What Is the Most Iconic Artwork of the 21st Century? 14 Art Experts Weigh In

How do you choose one defining artwork for a century still in its adolescence? Some of the art world’s leading figures take their best shot.

Want to make an art historian laugh? Ask them to name the most iconic artwork of the 21st century. Turns out, it’s not so easy to single out the most significant work of art created over the past 17 years. Nevertheless, some leading figures in the art world—from curators and gallery directors to artists and auction house executives—gamely agreed to try their hand at narrowing it down.  What single artwork defines this awkward, information-addled teenage century? Some simply couldn’t choose just one work, while others ultimately refused to answer at all. But many, to our pleasant surprise, told us exactly what they think. Below, 14 art experts weigh in on the 21st century’s most iconic artwork.

George Goldner, art advisor; former chairman of prints and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The most iconic work from 2001–2017? A misuse of the word icon for a period that is destined to fade into oblivion. There’s no Mona LisaRaft of the Medusa, or Guernica to be found here.

The Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe on Why ‘The Theater of the World’ Was Intended to Be Brutal

The curator explains the origins of the exhibition and the thinking behind its most controversial elements.

Now well ensconced at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum as its Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art, Munroe is trying to repeat that feat with recent Chinese art history, working with two co-curators—the widely respected experts Hou Hanru and Phillip Tinari—to chart the arc of conceptual art in China between 1989 and 2008 in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.

Now, a week before it opens to the public, the show is already proving problematic.

Intending to show how artists captured the violent change and bestial tumult of the two decades charted by the show—set in motion by the shattered hopes and bloodshed of Tiananmen Square and capped by the controversial Beijing Olympics, which announced both the undeniable ascent of China as a world power and its retreat from international humanitarian norms—the curators included several works that involved animals menacing or even killing one another.

And read the article following, discussing the withdrawal of three artworks central to the exhibition, including the namesake of the exhibition, “Theatre of the World“.

Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreamers at the Guggenheim

BEIJING — The signature work at “Art and China After 1989,” a highly anticipated show that takes over the Guggenheim on Oct. 6, is a simple table with a see-through dome shaped like the back of a tortoise. On the tabletop hundreds of insects and reptiles — gekkos, locusts, crickets, centipedes and cockroaches – mill about under the glow of an overhead lamp.

During the three-month exhibition some creatures will be devoured; others may die of fatigue. The big ones will survive. From time to time, a New York City pet shop will replenish the menagerie with new bugs.

In its strange way, the piece, called “Theater of the World,” created in 1993 by the conceptual artist Huang Yong Ping, perfectly captures the theme of the exhibition: China as a universe unto itself, forever evolving and changing into a new order. It also sums up a sense of oppression the artists felt from 1989 to 2008, as they were making these works.

Let This Be Your Guide: 7 Famous Artists Describe Their Favorite Artworks at The Met

When a single work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art catches your attention and stops you in your tracks, it can feel like you’ve unearthed a hidden treasure. In Phaidon’s upcoming book The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Artover 100 artists reflect on this same experience—the moment when an artwork from the Met’s collection overwhelmed their senses, inspired their practice, or changed their view on art making in general. The next time you visit the Met, use the excerpt below as your tour guide, and allow these seven artists—John Baldessari, Eric Fischl, Ann Hamilton, Jeff Koons, Glenn Ligon, Catherine Opie, and Hank Willis Thomas—to lead the way to their most cherished works on view in the two-million-square-foot museum. 

Jenny Holzer: Words of Conflict

As three new commissions open this year in the UK and Abu Dhabi, the US artist reflects on the continued dominance of war as a theme in her work and says she longs for Trump to be “in the past tense”

Jenny Holzer has put words in unexpected places for nearly 40 years. Her texts have been flyposted across buses and boats, flashed across electronic billboards and, when she was the first woman to represent the US at the Venice Biennale in 1990, engraved into the US Pavilion’s marble floor. The Ohio-born artist has projected verses of poetry onto the banks of the Tiber, inscribed accounts of sex crimes in ink onto human skin and engraved them into silver bands attached to human bones. In recent years, she has also returned to her earliest artistic roots by making paintings that meticulously reproduce declassified and often redacted US war documents concerning Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now Holzer has been commissioned by the Blenheim Art Foundation to make work for Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, UK, which is itself a spoil of war, given to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, as a reward for defeating the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Holzer has also made works for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the new US Embassy in London, both due to be unveiled later this year.

Rachel Whiteread review – accentuate the negative

Tate Britain, London
Whiteread’s inside-out casts of everything from hot-water bottles to chicken sheds are poised between banality and a spellbinding poetry of the past.

There is a small white shack on the lawn in front of Tate Britain. It looks exactly like the very thing it is, namely the concrete cast of a chicken shed. The windows are blind and the door could never open to let the birds out, for the object is a solid block, heavy and impenetrable, unlike the airy structure it repeats. And yet it is still, first and last, a chicken shed.

Or is it? The art of Rachel Whiteread turns things inside out. This piece – hailed as a major new work at Tate Britain, though it’s anything but, and the artist calls it “shy” – is a cast of the space inside the shed. There’s a clue in the fact that the window frames are indented, instead of standing out. But so what? The object on the lawn – literal, stolid, untranslated – retains the form of the shed. It is a sculptural tautology.

Dick Bellamy: The Man Hiding at the Center of Everything

He was slight and unassuming with a bushy mop of dark hair and deep circles under his eyes hinting at the alcoholic dissipation of a poète maudit. His voice was a suggestive murmur, both musical and raspy from smoking too much. Most people called him Dick. To friends he would announce himself as George, a mannerism dating back to when he and his father addressed each other as “George” and “Lennie,” after characters in Steinbeck’s Depression novel Of Mice and Men.”

No one knew why Dick Bellamy nicknamed himself after a loser, but perhaps it was a reminder that he was a child of the Depression who had no fear of losing. In every respect, with his deep connections to the world of the Beat poets, writers and jazz, to the artists of Provincetown and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Bellamy was a free spirit, a quiet catalyst behind the art of the ’60s.

When Dealers, Too, Were Romantics

“Dealers are as important as the artists themselves,” the gallery owner Leo Castelli once said. “Hecannot exist without us, and we cannot exist without him.” Gendered language aside, Castelli’s remark captures the fragile symbiosis between those who make art and those who sell it.

Lately, however, dealers have been having trouble keeping up their end of this relationship — that is to say, just existing. Each month seems to bring a new closing announcementfrom an adventurous small or midsize gallery hobbled by, among other things, rising rents and multiplying art-fair expenses. In August, for instance, the dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth circulated a candid letter announcing the demise of his nine-year-old Zurich gallery — citing, in place of the usual moving-on platitudes, “the consequences for art in an increasingly polarizing society ultimately built on power, finance and exclusion.”

Into this anxious moment comes a wistfully romantic portrait of the postwar dealer Richard Bellamy, a passionate advocate for contemporary art and a notably indifferent businessman.

Rachel Whiteread and Antony Gormley: this week’s best UK exhibitions

Rachel Whiteread

The ghostly power of Whiteread’s casts is one of modern British art’s wonders. Her sculptures – preserving the shapes of lost objects – combine the authority of abstraction with the spookiness of Victorian photographs. Her work has a poetic intensity that has not diminished since she created her now-demolished public sculpture House in 1993. It is very possible her art will survive and be admired when so much else of our time is forgotten.
Tate Britain, SW1, 12 September to 21 January

Rachel Whiteread Talks To Sue Hubbard About Her New Exhibition At Tate Britain

Trying to get hold of Rachel Whiteread to talk about her new exhibition at Tate Britain, her largest to date, is rather like attempting to gain an audience at the White House. The Tate only gives me a strict half an hour but she walks me round the show before it opens as the technicians beaver away, happy that I’m familiar with her work and knew her late mother Pat, a little, herself a serious artist.  She is unpretentious and friendly and when we meet, dressed casually in ubiquitous art black. She’s naturally reticent – blushing a little – when I say I know she hates talking about her work. But there’s also a steely professionalism. When I apologise for taking notes and not using a tape recorder she says: “Oh that’s fine. I write things down too.”

I first came across Rachel Whiteread’s work in the early 1990s. It was intelligent, quiet and thoughtful, at odds with the razzmatazz of many of her contemporaries, the other Young British Artists shocking their way into visibility. In contrast, she was casting the inside of wardrobes, dressing tables, and hot water bottles, that looked like the headless torsos of dead babies. Dreamy, ruminative and poetic her work explored how physical objects acted as Proustian catalysts to retrieve what is so often only half remembered, what lurks just below the plimsol line of consciousness. And then there was House, created in 1993 in a small park in the East End of London, which existed for a mere 80 days. A caste of the last surviving end-of-terrace that was about to be demolished, home of Sydney Gale a former docker, which was a direct connection to an older, disappearing way of life. Using the building as a mould, Whiteread imprinted fireplaces, cornices, and cupboards to create a stark mausoleum that ensnared the ghosts of its past inhabitants like flies trapped in amber. That year she was also the first woman to win the Turner Prize and a few years later made Embankment constructed of 14,000 polyethylene cases of cardboard boxes stacked, one on top of the other, that filled the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern and spoke, obliquely, of global warming. And then there was her controversial sculpture commissioned for the Holocaust Memorial 2000, in Vienna.

Three to see: London (Rachel Whiteread)

From Rachel Whiteread’s mummified air to the burial rituals of the mysterious Scythians.

On very special occasions, Tate Britain’s 1979 extension is opened up into a vast, single, top-lit space. This is the case for Rachel Whiteread’s career survey (until 21 January 2018) of 30 years of work, from breakthrough sculptures made the year after she graduated from art school, to pieces fresh from the studio. Whiteread’s work has been remarkably consistent. For Closet (1988), she cast the interior of a humdrum wardrobe in plaster and covered it in black felt. Ever since, she has been “mummifying the air”, as she once put it. The point of the Tate exhibition, according to its curator, Ann Gallagher, is to show that “through consistency of process, there’s an incredible variation”.

Beyond Supply and Demand: How Artworks are Priced?

The pricing of artworks is not a simple matter. And while the basic economic principles of supply and demand do still apply to the art market, the factors that contribute to an artist’s “supply,” or the availability of their art for sale, and an artist’s “demand,” or how many collectors are willing to buy their work and at what price, are quite complicated.

Here Artspace breaks down the factors that contribute to an artist’s supply and demand, and thus the price of their artworks.

Rachel Whiteread exhibition review – the secret life of things *****

Sinks, baths, stairs, hot-water bottles, beehives and the space beneath chairs … a walk through Rachel Whiteread’s casts is a journey into a common landscape made strange

Some of her more recent casts of cabins and sheds have been permanently located in out-of-the way places, to be discovered by chance (just imagining them baking in the Mojave desert, or getting soaked in rainswept Norway, is itself a pleasure). Whiteread refers to some of her recent works as “shy sculptures”. Throughout her career, she has shuttled between complexity and simplicity, and between the small and close at hand, to fragments of the larger world – the vacant plinth on Trafalgar Square, a stairwell, a cast of the meeting room in Broadcasting House that inspired George Orwell’s Room 101, which is now installed in Whiteread’s complex and rewarding show at Tate Britain.

Celebrating over 25 years of Rachel Whiteread’s internationally acclaimed sculpture – video

One of Britain’s leading contemporary artists, Whiteread uses industrial materials such as plaster, concrete, resin, rubber and metal to cast everyday objects and architectural space. Her evocative sculptures range from the intimate to the monumental.

Born in London in 1963, Whiteread was the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993. The same year she made House 1993–1994, a life-sized cast of the interior of a condemned terraced house in London’s East End, which existed for a few months before it was controversially demolished.

Watch the video.

Rachel Whiteread: thinking inside the box

Once a key part of a generation of artists who transformed east London, the sculptor talks to Eva Wiseman about doll’s houses, her fellow YBAs, and why she left Shoreditch.

It’s 24 years since Whiteread, then 30, cast the last remaining property in a demolished terrace in Bow, east London, in liquid concrete, sparking debates about the upheaval of the East End, the politics of “regeneration”, and the point of contemporary art. On the day in 1993 that Whiteread became the first woman to win the Turner Prize, the decision was made to demolish the house.

The odd thing about what she calls her “shy sculptures” – a cast house on an island in New York, one in Norway, another in Norfolk, two in the desert – is that rather than their massiveness, the inversion makes you realise how small a home is, its limits. Whiteread doesn’t do many interviews, and she is reluctant to talk about something even as dinner-partyish as housing, but she will say: “I’m interested in homes, in the politics of housing, but I’m no expert. I simply think it’s everyone’s fundamental right to have a roof over their head. We should be helping everyone to make a life – London can absorb many groups of people.”

Rachel Whiteread: ‘It’s my mission to make things more complicated’

The eminent artist has placed a cast of a shed on New York’s Governors Island, evoking both Thoreau and Trump – a blow for art that takes the viewer by stealth.

America is a country of imagination and big dreams, some inspired, some twisted. It is the land of liberty, the open and optimistic birthplace of such diverse heroes as Amelia Earhart, Walt Whitman and Muhammad Ali. It is also home to the Unabomber, Donald Trump and Orlando killer Omar Mateen, sometimes a violent and vengeful country.

The artist Rachel Whiteread alludes to these extremes in Cabin, a concrete reverse cast of a wooden shed that will be unveiled to the public on 19 July on Governors Island in New York. “I was really thinking about Thoreau and the American Romantics, as well as the opposite of that – the grimmer, darker underbelly of America and the idea that some lonely person might live in a different way,” she says.

Cabin is the British artist’s first major permanent commission in the US and has been organised by the Trust for Governors Island and its public art program, Art CommissionsGI. It is a site-specific work created for Discovery Hill, one of “The Hills” – a 10-acre addition to Governors Island Park and part of a massive renovation effort to turn this once-military land into a pastoral resource for New Yorkers.

Billionaire Basquiat Collector Yusaku Maezawa Went Shopping at Leonardo DiCaprio’s St. Tropez Art Auction

Leonardo DiCaprio knows that if you want to sell a lot of art, you need to bring in the big guns.

Among the guests at the actor’s recent star-studded charity auction in Saint-Tropez was Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa. Best known for his record-setting $110.5 million purchase of a Basquiat at Sotheby’s in May, Maezawa went home from DiCaprio’s sale with a painting by Jenny Holzertitled Page 6 (2016), artnet News has learned.

A spokesperson for Maezawa says that Holzer is one of the collector’s favorite artists. The work is from her series of silk-screened paintings created from declassified government memos. The price was not disclosed, in keeping with the DiCaprio Foundation’s policy.

How Artsy finally convinced galleries to sell fine art online

The move online has been one of the critical forces shaping the industry over the last decade, a disruption that happened slowly, and then suddenly. “It’s a huge change in what galleries have done. It’s been the biggest trend in the art market, next to art fairs, over the last ten years,” says Clare McAndrew, a leading art market economist. “The biggest driver is the wider acceptance of e-commerce. This is how collectors buy everything else, so why not art?” After closing their physical space, Weiss and Martinsen focused on crafting an online business, Gates of the West, and cultivating their brand through social media.

This new paradigm is powering the success of Artsy, a New York City-based startup that this morning announced it had raised $50 million in fresh venture capital. The company’s offering is far more open and approachable than the traditional art world. Every piece is available through a search engine that can filter by style, time period, or price. The service uses algorithms to understand what kind of art appeals to users and then recommends other works they might enjoy, or buy. Instead of the rarefied, sterile walls of a Chelsea gallery, users swipe to browse. Artsy makes shopping for art as unassuming, and as pedestrian, as using Tinder.

Geoffrey Farmer @ the Venice Biennale 2017

How a violent collision forged Geoffrey Farmer’s fountain for the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

In 1990 Geoffrey Farmer started writing notes to strangers on public buses. In those days, in Vancouver, buses issued paper ‘transfers’, a time-limit punched into its thin newsprint, which enabled passengers to change buses and continue their journey. Farmer rode the bus with an old typewriter on his lap, rolled the transfers into its creaky frame and tried to write a tiny note-poem for a stranger before he or she alighted. One of them read, ‘I can see the dog you / are hiding in your bag. / I wish we were in Paris. / Thank You, / A Stranger’. The slumber of the daily commute was ruptured by a random act of empathetic weirdness.

Notes for Strangers, created while the artist was a student at Emily Carr College of Art & Design, heralded a set of ideas that Farmer has been working on for almost 30 years: ephemerality, chance encounters, connections across space and time, a desire to communicate. Yet, less than a year later, his worldview was changed completely: between 1990 and 1991 Farmer attended the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). The models he’d encountered at art school in Vancouver, where detached intellection was prized above all else, were exposed as a particular, limited way to be an artist, rather than the only way. When I talked to Farmer about his plans for the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, it was not the pavilion or even the work that first came to his mind, but a series of vivid recollections of that transformative year.

IMAGE: Geoffrey Farmer, Notes for Strangers (detail),1989/1990, small typewriter, six typewritten notes on paper, transfer ticket, shelf with Plexiglas top, notes, 15 × 9 cm (each). Collection of Laing & Kathleen Brown,Vancouver


The innovative, iconoclastic curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005) was one of the most influential figures in mid-to-late-twentieth-century American art. He founded his first gallery in L.A. at the age of twenty-one and, at twenty-four, opened the Ferus Gallery with the artist Ed Kienholz, where they turned the spotlight on a new generation of West Coast artists.  Later, in the sixties, at the Pasadena Art Museum, Hopps mounted the first American museum retrospectives of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. For “The Dream Colony: A Life in Art,” out on June 6th from Bloomsbury, the New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who worked with Hopps in the nineteen-nineties on the art and literary magazine Grand Street, edited and adapted his interviews with the artist and editor Anne Doran. In this excerpt, Hopps describes meeting two little-known artists who would become leading figures in the field.

Toward the end of the fifties, the art world had begun to divide.  Abstract Expressionism was still alive and well, but some of the new artists were starting to look for different ways to proceed.  Robert Rauschenberg emerged, inspiring two of his contemporaries, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly.  And then we began to encounter the next wave: a new form of image-based art that would eventually be called Pop, and a new era of abstraction.  While looking for artists to show at the Ferus Gallery, Irving Blum and I had met an art dealer named David Herbert, who had worked for the Poindexter Gallery and Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis, and was setting up his own gallery in New York.