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How do you measure influence? It’s easy to focus on art’s brightest stars and most famous imagery, but zoom in on the tapestry of art history and you’ll see that its fibers are often woven from close personal relationships and direct channels of inspiration. We tend to remember names like Caravaggio, Picasso and Pollock and overlook the other fish in their schools. The following women might not have received as much attention as their male contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean they had a lesser hand in directing the grand flow of things. Check out our picks, and let us know who would be on your list in the comments.
6. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
It was 1908, and a young O’Keeffe had just won a prize from the Art Students League for her still life Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot when she gave up painting all together. The artist was worried that she’d never truly distinguish herself in the realm of realism. Three years later she started fresh, enrolling in an art class taught by Arthur Wesley Down, who encouraged his students to let their emotions guide them.
“I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for,” O’Keeffe said. The artist created a series of innovative abstract charcoal drawings that caught the eye of her future husband, New York photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. She would continue throughout her career to build an emotional vocabulary of abstracted forms, strongly influencing her modernist contemporaries and later inspiring feminist artists like Judy Chicago. She’s now considered the Mother of American Modernism.
7. Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)
Guggenheim was born with the promise of a healthy inheritance. Her father died on the Titanic when she was a teenager, and at 21 she inherited more than $30 million in today’s currency. What to do with so much money? Guggenheim’s passion was art. Her first job was at the Sunwise Turn bookstore in New York, a bohemian hotspot that inspired her to move to Paris in 1920. There she met Man Ray, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and other influential modernists. By 1938 she’d opened a modernist gallery in London, where she showed the likes of Kandinsky, Calder, Ernst and Picasso.
The gallery got lots of attention from the public but lost money in its first year, so Guggenheim decided to open a museum instead. When World War II forced her to delay her plans, she focused on a buying “one picture a day” for her future museum collection. Ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Miros, four Magrittes, three Dalis and one Chagall later, Guggenheim had one of the most important collections of 20th century art in existence. Her influence endures in the rich archives of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
8. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Kahlo was born to a German father and Amerindian and Spanish mother in 1907, but she always claimed she was born in 1910 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. That might have been a slight distortion of the truth, but her life and art certainly mirrored the pain and the passion of Mexico’s modern rebirth. When she was a teenager, Kahlo was involved in a bus crash that left her in a full body cast. In the months afterward she took up painting to combat loneliness and boredom.
“I am the subject I know best,” Kahlo said. She drew influences from traditional Mexican folk art and American and European modernism in her colorful self portraits and still lifes, building new links between cultures and art movements but tightly focusing her subject matter on her own health and relationship struggles. During her lifetime, Kahlo was mostly known in Mexico as the on-again, off-again wife of muralist Diego Rivera, but in 1938 she had a solo show in the United States and a year later she exhibited in Paris, where the Louvre acquired one of her paintings.
Andre Breton called Kahlo a surrealist and others saw her work as Naive Art, but the artist defied labels. “I never painted dreams,” she said. “I painted my own reality.” Kahlo opened the door for women artists to openly explore their most personal experiences in their work, something that surely influenced the next artist on our list.
9. Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Bourgeois’ artistic journey began in 1924 when she discovered that her father and her English tutor were having an affair. Her mother turned a blind eye, but Bourgeois spent the rest of her life staring the betrayal full in the face. A born and raised Parisian, she started studying art after her mother’s death in 1932 and met Fernand Leger soon after, who told her she was more of a sculptor than a painter.
After gaining some notoriety in Europe, Bourgeois moved to New York City in 1938 and hit a wall. Though she was respected among artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, her work wasn’t well known outside avante-garde circles. She was brutally honest in her explorations of memory, sexuality and family power dynamics, erecting monstrous spiders in sculpture gardens and immersing her viewers in scenes of violent patricide.
In 1982 the 70-year-old artist mounted her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and finally told the story of her father’s infidelity to the public. She identified her body of work as the genesis of a genre called “confessional art”. Every piece in her oeuvre is autobiographical, a retelling of the trauma she’d experienced as a child and the effect it’d had on her life thereafter. By the time she died in 2010, she’d captured the imagination of a new generation of artists and scholars.
10. Marina Abramovic (born 1946)
Considering the ephemerality of Abramovic’s work, the performance artist’s rise to become one of the contemporary art world’s most notorious and polarizing figures is a remarkable story. Abramovic was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia. Her mother kept tight control over her life through her early 20s, and she completed some of her first performance art pieces before her curfew at 10:00 pm. In her early work, she explored consciousness and the limits of the body within the context of performance art, pushing herself to exhaustion in various endurance tests.
Abramovic moved to Amsterdam in 1976, where she began a close relationship and artistic collaboration with performance artist Ulay Laysiepen. The duo continued to test their psychic limits, and also explored the idea of combining their identities into a single entity. They separated in 1988.
In 2005, Abramovic did a series of performances at the Guggenheim, and in 2010 she mounted a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. There she performed a 736-hour piece called The Artist is Present that was the subject of a documentary and received global attention.
Abramovic has been accused of chasing fame and creating a cult of personality. No matter her motives, the artist is a thought-provoking figure who’s impossible to ignore. She’s not a part of art history just yet, but she certainly makes a good future candidate.
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