Photo: Kusama’s Peep Show or Endless Love Show, 1966. Hexagonal mirrored room and electric lights. Installed at Castellane Gallery, New York, 1966. No longer extant. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
“This idea of art for art’s sake is a hoax,” no less than Pablo Picasso observed, recognizing the bourgeois mentality that drove narcissistic self-indulgence into the creative process was merely fraud.
Indeed, art does not exist for itself; the greatest works are those that transform understanding into wisdom while revealing the truth of the times as not only a matter of the moment but of the underlying human condition. The best art is always one step ahead of where we find ourselves, predicting the future by bringing it to our attention today In celebration of the most influential artists of the last 20 years, Crave has compiled a list of men and women from all walks of life who work in a wide array of mediums, speaking truth to power.
You know you’ve made it when no less than Supreme appropriates your aesthetic for their iconic logo. American artist Barbara Kruger has long made it a point to use her words in ways that are disconcerting in their ambiguity, allowing us to see an idea from multiple perspectives at the same time—by adapting the style that LIFE magazine popularized,
Kruger takes the known and turns it into something less familiar, transgressing our desire to believe everything we see and read. Using words written in white Futura Bold typeface set against a red background, Kruger contrasts her words with black and white photographs reminiscent of the golden age of picture magazines.
Her style is so iconic, it simply begs to be knocked off, but it’s impossible to recreate the tongue-in-cheek wit and wisdom that she espouses throughout her work. Kruger’s work has so many layers, it is like a Russian nesting doll. She grabs our attention, and does not let go. She pushes a button that compels us to keep going. But she does it with (seemingly) the greatest of ease. Everything appears so simple, and just when we think we have it figured out, another layer appears.
“I want people to be drawn into the space of the work. And a lot of people are like me in that they have relatively short attention spans. So I shoot for the window of opportunity,” Kruger explains.
In the early 2000s, street art came to the fore as artists like Banksy began leaving his mark around London. His stencil art was as quirky and curious as it was subversive, poking fun at everyone from the police to polite society. He began self-publishing little books sold at places like Magma Books, quietly becoming a hero of the underground until the mainstream took notice.
Then he blew up, and everywhere he went, it was most, power, respect—like the Lox said. In light of his success he tried to maintain a critical edge, crafting the 2010 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop that called out the commercialization of street art—only, it did just the opposite.
What then is a radical to do? Banksy hightailed it to Bethlehem in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to open The Walled Off Hotel earlier this year. In an effort to fuse tourism and politics, art and commerce, Banksy is working to revitalize the economy of a people living under the scourge of apartheid. It’s hard to know what the outcome will be, but one thing is for sure: it takes nerve to set foot in Palestine.
Over the past 40 years, photographer Jamel Shabazz has honed his craft on the streets of New York. His passion for documentary photography began with an introduction to Leonard Freed’s seminal book, Black in White America, at the age of nine years old. Shabazz quickly understood the way that the photograph could bare witness to history, becoming a tool for instruction and an artifact as much as an object of art.
While in high school, Shabazz started out taking posed snapshots on the street and in the parks. When he returned home to Brooklyn in 1980 after serving in the U.S. Army, Shabazz armed himself with a Canon AE1 SKR camera and began to document the streets his hometown. “These concrete conduits served as nontraditional classrooms that have provided me with a realistic outlook of a world I had to navigate,” the photographer reveals.
In the tradition of Gordon Parks, Shabazz uses his camera as his weapon of choice to showcase the many ways people telegraph identity, status, wealth, power, and politics through style, stature, and prowess. First published in The Source during the magazine’s height, Shabazz has gone on to author eight books, most recently Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs (Damiani/D.A.P.), which will be on view at United Photo Industries Brooklyn, this month. A second exhibition Crossing 125th is concurrently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through August 27.
“My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention,” Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) told Der Spiegel in 2011.
In 2011, Ai Weiwei rose to global prominence when Chinese authorities arrested him at the Beijing Capital International Airport, although no official charges were ever filed. He was placed under 24-hour supervision, accompanied by two guards who never left his side, then released after 81 days—though he was forbidden to leave the country, thus unable to attend his exhibition According to What? at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2012.
Through it all, Ai Weiwei has continued to produce a wide array of works in all media that challenge the status quo, whether illuminating the refugee crisis in #SafePassage, giving the White House the finger, or creating golden animals of the zodiac to memorialize the looting of China by European imperialists in the nineteenth century. Whatever he does, Ai Weiwei exhibits one trait that puts him ahead of so many of his contemporaries: he is fearless.
Four decades ago, in 1977, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she continues to live, taking the curse of her illness and transforming it into a gift. Where many artists have been destroyed by their minds, Kusama has found a way to make peace through the act of creating art.
Taking the polka dot as her central motif, Kusama reduces all of existence to a single dimension and lets it explode, like the big bang, over and over again—creating mindblowing installations that have become the biggest selling exhibitions in recent years.
Her work can currently be seen in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, the exhibition catalogue published by DelMonico Books/Prestel that accompanies an exhibition by the same name at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., through May 14, before opening at the Seattle Art Museum on June 30.
Kusama’s understanding of life within the vast universe is rooted in the auditory and visual hallucinations she began experiencing at the age of six. She explains, “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”
And somehow it is we who are better for it. The power Kusama’s art is underscored by art as an act of faith: “Forget yourself. Become one with eternity. Become part of your environment.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.