Who Are the Most Influential Artists of the Last Century?

26 Industry Leaders Weigh In, Artnet, 13 October 2017, Read full article on artnet.com
Top row, from left, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, and Marina Abramović. Bottom, Jackson Pollock, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jeff Koons.

In 2017, a century since Marcel Duchamp turned a readymade urinal into an artwork, we’ve wondered how to characterize the past 100 years in art, posing challenging questions to some of the industry’s brightest figures: What are this century’s most iconic works of art? Who were last century’s most trailblazing curators? Today, we finish our three-part series with perhaps the most daunting question: Who was the most influential artist in the last 100 years?

It’s not an easy question, and there is no perfect answer. But a group of leading curators, artists, critics, and dealers were equal to the challenge, weighing in with their choices for artists whose legacies have defined the last 100 years and continue to reverberate in the work of artists today. The resulting list (below) is nothing short of a survey of modern art history, ranging from conceptual art forefather Duchamp to the video pioneer Nam June Paik to modern masters of abstraction like Jackson Pollock and Agnes Martin—and, of course, Jeff Koons.

Jenny Dixon, director of the Noguchi Museum

Marcel Duchamp changed the definition of art, opening wide the doors of creation. It’s hard to think of anyone whose influence on art and artists was greater. Andy Warhol influenced not only artists but Western culture at large. He showed us who we were and helped to make us who we would become. Robert Rauschenberg combined Duchamp’s open definition of art and Warhol’s use of readymade imagery (as well as gestural painting, newspaper imagery, and seemingly everything else) to create works of great beauty and energy. 

Suzanne Syz, art collector

Andy Warhol and Elaine Sturtevant for their ability to point up issues as important as original and copy, multiplicity, and media presence. I had a chance to meet them and I think they are key artists for understanding the development of art and our society.

Franklin Parrasch, owner, Franklin Parrasch Gallery

Most influential artist of the 20th century? For me, that’s Andy Warhol since Picasso is too obvious. Not only has Warhol profoundly affected so many of the artists I care about—from Ken Price to Stephen Shore, and basically anyone who effectively uses black in their work—in his own bizarre and perverse way, he was kind of a mensch. His enormous generosity of spirit was emblazoned in everything he did, from his interactions with the public to his fostering of the eclectic (one might say experimental) community of the Factory. Who doesn’t adore that iconic Ferus Gallery photo of a macho Billy Al Bengstontightly squooshing an accepting young Andy’s cheeks? He placed others’ satisfaction above his own. It wasn’t about adoration of celebrity or the mesmerizing seduction of advertising: pansies and car wrecks got equal billing with Liz and Campbell’s soup. It was always about the cycle of sensual fluidity, the simultaneous fecundity and sexuality in all he depicted. He saw the dignity in everything.

Mrs. Lee Hyun-sook, founder and chairwoman, Kukje Gallery, Korea

Joseph Beuys, as he believed that everyone can create art, as expressed in the statement “every human being is an artist,” and his ground-breaking and unique performances, along with social activism, broadened the scope of art as we know it today.

Jens Hoffmann, co-artistic director of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

While I think that Tino Sehgal is for sure one of the most important artists of the 21st century, there are many others over the last 100 years who have had a tremendous influence. Each answer to this question will be utterly subjective, but there is, of course, no way around Marcel Duchamp. What the American philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead said about Plato: “Philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato” can be said about Duchamp: “Art of the 20th century was a series of footnotes to Duchamp.” Obviously, that is not entirely true, but it can be applied to a wide range of artworks made over the last 100 years. Let’s list a few more, and they are all probably fairly obvious: Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, etc.

My wish is that artists like Cindy Sherman, Agnes Martin, Leonora Carrington, Etel Adnan, Vija Celmins, Lygia Clark, Luisa Lambri or Julie Mehretu will one day have the same status as male artists have in the past and that the answer to this question will include a much more diverse roster.


Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). Image courtesy of wikiart.

Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol Licorice Marilyn (2004). Photo by Charles Dupret. Image: Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris and Salzburg.

Robert Rauschenberg, photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images.

Left: Richard Hamilton, Marcel Duchamp (1967). © The estate of Richard Hamilton. Image courtesy of Tate. Right: Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). Courtesy Wikimedia.