If you’ve ever taken an art history class or spent time in a fine arts museum, chances are you know a lot about the men who “defined” their mediums. As with other subjects, most of what we learn about art history today still centers on white men from Europe and, later, the United States. In reality, there are so many more artists of all genders to learn from and appreciate.
Here, we’re specifically taking a look at just some of the women who have had lasting impacts on their art forms. From some of the art world’s most iconic pioneers to its most unsung heroes, these women artists all had a hand — and, in some cases, still have a hand — in changing the world of fine art and how we define it.
Laura Wheeler Waring
Laura Wheeler Waring was an artist and educator who taught at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. After studying the work of painters like Cézanne and Monet while abroad, she returned to the United States, becoming best known for her portraits of prominent Black Americans, many of which were painted during the Harlem Renaissance.
Photographer Cindy Sherman was part of the Pictures Generation during the 1980s, and is perhaps most well known for her series of Untitled Film Stills (1977–80) — self-portraits in which Sherman “posed in the guises of various generic female film characters, among them, ingénue, working girl, vamp, and lonely housewife” (via MoMA). In this series, and those that followed, Sherman used photography to question the media’s influence over our individual and collective identities.
You might first think of Yoko Ono as a musician and activist, but she’s also an accomplished performance and conceptual artist. Ono was considered a pioneer in the performance art movement, earning the nickname the “High Priestess of the Happening”.
One of her most revered works, Cut Piece, was a performance she first staged in Japan; Ono sat on stage in a nice suit and placed scissors in front of her, and, in an act of daring vulnerability, invited audience members to come on stage and cut away pieces of her clothing. “Art is like breathing for me,” Ono has said. “If I don’t do it, I start to choke.”
Before becoming a printmaker and activist, Betye Saar studied design and was employed as a social worker. A printmaking elective changed her entire career trajectory — and, in turn, part of the trajectory of art history.
Saar was part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s and, through painting and assemblage, critiqued institutionalized racism and the racist stereotypes white people held toward Black Americans. “To me the trick is to seduce the viewer,” Saar has said. “If you can get the viewer to look at a work of art, then you might be able to give them some sort of message.”
It’s rare to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of Frida Kahlo. A self-taught painter from Mexico, she is best known for exploring themes like death and identity through her self-portraits. Kahlo often used bold, bright colors to create her symbol-rich works, and was regarded as one of the most influential artists of the Surrealist movement.
Yayoi Kusama started painting at a very young age, but she’s also known for her hyper-real sculptures, polka dots, installations, and so much more. Like many of her peers, Kusama embraced the counterculture of the 1960s, employing nudity in much of her work. Today, she continues to create works for her enduring Mirror/Infinity rooms series, which use mirrors and lit objects to create a sense of endlessness.
Amy Sherald is an American painter and portraitist who depicts Black Americans, often doing everyday activities — something that became more common in portraiture writ large in the mid-19th century. Odds are that you recognize Sherald’s work — and her signature grayscale skin tones — as she was the first Black woman to complete a presidential portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Known as the mother of American modernism, you likely associate Georgia O’Keeffe with her paintings of New Mexico’s landscapes, flowers, skulls, and, just maybe, the skyscrapers of New York City. In the 1920s, she was the first woman painter to gain the respect of the New York art world, all by painting in her unique style.
Adrian Piper became a pioneering minimalist, feminist, and conceptual artist in 1970s New York City. She used her work to question society, identity, and racial politics by demanding the audience to confront truths about themselves. She often challenged people on the streets of New York to guess her race, socio-economic class, and gender — all while dressed as a Black man with a fake mustache and sunglasses, or while wearing compelling statements on her clothes.
Shirin Neshat left Iran in 1974 to study art in Los Angeles, California — before the Iran Islamic Revolution took place. She is best known for her photography, film, and video work, much of which explores the relationship between Islam’s cultural and religious systems and women. Moreover, Neshat’s works often create a sense of solidarity and empowerment.
As a neo-conceptual artist, Jenny Holzer’s work focuses on words and ideas, which she puts on advertising billboards, projects onto buildings and adds to electronic displays or neon signs.
These works display phrases that act as meditations on various concepts, such as trauma, knowledge, and hope. One of her more notable works, I Smell You On My Skin, makes the viewer question what kind of sentiment the sentence conveys.
Much of Rebecca Belmore’s art addresses identity and history — and, in particular, houselessness and the voicelessness of the First Nations People in Canada. As an Anishinaabekwe artist, she works to raise awareness around the prejudice, violence, and attempted erasure of Indigenous North American culture. In 2005, she was the first Indigenous woman to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale.
While a prolific printmaker and painter, Louise Bourgeois is better known for her installation art and sculptures — like the spider above — which were inspired by her own experiences and memories. Throughout her career, she created revolutionary works during a time when abstraction and conceptual art were the main styles shaping the art world.
Heavily influenced by pop culture and pop art, Mickalene Thomas often embellishes her paintings with rhinestones and uses colorful acrylic paints. In her work, Thomas centers Black American women, whom she believes embody power and femininity.
Judy Chicago was one of the major figures within the early Feminist Art movement. As exemplified in her iconic work The Dinner Party, her installation pieces often examine the role of women in history and culture — in the 1970s and before. While at California State University in Fresno, Chicago founded the first feminist art program in the United States.
Augusta Savage was an American sculptor during the Harlem Renaissance who worked toward securing equal rights for Black Americans in the arts. In addition to creating breathtaking sculptures, often of Black folks, Savage founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem in 1932, and, a few years later, she became the first Black American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1934.
Known for her provocative performance art practices, Carolee Schneemann is considered the progenitor of “body art”. (Just look up her most famous work, Interior Scroll, and you’ll see what we mean.) She used her body to examine women’s sensuality and liberation from the oppressive aesthetic and social conventions established by our patriarchal society.
Famous for her in-the-moment photography, Nan Goldin’s work challenges traditional power relations. In addition to documenting New York City’s queer subculture post-Stonewall, Goldin explored the HIV/AIDS crisis, opioid epidemic, and LGBTQ+ bodies.
Does this look like an Andy Warhol to you? Well, that’s the idea! Elaine Sturtevant, who went by her last name professionally, was a conceptual artist known for her inexact replicas — that is, not-quite-right copies of big-name artists’ work.
Some artists and critics encouraged her efforts, while others became quite angry. Nonetheless, Sturtevant used her works to explore the concepts of authorship, originality, and the structure of art culture.
During the 1960s, Ruth Asawa created increasingly complex wire sculptures. A San Francisco-based artist, Asawa’s last public commission was the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University, which was created to recognize Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II.
Known for her studio, portrait, and landscape photography, Catherine Opie has been a photographer since the age of nine. She uses her photography to examine social norms, and, in doing so, displays various subcultures in formal portraits — but in a way that conveys power and respect by evoking traditional Renaissance portraiture.
micha cárdenas is an artist, author, theorist, and assistant professor who won an Impact Award at the Indiecade Festival in 2020 and the Creative Award from the Gender Justice League in 2016. She believes education is the path to liberation and uses VR and art to address global issues such as racism, gendered violence, and climate change.
Lee Krasner was an Abstract Expressionist painter who also specialized in collaging. Her works capture a spirit of relentless reinvention, from her Cubist drawings and assemblage to her portraits and murals for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).