Influential 20th-Century Sculptors
Sculptors in the 20th century created expressive works that still speak to the modern sensibility. Learn about the period's leading practitioners of the art and the themes that motivated their creations.
Updated June 1, 2010
Constantin Brâncusi (1876–1957)
One of the most famous sculptors of the early 20th century, the Romanian-born artist lived and worked for more than 50 years in Paris. His sculptures reduce realism to its purest form, most beautifully embodied in his famous egg-shaped head of the Sleeping Muse and his Rodin-inspired The Kiss. His early minimalist and almost abstract approach imparted a powerful influence on the development of modern sculpture.
Louise Nevelson (1900–1988)
The “grande dame of contemporary sculpture” was an immigrant from Russia to the United States. On her early travels she received inspiration from Brancusi and other Parisian sculptors, but later she also included pre-Columbian and Native Indian art into her wood-fragment constructions. She famously filled Crates with table legs, pieces of chairs, broken balustrades, bits of stairs and boats, and assembled them into sombre, altar-like wall pieces and Memory Shrines. She created geometric, lyrical-ornamental compositions as an emblem for the flotsam of civilisation. Restricting herself to the colours black, off-white and gold, her environments of found objects later included metal and steel and could grow three storeys high.
Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966)
The Swiss-born sculptor and painter is world-famous for his bronze figures of elongated, fragile, almost immaterial human beings that were initially inspired by the cataclysms of World War II. His work brings to mind the transience of the human condition, its vulnerability and existential loneliness. Evolved from surrealist abstractions, his view of humanity as ghostly figures standing alone or walking emanates a sense of the status quo eternally “trembling on the brink of movement.”
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
The French-born painter ventured into sculpture when she was a young mother in New York. She would gather wood and found objects from the streets and turn them into totemic sculptures in the line of Giacometti. Her work, often rooted in themes of family tensions, gender and sexuality, uses materials as diverse as fabrics, marble, latex or wire cages. Over the years her pieces have evolved into environments, “cells” and “lairs” populated by objects and memorabilia that mirror our civilisation and are at the same time provocative and autobiographical in nature. At nearly 100 years of age, Bourgeois is still at the forefront of contemporary sculpture and has even entered pop culture with her gigantic spider sculptures called Maman (Mama).
Joseph Beuys (1921–1986)
The German sculptor and performance artist was a cult figure in Europe and, together with the surrealist Marcel Duchamp (inventor of the objet trouvé or “found object”), one of the most provocative and influential artists of the century. The maverick artist took part in the 1960s art movement Fluxus, with happenings and process art. Using perishable materials such as fat, felt, blood, earth, honey and sometimes animal corpses, he expanded sculpture into ritual performance environments and mocked conventional museum exhibitions with his ironic vitrine “exhibitions” of his own hand-made objects and his objets trouvés.
Magdalena Abakanowicz (born 1930)
A childhood on a farm in Poland is reflected in the artist’s use of natural and found materials to create monumental works of great emotional expression. Huge textile weavings and artistic environments drew international attention to her in the 1960s before her work took a dramatic turn toward the creation of figures made from sackcloth, burlap and sisal ropes, bonded with glue and resin. Later she added metals to her creative palette. Her ambiguous, humanoid sculptures (Heads, Backs, War Games) have taken on massive proportions in quasi-military arrangements and groups of silent, faceless Crowds. More than 100 bronze torsos, each 9 feet tall, constitute her eerie Chicago installation Agora.
Eva Hesse (1936–1970)
A highly dramatic life—fleeing from Nazi Germany to New York and a tragic death from a brain tumour at age 34—made this sculptor a legendary “James Dean of art.” Hesse started as a minimalist, and traces of the humour and sly eroticism of this movement are woven throughout her beautiful, often ephemeral works. She started with materials found in an abandoned factory and became one of the pioneers using fibreglass and latex to create evocative tensions and fluidities between organic and synthetic materials. Her solo show, “Chain Polymers” in 1968 in New York, marked a turning point in American post-war art.