With Women’s Day 2021 almost upon us, here’s a look at some of the most influential, famous female artists shaking up the art world. From infusing the world with polka dots to paving the way for black women in the art scene to helping Lady Gaga quit smoking, these women are heroes you’ll want to follow!
1. Tracey Emin (British, 1963 – present )
There’s no keeping cancer-survivor Tracey Emin down. This British artist is so brazen she married a rock in 2016. Explaining the “hard” decision to The Art Newspaper she said: “It just means that at the moment I am not alone… and it’s not going anywhere.” Bless!
Tracy Emin has stunned the world with a series of often-unusual, often thought-provoking artworks based on her life. “My Bed” starring delightfully un-sexy stained underpants, used condoms, empty liquor bottles, pregnancy tests and food-splattered sheets sold for a whopping $3.77 million at Christie’s auction in 2014. Emin’s use of materials serves as a platform to shout about important topics from sexism to unreported rape, promiscuity and public humiliations. She even named an art movement called ‘Stuckism’ after her ex, Billy Childish.
Where to see Tracey Emin’s work: Explore the dark territories and raw emotions distilled in the artworks of Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch in a virtual tour of the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.
“When it comes to words I have a uniqueness that I find almost impossible in art – and it’s my words that actually make my art quite unique.”Tracey Emin
2. Faith Ringgold (American, 1930 – present)
Harlem-born black artist and activist Faith Ringgold started out as a public school art teacher, where her paintings titled “American People” showed the civil rights movement from a female perspective. She’s somewhat of a feminist icon, having done much for black female artists over the years. Not only has she led protests to diversify art museums, she even went to jail for an exhibition in the 1970s, when she created African-style masks and painted political posters. So if meaningful activist art is up your alley, Ringgold is one of the famous women artists you should keep a look out for!
Moving on to narrative quilts, her “Dancing at the Louvre” quilt series from the ’90s shows happy black families enjoying European art. Among Ringgold’s other famous quilts are “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima” (1983), the Michael Jackson tribute quilt “Who’s Bad?” (1988) and her most famous “Tar Beach” (1988), which can now be seen in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection in New York.
Where to see Faith Ringgold’s work: Take an online journey through the story of Ringgold’s ‘Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach (1988) with Guggenheim curator Ashley James. Or see it in person soon at the Guggenheim.
3. Sonia Boyce (British, 1962 – present)
Sonia Boyce is a revolutionary face of contemporary British art. She caused a storm in 2018 when she removed John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting “Hylas and the Nymphs” from the wall of the Manchester Art Gallery for a week in protest of the depiction of women’s bodies in art history. This British Afro-Caribbean artist became the first Black woman to enter the Tate’s permanent collection in 1987.
She’s known for her colourful and feminine portraits, but incorporates a range of media into her work and often collaborates with other artists. In her early career Boyce would draw herself into historic episodes where people of colour had been excluded, and she’s known for exploring the links between sound and memory. Flying the flag for black female artists, in 2020, she was chosen by the British Council to be the first black woman to represent Britain at 2021’s Venice Biennale, and has taught fine art for over 30 years.
Where to see Sonia Boyce’s work: The 59th Venice Biennale will take place between May and November 2021. Keep an eye out for details on the website.
4. Vivienne Westwood (British, 1941 – present)
Fashion Designer and “influencer” from back before it was even a thing, Dame Vivienne Westwood brought new wave fashions to the mainstream with a flair of her own. Westwood shot to fame in the 1970s, thanks to a Kings Road collaboration with Sex Pistols promoter and manager Malcolm McLaren. After this she pretty much created the signature look for the emerging punk movement in London and opened a number of her own stores.
This powerhouse punk queen and famous female artist has a history of invoking controversy with shocking pieces, iconic British imagery, and political statements, which explains why the world started watching. She soon became the go-to designer for a host of private and celebrity clients. Princess Eugenie had the good taste to don Vivienne’s label for all the ceremonies at the royal wedding in 2011, while Gwen Stefani, Olivia Wilde, Lucy Liu and Rachel McAdams have all rocked her creations on the red carpet.
Where to see Vivienne Westwood’s work: Explore some of the artist’s fashion icons in this online exhibition from the V&A, including exuberant footwear designs, bondage outfits and provocative T-shirts from the punk years.
I’ve constantly tried to provoke people into thinking afresh and for themselves, to escape their inhibitions and programming.Vivienne Westwood
5. Ingrid Pollard (British, 1953 – present)
Ingrid Pollard is a British artist and photographer whose probing lens portrays the social constructs of society with an emphasis on racial differences through landscapes and portraiture. Born in Guyana, Pollard emigrated to London with her family as a young child, where she still lives and works today. Her 1980s series of photographs titled “Pastoral Interludes” takes us into the everyday lives of black people across English landscapes.
As a champion for fellow black female artists, Pollard’s recent work includes a re-examination of UK and international archives with the intention of decolonising ethnographic and state-sponsored imagery of the former colonised countries. You go, girl.
Where to see Ingrid Pollard’s work: Delve deeper into the work of this famous woman artist in this online talk from The Photographers’ Gallery on YouTube.
6. Annie Leibovitz (American, 1949 – present)
With a career spanning four decades, happy-snapper Annie Leibovitz is considered to be one of the greatest portrait photographers of our generation and one of the most famous women artists on the planet. Her work has undoubtedly changed the face of art as we all know it.
Leibovitz’s iconic portrait photography was inspired by photographers such as Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, two 20th-century artists who kicked documentary photography into the present, and her ten-year role as chief photographer at Rolling Stone magazine put her on the perfect path for going solo. Leibovitz’s models include the likes of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk, a pregnant Demi Moore, John Lennon, The Rolling Stones, and Dolly Parton, while her most recent work still inspires many on the pages of Vanity Fair magazine. Not even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has escaped her all-seeing, all-exposing lens.
Where to see Annie Leibovitz’s work: Annie Leibovitz presents “Upstate”, a newly completed limited-edition print that will benefit Black Lives Matter, the Equal Justice Initiative, and COVID-19 relief efforts. It comprises a grid of photographs taken while in quarantine. See it now online.
“When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I’d like to know them. Anyone I know I photograph”.Annie Leibovitz
7. Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887 – 1986)
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe did for female genitalia what Mozart did for the piano. Her monumental, still-life paintings based on floral arrangements resembling vaginas made her one of the world’s most controversial, but famous women artists.
Recognized as the “Mother of American Modernism” she’s also famous for her soothing desert landscapes of New Mexico, and New York Skyscrapers. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, opened 11 years after the artist’s death and was the first museum ever to be dedicated to a single woman artist in the US.
Impressively, O’Keeffe set the auction record for female artists in 2014 with her painting, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1” (1932), which sold for $44.4 million at Sotheby’s.
Where to see Georgia O’Keeffe’s work: The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe houses the largest collection of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work in the world.
8. Kathryn Bigelow (American, 1978 – present)
Representing famous female artists in Hollywood is Kathryn Bigelow, known for featuring female protagonists who are often struggling with inner conflict. Inserting gritty realism into feminine characters in movies has won her huge acclaim – finally, women represented on screen as they really are out in the world. Having made her transition to movies from the art world, Bigelow hit the big time for her vampire movie Near Dark (1987), followed by Point Break (1991).
Bigelow became the first woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director with The Hurt Locker (2008), which was made in direct competition with “Avatar” – directed by her ex-husband, James Cameron. (Ouch!) Gathering dust on her trophy shelf is also the Directors Guild of America Award for Direction, the Critics Choice Award for Best Director, and the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, amongst others.
9. Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, 1929 – present)
The princess of polka dots is impossible to pigeon-hole. Yayoi Kusama’s expansive career has seen trippy, imaginative forays into painting, collage, and environmental installations. Born in Japan in 1929, as a kid she loved nothing more than drawing and painting. When her disapproving parents tore them apart, citing art as no way to make a living, up she drew more… and boy did she go on to prove them wrong.
Kusama threw herself into pop art, minimalism, and feminist art movements long before they were mainstream, and she’s known to have influenced contemporaries from Andy Warhol to Donald Judd. Her talents don’t stop there; Kusama is also a novelist and poet, and she’s even been known to dabble in fashion and film.
She was also one of the first artists to experiment with performance and action art. What a woman… albeit a little dotty.
Where to see Yayoi Kusama’s work: A major New York Botanical Garden exhibition featuring new and earlier works by renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama will debut on April 10, 2021
“I wanted to start a revolution, using art to build the sort of society I myself envisioned.”Yayoi Kusama
10. Eunice Golden (American, 1927 – present)
Psychology student turned figurative expressionist, Eunice Golden produced much of her work in the 1960s and 1970s, when she was one of many artists doing her part to fight censorship in the art world.
Known for exploring themes of sexuality, delivering frank images of nude nature, and playing a fundamental role in the women’s liberation movement, one of the world’s most famous women artists created a controversial series known as “Male Landscapes” which got tongues wagging and art historians flapping. In the 1990s, following the death of her son, Golden’s art led her into an active study of the relationship between mother and child.
Her work can still be seen in many women-focused political exhibitions.
11. Cindy Sherman (American 1954 – present)
Coming in eleventh on this list of famous female artists, American Cindy Sherman! Not everyone can make a living out of taking selfies, but luckily Cindy Sherman was one of the first to discover how self portraits can be very lucrative indeed.
This photographer and film director is one of the most influential artists in contemporary art and has been working as her own model for over 30 years. Her unique series’ have included “Bus Riders,” “Murder Mystery People,” and “Centerfolds,” among others, but her most famous series is probably “Complete Untitled Film Stills,” a series of 69 photos depicting Sherman herself as foreign, film noir, and B-movie actresses.
Sherman’s often provocative forays into the construction of contemporary identity have won her worldwide notoriety and in 1995 she won a MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of her contribution to the art world.
“I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear.”Cindy Sherman
12. Rachel Whiteread (British, 1963 – present)
Everyday objects get an imaginative spin in the hands of sculptor Rachel Whiteread, a London-based artist who can turn your average table and chairs or mattress into something different, yet eerily familiar. She’s a pro at drawing attention to the invisible spaces around us, encouraging us to read between the lines.
Famed for using materials like concrete, resin, and even snow, Whiteread’s attention to architectural details is shown across casts of entire rooms and buildings. “House” for example was a ghostly replica of the interior of an entire Victorian house!
Other works by Whiteread include a cast of the holocaust memorial sculpture in Judenplatz Vienna. And Whiteread was the first woman to win the annual Turner Prize in 1993 for her life-sized cast of a condemned terraced house in London’s East End.
Where to see Rachel Whiteread’s work: Listen to Rachel Whiteread talk about her artistic development, from her cast sculptures of domestic spaces and objects, to her monumental public works in this conversation from the online archives at SFMOMA, recorded in 2004.
13. Marina Abramovic (Serbian, 1946 – present)
Considered by many to be the “grandmother of performance art”, Serbian Marina Abramovic’s controversial work means putting herself through extreme physical and mental duress while exploring the relationship between performer and audience member.
In a piece called The Lovers (1988), she and an ex famously walked 2,500 km each towards the other from two sides of the Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle “to say goodbye.” Now that’s a break up you won’t forget! For 1993’s “The Artist is Present”, she sat in a museum’s atrium while sometimes amused, oftentimes moved spectators took turns sitting opposite her.
In more recent years, Abramovic’s been forced to defend herself against conspiracy theorists who accused Microsoft (a partner in the artwork in question) of working with a “witch,” amongst other things, but Lady Gaga loves her. She famously helped the singer quit smoking.
Listen to Lady Gaga gushing about Marina Abramovic in this cute video clip on YouTube.
“I am only interested in the ideas that become obsessive and make me feel uneasy. The ideas that I’m afraid of.”Marina Abramovic