popular artists such as Joseph Beuys, engages with myth, memory, and collective history. He believes it is important to confront your (collective) path in order to be able to go towards the future. Hence, his epic-scale sculptures and abstract paintings of faces reference, among other things, National Socialist architecture, post-Holocaust poetry, and Cold War politics, and he uses materials like burned books, ashes, and thorny branches… In 2011, Christie’s set a worldwide record for the sale Kiefer’s work when it sold To The Unknown Painter (1983) for $3.6 million.

Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer

11. Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)

Adrian Ghenie is a Romanian artist from the Cluj School. His works are filled with rich textures and colours, the expressive images balancing in between clarity and decay. His paintings weave together personal and collective fears, traumas, and memories, addressing the horrors of 20th century European history. These days, prices for Ghenie’s work, such as his abstract paintings of faces, have skyrocketed, and he has a long waiting list of private buyers. Experts attribute his immense popularity on the contemporary art market to a strong demand for painting, his limited output, the scarcity of masterpieces for sale, an affordable price point relative to the top of the market, and wealthy Asian buyers.

Adrian Ghenie
Adrian Ghenie

10. Damien Hirst (b. 1965)

Damien Hirst is the most prominent member of a group of modern artists, the Young British Artists, which dominated the UK contemporary art scene in the ‘90s. Hirst is the UK’s richest living artist, and also broke the record for a one-artist auction in 2008 when he sold a complete show, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, for $198 million. He is most well known for his series of famous modern art depicting dead animals preserved in formaldehyde, and for his diamond skull, For the Love of God.

9. Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964)

Zeng Fanzhi grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, an experience that marked him as an artist. His work points to his concern with modernity’s problematic history and the isolation and instability of contemporary life. He achieved recognition in the ‘90s for his Hospital and Meat contemporary painting series. His works can be recognised by his signature expressionistic style, figures with large heads and exaggerated features, and at times abstract paintings of faces. In 2013, Fanzhi’s The Last Supper sold for a record-breaking $23.3 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, making it the highest price for a piece by Asian modern artists at auction.

Zeng Fanzhi  Modern artists
Zeng Fanzhi

8. Keith Haring (1958-1990)

Keith Haring’s pop art and graffiti-like work emerged from the New York City street culture of the ‘80s. He found himself in the thriving alternative art community outside of the galleries and museum institutions. His contemporary art came to life on the streets, in the subways, and in clubs. Haring wanted to devote his career to creating a truly public art. In the subway stations, on unused advertising panels, he found his medium to experiment and to communicate with the wider audience. Haring’s works remain extremely popular to this day, selling for up to approximately $6 million at auctions.

Keith Haring  Modern artists
Keith Haring

7. Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959)

Yoshitomo Nara is one of the central figures of the Japanese neo-Pop movement, creating paintings, drawings, and sculptures of child-like characters. These characters are deeply inspired by popular culture such as anime, manga, Disney, and punk rock. This influence results in images that are cute, yet also unsettling and sinister. His contemporary fine art concerns itself with finding an identity in today’s rapidly modernizing, violent world with its constant visual inputs.

6. Richard Prince (b. 1949)

Richard Prince is one of the modern artists infamous for appropriation. Prince reuses mass-media images in order to question and redefine notions of authorship and ownership. In his 1980’s “Cowboys” series, he re-photographed Marlboro ads in order to create close-ups of these mythical cowboys. In 2005, his Untitled (Cowboy) became the first re-photograph to be sold for more than $1 million at auction. More recently, he has become occupied with Instagram, stealing Instagram posts from several young women and selling them for vast sums. The controversy and lawsuits that ensue are, in a sense, part of Prince’s artworks.

5. Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968)

Mark Grotjahn is an American artist best known for his abstract paintings of faces and geometric depictions. His contemporary painting style is said to strike a complex dialogue with the works of Kazimir Malevich, Barnett Newman, and Bridget Riley. Grotjahn often explores the vanishing point of perspective and works with bright colours. Demand for Grotjahn’s work has risen steadily in the past years.

Mark Grotjahn
Mark Grotjahn

4. Rudolf Stingel (b. 1956)

Rudolf Stingel is an Italian artist based in New York. Since the ‘80s, Stingel’s contemporary art is concerned with interrogating his chosen medium of painting and subverting notions of authenticity, hierarchy, meaning, and context. He is interested in engaging the audience in a dialogue about their perception of contemporary art and including them in the process. After his 2007 show at the Whitney Museum in New York, Stingel’s prices went through the roof.

Rudolf Stingel
Rudolf Stingel

3. Christopher Wool (b. 1955)

Christopher Wool first made a name for himself in the New York contemporary fine arts scene in the 1980’s. He is best known for his modern art paintings of words, his trademark white canvases with large black stencilled letters. Works like Apocalypse Now (“Sell the house sell the car sell the kids”) and If You (“If you can’t take a joke you can get the fuck out of my house”) made between $15 and 30 million at Christie’s auction house.

2. Peter Doig (b. 1959)

Peter Doig is a Scottish artist who spent most of his formative years in Trinidad and Canada, and studied art in England. His contemporary art is described by the Saatchi Gallery as containing themes of magical realism, “capturing timeless moments of perfect tranquillity, where photo-album memory flits in and out of waking dream.” Doig takes inspiration from photographs, newspaper clippings, scenes from movies, covers of record albums, and the work of earlier artists like Edvard Munch. In 2002, he settled in Trinidad again, where he opened a studio at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts Centre. In 2007, his White Canoe sold for $11.3 million at Sotheby’s, which at the time was a record for a living European artist, and is one of the reasons he is on our list of popular artists.

1. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most famous contemporary artists and American painters of all time, emerged from the early ‘80s American Punk scene in New York and swiftly became recognised in the international art circuit for work such as his abstract paintings of faces. His “naïf” art skilfully merged styles and traditions, creating collage-type works of contemporary art which often referred to his urban and African-Caribbean heritage. Basquiat’s modern art paintings are an example of how counter-cultural art practice can become a completely recognised, embraced, and celebrated form of art by the commercial masses. His abstract paintings of faces sell for the highest prices on the art market today.

Find out more…

If you wish to get your head around the contemporary art world and its key players, explore our articles series dedicated to artists who, each in their own way, pushed the limits of contemporary art, challenging the status quo and pursuing unexplored artistic avenues.

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