The 50 greatest living artists have been chosen because they exalt the human spirit through the creation of elegantly expressive objects and movingly modulated performances.
Lose yourself in these beautiful works and performances.
Each list consists of 10 persons in each of five categories: Dance and Drama; Film; Literature; Music; and Painting, Sculpture, and Related Media.
Within each category, the lists are alphabetical. Each individual’s country and year of birth, as well as primary field of artistic endeavor, are given in parentheses. Note: When the name of an artist’s birth country has changed, we give the name it had in the year of his birth first, with the current name afterwards, in square brackets.
In the performing arts categories (Dance and Drama; Music), not only authors (playwrights, choreographers, composers), but also performers (dancers, actors, singers, instrumentalists) are represented, as well as a few directors and conductors.
Whatever their individual differences, collectively these 50 artists demonstrate that in our day—rumors to the contrary notwithstanding—beauty is not dead.
Greatest Living Painting, Sculpture, and Related Media Artists
(Czechoslovakia[Czech Republic], 1924; sculptor)
The video below shows an installation of Libenský and Brychtová’s work from the year 2000.
Jaroslava Brychtová is a Czech sculptor. She worked in close cooperation with her husband, the Czech painter and glass artist Stanslav Libenský, until his death in 2002.
Libenský would would paint and sketch the designs for their joint works, which Brychtová would then realize as clay sculptures. Since her husband’s death, Brychtová has continued to work on her own. The couple, who began their long collaboration in 1954, were married in 1963.
Brychtová’s sculptures often take the form of simple geometric solids, rendered more intriguing by the subtle use of color and slight imperfections in the shapes. Over the years, she has introduced and made original use of rounded shapes in her sculptures. An example of the latter—and a major turning point in the couple’s international career—was a brilliant installation entitled “Animal Reliefs” (later known as “Zoomorphic Stones”) they produced for the Brussels Expo in 1958. Each “stone” was glass on one side, with animals cast in negative bas-relief inspired by the Lascaux and Altamira cave paintings on the other.
Deriving from a long tradition of glass-making in the Czech lands, Brychtová’s stunning work—which combines a sense of geometric exactitude with a living, sensuous, tactile attraction—has made a seminal contribution to the increasing popularity of glass art around the world in our day.
(Latvia, 1938; painter)
Below is a video of Celmins discussing her work.
Vija Celmins is a Latvian-American painter and sculptor. She was born in Riga, Latvia, but her family fled to Germany when the Red Army occupied her homeland in 1940. They spent the next eight years in a refugee camp. The family was finally relocated to the United States in 1948. Today, Celmins makes her home in New York City.
Celmins studied art at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. During a summer fellowship at Yale University, she met and became friends with Chuck Close and Brice Marden (see below). Her earliest work was pop-oriented, but she soon also took a strong interest in the much more traditional still lifes of the modern Italian painter Giorgio Morandi.
After graduation from the Herron School in 1962, Celmins enrolled in UCLA to pursue an MFA, and moved to the bohemian Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she lived and taught until 1981, when she made the move to New York.
After venturing beyond her early pop orientation to the photo-realist style for which she is known today, she abandoned painting altogether for a time during the 1970s in favor of graphite pencil. Her highly detailed, gray-tone drawings based on photographs of natural objects such as sea shells, ocean waves, rocks, the surface of the moon, and so forth, bear a family resemblance to the work of Morandi, as well as to that of the contemporary German painter Gerhart Richter.
Between 1976 and 1983, Celmins focused on sculpture, creating a memorable series of bronze-cast, acrylic-painted “stones” that were exact replicas of stones she found on the beach near her home in Sag Harbor on Long Island.
In 1981, she returned to painting and began to produce the fantastically intricate, luminous, and haunting paintings of spider webs, waves, moonscapes, star fields, and so on—all painted without horizon, edges, depth of field, or other reference points—for which she is best known today.
Celmins’s work has been the subject of some 40 solo exhibitions, from the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York, to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
(South Africa, 1955; multimedia artist)
Below is a video clip of Kentridge demonstrating several of the mobiles that he used to cast projections on the fire screen of the Teatro La Fenice opera house in Venice in the “Return” segment of his 2008 project entitled Da Capo.
William Kentridge is a South African multimedia artist who works in print-making, drawing, tapestry, sculpture, and animated film.
Kentridge was born in Johannesburg into a Jewish family, and was educated in South Africa and at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. For a time, he hoped to become a stage actor, but found that his true talent lay in the visual arts.
Kentridge was a natural and precocious draftsman, turning out high-quality drawings from a very early age. Upon returning to South Africa, he embarked upon a series of expressionist-inspired multimedia projects, all on anti-apartheid themes. He very soon attained a position of prominence in South Africa.
In 1980, he broadened his perspective to a series of small-format etchings he called “Domestic Scenes,” and in 1987 began a series of charcoal and pastel drawings loosely based on Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera (1717).
Perhaps Kentridge’s most distinctive contribution to the visual arts, however, lies in his animated films. His originality in this genre is best seen through a unique animation technique he developed: He always uses the same sheet of paper, erasing and drawing new images on the same sheet to create subsequent still photographs for the animated series.
This technique intentionally leaves behind smudges and traces of previous drawings in later ones, thus creating a palimpsest effect, which, when projected, seems to embed the film’s characters in a penumbra of their own history, which they had no choice but to drag around with them—an obvious allusion to the power of history to affect all of our lives, but an especially poignant effect given the tortured history of Kentridge’s native land.
In recent years, Kentridge has been active in fields as varied as tapestry, full-scale bronze sculpture, the puppet theater, and the stage design and artistic direction of several well-received operas, including Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisee in patria, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shostakovich’s The Nose.
Another technique Kentridge has pioneered is a small-scale, crank-operated, cut-paper mobile, which when operated causes the parts to come into alignment in such a way as to reveal a unified image. The entire process can then be projected onto a screen (see the video below). Kentridge has spoken of the astonishment he feels at the way this technique represents a “strange utopianism of chaos finding its own order.” In other words, his mobiles are a metaphor for the cosmic creative process itself.
Kentridge delivered the prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 2012.
(Germany, 1945; painter)
Below is a pictorial essay on Kiefer’s work, including the Death Fugue series, by the Australian historian and art critic, Robert Hughes.
Anselm Kiefer is a German painter, sculptor, and photographer. Educated in Germany, he initially attended classes in pre-law and Romance languages at the University of Freiburg, then decided to switch to art, and eventually studied with the German realist figurative painter Peter Dreher in Düsseldorf.
In 1971, Kiefer moved to the small town of Hornbach in southwest Germany, where he established a studio in a converted brick factory. In 1992, he moved to France. Today, he divides his time between Paris and a village in Portugal.
After an initial experimental stage, Kiefer has concentrated on his painting, which, however, he realizes in a wide variety of media, including oil, watercolor, woodcut, painted photograph, and books. The principal theme of his work throughout his career has been the relationship between the individual conscience and collective moral responsibility. More specifically, the Nazi period, and especially the Holocaust, have been his overriding concern as an artist, both early and late.
Ironically given this preoccupation, Kiefer’s use of Nazi-era symbols in his work without explicit comment has been criticized, even leading to charges of anti-Semitism from some quarters. In 1990, the artist was awarded the Wolf Prize in the arts, which was presented to him in the Knesset by then–Israeli President Chaim Herzog.
Perhaps Kiefer’s single most important work is the sequence of 30 paintings he did in the early 1980s on passages from the Romanian-Jewish poet Paul Celan’s great poem, “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue) (1948). The style of these paintings is somewhere in between abstract and figurative, and they are highly evocative of the clotted syntax and despairing imagery of Celan’s verses, the final stanza of which goes like this:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany
your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith
(USA, 1959; environmental artist)
Below is a video of Lin discussing some of her best-known environmental art installations, including Wave Field.
Maya Lin is an American designer, sculptor, architect, and environmental artist. She was catapulted to fame in 1981 (at the age of 21) when her submission to the competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be built on the National Mall in Washington, DC, was chosen over some 1400 other submissions. Though initially highly controversial, the finished Memorial has by now become an instantly recognizable, deeply moving, and widely cherished symbol seared into America’s consciousness.
Lin was born in Athens, Ohio. Her parents emigrated to the US from China before she was born. Her father was a ceramics artist and for a time was Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Ohio University, where her mother, a poet, also taught literature.
Lin was educated at Yale University, where she received her BA in 1981 and her Master of Architecture degree in 1986.
Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a radical departure from any monument design that had gone before. It consists of two black, cut-stone masonry walls nearly 500 feet in length made of gabbro (a form of igneous rock similar to basalt), which are sunk into the ground with the earth behind them. On the polished surface of the walls are incised the more than 58,000 names (new ones have been added from time to time) of all the men and women serving in American uniform who were killed or went missing in action during the Vietnam War.
On account of the controversy surrounding the design—which unfortunately was not untinged by racial bigotry due to Lin’s Chinese ancestry—a conventional group of realistic bronze statues was added as a compromise. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is visited by over three million people annually, many of them veterans and their families, who often take rubbings of the names of their lost loved ones. Every day, many small tokens of remembrance are left at the site.
Lin’s subsequent career has mainly focused on large-scale environmental art projects, with some smaller-scale museum installations interspersed. Many are revelatory of the intersection of man-made and natural forms of beauty (for example, her installation at the University of Michigan entitled Wave Field, which is based on the sine-wave function), and all reflect the artist’s deep concern for the relationship between mankind and the natural environment.
With some 40 commissioned pieces from around the world to her name, Maya Lin is one of the most admired artists working in her field today. In 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
6Antonio López García
(Spain, 1936; painter)
Below is a wordless video exhibiting a number of López García’s characteristic works, both early and late.
Antonio López García is a Spanish, realist figurative painter. His work was the subject of Victor Erice’s 1992 film, The Quince Tree Sun, mentioned above under the Film category.
López García was born into a farming family in rural Spain. However, his gifted juvenile drawings captured the attention of an uncle, who was a landscape painter and who gave the boy private lessons. In 1949, the boy traveled to Madrid to take competitive exams for a place at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where he studied for the next six years, winning a number of prizes.
López García soon found himself mentioned, together with several other like-minded painters he had met at the Academia, as a member of a group called the New Spanish Realists. Nevertheless, López García’s earliest paintings were noticeably influenced by the Surrealist movement.
Gradually, however, he moved in a more classical direction, imbibing the techniques and the aesthetic principles of the Old Masters. He has said that Velázquez is a constant source of inspiration for him.
López García’s work has been compared to that of Tiepolo and Chardin—high praise indeed.
The subject over the course of his career of much scorn and derision at the hands of his fellow modernist and postmodernist painters, López García has been patient and persistent, going his own way when everyone else was following the latest fashion. The result is a body of work that is rather small in size (he has not been prolific), but enormously rich in exacting craftsmanship, historical resonance, and above all, luminous beauty.
(USA, 1938; painter)
Below is a brief video of Marden explaining the influence of Chinese calligraphy on his later work.
Brice Marden is an American painter. He was born in the New York City area, and was educated at Boston University and the Yale School of Art and Architecture. In his youth, he was heavily involved in the folk music scene, and in 1960 was married to celebrated folk singer Joan Baez’s sister (they divorced a few years later). The couple lived for a time in the singer’s home in Carmel, California.
Upon returning to New York in 1963, Marden worked briefly as a guard at the Jewish Museum. He also lived for a time in Paris, where he began to make compressed charcoal and graphite, grid-patterned drawings. He created his first monochromatic, single-panel paintings—for which he was to become world-famous—in Paris in the winter of 1964. Also while in Paris, he studied closely the work of Giacometti, Zurbarán, Velázquez, and Manet, all of whom he has cited as influences on his own (albeit abstract) artistic practice.
In 1966, Marden became an assistant to the American painter Robert Rauschenberg; he also had his first solo exhibition that same year. Since then, innumerable exhibitions of his work have been mounted in all of the most-important museums around the world.
A bit later, Marden lived and worked for extended periods of time on the Greek island of Hydra. He has also toured extensively many of the countries of Asia, always in search of fresh inspiration. Today, he has several homes in various parts of the world.
Marden’s best-known work, his monochromatic panels (in single-panel, diptych, triptych, and other formats), are ultimately derived from the Color Field movement, which in turn grew out of Abstract Expressionism. The difference between Marden’s canvases and those of artists working in the earlier genres has been well described as follows:
Restraining the gestural intensity of Color Field painting through contemplative reserve and calm, their inscrutable surfaces belie a nuanced equilibrium between emotive passion and formal rigor.
In the 1980s, as a direct result of his travels in Asia and a growing interest in Chinese calligraphy, Marden changed his style drastically, producing some of his most sumptuous and graphically expressive work to date, in the form of loops of color against a white background. In these intricate and enthralling paintings, the surface, in-your-face aggressivity of Abstract Expressionism has been sublimated by being turned inward, where it dwells in the depths of the painting, emanating a wiser, more serene vitality.
The New Yorker‘s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, has called Marden
the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades.
(Spain, 1955; sculptor)
Below is a video discussing Plensa’s work, including some brief interview segments with the artist.
Jaume Plensa is a Spanish (Catalan) sculptor, especially known for his public works on a monumental scale.
Plensa was born in Barcelona, where he was also educated. Since the early 1980s, his has worked on commissions from around the world. The primary philosophical themes he explores by means of his art is the relationship between the individual, language, and community.
While Plensa has worked in a wide range of media, including drawing, print-making, stage design and scenery, video art, and acoustic installations, he is best known for his large-scale sculptures intended for permanent outdoor public exhibition.
These enormous pieces are painstakingly assembled, most often out of texts and individual letters or characters used by many of the world’s various writing systems. The materials used for these texts and letters include, notably, marble, bronze, steel, and synthetic resins.
Some of the resulting figures are busts. Others are whole human figures, but posed in such a way (e.g., sitting, squatting) as to create a feeling of intimacy, in spite of their monumental size. Many of the artist’s works of this type depict female figures and ones with African or Asian features.
Some forty of Plensa’s public-space sculptures are currently installed around the world. Some of the most recent of these include:
- Crown Fountain – Chicago, Illinois, USA (2004)
- The Soul of the Ebro – Zaragoza, Spain (2008)
- Dream – Liverpool, UK (2009)
- Nomad – Antibes, France (2010)
- Soul – Singapore (2011)
- Laura – Buffalo, New York, USA (2012)
- Mirror – Houston, Texas, USA (2012)
- Roots – Tokyo, Japan (2014)
- House of Knowledge – Borås, Sweden (2014)
- Anna – Klövedal, Sweden (2016)
(USA, 1938; sculptor)
Below is a video of Serra discussing some of the ideas and techniques informing his artistic practice.
Richard Serra is an American artist best known for his large-scale minimalist assemblies constructed out of sheet metal. He has also worked as a video artist.
Serra was born in San Francisco, and was educated at the University of California – Berkeley and – Santa Barbara. While studying at the latter institution, he supported himself for a time by working in a steel mill—an experience which was eventually to have a profound influence on his art.
During the course of his earliest artistic efforts in the 1960s, Serra was a member of the movement known as “process art” (see the video below). Adherents of this movement were more interested in the process by which a work of art was created than in the finished piece of work itself. In Serra’s case, he made lists of verbs and then went about trying to carry out the actions described by the verbs, with no sense of an overall design or goal in mind. He often used non-standard materials in these experiments, including rubber, fiberglass, and molten lead.
In 1969, under the influence of the minimalist movement—which represented a retrenchment of artistic means and forces from the hyperactive-histrionic Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s—Serra began working with simple materials like rough-hewn timber and lead sheets, out of which he created simple geometric shapes. Gradually, he began elaborating these new methods into larger, often self-supporting structures.
Around 1970, Serra took his sculptures out of doors, thus pioneering the construction of large-scale site-specific installations. He also began working with steel plates, which are more resistant to gravity over time than lead sheets.
While initially more successful abroad than in the US, Serra was soon to be recognized as a prophet in his own land, as well. Today, his name and signature works are a “brand” that is instantly recognizable to the art-loving public the world over.
Among his best-known installations (both outdoors and in museums) are the following:
- Tilted Arc – New York, New York, USA (1981)
- Gravity – Washington, District of Columbia, USA (1983)
- Berlin Junction – Berlin, Germany (1987)
- Torqued Ellipse I – Beacon, New York, USA (1996)
- Snake – Bilbao, Spain (1997)
- Joe – St. Louis, Missouri, USA (2000)
- Union of the Torus and the Sphere – Beacon, New York, USA (2001)
- Wake – Seattle, Washington, USA (2004)
- Connector – Costa Mesa, California, USA (2006)
- Viewpoint – Dillingen, Germany (2006)
- 7 – Doha, Qatar (2011)
(Japan, 1955; sculptor, environmental artist)
Below is a brief, wordless presentation of a few of Tsuchiya’s works in a variety of media.
Kimio Tsuchiya is a Japanese architect, designer, and sculptor. After studying in Japan, in 1981 he traveled to London to enroll in the Chelsea College of Arts. Since 1983, he has lived and worked in Matsudo (north of Tokyo). Tsuchiya is a Professor in the Department of Architecture at Musashino Art University in Kodaira (west of Tokyo).
Tsuchiya’s work lies at the intersection between sculpture and environmental art. Clearly influenced by the British environmental art movement pioneered by Andy Goldsworthy in the 1970s, Tsuchiya’s work is nevertheless the product of obvious traditional Japanese influences, as well. Indeed, he belongs to an entire generation of Japanese artists of whom the same could be said.
Tsuchiya often works with natural materials, such as branches, driftwood, and ashes, as well as salvaged man-made materials, such as glass fragments, brick and stone from dismantled houses, wood from discarded furniture, and the like. Some of his sculptures are quite small and could be held in the hand, while others are monumental in size, requiring outdoor installation.
Thematically, Tsuchiya’s works are most-often tied to human memory and natural and historical cycles of renewal.
Tsuchiya has exhibited widely, both inside his native land, and outside of it. He is especially well known and liked by art critics and art lovers in Australia and Europe. The Irish artist Paul Murnaghan has called him “one of Japan’s most eminent and active artists.”
The following is a list of some of Kimio Tsuchiya’s best-known works:
- Symptom (1987) – branches
- Silence (1990) – driftwood
- Eternity (1990) – salvaged wood and stone
- Fiction (1992) – salvaged wood, stone, books, and furniture
- Absence (1992) – ashes
- Urban Ruin (1996) – ashes
- Memory is Creation without End (2000) – masonry fragments
- Life and Remembrance (2000) – ashes
- Landscape of Memory (2003) – brick tile and aluminum
- Light of Memory (2005) – salvaged wood
- Rose of Glass (2005) – glass fragments