The 10 Most Important Artists of the 2010s

Artsy Editorial
Dec 17, 2019 3:04PM

From Instagram-friendly installations and ephemeral interventions or performances parlayed into collectible merchandise, to irreverent or earnest pleas for public engagement, artists explored diverse tactics to engage with a broadening audience this decade. Those who thrived created instantly iconic works and changed global culture, becoming world-renowned celebrities and sparking fervent interest at the lowest and highest ends of the art market simultaneously. As economies rebounded from the financial crisis late last decade, competition among collectors drove record prices and fueled breathless news coverage of a resurgent art market. More people cared about and collected contemporary art this decade than at any other time in recent memory. The most impactful artists of the decade were those who most directly fueled—and tapped into—these new developments and expressions.

Ai Weiwei

B. 1957, Beijing, China. Lives and works in Berlin.

Portrait of Ai Weiwei in his Berlin studio by Wolfgang Stahr for Artsy. © Artsy and Wolfgang Stahr.


The project that launched Ai Weiwei to global stardom, his commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, opened in October 2010. The installation of 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds was instantly iconic, photogenic, interactive, and an appealing metaphor about international capitalism. The following year, as he attempted to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, Ai was stopped by authorities and detained for 81 days, ostensibly on suspicion of tax evasion. More likely, his many politically minded projects—some of them openly critical of the Chinese government and its policies—had made him a target for intimidation.

Ai incorporated small dioramas depicting his detention into the final presentation of his traveling exhibition “According to What?”, which toured for half a decade. In the years since the detainment, he has become ubiquitous. From 2014 to 2015, he took over Alcatraz. In 2016, he staged simultaneous exhibitions at three Manhattan galleries. Much like his focus on researching the Sichuan earthquake last decade, he has recently turned his attention toward the refugee crisis, creating enormous installations and directing a feature-length documentary; his 2017–18 show on the subject with the Public Art Fund spanned hundreds of works across New York City’s five boroughs.

Lately, he has been outspoken in support of the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. This year, Ai wrote in a New York Times opinion piece: “Some are asking: Can the Hong Kong protesters win? My answer is that if they persist, they cannot lose.” This decade, few artists have been as persistent as Ai.

Marina Abramović

B. 1946, Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Lives and works in New York City.

Portrait of Marina Abramovićby Dusan Reljin, 2018. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.


Marina Abramović began the decade at an all-time high, with her historic 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, “The Artist is Present.” The exhibition featured about 50 works from the artist’s nearly five-decade long career, and an estimated 750,000 museumgoers came to witness the unprecedented show. Long lines snaked around MoMA as guests waited to sit across from Abramović as part of her performance in the museum’s atrium. Due to the fact that Abramović is primarily a performance artist, staging this retrospective meant training artists to perform her old works. This endeavor was chronicled in the widely celebrated documentary also titled The Artist is Present, which debuted on HBO in 2012 before winning a Peabody Award.

Following the viral success of her MoMA performance, Abramović started the Marina Abramović Institute, whereby participants are instructed in a durational method developed by the artist. Though plans for a physical home for the Institute in Upstate New York fell apart, Abramović turned her performance method into the driving force behind a series of new works, including major projects at the Serpentine Galleries in London and the Park Avenue Armory in New York. She has also enjoyed a steady stream of museum and gallery exhibitions in the wake of MoMA’s retrospective, cementing her status as the world’s most famous performance artist.

Kara Walker

B. 1969, Stockton, California. Lives and works in New York City.

Portrait of Kara Walker by Ari Marcopoulos.

The millennium’s first decade may have been Kara Walker’s breakout phase, when her violent and grotesque silhouettes depicting antebellum debauchery and barbarism sparked widespread acclaim. But in the past 10 years, she has continually upended expectations and expanded her repertoire, creating enormous drawings and sculptures, including two of the most high-profile commissions of the decade.

Her 2014 project with New York nonprofit Creative Time filled a former sugar factory in Brooklyn with sculptures based on racist trinkets and stereotypes, including a 35-foot-tall, 75-foot-long sphinx coated in sugar. Combining the features of a “mammy” figure with overtly sexualized body parts, the sculpture was as incendiary as anything Walker had ever made and monumental in proportion. Walker created a different monument for her commission in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall earlier this year, riffing on the Queen Victoria Memorial fountain at Buckingham Palace. In her version, Fons Americanus (2019), Walker allegorized the transatlantic slave trade and the connections it formed, for better or worse, between inhabitants of Africa, America, and Europe.

Through a steady stream of gallery and museum shows, Walker continues to probe at the darkest corners of our collective conscience. She also created instantly iconic images this decade, like her tribute to author Toni Morrison for the cover of The New Yorker this past August.


B. 1974, Yate, United Kingdom. Lives and works in the United Kingdom.

Banksy, the art world’s anonymous agent provocateur, spent the past 10 years working clandestinely on increasingly ambitious and rigorously choreographed projects. The 2010 prank documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which he directed, earned an Oscar nomination. Earlier this year, seemingly miffed at the thriving industry of knockoff Banksy exhibitions and goods, the artist sued the organizers of an Italian show for trademark infringement, launched an online store, and revealed plans for a web-based auction platform to reign in the secondary market for his work. While maintaining his irreverent stance, the artist was exerting more control.

The artist stunned the art market when one of his paintings self-destructed moments after it sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018. His 2015 project Dismaland took the form of a dystopian amusement park filled with poignant works by nearly 60 artists, including Jenny Holzer and David Shrigley. And for the month of October 2013, he had himself a “residency” in New York City, unveiling a new work in the city each day on Instagram and his website, sending fans scrambling.

It seems a decade of global infamy has created an ideal climate for cashing in on the Banksy phenomenon—whether it’s the artist himself through his online shop, unscrupulous scavengers hoping to sell works taken off the street, or whomever sold his enormous painting Devolved Parliament (2009) at Sotheby’s this past October for a record-smashing $12.1 million.

Maurizio Cattelan

B. 1960, Padua, Italy. Lives and works in New York City and Milan.

Portrait of Maurizio Cattelan by Pierpaolo Ferrari. Courtesy of the Maurizio Cattelan Archive.

The ultimate artist-prankster, Maurizio Cattelan successfully spent the 2010s delighting—and fooling—the art world. Case in point: Comedian (2019), a banana duct-taped to a wall that sold for $120,000, which incited a frenzy from Art Basel in Miami Beach to mainstream morning shows this December. Yet that was just the latest of Cattelan’s brilliant antics.

In May 2011, the Italian artist unleashed 2,000 taxidermied pigeons across the Venice Biennale. The birds perched on pipes, rafters, and the façade of the Giardini’s main pavilion, inducing the fear of being watched—or shat on. Later that year, Cattelan mounted “All,” a splashy-yet-substantive take on the typical museum retrospective. Twenty-one years worth of Cattelan’s irreverent art hung in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s iconic atrium: offbeat portrayals of the Pope and Picasso; eerie sculptures of a praying Hitler and JFK in a coffin; taxidermied creatures, including a headless horse. Surprisingly, Cattelan had said the show would be his last hurrah: He was retiring. Unsurprisingly, that was not entirely true.

“As an Italian, I am used to seeing plenty of ‘fake retirees,’” New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, a friend and former body-double of Cattelan, told Artsy in 2018. “It’s a national sport and a serious financial plague: people feigning disabilities in order to collect pensions or retiring for the sole purpose of getting paid while still working illegally.…Maurizio plays with Italian stereotypes and exacerbates them.” He added, “I have always thought he is a very rare example of a lazy overachiever, so he has managed to be somewhat busier since he has gone into retirement.”

Busy, indeed. Since 2010, Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari have developed a cult following for their eye-popping magazine Toiletpaper; they also landed commissions with clients like OKCupid and the New York Times. Meanwhile, Cattelan staged shows in Warsaw, Basel, New York, and Paris; launched a gallery in Chelsea (with Gioni) dubbed Family Business; curated a flashy show at Shanghai’s Yuz Museum in 2018 with Gucci’s Alessandro Michele; and, most recently, took over the hallowed halls of the U.K.’s Blenheim Palace—which brings us to Cattelan’s prank of the decade.

In the fall of 2016 in New York, in the thick of the fraught U.S. presidential election, Cattelan installed an 18-karat-gold toilet, perversely titled America (2016), at the Guggenheim. Obviously, visitors were dying to christen the gold throne, some queuing up for hours. It stirred controversy when Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector later offered the piece to President Donald Trump. Fast-forward to 2019: The gaudy commode was installed in a lavatory at Blenheim, but just days into the exhibition, thievesnicked it. While the robbery is still a mystery, Cattelan has asserted he was not involved; he even did a cheeky advertisement with an Italian art insurance company. He also revealed that America is not unique: Two other editions are safe and sound.

Carmen Herrera

B. 1915, Havana, Cuba. Lives and works in New York City.

Portrait of Carmen Herrera by Jason Schmidt, 2015. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Now 104, Carmen Herrera received long-overdue acclaim for her pristine, minimalist canvases this past decade. After making one of the first sales of her work in 2004, to the esteemed collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, other major arts patrons—and institutions—followed suit. But in the 2010s, Herrera became an art-world heavyweight, joining the roster of Lisson Gallery and staging a solo show at the Whitney Museum in 2016, at age 101. At auction, new records for Herrera’s geometric paintings were set multiple times; most recently in March 2019, at a Sotheby’s benefit auction, Blanco y Verde (1966–67) sold for $2.9 million.

“Her groundbreaking work had been overlooked for far too long because of her position as an immigrant and woman, but this has been corrected thanks to tireless advocates and her persistent dedication to her art,” said curator Daniel S. Palmer of the Public Art Fund. Such enthusiasm for Herrera speaks to a wider movement of the decade, as galleries, museums, and collectors sought to recognize overlooked artists—many of whom are women and people of color.

“At 104, she continues to create with a remarkable vigor and dedication that should inspire artists of every age,” Palmer added. This past summer, he worked with her on a Public Art Fund project, “Estructuras Monumentales,”at New York’s City Hall Park. It was a dream project for Herrera—a series of sculptures she first envisioned more than 50 years ago.

Yayoi Kusama

B. 1929, Matsumoto, Japan. Lives and works in Tokyo.

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner.

Throughout the 2010s, Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms” became the apotheosis of Instagrammable art—despite the fact that the Japanese artist started making them in 1965. These immersive artworks allow viewers to enter a small room covered with mirrors. Their adornments range from hanging colored lights to polka-dot pumpkins or plush red-and-white phalluses, which all multiply ad infinitum in the reflective, enclosed environment.

Kusama, a radical feminist artist who came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s by executing wild conceptual and performance works, was not an obvious harbinger of populist art. Yet her traveling exhibition of 2017–19, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, mobilized audiences willing to wait many hours for their chance to enter—and ’gram—her work. The same fervor hit David Zwirner’s 2013 Kusama presentation, “I Who Have Arrived in Heaven,” which similarly resulted in lines stretching down West 19th Street—a craze revived by subsequent Zwirner shows in 2017 and this year. The success of similarly crowd-pleasing, experiential installations—Random International’s Rain Room (2012) at MoMA; teamLab’s dominance in Japan—are further evidence of immersive art’s prevailing power in the digital age.

Of course, Kusama’s impact this decade went far beyond sparking selfies. A steady stream of museum exhibitions (including at Tokyo’s Yayoi Kusama Museum, opened in 2017) and gallery shows fueled growing art market interest, which in turn has spilled over into a thriving secondary market. Kusama’s five biggest auction results were all set this decade, including her top lot, one of her monochrome “Infinity Net” paintings from 1959, which sold for roughly $7.9 million at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong in April 2019.

Kerry James Marshall

B. 1955, Birmingham, Alabama. Lives and works in Chicago.

Portrait of Kerry James Marshall by Felix Clay. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

By centering the black figure within beautiful, large-scale paintings and portraits, Kerry James Marshall has masterfully confronted the absence of black subjects and artists in the Western art canon. Marshall’s black bodies in everyday scenes amplified this decade’s growing movement of black figurative painting as an important diversification of an American experience, heralding skin color, setting, and clothing as important attributes.

He has been represented by Jack Shainman Gallery since 1993, and was picked up by mega-gallery David Zwirner in 2014. Beginning in 2016, “Mastry,” a major retrospective of Marshall’s work chronicling 35 years of artmaking, traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Marshall’s timely charge to change the perceptions of race and beauty has won him a place in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, with his works held in collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. As the decade wore on, institutional support sparked rapidly growing market interest. He became the most expensive living African American artist in 2018, when Past Times (1997) was purchased by Sean “Diddy” Combs for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s, making Marshall a fixture of auction houses’ evening sales ever since. The Chicago-based artist’s success affirms his place as an important artist forming a new chapter in art history.

Jeff Koons

B. 1955, York, Pennsylvania. Lives and works in New York City.

Portrait of Jeff Koons by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP, via Getty Images.

The last decade was a roller coaster of stardom for Jeff Koons, who closed out the 2010s by losing and then promptly regaining the title of most expensive living artist. Koons was first named as such in 2013, dethroning Gerhard Richter when his Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000) sold to a phone bidder at Christie’s New York auction house for a whopping $58.4 million. In November 2018, Koons was stripped of this title when David Hockney’s 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for a whopping $90.3 million, but the American artist hopped back on top when his Rabbit (1986) sold for just slightly over $91 million in May 2019. This reaffirmed top-dog status capped a dramatic decade for Koons.

In 2012, he began showing with both of the two most powerful galleries in the world—David Zwirner and Gagosian—and the following year, he debuted his “Gazing Ball” series (2013–16) with Zwirner, while Gagosian simultaneously showcased large paintings and steel sculptures. In 2014, a mammoth retrospective of the artist’s work took over the entire Whitney Museum (its final exhibition in the Breuer building). Meanwhile, collaborations with everyone from pop star Lady Gaga to fast-fashion brand H&M brought Koons’s art to the attention of many millions beyond the billionaires vying for his work at auction.

Zanele Muholi

B. 1972, Umlazi, South Africa. Lives and works in Johannesburg.

Self portrait of Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town.

This decade, Zanele Muholi has exemplified the role of the photographer as a visual activist. Their landmark Brooklyn Museum show in 2015 highlighted many images from “Faces and Phases” (2006–14), which chronicled the LGBTQ+ community of their native South Africa. Three years later, they published a powerful book with Aperture, Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (2018), which was accompanied by an international touring exhibition. In that body of work, they created theatrical black-and-white self-portraits to weave together the threads of individual identity, black representation, and cultural history of Africa and its diaspora. Muholi is a master of performance in each frame, slipping in and out of personae and using objects rich with symbolism that comment on both cultural heritage and personal memory.

As their work has become increasingly ubiquitous—they had 11 solo shows in 2017 alone—the market has taken notice. Since Muholi made their auction debut in 2013, their work has come to auction 14 more times—10 of them in the past year. Above all, they offer their own image as an indomitable black queer photographer during an explosive period of black creativity and the long-overdue rise of the black figure in art and photography.

Artsy Editorial

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Maurizio Cattelan lives and works in New York City; he also lives and works in Milan.