The Most Provocative Artists of the Last Decade


With Armory Arts Week recently taking a hold of NYC, we’ve got art on the brain. Extraordinary artists bubbled up from the art world to present cutting-edge works at several fairs around the city. But who’s on the “need to know” shortlist for those of us on the outside looking in? We’ve teamed up with Perrier® Sparkling Natural Mineral Water to present this list of provocative artists that you should know to keep culturally informed. Feel free to flaunt this knowledge at your next cocktail party. A burst of artistic trivia never hurt anyone.

Ryan Trecartin

Video artist and RISD grad Ryan Trecartin is very much a 21st century artist, heavily inspired by TV, movies, and the Internet. Examinations of his family, friends, relationships, and his own queerness are often parodies of overwrought “after-school specials” and other pop culture/mass-media tropes. This is proof that provocative art can also be massively entertaining.

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic is the grand dame of performance art. We’re including her here because we can’t not, but her best, most provocative work occurred a little more than a decade ago. While 2010’s The Artist Is Present was a smashing — and moving — success (Abramovic sat, unmoving, and sustained eye contact with a stream of museum guests), her more recent collaboration with Jay-Z was, well, a little silly. Perhaps a “conscious uncoupling” of the art and pop worlds is for the best?

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley‘s reworking of Old Master tropes and poses to celebrate black men and women seems to have been a clarion call to other artists and performers of color, like Beyonce. Her video for “Formation” is what Flavorwire’s Matthew Ruiz calls “a radical, unapologetic celebration[s] of American Black Excellence,” and owes plenty to Wiley’s radical insertion of brown faces into traditionally whitewashed landscapes. These regal portraits are a beautiful, if troubling, contrast to how much of America currently portrays and views young black men.


We’re big fans of the Brooklyn-based Swoon — so much so that we’ve got one of her stenciled works spray-painted directly onto our office wall. But her meditations on humanity and commentaries on social and environmental issues extend far beyond NYC. As the New York Times put it, her art “blurs the lines between art and activism,” and that’s an extremely provocative place to work. Her site-specific pieces often pop up in places or times of turbulence, as in a musical shantytown in New Orleans following Katrina, a transformative landscape at the Brooklyn Museum post-Sandy of sculpted boats and rafts, or a grouping of colorful homes in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there.

Alli Coates and Signe Pierce

Both Alli Coates and Signe Pierce were part of Myla Dalbesio‘s highly anticipated show, You Can Call Me Baby, at the super-buzzy SPRING/BREAK fair. You may have come across the collaborative performance artists, cinematographers, and photographers last year when they teamed up for “American Reflexxx.” The short film features Pierce walking through Myrtle Beach as Coates films her for 14 tense, disturbing, and dismaying minutes. Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking said, “As a piece of art, it works disconcertingly, frighteningly well. (Indeed, what transpired seems to have taken the filmmakers aback, too. The video’s YouTube description says, ‘The pair agreed not to communicate until the experiment was completed, but never anticipated the horror that would unfold in under an hour.’)”


A Flavorpill Media favorite, Hanksy is a street artist who has also mastered the art of the visual pun. (Even his name pokes fun at that grandaddy of street art, Banksy, and yes, Tom Hanks.) Whether giving Drake a gentle ribbing, bringing Homer Simpson and the avocado together, or — most recently — launching a national art campaign to “Dump Trump,” the anonymous artist seeks to rub our funny bones while also giving the art world establishment a wedgie. An artist made for your Instagram feed, we highly recommend adding him for a dose of levity — and, as it turns out, politics.

Kara Walker

Before 2014, Kara Walker was mostly known for her works on and with paper — beautiful, “room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes” examining race, gender, and sexuality, and the violence that too often accompanies all three. Then she installed her massive piece, A Subtlety, at Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory. The huge sugar sphinx sculpture was a selfie magnet — for better or worse. But it turns out that that was part of Walker’s plan, all along. As Flavorwire’s Alison Herman explained, “Part of the work’s genius is Walker’s ability to know her audience… predict its response, and incorporate that into more perceptive onlookers’ takeaway from the exhibit.” Yep, she was filming your reactions the entire time for a follow-up video piece that turned the installation into performance art: “I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do,” according to Walker. Touché.