The Most Influential Living Artists of 2016

Artsy Editorial
Dec 14, 2016 1:04AM

There would be no art world without artists. It’s nearly impossible to whittle down the many thousands if not millions around the world who have dedicated their lives in some way to an art practice; even in the art world, influence is ever more global and diffuse. But through combining the insight of Artsy’s editors with data from UBS’s art news app Planet Art and other sources, some trends do emerge for 2016. The artists who most captured the public’s—and the media’s—attention were primarily dealing with key issues of our time: political persecution, racism, sexism, and climate change. And they were privileging and engaging vast audiences with content, not flash. If this is any indication of the direction that the art world itself is headed in, then art is poised to be more relevant and powerful than ever. Below, in no particular order, are the most influential living artists of 2016.

Philippe Parreno

B. 1964, Oran, Algeria • Lives and works in Paris 

Philippe Parreno, October 22, 2008, New York, New York. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.


The art world arrived in droves when London’s Tate Modern unveiled Parreno’s “Anywhen” in its famed Turbine Hall at the start of Frieze Week this October. The 52-year-old French artist has a multifaceted practice, spanning sculpture, performance, installation, and film. Threaded throughout is an interest in producing impermanent, multifarious environments that fluidly change (in this case evolve) over time based on a provided logic. “Philippe Parreno is rigorous, experimental, free, collaborative, generous, political,” says Andrea Lissoni, senior curator of film and international art at Tate Modern. “His work appears and disappears. Not here nor there, not sooner or later. It’s happening anywhen,” he adds, nodding to the Turbine Hall installation’s title.

With “Anywhen,” audiences moved through the space enveloped in a web of sound, film, light—and mylar balloons shaped like fish. All aspects of the installation, except for the fish balloons, were directed not by the artist but instead by an algorithm, programmed to respond to the growth of bacteria Parreno had placed in a bioreactor located in an office above the hall. The fish floated at random, meant merely to direct viewers’ gazes and bodies throughout the space. Parreno mounted another bacteria-driven installation across two Gladstone Gallery spaces in New York this spring; it consumed the entryway to the Brooklyn Museum this fall.

Parreno is one of a tight-knit group of artists who in the ’90s became associated with “relational aesthetics,” an approach to artmaking that emphasizes the evolving experience of a work more so than any physical artwork itself. His best-known pieces range from pulsating marquees of light bulbs, which graced Palais de Tokyo in 2013 and the Park Avenue Armory in 2015; to the 2006 feature-length film he created with Douglas Gordon following French footballer Zinédine Zidane through the entirety of a single match; to cartoons, animations, and performances of Ann Lee, the manga character he purchased rights to in 1999 with frequent collaborator Pierre Huyghe. This purposefully broad spectrum leaves many hard-pressed to categorize Parreno’s work. At the time of the artist’s hypnotic show at the Park Avenue Armory in 2015, curator Tom Eccles said, “The wonderful world of Philippe Parreno is made up of many different parts. There isn’t a signature style.”

Cindy Sherman

B. 1954, Glen Ridge, New Jersey  • Lives and works in New York

Cindy Sherman, September 16, 2011, New York, New York. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.


Sherman has created some of contemporary art’s most recognizable and pioneering images. Photographs in which she assumes the personae of film characters, art-historical subjects, or, most recently, aging divas (in a 2016 exhibition of new work at her longtime gallery Metro Pictures), have been celebrated in boundary-pushing exhibitions around the world. These include five Whitney Biennials, two Venice Biennales, and countless solo museum shows. Sherman’s photographs have also fetched some of the highest prices for both the photographic medium and, perhaps most significantly, for work made by living female artists.

This year, the breadth and influence of her oeuvre was showcased in the The Broad’s first exhibition of works outside its collection, “Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life.” The 120 works in the show, representing her 40-year career, evidenced Sherman’s ability to capture the overwhelming influence of stereotypes on our society and on individual identity alike. “Cindy Sherman was ahead of her time,” says curator Eva Respini, who organized Sherman’s 2012 MoMA retrospective. “Since the 1970s, she’s recognized that stereotypes and archetypes are powerful transmitters of cultural clichés.”

Sherman’s work has remained searingly relevant in today’s culture of Facebook- and Instagram-fueled self-documentation and curation. Contemporary creatives of all stripes have taken note. “Her work has been enormously influential to scores of artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians in identifying the rich arena for experimentation of identity,” says Respini. Those include Ryan Trecartin, whose psychedelic videos explore how humans are rapidly changing as culture is consumed by the internet; Alex Prager, who has applied Sherman’s cinematic approach to her pulp fiction-inspired photographs; and Kalup Linzy, whose performances draw from Sherman’s chameleon-like ability to assume the role of sundry characters. “In the infinite possibilities of the mutability of identity, Sherman’s works stand out for their ability to be at once provocative, disparaging, mysterious, and empathetic,” adds Respini.

Ai Weiwei

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

Ai Weiwei, November 4, 2016, with his installation “Laundromat,” 2016, at Jeffrey Deitch, New York. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.

In 2016, Ai focused his fierce, activist practice on a single, major issue: The refugee crisis. In conceptual installations that lambaste threats to humanity, the Chinese artist often amasses thousands of objects to represent human lives—like in 2009, when 5,000 backpacks at Munich’s Haus der Kunst paid tribute to Chinese schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake. “Ai Weiwei’s significance as an artist has come from his identification with those in our society who he sees as having no voice—whether it was the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake or, more recently, refugees fleeing from unrest in the Middle East‎,” says Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “His interest in making art about these issues puts him at the center of global conversations on a number of vital topics.”

Spurred by his own childhood spent in exile, Ai began his current research into the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011. At the time, he was confined to China, having been detained by the authorities in April of that year, following his increasing criticism of the government in the Sichuan earthquake works and others. After 81 days and an international outcry, Ai was released, but the Chinese government retained his passport, barring him from leaving his country. Four years later, in July of last year, Ai finally received his passport and quickly left for Berlin, where he had built a subterranean studio. As with much of Western Europe, the city had become a safe haven for many Syrian refugees—and upon meeting some of them, Ai committed to doing what he could to bring awareness to the difficulties and deaths faced by refugees struggling to enter Europe.

In January, from another studio on the front lines of the crisis in Lesbos, Greece, Ai provided aid, shared everything he was seeing on Instagram, and began filming a documentary, forthcoming in 2017. He later traveled to several camps along the Greece-Macedonia border. Some have accused the artist of capitalizing on the crisis; most controversial was the photo where he recreated the image of the drowned Syrian refugee child, Alan Kurdi, whose body was found washed up on a Turkish shore. Yet Ai’s sharp criticism has been unwavering. He denounced the EU as “shameful” and withdrew his two Denmark shows upon the passage of a new Danish law in January that restricts immigration and requires refugees to forfeit their valuables. He mounted searing new installations, pulling from the language he developed with the Sichuan earthquake project, like a giant “F” made from the lifejackets of drowned refugees at Vienna’s Belvedere Palace. His work filled myriad institutions from Pittsburgh to Prague to London in 2016. And this fall in New York, he opened four triumphal gallery shows, including a harrowing installation of clothing collected from the evacuated Idomeni camp at Deitch Projects. Where culture and political action converge, Ai stands as the art world’s strongest exponent of the power of art to visualize struggle and change hearts and minds.

Kerry James Marshall


For nearly four decades, Marshall has painted powerful, intricate portraits that seek to reclaim the black subject’s place in the art-historical canon. By depicting his sitters in everyday scenarios—picnicking in a local park, posing with a paintbrush, or gathered in a barbershop—his canvases also challenge the negative stereotypes that homogenize black Americans. His style draws from Renaissance portraiture, history painting, and the African-American experience alike. But it wasn’t until this year that Marshall finally received the career-cementing retrospective he’s deserved. The show, titled “Mastry,” has already touched down in two of the country’s most revered institutions, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the spring of 2017, it will travel to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

“Conventionally, the large-scale survey exhibition or retrospective was mounted after a significant body of work had been amassed. Marshall has been at work for over 30 years, meaning that in many ways, this exhibition was actually about 10 years overdue,” says Helen Molesworth, MOCA L.A.’s chief curator and co-organizer of Marshall’s retrospective. His work “shows us the ongoing vitality and necessity of representational painting as a mobilizing political and aesthetic force in Western culture” and “makes it clear that blackness is central to the story of modernity,” said Molesworth. “His pictures are, simply put, ravishing. They’re formally, psychologically, historically, and politically complicated, dense, nuanced, and beautiful.” Marshall’s canon-shaping work also began to get its due in Europe this year, with inclusions in group shows at Paris’s Musée du quai Branly and the Netherlands’ Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle.

Wolfgang Tillmans

B. 1968, Remscheid, Germany • Lives and works in Berlin and London

Wolfgang Tillmans, March 14, 2006, London, U.K. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.

On April 23rd, Tillmans released a powerful series of open-source, anti-Brexit posters to encourage the United Kingdom to vote to remain in the European Union. (The German-born photographer, the first non-Brit to take home the Turner Prize, has lived in London for some 25 years and was inducted into the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013.) He later produced a series of t-shirts that were donned by the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Daniel Craig. But while the June 23rd referendum ended unfavorably for Tillmans’s camp, the viral campaign brought about a renewed surge of recognition for the artist, who also opened solo shows with Maureen Paley, Galerie Buchholz, and Regen Projects this year. “He introduced us to a new perspective of the ‘normal.’ He showed us the beauty of everyday life,” says Karen and Christian Boros, who have been collecting Tillmans’ work since the ’90s. “Recently, he has engaged once again with normalcy. Namely that it should be normal that in Europe people live with each other respectfully and tolerantly.”

Political and social activism, if indirect, have long been inherent in Tillmans’s work. In the ’80s and ’90s, he captured raw images of youth and club subcultures—from gay rights demonstrations to the acid-house scene—giving voice to a generation for which he believed hedonism could be a form of activism. In following years, he’s harnessed the power of images to empower individuals living with HIV to become informed about their treatment, to garner aid for reconstruction efforts in earthquake-torn Haiti, and since 2005, to examine perception and opposing truths (like the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) through his multi-part tabletop installation of news clippings and found ephemera, the Truth Study Center. Throughout these years, Tillmans has redefined how photographs are both made and presented, from abstract camera-less photography to his signature style of taping his photographs to the wall unframed and paired with clippings from magazines to flatten hierarchies of value.

2016 also marks the year Tillmans, whose first piece for i-D magazine in 1991 spanned Europe’s various techno scenes, made his own musical debut. In July, he released his first record, an EP he began as a teenager in 1986. The following month, an unreleased track by Tillmans bookended Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless, the cover of which the artist also shot. He strolled the catwalk for cult menswear label Hood By Air during New York Fashion Week, leaving us to wonder what—besides major solo exhibitions at Tate Modern and Fondation Beyeler in 2017—the talented polymath will bring us next.

Ed Ruscha

B. 1937, Omaha, Nebraska  • Lives and works in Los Angeles

Ed Ruscha, November 8, 2003, West Hollywood, California. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.

There are few artists who have captured American culture with as much ingenuity and deadpan humor as Ruscha. As early as 1962, when Abstract Expressionism was still in vogue, the 25-year-old artist (a recent graduate of CalArts) broke away from painterly conventions and rendered the word “OOF” in big, block yellow letters on a blue backdrop. The painting—a graphic composition, borrowed from the era’s advertising aesthetics—was the epitome of Pop Art, a movement which Ruscha would go on to pioneer, along with Warhol, his East Coast foil. “You get punched in the stomach, and that’s ‘Oof,’” the now 78-year-old artist subsequently said of the work. “It was so obvious, and so much a part of my growing up in the U.S.A. I felt like it was almost a patriotic word.” The painting now hangs permanently on MoMA’s walls as a testament to Ruscha’s unique, gut-punching ability to pack cultural commentary into a single word.

This year, Ruscha’s trailblazing oeuvre was celebrated in a 99-work, career-spanning exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. The show, titled “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” foregrounded the artist’s ability to capture the imperfections and desires of Americans through paintings and photographs of the roadside billboards, gas stations, swimming pools, and palm trees that surrounded him in Los Angeles, where he’s lived since 1956. “His work represents contemporary history and landscape painting at its best, but also presents an entirely personal narrative, which is fascinating,” explains Max Hollein, the de Young’s director. “He interprets, preserves, and challenges our understanding of American culture and the condition of the individual. This seems to be utterly relevant.” Indeed, Ruscha has not only suspended America’s past in his striking and at times deeply, darkly funny paintings, but continues to incorporate the country’s characteristics (both the good and the ugly) into his work.

Guerrilla Girls

Group formed in 1985 in New York

Guerrilla Girls, June 9, 2005, The Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.

For three decades the Guerrilla Girls have rebuked the art world for its lack of diversity. An egalitarian, all-female collective, they research and publicize the racism, sexism, and corruption that exists in the art world and in popular culture, through lectures, posters, stickers, billboards, books, and, over the past few years, exhibitions. Adding to the allure of their valiant mission, the collective’s numerous members have remained anonymous, donning gorilla masks in public and working under pseudonyms of deceased female artists like Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz, as they attack inequalities. The group’s most powerful works have identified the overwhelming number of art galleries and museums that have done little to support and exhibit artists who are not white males. And over the past two years, they’ve finally been given their due attention in museums.

Their acclaimed show at Whitechapel Gallery in London this fall, “Is It Even Worse in Europe?,” presented shocking data from a survey sent to 383 European museum directors, of which only a quarter returned responses. Among other disturbing stats, the findings revealed that only 14 of those museums have more than 20 artists from outside Europe or the U.S. in their collections, and that only two have collections with more than 40% women artists. “Since they were formed in 1985 the Guerrilla Girls have shown the artistic community how to be effective campaigners and protesters,” says Whitechapel curator Nayia Yiakoumaki. “The issues they criticise and campaign against are ongoing in spite of the fact that museums have embraced diversity in their programs and collections.”

This year the Guerrilla Girls also staged a public work at Tate Modern, which was featured in an exhibition there alongside the works of Andy Warhol; they put on shows, public works, and talks at more than 20 art institutions across Minneapolis and St. Paul; and they issued a new banner, “The Advantages of Owning Your Own Art Museum,” on the facade of the Museum Ludwig for its 40th birthday exhibition.


Christo and Jeanne-Claude

b. 1935, Gabrovo, Bulgaria • Lives and works in New York

b. 1935, Casablanca, Morocco • Died 2009, New York

Christo, February 10, 2011, New York, New York. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.

Together, artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude revolutionized the scale and scope of public art. Born Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, they dreamt big and realized a number of art history’s largest and most audacious works. As early as 1968, when they were in their mid-thirties, the two artists began to carve a place for themselves in the canon when they wrapped the entire building that housed Switzerland’s Kunsthalle Bern in 26,156 square feet of plastic. The project left the art world awestruck and set the tone for the pair’s ambitious career to follow.

Highlights have included Surrounded Islands (1980-1983), for which they encircled 11 islands off the coast of Miami with 6.5 million square feet of pink polypropylene, and Running Fence (1972-1976), a 24.5-mile-long installation of white nylon that stretched across a swathe of Northern California. Like most of their work, these projects not only represented a stunning marriage of art and the environment, but also complex logistical and community-building feats. Running Fence, for instance, was the result of 42 months of work that included conversations with ranchers who owned Northern California land, 18 public hearings, and three sessions at the Superior Courts of California.

Though Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009, Christo has forged on, making it his mission to see through several of their unrealized dream projects. One, which the duo began plotting in 1970, became a reality this year. The Floating Piers (2014-2016), as the work is named, drew over 1.2 million people to Italy’s remote Lake Iseo, allowing visitors to walk on water across a saffron orange, three-kilometer-long floating walkway. “The Floating Piers turned a fantasy into reality,” says Public Art Fund’s director and chief curator, Nicholas Baume. “The richness and expanse of the fabric color, and the interaction with the light and the water, all created a remarkable sensory and perceptual experience for visitors.” A bird’s-eye view of the project, which showed countless dots moving across the shimmering pathway, revealed the unique power of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work—to illuminate the beauty of the artwork’s natural setting, and bring people together in the process.

Carmen Herrera

B. 1915, Havana • Lives and works in New York

Carmen Herrera, May 21, 2015, New York, New York. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.

This year, at the age of 101, Herrera finally received recognition as a pioneer of 20th-century abstract painting. The Cuban-born, New York-based artist was celebrated in a major survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art this fall; a show of her new paintings christened Lisson Gallery’s New York space in the spring; and she featured in a full-length documentary released on Netflix in September—all of which served to land her name in the press and in the canon like never before.

At the Whitney, “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight” exposed the art world to her formative years, the period of 1948–1978, including many works that had never been on public view. Over these three decades she worked prolifically and ran among prominent artist circles in New York and Paris, with the likes of Josef Albers and Barnett Newman. And she honed her signature style—canvases filled with striking geometric shapes characterized by crisp lines, sharp angles, and bold shocks of color. “We can see in the works in ‘Lines of Sight’ that Herrera was thinking about the painting as an object—using panel divisions and the sides of canvases, and incorporating the surrounding environment—in the early 1950s,” says Whitney curator Dana Miller, who helmed Herrera’s exhibition there. “This is at the same time or before other artists, who have been previously heralded for such developments, first began to undertake similar experiments,” Miller adds.

While the artist has been active in New York since 1954, and has been exhibited across the world since the 1930s, it was not until 2004 that she sold a work. She has been counted among key forces behind Latin America’s rich history of geometric abstraction, yet not until now has Herrera been properly lauded on the international art-world stage. As Miller put it, “Herrera was, and still is, an artist and a woman ahead of her time, and we are all just beginning to catch up to her.”

Olafur Eliasson

B. 1967, Copenhagen • Lives and works in Copenhagen and Berlin

Caption: Olafur Eliasson, June 4, 2003, The Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy. Portrait by Jason Schmidt.

Since the mid-1990s, Eliasson has harnessed the power of nature into artworks both unparalleled in scale and heart-rending in their message. In 2003, when he was in his mid-thirties, the Icelandic and Danish artist represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale with The Blind Pavilion, a prismatic space that brought the outdoors inside through faceted surfaces and reflections. That same year, he also realized The Weather Project, a now-seminal installation which transported a glowing, sun-like orb into Tate’s Turbine Hall, filling the massive space with transcendent light. While the interaction between natural forces and humans has always existed at the core of his practice, Eliasson’s work has assumed a decidedly more political stance in recent years, with numerous works overtly addressing climate change. In 2015, he installed a legion of melting ice blocks in central Paris during the United Nations Climate Change Conference. And this year, he transformed the grounds of France’s famed Versailles Palace with a series of visionary installations driven by his passion for environmental justice.

“Over the past 25 years, Olafur has created a sculptural and photographic oeuvre where issues of perception, movement, and our apprehension of reality through optical means come face-to-face with a sensitive, ecology-driven approach to nature,” says curator and former Centre Pompidou director Alfred Pacquement, who organized Eliasson’s Versailles show. “That polarity was masterfully expressed at Versailles,” he adds. For one work, titled Glacial rock flour garden (2016), the artist imported 150 tons of granite dust—the result of glacial erosion—from Greenland. Eliasson further mobilized his practice to address social change this year with “Green Light, an Artistic Workshop,” a project in collaboration with Vienna’s TBA21 that invited refugees to build modular lights designed by Eliasson and take language classes. The lights have been used to create communal spaces where all humans—regardless of race, religion, or immigration status—can safely gather. They can also be purchased for a €300 donation.

Portraits by Jason Schmidt; some originally printed in Artists II, 2015. Schmidt’s exhibition “Artists” is on view at the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, Miami, through April 29, 2017.

Artsy Editorial