There are certain artists whose work redefines culture: challenging perspectives, introducing new approaches and fundamentally transforming the nature of 'art' as a concept. Here are 5 artists whose work can be said to have broken the mould of established artistic traditions, sending shockwaves reverberating through the world of art as we know it.
As a boy, Andy Warhol’s quiet and patient nature led his family to believe he was destined to become a priest. In a way he did, only his iconography was extracted not from religious orthodoxy but from the bright, shining world of American popular culture. He took images, brands, faces and figures that were familiar to contemporary society and portrayed them as art, exposing them as the universal interlocuters between people and their desires, powerful emblems of the fabric of their day to day lives and their connection with a triumphant consumerism.
For Warhol though, Pop Art was less about making a comment on contemporary society and more about an unaffected portrayal of the iconic image itself. His first and perhaps best known works— his series of Campbell’s Soup Cans — were painted on a friend’s suggestion that he paint something ‘everybody recognised’. While later editions of this series were screen printed, the original was hand painted, meaning there were minor variations between the different cans.
They were exhibited in 1962 by Irving Blum, who sold them as a set, and it’s this that is often held to be the secret of its success. "This made it different; it made it a statement," wrote journalist Sara McCorquodale in 2015: "The work seemed to speak of the spirit of a new America, one that thoroughly embraced the consumer culture of the new decade. Before the end of the year Campbell’s Soup Cans was so on-trend that Manhattan socialites were wearing soup can-printed dresses to high-society events."
Works by Andy Warhol
Immediately recognisable for her vivid paintings and installations, Yayoi Kusama is particularly notable for expressing her unique worldview through her art. Originally turning to art as a means of coping with her intrusive thoughts and obsessive tendencies, she gradually made her neurotic conditions more and more public through her work until it finally became a celebration, and an invitation for the world to participate in her way of seeing. Her work in many ways tries to recreate an experience of the infinite through repetition. The use of polka-dots, opposing mirrors and vibrant colours portray both a conception of the universe – the stars, earth, sun and people – as an endless array of points in space, along with an expression of love for the world, and a desire for peace.
A significant part of New York's avant-garde scene in the 1960s, Kusama's vibrant, nudity-and-polka-dot-infused performances and happenings in public places in opposition to the Vietnam war brought her considerable celebrity, although difficulties arising between this developing fame and her relationship with her family drove her to attempt suicide.
By the mid 1970s, she had returned to Japan and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital which would eventually become her permanent residence. Establishing a studio a short distance from the hospital, she continued to work, and between the 1980s and the 21st century she has seen a significant revival of interest in her work.
The artistic work of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is inextricably connected to his work as an activist. A major proponent of human rights and democracy and a vocal critic of the People's Republic of China's record on these issues, Weiwei's artistic career is strongly characterised by conflict with the regime.
After spending 81 days in a secret prison in 2011, allegedly for tax evasion, he created an installation that replicated the circumstances of his incarceration: 6 exact scale models of situations in his cell, where he was monitored at all times by soldiers. Called S.A.C.R.E.D, this work is one of the most literal and direct engagements with the nature of oppression and its relationship with art, placing the viewer in a role akin to the oppressive power of surveillance, while also forcing them to bear witness.
Weiwei's work, 1995, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, is a series of three photographs which depict him dropping a 2000 year old Chinese urn in order to reflect Mao's attempts to wipe out China's traditional heritage during the Cultural Revolution.
Russian painter and founder of the Suprematist movement, Kasimir Malevich — and in particular his iconic work, Black Square – had an enormous influence on the development of abstract art.
Working amid the political and cultural upheaval of Russia in 1915, Malevich took the bold step of moving entirely away from figurative art and instead using simple geometric shapes to portray the raw, underlying emotion, considering these pure expressions ‘supreme’. He commented that “to the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.”
This radical departure from what the world previously knew as art – a depiction of something in the world – is considered the very beginning of geometric abstract art. The exhibition of Black Square, which when first exhibited was hung high in the corner of the room, where a religious icon would usually be, is considered to be the first time a painting was exhibited which wasn’t of something in the world.
While Louise Bourgeois famously rejected the label of feminism, declaring her work to be ‘pre-gender’, her creations frequently dealt with the relationship between male and female and the expression of unconscious female desires. Bourgeois’ created existential works that emphasised the female and "deflate[d] the male psyche as a structure of power".
Much of her work addressed her own struggles with male dominance both in her personal life — she had an authoritarian father who was unfaithful to her mother — and in society at large, but it demonstrates a clear evolution, moving from expressing fear, to dealing with fear, and eventually to overcoming fear. In her own words: "My early work is the fear of falling. Later on it became the art of falling. How to fall without hurting yourself. Later on it is the art of hanging in there" (Louise Bourgeois in Destruction of the Father).
Her iconic ‘spider’ sculptures, which include the enormous work, Maman, exhibited in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 1999, represent a female, maternal force, and bring together both the creative, in the spider’s ability to spin, a strong protective power, and even the possibility of consumption of the male.
She made bold strides in establishing the role of women as creators in a world largely dominated by men, becoming the first female artist to receive a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. In a career spanning 8 decades, few artists have done as much to represent women in art and culture.