The Most Famous Living Painters Today

An Anthology of the 20 Most Influential Contemporary Painters

Left image: Marcel Broodthaers, Armoire blanche et table blanche, 1965. Painted furniture with eggshells - 86 x 82 x 62 cm & 104 x 100 x 40 cm. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. / Right image: Michaël Borremans, The Egg IV, 2012. Oil on canvas - 42 x 36 cm. Courtesy of Zeno X Gallery.

Film still from Gerhard Richter – Painting (2011). Courtesy Kino Lorber.


Introduction: The Most Famous Living Painters / 20. Leiko Ikemura / 19. Michelangelo Pistoletto / 18. Hermann Nitsch / 17. Marlene Dumas / 16. Markus Lüpertz / 15. Frank Stella / 14. Albert Oehlen / 13. Richard Prince / 12. Jasper Johns / 11. Sean Scully / 10. Anselm Kiefer / 9. Imi Knoebel / 8. Alex Katz / 7. Heimo Zobernig / 6. David Hockney / 5. Arnulf Rainer / 4. William Kentridge / 3. Ed Ruscha / 2. Georg Baselitz / 1. Gerhard Richter

Introduction: The Most Famous Living Painters

When it comes to putting together a list of the most influential artists, we tend to turn to the analytical research tool of Artfacts[1]. Based upon objective data and career facts, the Artfacts algorithm is able to generate a ranking of the most important living artists. For this article, we will take a closer look at this ranking looking for the most famous painters today, presenting a reasoned selection of the twenty most influential contemporary painters.

At this very moment, the most famous living painter is Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), followed by Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) and Ed Ruscha (b. 1937). The trio tops our list of twenty illustrious painters, dominating painting for over half a century.

Before discovering the life and work of Richter, Baselitz, Ruscha and more in an exhilarating anthology of painters, I'd like to clarify the following question, what defines an artist as a painter?

Since the 1960s and 70s, the traditional categories in art have been cleared and rewritten more than once to say the least. So how do we define a painter? When going through the top hundred living artists we have come across several artists whom are occupied with painting, but from a multidisciplinary artistic practice such as Francis Alÿs (b. 1959) or Günther Brus (b. 1938). As a result we have opted for artists of which painting is their sole or main activity and actually use paint as their substance to make two-dimensional works of art.

Before getting lost in any further categorical issues of contention, here comes the current top twenty of the most famous living painters today.

Note: The list is updated on a yearly basis.

20. Leiko Ikemura

Leiko Ikemura, Zarathustra II, 2014. Pigment on jute – 189.9 × 290.2 cm. Courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco.

We start our list with Leiko Ikemura. Born in 1951 in Tsu, Mie-Ken, Japan, Leiko Ikemura is a contemporary artist living and working in Berlin and Cologne, Germany. She is mainly a painter, but is also active as a draughtswoman, a sculptor – since 1981 to be more precise – and as a photographer.

Her oeuvre is marked by a mysterious aura residing in her mystical landscapes and obscure portraits. Ikemura balances between abstraction, expression and figuration as her guideline. Doing so, the Japanese contemporary artist examines issues of gender, war and religion.[2]

19. Michelangelo Pistoletto

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Testa con foulard, 1982. Silkscreen on polished stainless steel – 40 × 40 cm. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art.

Although being one of the main representatives of Arte Povera and Conceptual Art, Michelangelo Pistoletto is best known as a painter. Born in 1933 in Biella, Italy, Pistoletto achieved international recognition with his mirror paintings at the start of the second half of the 20th century.

Using metallic paint on canvas or on polished steel, Pistoletto plays with the notion of the mirror and reflection, bringing the viewer and his environment into the painting itself. From his painterly practice, Pistoletto incorporates silkscreen images on top of his reflective surfaces and paintings.[3]

18. Hermann Nitsch

Hermann Nitsch, Untitled, 2006. Acrylic on canvas – 100 × 80 cm. Courtesy Martini Studio d'Arte.

Hermann Nitsch, born in 1938 in Vienna, Austria, is a performance-based painter. His works are referred to as the Orgien Mysterien Theater. A ritualistic practice, marked by sacrifice, blood, animal entrails and nudity.

Inspired by religious art, Nitsch is a member of the Vienna Actionists alongside artists such as Günther Brus, Otto Muehl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Similar to action painting, Nitsch effectuates his paintings from a performance point of view called Aktionen.[4]

17. Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas, De acteur "Portrait of Romana Vrede", 2019. Oil on canvas – 130 × 110 cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

Marlene Dumas, born in 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa, resides and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Dumas is known for her distinctive figurative language, sensually painted figures and often thought-provoking subjects.

Dumas feverishly collects images from which she draws inspiration. As a result, she merges political issues with personal experiences, art historical references with a personal approach to the canvas. Being one of the most important painters of the wider movement of New European Painting, themes such as segregation, politics, war and the cultural processes of objectification are examined in a personal yet universal manner.[5]

16. Markus Lüpertz

Markus Lüpertz, Begegnung (Nacht), 2011. Mixed media on canvas – 130.2 × 161.9 cm. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York/London/East Hampton.

Born in 1941 in Liberic, formerly Reichenberg, Markus Lüpertz lives and works in Düsseldorf and Karlsruhe, Germany. Alongside the likes of Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck and Jörg Immendorff, Lüpertz became one of the most important figures for German post-war art in the 1960s.

Lüpertz is mainly a painter but is also occupied with sculpture, poetry, education and even playing the piano. The German artist's career is marked by recurring motives, encompassing multiple sources of inspiration such as classical antiquity, romantic landscapes, cubism and even fashion advertising.[6]

15. Frank Stella

Frank Stella, Ifafa II, 1964. Metallic powder and acrylic on canvas. 197 × 331.5 × 7.5 cm. Courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel.

Frank Stella, born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, currently lives and works in New York City, the United States of America.

Stella is one of the most important painters of the second half of the 20th century, and continues to be relevant since the new millennium. The American artist is best known for his shaped canvases pushing the boundaries of painting and minimalism in the 60s and 70s.[7]

14. Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen, Walker, 1999. Oil on Canvas – 120 × 150 cm. Courtesy DBCA, Sylt.

Albert Oehlen, born in 1953 in Krefeld, is a German painter living and working in Cologne, Germany. Marked by freedom and creativity, Oehlen's oeuvre is characterized by expressionist brushwork, écriture automatique, the history of abstraction and an ongoing quest for new extremes.

In the 80s, Oehlen became a dominant figure in the Berlin and Cologne art scene, alongside the Neue Wilde such as Martin Kippenberger or Werner Büttner. The German artist attempts to deconstruct the medium, investigating painting's most essential aspects such as colour, the brushstroke as a gesture, motion and time.[8]

13. Richard Prince

Richard Prince, Nurse in Hollywood #4, 2004. Acrylic and inkjet on canvas – 175.3 × 106.7 cm. Courtesy Gagosian.

Born in 1949 in Panama, Richard Prince is a visual artist living and working in New York City, the United States of America. Occupied with painting and photography, Prince has been mining images from mass media since the 1970s.

Richard Prince examines the complex transitions from image to artwork discussing concepts of authorship, ownership and the aura of an image as an artwork. Doing so, Prince tackles themes such as sexism and racism. His most famous series of works consist of subjects with an almost mythical status such as cowboys, bikers, celebrities and paintings of nurses.[9]

12. Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1967. Encaustic and collage on canvas (three panels) – 85.1 × 142.9 cm. Courtesy The Broad, LA.

Jasper Johns, born in 1930 in Augusta, the United States of America, is an American artist living and working in Sharon, Connecticut, the United States of America. The winner of the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale in 1988, is best known for his iconic Flag paintings.

Between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Johns approaches the American flag in a formalistic manner effectuating the power of the image. The stripes and stars are redefined as shapes arranging the image, as a painting and as a statement.[10]

11. Sean Scully

Sean Scully, Raval, 2013. Oil on aluminium – 89.1 × 101.1 cm. Courtesy Phillips.

Sean Scully, born in 1945 in Dublin, Ireland, lives and works in New York City, the United States of America and Berlin, Germany. Scully is one of the most important painters of the post-war era and is best known for his large-scale abstract paintings of vertical and horizontal shapes and planes.

A synthesis of the dominant American abstraction and Scully's European heritage result in a personal style dominated by geometrical forms. Vertical and horizontal blocks connect as the painting is filled with gestures and tangible emotions.[11]

10. Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Alkahest, 2011. Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac and metal on canvas – 190 × 300 cm. Courtesy White Cube.

We enter the top ten of our list with Anselm Kiefer. Born in 1945 in Donaueschingen, the German artist currently resides and works in Paris, France. Having grown up between the ruins of the Second World War, Kiefer's oeuvre is marked by Germany's post-war identity within a wider movement of New European Painting.

Kiefer's paintings are marked by a rough surface, sculpting his paintings with metals and even implementing found-objects. Doing so, Kiefer goes beyond the reflection of historical events, encompassing myth, spirituality and memory.[12]

9. Imi Knoebel

Imi Knoebel, INNINN, 2002. Acrylic on aluminum – 305 × 456.4 × 10.8 cm. Courtesy Galerie Christian Lethert.

Born in 1940 in Dessau, Germany, Imi Knoebel is a German artist living and working in Düsseldorf, Germany. Knoebel is best known as a painter, however he incorporates drawing, sculpture, installation and photography into his artistic practice.

Knoebel discovered painting in the 60s with a very strict and basic approach of thick or thin vertical lines placed at variable distances from each other. Throughout the 70s, the German artist continues to experiment with his minimal approach, implementing projections, experimenting with colour and expansive painting.[13]

8. Alex Katz

Alex Katz, Coca-Cola Girl 39, 2018. Oil on linen – 121 × 121 cm. Courtesy Thaddeus Ropac.

Alex Katz, born in 1927 in Brooklyn, the United States of America, is an American painter living and working in New York, the United States of America. Over the years, Katz has distinguished himself with a unique approach to figurative painting.

Since the 1950s, Katz has been dominating the art scene for over seven decades with his representational paintings of contemporary life. The American artist draws inspiration from films, advertising, friends and music, working primarily from life. Using large and flat planes of colour, Katz's figures are made out of flat shapes on a monochrome background. Using photographic techniques such as decoupage and/or cropping, Katz searches for the perfect fragment of a figure to paint.[14]

7. Heimo Zobernig

Heimo Zobernig, Untitled, 2013. Acrylic on canvas – 200 × 200 cm. Courtesy Attika Fine Arts.

Heimo Zobernig, born in 1958 in Mauthen, Austria, resides and works in Vienna, Austria. The Austrian artist defies categorization, implementing a large array of media in his artistic practice such as architectural interventions, installation, film, video, sculpture, but above all, painting.

His oeuvre is marked by an interrogation of the formal language of modernism. Think of motifs such as the monochrome, the grid or geometric abstraction to name a few. Even more, Zobernig tends to go a step further and examines the way his art is presented or 'framed', physically but also conceptually. Doing so, Heimo Zobernig questions traditional gallery architecture or art historical and ideological concerns.[15]

6. David Hockney

David Hockney, Portrait of an artist (Pool with two figures), 1968. Acrylic on canvas – 213.5 x 305 cm. Courtesy David Hockney.

David Hockney, born in 1937 in Bradford, United Kingdom, is an English painter living and working in Los Angeles, the United States of America. Hockney has been a dominant protagonist for Pop Art, the British art scene and figurative painting throughout the 20th century. As a result he is one of the most important British contemporary figurative painters and of the contemporary era in general.

Hockney continued to develop his distinctive painterly oeuvre in the Hollywood Hills since the 1960s, where he lived and worked translating his daily environment to his artistic practice. As a result, the exotic and sensual life by the pool is Los Angeles became visible in his paintings. In November 2018, Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures) was sold at Christie's in New York City for a whopping 90 million dollars, temporarily dethroning Jeff Koons as the most expensive artwork by a living artist sold at an auction.[16]

5. Arnulf Rainer

Arnulf Rainer, Landschaft, 1984-1985. Oil on cardboard on wood – 51 × 73 cm. Courtesy Lucas Feichtner Gallery, Vienna.

We enter the top five with the Austrian artist, Arnulf Rainer. Born in 1929 in Baden, Austria, Arnulf Rainer currently resides and works in Vienna, Austria. Rainer achieved international recognition for his unique process of layering paint over photographic material.

Marked by his use of appropriation, Rainer transforms existing artworks by painting on top of them. Thick marks, layers of paint, gestural strokes and a connection with Surrealism due to the implementation of Automatism by painting with a blindfold, the Austrian artist follows his instincts and urgens working towards abstract tableaus and other experimental practices in his creative process, including the use of his feet or painting under the influence of drugs.[17]

4. William Kentridge

William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments Procession Silhouette 6, 2016. Indian ink on paper – 38 × 49 cm. Courtesy Lia Rumma, Napoli / Milan.

William Kentridge was born in 1955 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and currently continues to work and reside in the South African city, capital of the Gauteng province. One might argue Kentridge is rather a draughtsman than a painter. However, the distinction between painting and drawing seems to disappear with the South African icon, due to the expressionist nature of his oeuvre.

Kentridge has incorporated different media throughout his career, such as performance, film, printmaking and also sculpture. The foundation of his oeuvre and the starting point of any artwork is drawing and painting as a process to record history, by reconfiguration fragments to achieve an understanding of the past.[18]

3. Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, President, 1972. Oil on canvas – 50.8 × 61 cm. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Gallery, London.

We enter the current top three of the most important living painters today with Ed Ruscha taking the bronze medal. Born in 1937 in Omaha, the United States of America, Ruscha is an American painter living and working in Culver City, the United States of America. Ruscha is best known as the artist who abandoned the academic connotations associated with Abstract Expressionism and brought words to the universe of painting.

Ruscha uses words as forms, signs, materials and as subject matter to construct abstract paintings. Using humor and wit, Ruscha's word paintings achieved international praise as he intertwined the visual with language and vice versa.[19]

2. Georg Baselitz

Georg Baselitz, Sitzbank, 2020. Oil on canvas – 270 × 207 cm. Courtesy Thaddeus Ropac.

In second place, we have the illustrious career of Georg Baselitz. Born in 1938 in Kamenz-Deutschbaselitz, Germany, Baselitz lives and works in Munich, Germany. The German painter is best known for his figures who are painted upside down.

Baselitz is one of the most important post-war artist and a pioneering protagonist for New European Painting and Neo-Expressionism in Germany, rejecting the dominance of abstraction and painting representational elements, returning to the figure. The German painter, printmaker and sculptor depicts his subjects upside down in order to slow down the painterly process and the viewer's experience of the painting. Doing so, Baselitz achieves a unique balance of abstraction and figuration, depicting not only figures on their head, but also landscapes, still lives and more.[20]

1. Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1988. Oil on Canvas – 102 × 72 cm. Courtesy Fondation Beyeler, Riehen.

At the very top of our list – the most famous living painter today – is Gerhard Richter. Born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany, Richter currently lives and works in Cologne, Germany.

Richter dedicated his career to the exploration of the medium of painting in close relation to the effects of photography. Richter achieved international recognition in the 1960s with his photo-paintings. He rendered photographs into paintings, varying in subject matter. Landscapes, nudes, still life painting, daily life, airplanes, alpines and more were painted with a haze hovering on top of the photorealistic image, creating a blurred effect. Doing so, this Richter blur or haze introduced abstraction into his oeuvre, allowing Richter to move freely from Photorealism to bold abstraction as no other artist has ever been able to do before.[21]

As we take on recent art history, Gerhard Richter seems to be omnipresent. From a retrospective point of view, the illustrious German painter seems to be the pioneer of more than one movement or tendency in contemporary figurative painting. As a result, it is no surprise and well-deserved to have Gerhard Richter as our number one most famous living painter today.