10 Controversial Artists of the Last Century


Today, when Ai Weiwei’s new outdoor sculpture, Circle Heads/Zodiac Signs, debuts in Central Park, the artist won’t be around to celebrate. Instead he will be serving time in a Chinese jail because of the powerful messaging behind his controversial work and his politically-charged personal life. Inspired by Ai’s plight, we took a look back at 10 of the most controversial artists of the last century; whether they had heated personal dramas, or widely-criticized artwork, these talents helped open the eyes of patrons everywhere.

Marcel Duchamp

Ever the Dadaist, Duchamp’s work belongs in that crazy genre of stuff that looks like other stuff, but actually is art. His most iconic piece, 1917’s Fountain, which features a urinal turned upside down, turned heads as one of the first instances of “found art.” And although he started out simply with cubist paintings, his surrealist impulses gave way to his found objects series called “the readymades.” Fountain, Bottle Rack, and others in the series were meant to question the notion of art and persuade the viewer to look at an object’s ugliness.

David Cerny

What would one find outside the Kafka Museum in Prague? Not a quiet seating area, or a pretzel stand, but David Cerny’s dual statues of two men standing in a fountain, peeing and swiveling from side to side. It’s both dirty and humorous, like most of Cerny’s works, notably his Futura Gallery installment in which viewers climb into a sculpture’s buttocks to watch a slideshow of politicians feeding each other, or even the dozens of baby sculptures he placed to appear as if climbing the highest television tower in the Czech Republic. Cerny’s most notable –- and controversial work -– isn’t around to see anymore; a Soviet tank painted pink as a memorial that had him briefly arrested in the ’90s.

Georgia O’Keeffe

In the 1920s, O’Keeffe, an avid nature lover, took a magnifying glass out to her garden and painted flowers in a way no one had before, in extreme close-up. Her flowers, with luxurious and sensual blooms, became well-known in pop culture because of their uncanny resemblance to the female genitals. While O’Keeffe was heralded for her work, she insisted that it should be looked at for its commentary on man versus nature, not male versus female. Until her death in 1986, she denied intentionally painting the vagina, no matter how many female artists thanked her for bringing the female body out of the shadows.

Damien Hirst

No one likes to look at death, but with Hirst’s most controversial works, the viewer is most often staring in the face of some non-living object drowning in formaldehyde – and that’s just the beginning. Hirst’s personal antics are known to rile up the masses even more than his dead art, like this 2001 comment regarding the September 11th attackers: “You’ve got to hand it to them on some level.” Despite his controversial persona, Hirst remains Britain’s richest living artist to date.

Pablo Picasso

Sure, Picasso’s cubist paintings are a little bright and wacky, and Guernica might be politically-charged, but the real controversy here lies in his treatment of women, summed up by a comment he once made to a 21-year-old mistress: “For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.” And he had a handful of both with prototypes like lusty Fernande Olivier, a model with violent tendencies, and delicate Marie-Therese Walter, who carried on a secret affair with the artist for eight years, bore him a daughter, and hanged herself 30 years later. Picasso’s relationships played out on his canvas in the massacred shapes and forms of the women he drew, and in real life, many ended in tragedy.


In 2010 a street artist known as Banksy was nominated for an Academy Award for his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, but his seat was empty that night. For someone with a popular movie, legions of hardcore fans, and a totally recognizable artistic style, Banksy stays pretty undercover; in fact, he has yet to come out of the shadows and tell the world who he is. But the shroud of mystery just adds to the persona of this man who has drawn depictions of the poor on hurricane-destroyed properties in New Orleans, painted scenes of children digging holes through the Israeli West Bank Barrier, and replaced 500 copies of Paris Hilton’s debut CD with remixes questioning her worth. With his work on street corners from London to New York and back, Banksy is a loudmouth in the quietest way possible.

Chris Ofili

Many artists have sauntered through New York with their controversial exhibits, but none made a splash quite like Ofili, who managed to stir up a lawsuit with his artwork, The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Using chopped up images of the female body, including those making a sexy object of black women, Ofili recreated the scene of the Virgin Mary that European artists have been reworking for decades. Oh yeah, he spattered it with elephant dung, too. Even though dung was used in a satirical and honorable way reflecting Ofili’s Nigerian heritage, it was enough to cause a rampage on the part of former mayor Rudy Giuliani and many upset citizens.

Christo Javachev

When The Gates debuted in Central Park, New Yorkers were confused and titillated. The installation was, after all, simply a series of orange banners hanging over a pathway. But shrouding beautiful objects was nothing new to Christo who, working with his partner Jean-Claude, had wrapped everything from Paris’ Pont Neuf to Snoopy’s dog house to an ancient Roman wall in large swatches of fabric and rope. While critics struggled to find meaning in these super large installations, both Christo and his partner (who died in 2009) have gone on record to say that the works are nothing but aesthetics.

Jackson Pollock

More a fan of the bottle than people, Pollock struggled to form healthy relationships in his life, struggling with alcohol abuse and a variety of extreme anger issues. His only forms of therapy: his therapeutic and tiring painting techniques and his marriage to fellow artist Lee Krasner. However, despite his happiness with Krasner, Pollock continued to drink heavily and collect mistresses adding insult to injury over Krasner’s influence in his art and decision to concentrate on his career over hers. To this day Krasner’s few works are regarded by a cult of enthusiasts on the same level of Pollock’s, but because of the work the couple put into his career over hers, they have yet to be embraced by the mainstream.

Ai Weiwei

Why is Ai Weiwei in jail while his zodiac-inspired exhibit opens in New York? The designer of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium has recently gained international recognition for his work, which often mirrors his personal displeasure with the Chinese government. Authorities took matters into their own hands and arrested the artist in April, and Ai has yet to be heard from in his current detained state. Fans of his Sunflower Seeds installation at London’s Tate Modern, in which millions of tiny porcelain sunflower seeds litter a hallway, along with those who have been following his career for decades now, anxiously await his release.