20 Contemporary Artists You Will Love to Teach (Ep. 072)

If you are not already using contemporary artists in your classroom, you definitely want to consider some new artists and ideas to bring to your students. Contemporary artists can be engaging and valuable for your students, and Tim and Andrew have an incredible list of their favorite artists to teach. Tim also figures out how to work Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video into the discussion (13:30), Andrew introduces Tim to the video artist Paul Pfeiffer (17:30), and Andrew closes the show with a great explanation of why you should be teaching about contemporary artists (21:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show’s produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host Andrew McCormick. A couple of weeks ago, Tim and I had an absolute blast doing our Shove It or Love It podcast. We recently had a chance to get together in person, which is always a great time, and we were kind of thinking it’d be fun to have sort of a goofy sort of Love It or Shove It rematch, but this time, specifically just with artists. We started coming up with artists that we thought that the other person would hate, and we were actually kind of surprised to find that we had way more artists in common, so instead, we sort of spun this episode into a look at some contemporary art forms and contemporary artists that’d be great to use in your classroom, maybe, if you’re not already doing so. We said we were going to get you about 20 artists that you could look into, but I think we went a little bit above and beyond that.

I think Tim is going to come on and try to tell you that he loves art history more than I do, which may or may not be true, but it’s debatable, but what’s not debatable is that we both agree upon that when you teach art history, you shouldn’t just be teaching the old stuffy dead white European guy. If you find that you are enjoying this episode of the podcast and you enjoy sort of this contemporary look at art history, you’ll definitely want to keep that art history investigation going with AOE’s course, Integrating Art History. You’ll become a pro at using things like Google Art Project, and you’ll be able to create lessons that integrate art history in a meaningful way that are fun for both you and your students. Integrating Art History is just a two-credit class, and new sections start up every single month. If you’re like me, and you need to quickly hurry up and get some relicensure credits before your teaching license expires, head on over to and check out this and all the other great courses that they offer.

Now, let’s get on with our interview with Tim here. You know, this guy, he carries around a copy of Janson’s History of Art book everywhere he goes, and I’m not talking just the pocket edition. This guy’s carrying around like the old 30 pound book everywhere he goes. He’s crazy. All right, Tim. Today we are talking about contemporary art and artists that we love and love to teach. This is kind of cool. You’re joining me live. How are you doing this fine day?

Tim: I am doing really well, and I love talking contemporary artists, so if I start to ramble a little bit, feel free to cut me off.

Andrew: Well, and it’s nice. It’s been a while since we’ve done a live one. I can actually, like, kick you or punch you if that happens.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah. Let’s do it.

Andrew: This episode kind of came about as we were talking about how fun the Love it or Shove it episode was, …

Tim: Yes. Yes.

Andrew: … and we thought about “Okay. Do we do a Love It or Shove It with more contemporary artists instead of just, you know, arguing over impressionism?” but then we got to talking about how there’s all these art movements that we don’t often talk about, and there’s some really great artist out there, so we just thought this is pure love it.

Tim: Yes. Yes.

Andrew: There’s no shoving. It’s only people we like.

Tim: It is all love.

Andrew: Yeah, so just in some areas that maybe get a little bit overlooked, so kind of broke it down with about five or six kind of different disciplines, and we’ll just hit some artists that we like. First off, I want to ask you about street art and street artists, some street artists that you really like.

Tim: Okay. Personally and teaching, I think these two artists work really well for me. Banksy is the absolute go-to. My high school kids love him more than anything. He’s probable one of the favorite artists that I show all year. Kids talk about “Oh. This is the best thing we’ve seen.” They love the sense of humor. They love the political statements. They love, sometimes, the irreverence, and, just, it can be very poignant, or it can be very silly, or it can be in between, and sometimes both. I think that works really, really well.

I personally love Keith Haring. I like to talk about him as the early days of graffiti and street art, and kids get really engaged by him. Super simple, and, you know, honestly, back when I taught elementary school, he is a great artist to show for elementary kids, as well. Even Banksy, if you pick the right stuff, upper elementary can definitely deal with some of the issues that he’s bringing up.

Andrew: Right. One of the worries I always have with street artists is showing some graffiti art, and then a kid goes home and tells mom and dad “We’re looking at graffiti,” and then they get all mad that you’re teaching them this, like, felony. The two artists that I want to talk about are actually street artists that have kind of a conscientious approach to their artwork, so they don’t damage the building, which his kind of nice.

Shepard Fairey, who is …

Tim: Yes. Love Shepard Fairey.

Andrew: … yeah, the creator of OBEY, the clothing line, the brand, the message, kind of started as this goofy kind of phenomenology, viral thing with Andre the Giant, of all things.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: I really like showing Shepard Fairey. I’ve even showed it to kids who are wearing OBEY clothing and didn’t know that there was, like, a real artist behind that, which is cool. Then there’s another artist I like quite a bit named Swoon who does these really elaborate, delicate paper cut stencils that then get kind of wheat pasted onto the wall. I always say with wheat paste and stencils or wheat paste and posters, that stuff will deteriorate and wash off over time, so they’re not actually damaging the building, which is kind of cool.

Tim: Yeah. That’s nice. I like that.

Andrew: The umbrella of all of this is … You know, we were kind of thinking that we don’t often talk enough about contemporary artists, so let’s not even talk about some weird art movement. Let’s just go contemporary artist.

Tim: Okay.

Andrew: Who are some of your go-to favorite contemporary artists?

Tim: Ooh. That’s a good question. I have a lot, but I know you said “all of,” but if we can break from that just real quick, can we just establish that Damien Hirst sucks?

Andrew: I … Okay.

Tim: Come on. You can’t like Damien Hirst.

Andrew: I do like Damien Hirst, …

Tim: Oh no.

Andrew: … but I think the guy’s a complete, like …

Tim: Tool? Yeah.

Andrew: He’s an idiot, but I actually like his work. I find it to be kind of interesting and thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Tim: Oh man. Mkay.

Andrew: I’m sorry. We can’t agree on that one.

Tim: All right. All right. Well, let’s go back to who I love, then.

Andrew: Okay.

Tim: First couple that come to mind, Kara Walker would be one. Just beautiful, gorgeous silhouettes that draw you in, and then, once you start looking a little closer, you’d see that she’s dealing with some really heavy issues about slavery, about race, and it leads to some really good discussions. I will say, though, if you’re going to teach Kara Walker, tread lightly, pick the right images, pick the right discussions, and just be thoughtful about what you’re doing, because it can be a lot to handle. I also love, and my students absolutely love, Kehinde Wiley, just his portraits of contemporary people with all of these callbacks to art history and these ornamental backgrounds and just beautifully painted things, but with contemporary people in there, you know, my kids just go crazy for.

Then, if I can add in one more, I love Ai Weiwei, just all of his messages. They’re very political, very thought-provoking, and I think he does some great work, and again, leads to some amazing discussions in class.

Andrew: Mm-hmm.

Tim: I don’t know. What about you? I don’t want to dominate the conversation here.

Andrew: Oh yeah. I think partially because of my background in sculpture, the three that I chose, I like all three of these guys, and I do feel a little guilty that it’s three guys. They all have very similar names. It’s a Tom, a Tom, and a Tim, but the common thread that these guys have, and I’ll talk about them a little bit more in depth, is they’re, like, obsessive. Like, they come up with a kind of a simple yet preposterous idea, and then it’s just about being super obsessive or controlling and meticulous, which is actually not at all how I work, and maybe that’s why I like these guys, but … Tom Sachs, I really, really enjoy. He’s one of those contemporary artists that I love but I’m reluctant to teach, because he’ll sometimes venture into some materials that are maybe not safe for school or safe for students to look at, but … Tim Hawkinson and Tom Friedman both are just really brilliant guys that just come up with weird ideas and just execute it flawlessly and make these beautiful yet kind of disturbing and compelling sculptures that … I just really like all three of those guys.

Tim: Okay. That’s cool. I’m not familiar with Tom Friedman, though. Can you give me a couple examples of what he would do?

Andrew: Right. It’s almost like performance art, in some ways, but let’s take a pencil and sharpen it and have the shavings be one continuous shaving and then hang that on the wall. What you’re looking at is, like, incredibly ephemeral. It’s barely there. If you were to sneeze on it, you’d probably break it, but it’s just this beautiful 18 inch long continuous pencil curl. That’s a good example. What would it look like if I erased a giant pink eraser and then kept all of the dust in a meticulous, beautiful pile?

Tim: Okay.

Andrew: If you look at his artwork without kind of, without knowing the process, you’re kind of missing out on some of it. You’re like “Why am I looking at this pile of pink dust on the floor?” but then you’re like “Oh. That’s a perfectly, meticulously, ground to nothing pink eraser,” and that’s what it looks like.

Tim: Okay. I like this.

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: I like this. Yeah.

Andrew: Yeah. It’s really weird and out there stuff, but he’s pretty cool.

Tim: Now I’ll have to check that out.

Andrew: You know, we’ve got a couple, now, kind of newer directions that art has gone, and one of them is installation, so I want to ask you about maybe some of your favorite installation artists that are your go-tos.

Tim: Ooh. I have a couple that come to mind, but I’m going to just put you on the spot. I’m going to let you go first while I figure this out.

Andrew: Oh. Okay.

Tim: Who do you love for installations?

Andrew: Well, the one that first came to mind is a woman named Sarah Sze, and her last name is kind of an unusual name, S-Z-E. I don’t know a whole lot about her, but she makes these super elaborate sculptures that look like cities with infrastructure and scaffolding, and there’s working electronic LEDs, and it’s all just made out of, like, garbage, like Q-tips and scraps of paper and all of this stuff, but they’ll take up entire rooms. They’re just really cool. I would say this, that those people out there who are kind of Type A and organized would look at this stuff and just be like “Ahhh!” because it’s just, it’s junk, and it’s just meandering and exploding.

Then, the other one, that is kind of similar, but it’s far more structured and organized, is a woman named Tara Donovan. She’ll make a sculpture out of 10 billion, like, straws, and she’ll just lay them on the wall so it makes this floor to ceiling, 40 foot long straw installation, and they all move a little bit, so it looks like this undulating wave. She’ll really pick one material and then just have a mountain of it and make something really interesting with that.

Tim: Oh, okay. That reminds me a little bit of Ai Weiwei and the sunflower seeds, you know?

Andrew: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: Obviously, he had way too many people helping him, but, you know, that’s cool. So, installation. I love Maya Lin, and I know everybody knows her for her architecture and memorials and design work, but she has some really cool installations, as well, that I think are worth looking up. I love Felix Gonzalez-Torres. He’s got a lot of really cool installations with … You know, they’re really bright and colorful and made of candy, but yet, at the same time, he’s dealing with super heavy issues, and so I think that’s a good one to start some discussions. I love Walter De Maria. I don’t know if you know any … He made a lightning field in, I want to say New Mexico.

Andrew: Mm. Mm-hmm.

Tim: But yeah. He’s another one of those just meticulous type things where he’s very much about measurements and doing these huge sculptures that are precise in every way, and they’re very large scale, which I love. James Turrell is a lot of fun. He’s easy to introduce to kids, because he has these rooms that are just bathed in, like, a particular color of light, and if you ever see them in person, you just get lost inside of them. It’s an awesome experience, but Drake has hit “Hotline Bling” video, and if you ever just watch “Hotline Bling”, …

Andrew:Ah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: … he’s in one of these rooms that are very reminiscent of James Turrell’s work, so super easy introduction for kids, because they’re familiar with that already, if you can stand listening to Drake for a few minutes.

Andrew M.: I had no idea where you were going with that, and I was like “What are you talking about?” Then, it’s like “Oh, yeah. That really does make sense that you could, like, use that video to introduce his work.”

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: I actually saw kind of a retrospective or just a … I don’t know if the guy’s alive still or not, but …

Tim: Yeah. Well, that was going to be my next point. Sorry to interrupt you, …

Andrew: Oh, no. Go ahead.

Tim: … but he has been working on the Roden Crater project for the past 40 years, where he’s literally hollowing out a volcano and turning it into these light spaces, and it’s just the most incredible thing. I guarantee you your kids will be fascinated as soon as you say “He’s hollowing out an old volcano.”

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: He’s definitely worth checking out.

Andrew: I saw an exhibit of his in Pittsburgh back when I was doing my MFA in Ohio, and one of the pieces he had was like a sensory depravation chamber that he had created. You’re sitting in this thing, and it goes completely dark. You’re on this board, and there was water, so now I’m kind of like, I’m thinking to the Netflix show Stranger Things where the little girl gets in the depravation tank, but anyway. Then, these lights start, and they start flashing right above your face, and it was pretty metaphysical. I was transported to another realm, and I did not know where I was. It was bananas that art and light, I mean, all he does is work with light, can really move people into that, so it was very cool.

Tim: Yeah. I was in Los Angeles last year, and I got to go in one of his rooms. It’s pretty crazy, because as that room gets built, they don’t have any corners, like everything’s curves, and you’re like “Kind of weird,” but then, when it gets bathed in that light, you absolutely lose yourself. You have no sense of direction, and there’s no … Like, you can’t get your bearings whatsoever. It’s just the weirdest, most surreal, but coolest experience.

Andrew: I’m surprised, of all people, that he’s a guy that we both like, that we’ve come together on.

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

Andrew: That seems like a weird one, but there’s two more kind of big art movements and directions in art that we haven’t talked about I want to get to here, video and performance. Which one of those would you want to talk about first?

Tim: Let’s chat about video.

Andrew: Okay.

Tim: Because I have one that I love, personally, one that I love to teach. Matthew Barney does these crazy out of this world movies, I mean, they’re movies, but just way too weird for school, so, you know, don’t show him, probably. But one artist I do show is Tony Oursler, who is spectacular, where he’ll just film close up videos of different body parts and then put them together in these weird Frankenstein-looking monsters where eyes are moving different directions and blinking at different times. It’s super weird and surreal, and he also creates these characters and these stories and, you know, just all these amazing video installations on sculpture that my kids … At first, they’re like “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” but then, like 3/4 of them usually come around and go, like, “This guy is amazing.” What about you?

Andrew: Well, I also like Matthew Barney, but I agree. He’s way too out there and weird to show. Kids would just think you’re ridiculous for showing any of his stuff.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: It actually took me a little bit, a while to remember this guy’s name and come up with him. I was kind of stumped, because I think everyone’s go-to artist for video is Tony Oursler.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: Paul Pfeiffer. If you don’t know Paul Pfeiffer’s work, I actually saw him on Art:21, I think in like one of the very first seasons, like back 15, 14 years ago. He actually deals a lot with sports, and he’ll mess with video footage of basketball games and boxing events and hockey games. He’ll remove things out of the video, like in editing, and it’s kind of a comment …

Tim: Okay. Wait. Is it like a boxing match with one person boxing?

Andrew: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: Oh, okay.

Andrew: There’s a famous one, I think it’s a Muhammad Ali fight, where he removes Muhammad Ali. I think it’s just George Foreman.

Tim: Okay.

Andrew: You’re seeing the other guy kind of move. You’re also seeing him get hit, but by nothing. You’re seeing the ropes move.

Tim: That’s fascinating.

Andrew: A lot of his work deals with absence and loss. You know, in my mind, he’s being critical of sort of like our cultish obsession with sports, and he kind of even argues, I think, that sports is elevated to almost a religious status, that we worship these famous athletes. We give them how many millions of dollars every year. While the video is interesting, thought-provoking, beautiful, it’s also like … It’s got a little bit of an edge to it, and I just think with our students, who “I don’t know why I took art. I just like sports.” Cool. Let me show you another contemporary artist who’s also jumping in and saying something through sports and art together, which is, it’s kind of a cool hook for some kids.

Tim: Yeah. I like that. I will need to check him out.

Andrew: Yeah. Okay, so last one. Let’s talk performance art, which I got to confess, it’s a tough one to sell to kids, because when performance art is done wrong, it goes sideways really quickly.

Tim: Oh, God. Yes.

Andrew: It’s not one of my favorite things to show to kids, but I’ve got someone in mind, and I wonder if we’ve got the same person. Hopefully not.

Tim: Well, I have a couple that are both a little bit older. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but Ana Mendieta is one of my favorite artists of all time, and she uses her body to create these ephemeral sculptures where she’ll do like a silhouette of her body. You know, maybe it’s on the beach, and the sculpture lasts for eight hours until the tide washes it away, or, you know, she’s done things where she burns her silhouette into a tree trunk. Technically, it’s still ephemeral, but it’s going to last for like 20 years until the trunk grows back or the bark grows back over what she had burned into it. I’m fascinated by her. My kids are fascinated by her.

The other one, who’s definitely high school only, is Chris Burden. He’s the dude who had his friend shoot him in the arm, and that’s … It was a piece called Shoot, and that’s what he’s most famous for, but he does all of these crazy things where, you know, he lays on the floor of an art gallery, hooked up to electrical wires, and there’s buckets of water literally everywhere around the gallery. If anybody accidentally knocks over a bucket of water, he literally dies. He will be electrocuted. It’s that kind of performance art where, you know, the kids are just like “This is the weirdest and craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Andrew: Yeah. Okay. I got to call you out on Chris Burden.

Tim: Oh, okay.

Andrew: I really don’t like Chris Burden, and I felt like I’m supposed to. He’s one of those contemporary artist who’s like “He’s so edgy and cool.” I will say this, though, for him. I don’t really like his performance art. Later in life, he’s making sculptures now that are like super cool.

Tim: Yes. I love those.

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: He’s got some where he just hires like hundred foot tall cranes and just literally drops I-beams down into the ground, and oh, it’s just random and spectacular.

Andrew: Yeah. He’s doing some cool stuff. I like his newer stuff more than his older stuff, but … My favorite performance artist, because I think it’s done well, because it’s a little bit of music. It’s a little bit of dance. It’s a little bit of theater, but it’s definitely an art form.

Tim: Wait. Is it Nick Cave?

Andrew: It is.

Tim: Yes. All right.

Andrew: I love that guy.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: I love his Soundsuits. They’re great to look at as an artifact in a museum, and you see this thing, but you don’t really get the full Nick Cave experience without video or seeing a live performance where he’s performing the suits and moving in the suits, because as he swings around and jumps and hops and moves, they’re making sound. They’re just really awesome, and they’re weird, on their face, but when kids see them being performed, they’re like “Oh, that’s like … That’s cool.”

Tim: Oh. It makes a lot of sense. They’re really cool.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. I think the music side of what he’s doing is appealing to kids, whereas the bad performance art of, like, a person in underwear screaming while chocolate syrup covers there head is like “What the heck is this?”

Tim: Yeah. Yeah.

Andrew: Nick Cave is a good one if you’re going to introduce performance art to kids.

Tim: Yeah. I like that, so cool.

Andrew: Well, hey man. I think we did it. I think we’ve covered some big contemporary art movements and some good artists that people might want to incorporate into their curriculum.

Tim: Yeah. I hope so, and like I said, I think a lot of those artists can be taught K-12. I mean, some of them are dealing with more mature stuff, but for the most part, it’s something that everybody can use. Hopefully, people can go look those up and enjoy them as much as we do.

Andrew: Well, thanks for coming in and talking, man. Appreciate it.

Tim: Yeah. Thank, man. It’s been good.

Andrew: All right. Bye.

You know, I never would have thought that James Turrell was an artist that Tim and I could have agreed upon, but actually, you know, with most of these artists, they’re just great, and they’re so awesome that Tim and I really couldn’t disagree about any of them. If any of these artists are new to you, they’re definitely worth checking out, and I think you and your students will really enjoy them. I’ve always gotten so many great new examples to show students after I watch Art:21 online or check out the great website thisiscolossal. These artists are new. They’re now. They’re fresh. They’re diverse, and they cover ideas and communicate a message that resonates with our time and our students. I’ve said it before, but I think I’ll keep saying it. Students need to see art is being made by people that look like them, that aren’t much older than them, and they need to see that art is a living, vital part of our world.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. For fans of the podcast out there, do us a favor and give us a ranking or a glowing review on iTunes, as that totally helps us find new listeners out there. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the “Podcast” tab on While you’re there, check out the upcoming Art Ed Now Conference that’s coming up really soon, August 3rd, to be exact. You won’t want to miss this one. You know, I was actually at AOE headquarters just recently, and I got a sneak peak at some of the fantastic handouts and resources that they’re compiling. It’s very impressive. All right, guys. Thanks for listening.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.