The Most Influential Latin American Artists of the 20th Century
“Influential” is a difficult term. It implies storied history, reach, and effect. In the 20th century, Latin American artists were, for the most part, not included in dominant accounts of art history. It feels as though the important contributions of artists from Latin America are siphoned into an outdated silo of “specialized” knowledge. Why do currents of history from certain regions get left out of mainstream scholarship, pushed aside to the periphery?
This list of artists reveals that many of the groundbreaking, influential artists from Latin America in the 20th century were not tethered to the region but, in fact, incredibly global. They traveled to Europe, North America, and, in some cases, African countries. Many of the artists on this list positioned their work in relation to European vanguard developments: Is it perhaps this connection to Europe that concretizes them as “most influential”? What this list indicates is that artistic narratives of the 20th century have recognized certain artists as “influential” because of their respective proximities to the global north.
Within this list, I am most excited to share the artists that shaped their own spheres of influence—independent of emerging trends in Europe and North America—who are perhaps less well-known in the canon. These include important figures like Luz Donoso, Feliciano Centurión, and Clemencia Lucena. This list is not exhaustive by any means. It includes only artists who are no longer living, and only those who were born in Latin America and the Caribbean. (The exception is Rafael Tufiño, who was born in New York, but his inclusion was an attempt at signaling how Puerto Rico and its diaspora is often positioned outside of both Latin America and the United States.) The 20 groundbreaking artists spotlighted in this list have influenced generations of artists, as well as scholars and curators who are addressing historical biases in art history.
Ana Mendieta’s multidisciplinary practice questions static markers of gender identity, sexual expression, and humanity’s connection to the Earth. At age 12, Mendieta was exiled from Cuba and sent to live in the United States under Operation Pedro Pan—a mass movement of unaccompanied Cuban minors, many of them children of counterrevolutionary threats to the Castro regime. Mendieta spent part of her childhood in an Iowan orphanage, and eventually pursued an education in art at the University of Iowa. It was during this early period that Mendieta began to use her own body through performance. Her multidisciplinary practice consisted of performance, photography, and video works addressing the complicated entanglements between bodies, the Earth, and death. In iconic hybrid works like her “Siluetas” (1973–80) and “Esculturas Rupestres” series, Mendieta utilized indentations, markings, and absence to imply the body and its reverberations in natural landscapes—especially female bodies, goddesses, and matriarchal figures. In her worldview—drawn from indigneous and Afro-Cuban spiritual practices from her native Cuba, as well as the experience of displacement and diaspora—birth and death begin with blood, fire sustains but also destroys, and water runs downstream, regardless of human intervention. Mendieta died at age 36 in New York City. Yet despite this tragedy, her work continues to inspire audiences today.
B. 1962, San Ignacio de las Misiones, Paraguay. D. 1996, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Feliciano Centurión’s textile works from the 1980s and ’90s cement his artwork in global queer discourse, emphasizing themes of love, decay, vulnerability, and compassion. His family was exiled to a town on the border of Paraguay and Argentina. Due to the repressive government of Alfredo Stroessner, his father crossed the border to work in Argentina. Centurión was raised primarily by the women in his family while coming of age as a gay man in a conservative society. In the early 1980s, Centurión moved to Buenos Aires, where he became a central figure in the city’s Arte Light group, which sought to counter the oppressive cultural forces of dictatorship through play, pleasure, humor, and creativity in artmaking. Centurión’s works utilized domestic materials like blankets, pillows, and other found textiles, which he would embroider with poetic phrases and graphic imagery like animals and other iconographic figures from indigenous Guaraní traditions. In 1992, Ceturión was diagnosed with HIV, and as his illness worsened, many of the phrases he included in his works dealt with this melancholy and his acceptance of his own mortality. Centurión’s work embodies an ethos of honest, tender reconciliation during the AIDS epidemic that ravaged artistic communities globally. Centurión died of AIDS in 1996, at the young age of 34.
Jesús Rafael Soto is often associated with kinetic and Op art, developing immersive installations that engage the public in participation and encourage the dissolution between form and space. In 1950, after completing his studies in Caracas and serving as director of La Escuela de Bellas Artes in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Soto moved to Paris. Venezuela was in the beginning stages of a repressive military dictatorship, and Paris’s vanguard circles offered an enticing promise of artistic freedom and innovation—in particular, Cubism. Soto began to work alongside artists like Jean Tinguely and Victor Vasarely, as well as with the New Realism artistic movement. In 1955, he participated in the exhibition “Le Mouvement” at Galerie Denise René in Paris, which spurred the development of kinetic art globally. Many of Soto’s works from this period were unstable forms, challenging a viewer’s perception of color, line, movement, and space. It was in the late 1950s that Soto became involved with the artist group Zero, embracing ideas of mechanization and industrialization. In the latter part of Soto’s life, he prioritized the dematerialization of form, suggesting movement and vibration through public participation. He is perhaps best known for his “Penetrables” a series of immersive sculptural installations consisting of dense curtains of hanging wires, which viewers can explore with their bodies.
B. 1902, Sagua la Grande, Cuba. D. 1982, Paris, France.
Wifredo Lam was a painter who explored artistic styles like Surrealism and Cubism in his work while traveling throughout Europe, as well as themes related to his mixed Chinese, European, Indigenous, and Afro-Cuban spiritual heritage. In 1923, he moved to Madrid to study with Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor, a portrait painter and teacher to Salvador Dalí. Lam’s early works from this period are dark and foreboding, suggestive of death and warfare. By the early 1930s, Lam’s work reflected Surrealism, and in 1938, he traveled to Paris to study with Pablo Picasso. Ironically, Picasso’s fascination with so-called “primitive” cultures encouraged Lam to incorporate his own Caribbean cultural background in his work, albeit with an acute understanding of cultural hierarchies perpetuated by the European avant-garde. Upon Lam’s return to Cuba during World War II, he stated: “My return to Cuba meant, above all, a great stimulation of my imagination.…I responded always to the presence of factors that emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers, and black culture.” Lam’s famous painting La Jungla (“The Jungle”) (1943) combines Cubist forms with visual references to mythology, cosmology, and Santería. Lam died in 1982. A transcultural aesthetic scholar, juxtaposing styles and influences from various global traditions, Lam is perhaps the most syncretic artist of the 20th century.
Luz Donoso was a multidisciplinary, socially minded artist whose work has remained relatively unknown. In the 1960s, following her studies at the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de Chile, Donoso became involved with a group of mural painters supporting Salvador Allende from the Socialist Party, who became president in 1970. Donoso believed in the revolutionary potential of art when situated in public spaces. Utilizing graphic, accessible, representational imagery informed by her background in printmaking, Donoso’s work addressed the public directly. In 1973, following Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile, Donoso was fired from teaching graphic arts at the Universidad de Chile, presumably for her oppositional political beliefs. She co-founded the Taller de Artes Visuales in Santiago, which produced some of the most forward-thinking political art and criticism of 1970s Chile. Donoso’s first and only solo exhibition was in 1976 at the Instituto Chileno Francés. In 1978, she developed Huincha sin fin (“Endless Band”), where she juxtaposed black-and-white photographs of Chile’s desaparecidos with the repeated question “Where are they?”—directly indicting the military regime’s atrocities. Donoso contributed to the movement of artistic resistance in Chile through the 1980s, to which she donated a fundamental archive of audio recordings, videos, and photographs of art encounters from the time.
B. 1955, Tamboríl, Dominican Republic. D. 2017, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Tony Capellán investigated themes of environmental destruction, socioeconomic scarcity, legacies of colonialism, and diaspora in his work. Capellán grew up in the interior region of the Dominican Republic, which led him to be fascinated by the ocean’s vast impact. He studied painting and printmaking at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, as well as the Arts Students League of New York City. By the early 1980s, he began to work with found materials in sculptural installations. For the rest of his career, Capellán made the ocean his subject matter, as well as his source of materials. He collected discarded remnants and trash from oceans and other waterways in the Dominican Republic. In Mar Caribe (1996) and Mar Invadido (2015), Capellán used washed-up refuse to communicate the history of the Caribbean region and the destruction of natural environments. In his work, the ocean served as a metaphor for the dramas between humans (slavery, colonialism, poverty), as well as the dramas between humans and nature (pollution, species extinction, and rising sea levels). In the 1990s, Capellán exhibited widely, and continued working until his death in 2017. The strength of Capellán’s work was in addressing the sociopolitical histories of the Caribbean, as well as the burgeoning environmental urgencies of global climate change.
Often named the most influential artist of Latin American modernism, Frida Kahlo was a Mexican-born painter whose art addressed themes of melancholy, illness, matriarchy, revolutionary politics, and indigenous beauty, often with a Surrealist bent. Born to a wealthy family in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Kahlo was introduced to art at an early age through her father’s photography. Although her father was German and her mother of indigenous and Spanish descent, Kahlo prioritized and celebrated indigenous cultural values and belief systems throughout her life. In the 1920s and ’30s, she developed many works affirming her leftist beliefs, including Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932) and My Dress Hangs There (1933), paintings that criticize the United States’s imperialistic history and capitalistic desire for industrialized “progress.” Kahlo also addressed her longstanding pain due to various illnesses she suffered throughout her life, some due to a bus accident that left her partially immobile. One of Kahlo’s last paintings prior to her untimely death in 1954 is titled Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (1954), in which she depicted her own body donning one of her iconic long skirts and a leather corset. In the background of the painting, Marx’s floating hand chokes an eagle symbolic of Uncle Sam’s imperialism.
Born to a family of prominent Black intellectuals, Victoria Santa Cruz was an Afro-Peruvian choreographer, composer, dramatist, and educator. Much of her work is grounded in her roots of Afro-Peruvian culture. In 1958, Santa Cruz co-founded Cumanana, Peru’s first Black theater company. Many of the plays and musicals she directed during this time addressed unexplored gaps in Peru’s national history—in particular, forgotten narratives of slavery. In the early to mid-1960s, Santa Cruz traveled to Paris and studied theater and choreography at the Université du Théâtre des Nations and École Supérieur des Études Chorégraphiques. Following her return to Peru in 1966, she served as director of Teatro y Danzas Negras del Perú and the Conjunto Nacional de Folklore—traveling and performing extensively throughout the region, as well as the United States, Canada, and Europe. It was during this time that she developed and performed her best-known poem, Me gritaron negra (1978), in which she recounted moments of racist prejudice she endured as a child. Beginning in 1982, she served as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she would remain for 17 years. Critical examinations of racism and celebrations of Black pride remained prevalent themes in Santa Cruz’s work for most of her life.
B. 1920, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. D. 1988, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A conceptual pioneer and leading figure of Brazil’s Neo-Concrete movement,Lygia Clark’s practice emphasized sensorial experiences and participatory installations. Clark studied painting in Rio de Janeiro and in Paris, focusing on geometric abstraction. In the 1960s, she developed her series of “Proposições” (“Propositions”)—open-ended, experimental works that relied on public interaction. Clark’s “Bichos” (“Critters”) engaged the viewer—requiring that they manipulate the work with their own hands to activate it. Clark proposed that viewers have enough flexibility to experience the work as their own gesture. She prioritized the endless possibilities of the viewer’s interpretation. In 1966, she developed her series of “Objetos sensoriais” (“Sensorial objects”), using ready-made items like tubes, burlap sacks, plastic bags, pebbles, and spices. Into the 1970s, Clark continued making works that explored erotic psychoanalysis, social dynamics, and collective consciousness. One work that acutely represents these themes is A casa é o corpo (“The house is the body”), an installation she presented at the 1968 Venice Biennale. In this work, the public was encouraged to crawl through a maze that suggests the female reproductive system—mirroring actions like penetration, ovulation, germination, and expulsion. Clark’s work with students focused on art’s therapeutic quality, examining the possibilities for healing through play. Until the end of her life, Clark’s work engaged participants in active sensorial and relational experiments.
Illustrating the realities of life in Argentina’s villas miseria, Antonio Berni created representational portraits of poverty, oftentimes using discarded, ready-made materials in his work. Berni was born and raised by Italian immigrants, and was able to study painting. In 1925, he traveled to Europe and became involved with Surrealist avant-garde circles. He developed an interest in the ideals and convictions of Marxism. Upon his return to Argentina in 1932, he joined Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s group. Berni began to develop his own works through the lens of “new realism,” or the belief that art should truthfully reflect the social realities of the working classes. At the time, Argentina was suffering through a dire economic crisis that worsened living conditions for the country’s most marginalized. Berni’s representational, large-scale paintings highlighted the diversity of the “Pan-American” vision. In the 1950s, Berni took a definitive turn in his practice and began making assemblages, repurposing refuse and discarded objects. By the 1960s, he had developed two fictional characters who would be the subjects of his work until his death in 1981. Named Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel—Laguna a poor boy from a villa miseria, and Montiel a sex worker—mark Berni’s most significant output, and are perhaps his most well-known work.
B. 1952, Palmares, Brazil. D. 2016, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Known for works that suggest human flesh, bodily functions, and spirituality, Tunga’s practice spanned sculpture, installation, performance, video, and poetry. Tunga studied architecture at the University of Santa Úrsula in Rio de Janeiro, but turned to visual arts. In 1974, the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro held his first solo exhibition, titled “Museu da Masturbação Infantil” (“Museum of Childhood Masturbation”).Juxtaposing natural elements like wood, iron, steel, cotton, wax, and rubber, Tunga’s sculptural works allude to universal experiences within the natural world. In the 1980s, Tunga created sculptural works and installations that visually mimic human hair—straightened hair strands caught in combs, as well as long, winding braids made from materials like from copper, lead, and brass. Tunga developed surrealistic performances that illustrated the connections between people—in many cases, women—and their surroundings. This output included one of his most well-known performance works, Xifópagas Capilares entre Nós (“Capillary Xiphopagus among Us”) (1984), where two young twin girls are conjoined by their hair. Tunga showed his work at the Louvre in Paris in 2005, with the monumental hanging installation À La Lumière des Deux Mondes (“At the Light of Both Worlds”).
Margarita Azurdia, Quítese los zapatos por favor , 1970. Courtesy of the artist's estate and the Hammer Museum.
Margarita Azurdia made experimental works that explored gender and mythological icons during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996). Azurdia began her self-taught artistic career in the early 1960s, painting large-scale geometric abstractions that borrowed from indigenous textile traditions, like designs from Mayan huipiles. In 1968, she created a series of minimalist sculptures that encouraged public participation, consisting of large-scale, cylindrical, and curved structures, which the public was invited to lie down on. In 1970, Azurdia developed her first immersive installation, titled Favor quitarse los zapatos (“Please take off your shoes”). In a small, darkened room, Azurdia placed uneven mounds of wet sand, inviting the public to traverse the terrain beneath their bare feet. Azurdia continued to experiment and developed performance, poetry, and sculptural works incorporating fictionalized, hybrid religious myths, including Homenaje a Guatemala (1971–74). She traveled to Paris in 1974, where she resided until 1982 and worked alongside other feminist artists. Upon her return to Guatemala, Azurdia formed the experimental performance group Laboratorio de Creatividad, emphasizing humanity’s spiritual connections with the Earth and all of its species. Azurdia died in 1998, and her home in Guatemala City was converted into a museum.
B. 1914, Antofagasta, Chile. D. 2012, Santiago, Chile.
Born to a family of Croatian immigrants, Lily Garafulic is considered one of Chile’s foremost abstract sculptors of the 20th century. After studying visual arts at the Universidad de Chile, in 1938, Garafulic traveled to Paris, where she met the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whose work would remain a lifelong influence on her practice. Her early sculptural work was abstract in form, but alluded to the organic shapes of the human body. Guided by an interest in formal purity, Garafulic used materials like marble, bronze, and terracotta. In 1944, Garafulic received a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled to New York City, where she studied printmaking at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17. This same year, she had her first solo exhibition at Instituto Chileno-Británico in Santiago, Chile, and was later awarded a travel grant to study mosaic techniques in Europe. In 1973, she became the first woman to assume the role of director at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago. In this role, she implemented new standards for restoration and conservation at the museum. Like many female artists throughout Latin America in the 20th century, Garafulic balanced various roles simultaneously: groundbreaking visual artist, educator, and public arts steward. Garafulic passed away in 2012 in Santiago, Chile.
Rafael Tufiño’s interdisciplinary practice celebrated quotidian moments of work, leisure, and cultural expression. Born in New York City, he moved to Puerto Rico at the age of 10. Tufiño served in World War II, which granted him the GI Bill, funding his studies at Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Mexico City, where he studied printmaking and mural techniques. During the 1950s, he returned to Puerto Rico, becoming a part of the Generation of the ’50s, a group focused on developing a modern Puerto Rican cultural identity and awareness. Tufiño produced various works commissioned by the Puerto Rican government, specifically posters meant to promote culture and public health on the island. He made a name for himself as a printmaker, earning the title “Painter of the People.” In 1954, Tufiño was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and created the print portfolio “El Café” in addition to his famous mural La Plena (1952–54), referring to the traditional Puerto Rican musical genre. He founded the Taller Boricua in 1970 and helped form El Museo el Barrio in Harlem. In 2003, El Museo el Barrio held a retrospective of Tufiño’s oeuvre. That same year, the National Arts Club in New York City presented him with a lifetime achievement award. Tufiño passed away in 2008.
B. 1945, Bogotá, Colombia. D. 1983, Cali, Colombia.
Clemencia Lucena is known for two distinct bodies of work: her feminist parodies of women in beauty pageants and other gendered rituals, and her overtly Marxist representational paintings illustrating class struggle. Her early work parodies beauty contests, pageants, weddings, and debutante announcements—mocking the visual representations of women idealized in those contexts. In the early 1970s, Lucena became involved with Movimiento Obrero Independiente Revolucionario (MOIR), and this moment marked a radical shift in the subject matter of her work. Lucena turned to the issues of the working class, adopting a radical Marxist praxis in her politics and social realism in her artwork. Many of Lucena’s works from this period can be read as political propaganda, encouraging social action in farmworkers and other members of the working class. In 1975, Lucena published an anthology of critical essays in which she condemned the bourgeois roots of Colombian art, and advocated for new art forms that are anti-imperialist and rooted in revolutionary class consciousness.
At a young age, Joaquín Torres-García moved from Uruguay to Mataró, Spain, and eventually settled in Barcelona, where he studied at the Escola de Nobles Arts “La Llotja” and Cercle Artístic de Sant Lluc. Torres-García became involved with the Noucentisme movement, adopting a Classicist approach to his painting. In the 1930s, he developed his theory of Constructive Universalism, the belief that art should reflect geometric purity as well as symbolic content. In 1930, along with artists Piet Mondrian and Michel Seuphor, Torres-García founded the movement Cercle et Carré (meaning “Circle and Square”). In 1934, Torres-García returned to Uruguay and fully embraced Constructive Universalism, combining the structured grids of abstraction he had seen in Europe with symbolic characters alluding to pre-Columbian thought systems. He began to advocate for an autonomous Latin American art tradition, independent from Europe, and in 1935, he developed La Escuela del Sur (“School of the South”), calling for an inversion of the political order and hierarchy between the global South and North. In 1943, Torres-García illustrated this concept in América Invertida (“Inverted America”), a drawing that depicts South America upside down, with the equator line as a visual marker. Torres-García is credited with the establishment of a new political and aesthetic order in the region, fusing transatlantic discourses.
B. 1944, Paraíba, Brazil. D. 2018, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Antonio Dias’s works rebelled against Brazil’s military dictatorship from the 1960s to 1980s. As a child, Dias learned to read through comics, and he pursued graphic design as a young adult, inspired by Brazil’s Tropicália movement. Following his move to Rio de Janeiro, in the 1960s, Dias’s canvases utilized bold, graphic imagery, which some critics and art historians have argued was influenced by international currents of Pop. However, in contrast to the commercial Pop aesthetics in the United States, Dias’s works often condemned the military regime in Brazil. As the leading figure in the New Figuration movement, Dias pushed the limits of artistic dissent during a period of heavy repression. His Note on the Unforeseen Death (1965) contains imagery of military uniforms, atomic mushroom clouds, gas masks, and human skulls. Dias left Brazil for Europe when the Brazilian dictatorship was tightening censorship and persecuting artists. While in Italy, Dias became involved with artists from the Arte Povera movement, and began to make films and installations. In 1977, Dias traveled to Nepal and India, where he experimented with paper-making, and in the 1980s and ’90s, he taught in Germany and Austria, leaning into abstraction in his work. Dias passed away last year in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 74.
Rufino Tamayo’s abstract paintings fused pre-Columbian aesthetics with European modernism, especially Cubism and Surrealism. Born to parents of indigenous Zapotec descent, Tamayo was orphaned at an early age and moved to Mexico City. There, he studied art, and was eventually appointed lead designer of the department of ethnographic drawings at the National Museum of Archeology. Borrowing forms from pre-Columbian ceramic objects in the museum’s collection, many of Tamayo’s early paintings and drawings depicted representational portraits of rural Mexicans. Beginning in the 1920s, Tamayo traveled to New York, where he would remain for years, inspired by the artistic experimentation that he believed was being stifled back in Mexico. Tamayo’s works during his time in New York are marked by a dream-like Surrealist quality, often incorporating human figures, fruits, or animals in vividly saturated canvases. In Animals (1941), two dogs anchor the painting’s composition—dogs, in many Maya and Aztec mythologies, accompany the dead into the afterlife. After World War II, Tamayo’s paintings took on an expressionistic and gestural quality. In 1957, he moved to Paris, before returning to Mexico until the end of his life. Many of Tamayo’s paintings are located in Mexico City’s Museo Rufino Tamayo, which was founded in 1981, 10 years before the artist’s death.
Tarsila do Amaral
B. 1886, São Paulo, Brazil. D. 1973, São Paulo.
Tarsila do Amaral was a painter who developed a unique visual language to imagine a new Brazil in the 20th century. Born into a family of coffee plantation owners in São Paulo, do Amaral traveled to France in the early 1920s, where she studied Cubism with renowned painters like Fernand Léger and André Lhote. While traveling between Europe and Brazil, she developed her signature style of painting, combining a vivid color palette, sensuous forms, and imagery inspired by Brazil’s indigenous and African populations. A Negra (1923) depicts an abstracted portrait of a worker on her family’s fazenda—a Black woman who would have been born into slavery. In 1928, do Amaral’s art was the centerpiece of the “Manifesto Antropófago”, which called for cultural cannibalism—encouraging a Brazilian art form that ate and digested diverse artistic traditions and transposed them into a new, Brazilian context. In 1929, do Amaral’s family lost their fortune, and in 1931, she traveled to the Soviet Union. Her artistic output became focused on Marxism, class consciousness, and the struggles of workers. She died in 1973 in São Paulo. Last year, her exhibition at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo broke records as the most well-attended show in the museum’s history. Earlier this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired A Lua (1928), an important early painting by do Amaral.
David Alfaro Siqueiros was one of the three great Mexican muralist painters of the early 20th century. Throughout his life, Siqueiros maintained firm political beliefs that informed every aspect of his artistic practice. Although he was born into a wealthy family, Siqueiros became involved in the ideologies of the Mexican Revolution. He successfully led student strikes and eventually joined the revolutionary army. Siquieros painted murals depicting class struggle and strife. Following the war, in 1921, Siquieros traveled to Europe, where he spent time with Diego Rivera and became interested in Cubism. He was an active member of the Communist political party, and co-founded the Communist newspaper El Machete in Mexico. In the 1930s, Siqueiros traveled to the U.S., where he painted various murals illustrating the tumultuous relationship between Mexico and the United States. In Downtown Los Angeles, Siqueiros painted América Tropical (1932), which was almost immediately painted over due to its controversial subject matter: a crucified indigenous man beneath an American eagle. Siquieros remained politically active throughout his life, even traveling to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to fight alongside the Republicans. He is considered the most political of the three great Mexican muralists, due to his dedication and commitment to his cause through public art.