The Top 10 Contemporary Artists to Teach Alongside Traditional Artists

As art teachers, many of us appreciate the classical artworks created over the centuries of art history. We often share our passion for these traditional works with our students. However, high school students don’t always share our enthusiasm. Their curiosity is often peaked by the work of contemporary artists though. So, why not introduce students to the classics while simultaneously engaging them with the contemporary?


Today I’m sharing my top ten contemporary artists to teach alongside some of the classics.

(Listed Chronologically)

10. David Zinn alongside Lascaux Cave Art

Zinn and Lascaux

Both involve drawing on the walls. Well, Zinn usually draws on the ground, but still. Keith Haring would make a good choice as well since he created drawings in the subway, which is about as close to drawing in a cave as you can get (though having been in a few subways, I image it smells better in a cave).

9. Noma Bar alongside Greek Vases

With red or black figure Greek vases, it’s all about positive and negative space. Noma Bar creates some incredible artwork utilizing positive and negative space as well.

8. Joshua Allen Harris alongside Roman Art, the She Wolf

There is just something about the black plastic garbage bags rising to life on the streets of New York that reminds me of the She Wolf.

7. Christian Faur alongside Byzantine Mosaics

Faur and Byzantine

The Byzantine period is well know for mosaics. Today, whether they are created with post-it notes, jelly beans, or balloons, I’m a big fan of contemporary mosaics. Christian Faur’s crayon mosaics are outstanding.

6. Axel Peemoeller alongside Brunelleschi OR Felice Varini alongside Masaccio

In either case, the connection is perspective. Peemoeller and Varini use localized perspective in their works, while Brunelleschi is given credit for inventing linear perspective and Masaccio is given credit for creating the first artwork to incorporate it, The Holy Trinity.

5. Theo Jansen alongside Michelangelo

This might be a stretch, so work with me here. Michelangelo’s sculptures are incredibly life like. Consider the Pieta. Theo Jansen actually brings sculptures to life. His kinetic sculptures walk on the beach using the power of the wind. (Ok, I told you it was a stretch).

4. Patricia Piccinini alongside Romanticism


Here I’m looking at Romanticism paintings that lean more toward Goya than Delacroix. There is something about Piccinini’s creatures that just say modern Romanticism to me.

3. Ennio Marchetto alongside Degas

They are both about music, dance, dramatic lighting and the stage.

2. Katie Sokoler alongside Matisse


Not since Matisse has any artist been so creative with cut paper.

1. __________ alongside __________

I left this one blank for you to fill in. Let’s see how many more matches we can come up with together!

By teaching contemporary artists alongside traditional artists, your students will be inspired by new and exciting work, while gaining an appreciation for the classics.

So tell us, what contemporary artists do you teach in your own curriculum?

Could any of them be taught alongside classical art? Share your ideas below!

Ian Sands


This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Charmaine Boggs

    How about Wayne Thiebaud with Paul Cezanne? Paintings with foods. Actually there are probably plenty of other traditional artists who painted food but it’s 7:30 AM, so I can’t come up with them right now!

    I also teach about a local Dayton, Ohio, artist, Bing Davis. His work would go well with traditional African textiles and ceremonial masks.

    • Becca Kallem

      Emily Eveleth is also a contemporary painter who does crazy donut still life paintings!

  • Sara Allen

    Claes Oldenberg’s food sculptures vs. Paul Cezanne may be another good choice or perhaps a Chuck Close portrait painting vs. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

  • Scott

    Ben Heine with Roy Lichtenstein or Georges Seurat – the circles relate well to pointillism and the benday dots and show a progression of the use of the shape.

  • Vivian

    Visual ARtist Nick Cave and African Masks and Ceremonial Costumes.

  • Christy Humpal

    Kimmy Cantrell and Picasso

  • H. Taylor

    I’m working with Middle Schoolers on the Italian Renaissance, and think that Theo Jansen would pair well with Leonardo da Vinci’s propensity towards inventions, and his wonderful sketches of them. I would have never come to this idea without your wonderful article. I’ll be using many of them. So relevant. Thank you!

  • Michelle Melendez
  • Erica Stinziani

    What an awesome resource! Thank you:) I will be thinking about my favorite as I clean my basement today. . . but I think it is definitely Vik Muniz. . . I teach him whenever I am doing a recycled art project that and I want kids to re-imagine their resources. He took some famous painting and made them from trash (with the trash pickers from Brazil of course.) I’m sure you’ve seen his movie WASTELAND. I’ll keep thinking more though:) and post them here later down the road.

  • Erica Stinziani

    This is an artist from my area that makes awesome block prints. you might be able to link him to the masters who used wood block prints.

  • Erica Stinziani

    This is a local contemporary artist in my area whose work uses a lot of symbolism like Frida Kahlo.

  • kd

    What a refreshing approach! Too much teaching time can be spent on (the marvelous) Impressionists. Many students engaged by current artists who live in the world they inhabit!

  • Marie E

    I agree, Da vinci is a better match for Theo Jansen. I love comparing contemporary artists and art historical examples- we have a responsibility to show students that these artworks are relevant,and demonstrating how artists reference art history helps do so. I’ve done Ai Wei Wei and Marcel Duchamp (bicycles specifically), I contrasted Frank Gehry architecture with the Greek Parthenon, Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl vs. John Tenniel’s for Lewis Carroll, and so many more. Compare and Contrast is one of my favorite activities to do with students, as it gets them looking, thinking, and talking about art. Even Kindergartners can identify what’s the same and what’s different in 2 works of art.

  • missy

    I teach Natasha Wescoat alongside Gustav Klimt. My K &1 students love her swirly trees. It’s easy for them to make trees in that style they feel very successful. The kids also enjoy looking at the work of Klimt to find similarities and differences in their paintings.

  • It’s so great to see all the ideas forming here! The list could go on and on!

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  • Ariel

    I do Georgia O’Keeffe and Robert Rauschenberg. It was an assignment we did in college, and it works well with compositional strategies, and painting.

  • Becca Kallem

    This sure could go on and on! I like teaching Yinka Shonibare along with traditional African textile, Yayoi Kusama along with Seurat/pointilism or for 100th day of school activities, and Devorah Sperber along with Chuck Close. Not to mention art costume photos inspired by Cindy Sherman, varieties of line/mark with Julie Mehretu, Mary Heilman and color, Nick Cave costume design, Pepon Osorio and memory, Vija Celmins and value drawing, Martin Puryear and mixed media sculpture, and Laylah Ali (characters, comics, narrative). There’s just so much out there! I’d like to get more up to speed on artists who use digital media…

  • Becca Kallem

    OOOH, and Barbara Kruger photo and text, Kehinde Wiley portraits, floor installations a la Polly Apfelbaum, Yoko Ono wish trees, “painting” with a variety of unconventional materials like Wolfgang Laib (and many others), mapping and space with Guy Debord and Mark Bradford.

  • Becca Kallem

    Louise Nevelson alongside Leonardo Drew or Chakaia Booker

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  • bethany plummer

    Pablo Picasso alongside sandra silberzweig..I just did a compare of contrast of Pablo’s cubist portraits
    with Sandra’s portraits and it was a HUGE hit.

    • Sandra Silberzweig

      Thank you Bethany, I would love to see the students results, contact me

  • bethany plummer

    Also Julian Beever alongside Italian Renaissance artists using one point perspective. Students pull out one point perspective from the last supper and compare it with Julian’s 3-D street art.

  • Laurie Shriver

    I hope to connect contemporary art with art history more in my lesson plans. These examples are great! Art 21 would be a good source to find contemporary artists by theme, media, subject area, etc