In the spirit of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a closer look at female artists who’ve left their mark on the art world. From painters to sculptors to performance artists (and everything in between), we’re celebrating the women who’ve pushed the artistic boundaries of their time to forge their own paths. Without their contributions, the world that contemporary female artists find themselves in would surely be a different place.
To honor women artists everywhere, we’re spotlighting a handful of artistically daring women who’ve marked the way for everyone who’ve bravely come after them. Here are six of our favorite trailblazers.
This beloved Mexican painter is best remembered for her somber and often haunting self-portraits. But it was really her rebellious, self-expressive spirit that made her such a revolutionary. Raw, honest and unashamed, Kahlo came to be an icon of a new kind of femininity—one of strength and sexual nonconformity. She was continually blurring the gender lines, living in a state of ambiguity that was incredibly unconventional for women of her time. The extraordinary body of work she left behind continues pushing the feminist movement forward today.
Leibovitz’s name may be synonymous with celebrity portraits and glossy magazine covers, but her work is so much more expansive—more transcendent—than that. The American photographer invited us into her personal life with the publication of “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005,” in which she shares beautiful, candid shots from this deeply emotional period of her life. The book spans everything from the birth of her children to the illness and death of her longtime partner, writer Susan Sontag; with Demi Moore’s famous pregnant nude photo shoot and the ruins of Ground Zero sandwiched in between. Leibovitz captures it all on camera; the grittiness and beauty of life, the quiet intimacies of grief, and what it means to be human.
Abramović is a prolific performance artist who has been elevating the medium for decades. Her signature style revolutionized the art form by breaking down the wall between observer and artist (essentially turning herself into the medium). For instance, shortly after 9/11, she spent 12 consecutive days exposed to the public in a New York City gallery, where she fasted, bathed, used the bathroom, and slept in full view of her audience—all as “a gift to the city about living in the moment in difficult times and in peace,” reported The New York Times. Opening up the channels of vulnerability, Abramović exposes herself as a means of connecting with viewers. In many of her works, she has invited the audience to directly participate in the experience. The Yugoslavian-born artist is still expressing today, continuing to redefine performance art as she evolves.
Louise Bourgeois is best known for her surreal and often confrontational sculptures, although she was reluctant to call herself a surrealist. (She actually preferred the term “existentialist.”) Many of her pieces played on sexuality and the physical form, as well as the breaking apart of traditional familial roles. Visceral and thought-provoking, Bourgeois’s work includes the famous “Maman;” a 30-foot-high sculpted spider made of stainless steel, bronze and marble.
Daring to imagine domesticity in a new light, Elieen Gray pushed the boundaries of expected architecture of the early 20th century—flipping Modernism on its head in the process. Her work, which also included innovative, forward-thinking furniture designs, represented unchartered territory. Perhaps her most celebrated project is a house on the French Riviera known simply as e.1027, which she designed with her then-lover in mind. Much drama ensued after the two parted ways in 1929, with e.1027 still a center of controversy even today. Alanis explored her work on a deeper level when she played a supporting role of Marisa Damia in the screen adaptation of Gray’s life, aptly titled “The Price of Desire.”
Even people who don’t run in art circles can easily identify Georgia O’Keeffe’s signature style. Commonly referred to as the “Mother of American Modernism,” the 20th-century painter is most remembered for her stunning landscapes, particularly ones that explore the vastness of desert terrain. And then there are her flowers; the sexually suggestive imagery is dripping in feminine overtones, though it’s worth mentioning that O’Keeffe herself said this was never intentional. All the same, her work set her apart as a female artist unlike any other.
Ray Eames was one half of a husband-and-wife team that directly shaped modern design, specifically with regard to furniture design and architecture. Along with her husband, Charles Eames, Ray pioneered the modernist movement, playing a major role in the way in which Americans approached home and corporate décor. The spot-on Maria Popova of Brain Pickings describes her legacy best: “Today, we see Eames pervasive legacy in everything from the set of Mad Men to the pages of design history books to the streets of downtown L.A.”