As Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month winds down, it’s important to note
how many AAPI artists, architects, collectors, and activists have changed the course of art history in the United States and around the world. Here are 25 Asian American and Pacific Islander artists who have made key contributions to modern and contemporary art in a variety of mediums, styles, and movements.
Please note that we’ve included some non-US citizens who nevertheless spent significant time in the United States. They are marked with an asterisk*.
Chiura Obata (1885–1975)
Born in Okayama Prefecture in Japan and eventually based in Berkeley, California, Chiura Obata was an art teacher and accomplished visual artist before he was interred by the U.S. government in response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. His vivid paintings of natural landscapes—using watercolors and inks on silk and paper—captured a rich variety of American wilderness scenes, especially the mountains in California. Obata taught thousands of students, including children he was detained with at the Tanforan Racetrack and in Topaz, Utah. A sweeping exhibition of Obata’s work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2020 was critically acclaimed but interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988)
Isamu Noguchi was a critically acclaimed sculptor who also created gardens, furniture, lighting fixtures, ceramics, and architecture. Born in Los Angeles to an Irish-American mother and a Japanese poet father, Noguchi began his art career when he worked briefly for the sculptor Gutzon Borglum and took sculpture classes while enrolled in Columbia’s premed program. An exhibition of Constantin Brancusi’s work prompted Noguchi to go to Paris, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, to work at Brancusi’s studio.
A major early achievement in Noguchi’s career was the large-scale sculpture commissioned for the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Center unveiled in 1940. Noguchi also collaborated with many artists for projects spanning stage sets, stone carving, and playground design, as well as commercial designs for Zenith Radio and others. He represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1986, won the National Medal of Arts in 1987, and his studio in Mure, Japan, officially became a museum in 1999.
Alfonso Ossorio (1916–1990)
Alfonso Ossorio remains overlooked and underappreciated in the annals of art history. His hugely varied output ranged from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism (he was close to Jackson Pollick), with potent influences from the art brut movement. He incorporated found objects in his work in adventurous and unusual ways.
Born in Manila to a wealthy family of Spanish, Chinese, and Filipino decent, Ossorio had the means to access and synthesize a wide array of aesthetic influences—but, remarkably, he remained artistically independent. “Because Ossorio was independently wealthy, he could please himself. He had no need to conform to whatever stylistic rules might be in force at the moment when a particular work was being made,” art writer Edward Lucie-Smith observed in a 2017 essay for a Sotheby’s retrospective.
C. C. Wang (1907–2003)
C. C. Wang was an artist and art collector who amassed one of the largest collections of historical and premodern Chinese paintings in the world. Born Wang Jiquan near Suzhou, China, Wang practiced calligraphy as a child and later studied landscape painting. He became a resident of New York in 1949, where he taught, consulted at Sotheby’s, and dealt in real estate and art. Pieces from Wang’s personal art collection are now held by major art institutions including the British Museum, Princeton University, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where his name graces a gallery, acquired more than five dozen paintings and works of calligraphy collected by Wang and held a special exhibition focused on them in 2000.
I. M. Pei (1917–2019)
One of the most revered architects in the world, and famous for designing the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre museum, I. M. Pei was a modernist whose work spanned concert halls, hospitals, civic buildings, and many institutions.
Born in what is now Guangzhou, China, Pei received a bachelor of architecture degree from MIT in 1940 and then did graduate work at Harvard, where he studied under the German modernist Walter Gropius. Pei designed many museums, including the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, the Des Moines Art Center, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland—a job he initially turned down.
His work also included the John F. Kennedy library and the John Hancock Tower, both in Boston, and the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York. His last major building project was the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, in 2008, a collaboration with his sons. He was a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1979 and the Pritzker Prize in 1983.
Miyoko Ito (1918–1983)
Miyoko Ito was born and raised in Berkeley, California, save for the five artistically influential years she spent as a child with her family in Japan. Her college studies at UC Berkeley were interrupted by FDR’s Executive Order 9066; along with some 8,000 other Japanese-Americans living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ito was imprisoned in Tanforan, a holding center in San Bruno, and then transferred to Topaz in Utah.
She taught art classes in the camp alongside Chiura Obata, one of her professors at Berkeley. After a year, Ito was granted special permission to leave Topaz and resume her studies. She eventually landed at the Art Institute of Chicago, bringing her to the city she would call home until her death. Ito was a contemporary of the Imagists but pioneered a decidedly more abstract style. “Chicago gave me a sense of surrealism,” she once said, “although it is not that obvious.”
Toshiko Takaezu (1922–2011)
Inspired by the Hawaiian landscape of her youth, Toshiko Takaezu was known for her graceful, varied clay vessels with glazes both vibrant and earthy. After studying ceramics at the University of Hawaii and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Takaezu traveled to Japan in 1955, where she worked with master Japanese potters Kaneshige Toyo and Shoji Hamada. She supplemented her immersion in traditional pottery by studying Zen Buddhism and Japanese tea ceremonies, both of which hugely influenced her work when she returned to the United States. She taught at the University of Wisconsin, the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Honolulu Academy of Art, and Princeton University before retiring from teaching in 1992 to become a studio artist.
Ruth Asawa (1926–2013)
Japanese-American postmodern artist and activist Ruth Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, to immigrant farmers, the fourth of seven children. In 1942 she and most of her family were interned at Santa Anita Park for six months; while there, Asawa spent her time with Disney artists who were also interned. She was later moved to a camp in Arkansas, where she remained until September 1943. She studied to be an art teacher in Wisconsin and in North Carolina at Black Mountain College, then married and moved to San Francisco. Between 1954 and 1960, Asawa exhibited her sculptures, paintings, and drawings in solo and group shows at institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service released a series of stamps featuring Asawa’s fiber sculptures.
Yayoi Kusama (1929–)*
Even if you don’t know Yayoi Kusama’s name, you’ve likely seen her colorful sculptures, highly Instagrammable mirror room installations, or items from her recent collaboration with luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton.
Kusama was born and raised in Matsumoto, Japan, to a family of agriculture merchants and trained at the Kyoto City University of the Arts for a year and a half. She gravitated toward the European and American avant-garde, painting abstract natural forms and then her signature polka dots on walls, floors, canvases, and household objects—as well as naked people. Kusama has spoken about how these dots came from her vivid hallucinations, which began at age 10.
Her soft sculpture work in the 1960s involved covering a variety of items with white phallic protrusions. She participated in the Venice Biennale in 1966 and 1993. After periods in France and the United States, Kusama returned to Japan and has been living voluntarily in a mental hospital in Tokyo since 1977. She is now the top-selling living female artist in the world, and her shows regularly break attendance records.
Nam June Paik (1932–2006)
Known as “the father of video art,” Nam June Paik had a career that included video sculptures, installations, performances, videotapes and television productions. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Paik became part of the neo-Dada Fluxus avant-garde art movement after meeting John Cage and George Maciunas in Germany. In 1963 his landmark solo exhibition at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal featured modified television sets that altered the look and content of the medium.
The next year he immigrated to the States, settling in New York City, and exhibited his work at the New School, Galeria Bonino, and the Howard Wise Gallery. He was one of the first artists to use a portable video camcorder, and his collaboration with Japanese engineer Shuya Abe on an early video synthesizer transformed digital moving-image production. Paik’s work has been featured at Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and the Whitney Biennial. In 2008 the Nam June Paik Art Center opened in a suburb of Seoul.
On Kawara (1932–2014)
On Kawara’s textual works examine the passage of time as a human sense-making tool. From 1966 to 2013, Kawara made his now-characteristic “date paintings,” which display the date the painting was executed against a solid background. Kawara was born in Japan but lived a largely peripatetic existence for much of his career, a fact reflected in the date paintings: Their dates are always rendered in the language and grammatical conventions of the country in which the painting was executed. Kawara’s epic One Million Years [Past] lists the past million years in a series of huge leather-bound books, dedicated to “all those who have lived and died.” Its companion piece, One Million Years [Future], lists the million years to come and is addressed to “the last one.” At his request, Kawara’s obituaries note that he lived for 29,771 days rather than giving his dates of birth and death.
Yoko Ono (1933–)
In recent decades, Yoko Ono has been celebrated as a protean multimedia artist, but she is perhaps most known for her contributions to avant-garde music, becoming a key member of the same New York Fluxus movement that included John Cage and eventually inspired the formation of her Plastic Ono Band. She is also known for her lifelong activism, first coming to international attention for her and her husband John Lennon’s “bed-in” protests against the Vietnam War. After the Beatles disbanded in 1970, Ono became a target of vitriol among fans, who believed (with scant evidence) that she broke up the band. “I think I was used as a scapegoat, and it’s a very easy scapegoat, a Japanese woman and whatever,” Ono said in a 2010 CNN interview. “Sexism, racism, but also just remember that the United States and Britain were fighting with Japan in World War II.”
Bernice Bing (1936–1998)
Bernice Bing—or “Bingo,” as she was affectionately called—spent much of her childhood in an Oakland, California, orphanage and bouncing around among white foster families. At the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) she studied with Saburo Hasegawa, who introduced her to Zen Buddhism, Chinese philosophy, and traditional calligraphy, all of which would emerge in her later work. After graduating Bing became enmeshed in San Francisco’s beatnik subculture, painting in a largely Abstract Expressionist style. One of her paintings, Self Portrait with a Mask (1960), reimagines 15th-century painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady, except Bing’s face is obscured. “I, being a woman, Asian and lesbian in a white male system—Where do I start to recover my reality?” she once wrote in a journal entry.
Shigeko Kubota (1937–2015)
Japanese-born sculptor and video and performance artist Shigeko Kubota was inspired to join the avant-garde art world—specifically New York’s Fluxus movement—after seeing a 1962 performance by John Cage and Yoko Ono. In 1965 Kubota performed her most infamous work, Vagina Painting, at FluxFest, attaching a paintbrush to her underwear and smearing red paint on a canvas on the floor. At the time, what was dismissed by her peers as “un-Fluxus” actually referenced everything from works by Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein to the history of geishas in Japan.
Despite its infamy, Vagina Painting was an anomaly, since it was Kubota’s video output that defined much of her career. She became one of the first artists to adopt the handheld Sony Portapak video camera, praising its DIY nature and likening it to a “new paintbrush.” She was married to fellow Fluxus video artist Nam June Paik, becoming his primary caretaker in the last years of his life.
Born Zarina Rashid (later Hashmi) in Alighar, India, Zarina spent much of her career in search of an elusive “home.” The partition of India eventually left her stateless and content to join her diplomat husband in a semi-nomadic existence. Her nostalgia for places accessed only by memory animated much of her emotionally charged, minimalist work—such as Home Is a Foreign Place (1999), a series of woodcuts eulogizing her childhood home and the geopolitical implications of its loss. “I have had people come to my show and start to cry. I always ask them why, and usually they say, ‘That is our story also,’” she once said. “I realize that if you tell your story and if someone can come and cry on your shoulder, I think that is sharing.”
Martin Wong (1946–1999)
Self-described “Chino-Latino” artist Martin Wong was born in Portland, Oregon, to Chinese American parents. He graduated with a degree in ceramics from Humboldt State University in 1968, and won a competitive ceramics exhibition at the De Young museum in San Francisco in 1970. But a decision by the museum to bar his work from the exhibition due to Wong‘s use of glitter prompted him to switch to painting. Wong moved to New York in 1978, where he painted scenes of the city—including his hotel room, landscapes of tall buildings, and the effects of gentrification and the AIDS crisis—in work that was a mix of urban, religious, erotic, fantastic, and real elements. His identity as an openly gay Asian-American man was also present in his work. He died of AIDS at the age of 53.
Pacita Abad (1946–2004)
Born in 1946 in Batanes, the Philippines, to politically involved parents, Pacita Abad originally planned on a law career, studying political science and Asian history in Manila and San Francisco. A short marriage to artist George Kleiman introduced her to the art world, and during a yearlong trip across 12 Asian countries she shifted her career plans from law to painting.
Abad’s work was influenced by the creative techniques she encountered in the many countries she visited, including Korean ink-brush painting, Indonesian batik prints, African tie-dye, and Indian mirror work. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Abad incorporated a quilting method called trapunto into her art, layering, stuffing, stitching, and collaging objects—such as buttons, shells, mirrors, and painted textiles—on top of her vibrant, large-scale painted canvasses. Her work has been in solo and group exhibitions at museums around the world, as well as collected by the Tate Modern, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Smithsonian American Arts Museum, and the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982)
Across her many mediums, artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha experimented with language—and she was well versed in several of them, being fluent in Korean (her first language), English, and French. Cha moved with her family to the United States when she was 12, after years of moving around Korea and Manchuria in an attempt to outrun Japanese occupation. Her 1982 novel Dictée is often considered her magnum opus, but Cha was also a commanding performance and video artist. Mouth to Mouth (1975), an eight-minute black-and-white film, anticipated the same linguistic themes she would later explore in Dictée,combining Korean letters and footage of a mouth forming shapes. Tragically, a week after Dictée was published, Cha was murdered in New York City.
Maya Lin (1959–)
Multidisciplinary artist, architect, memorial designer, and children’s book author Maya Lin was still a college undergraduate when, in 1981, she won the national competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It was an immediate award-winner. Born in Athens, Ohio, to two professors (including a ceramicist father) who had emigrated from China, Lin studied sculpture and earned a master’s degree in architecture from Yale. In her art practice she often produces site-specific sculptures and installations focused on natural materials or does land-shaping pieces (earthworks) like The Wave Field at the University of Michigan. Other major works include the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, The Woman Table at Yale University, and the 30-ton wooden sculpture 2 x 4 Landscape at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Lin received the National Medal of Arts in 2009 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Shahzia Sikander (1969–)
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Shahzia Sikander is known for her use of premodern and classical Central and South Asian miniature painting traditions in her contemporary art works, which include vibrant paintings, glass mosaics, sculptures, calligraphy, and video animations. Sikander’s breakthrough work, The Scroll (1989–90), is a five-foot-long watercolor and gouache narrative work of intricate domestic scenes that she painted over a year and a half while studying at the National College of Arts in Pakistan. Sikander’s visual “epic poem,” inspired by Chinese scroll paintings, David Hockney, Pakistani architecture, and many other influences, received national critical acclaim in Pakistan. After earning an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995, she lived in Houston for two years before settling in New York, where she still lives. Sikander won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the U.S. State Department’s Medal of Art in 2012, and, in 2023, the Pollock Prize for Creativity.
Sarah Sze (1969–)
Sarah Sze is one of the art world’s most laureled installation artists: Her work was included in the 1999 Carnegie International and the 2000 Whitney Biennial, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2003, and she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Sze comes from a long line of accomplished Asian-Americans: her great-grandfather was Cornell University’s first Chinese student and China’s first ambassador to the United States, and her father was an architect. Sze followed in his footsteps to study architecture in college, later switching to art. It’s difficult to sum up her body of work, but her fantastical, larger-than-life installations tend to arrange everyday objects in unexpected contexts, provocatively commenting on—or sometimes even altering—their surroundings. “I’m interested in the idea of sculpture as a tool to understand where we are in time [and] in the world,” she told The Guardian in 2020.
Anicka Yi (1971–)
Artist Anicka Yi was a late bloomer. When she joined Circular File, an art collective that also counted Josh Kline as a member, she was in her 30s and had no formal art training. Science, and specifically perfumery, became her entrée: Her mother worked for a biomedical company, and she regularly draws on collaborations with researchers at Columbia University, MIT, and other leading institutions for her artworks. Yi’s conceptual art prioritizes sensory experiences, or what she calls a “biopolitics of the senses.” As this publication described her work in a 2017 profile, the South Korean–born Yi “deep-fries flowers, displays live snails, grows a leathery fiber from the film produced by brewing kombucha, and cultivates human-borne bacteria.”
Josh Kline (1979–)
The subject of a survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through August 2023, Josh Kline’s genre-spanning work in video, design, sculpture, and photography interrogates emerging technologies and all their attendant anxieties. His immersive installation Unemployment, which imagines artificial intelligence’s decimation of the middle class, seems even more relevant now than when he made it in 2016. His attraction to trenchant political commentary might be inspired by his upbringing: Kline’s father, a biochemist at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, was laid off when Kline was a teenager, and his mother, who’d been a pharmaceutical chemist in the Philippines, worked as a caterer, insurance salesperson, and tax worker to make ends meet in the United States. Kline says his work is informed by “seeing their American dreams fizzle out.”
Wu Tsang (1982–)
American-born and Zurich-based, with a white mother and Chinese father, Wu Tsang is acutely aware of language’s ambiguities. “My father’s mother tongue was Chinese, but he never taught it to me,” she says. “This space of mistranslation and misrecognition is very intuitive to me, because it comes from my own immigrant experience.” Through her films, installations, and performances, Tsang has explored “in-betweenness,” resisting the imposition of binary terms and embracing a hybridized aesthetic. Her work has been recognized through a 2018 MacArthur grant and a monumental sound and video commission by the Guggenheim. That work, Anthem (2021), projected a larger-than-life video of the transgender singer and activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland performing spirituals on a massive curtain hung down the middle of the museum’s atrium. Writing in The New York Times, critic Holland Cotter later described it as “one of the most emotionally moving things I had seen in this space.”
Salman Toor (1983–)
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Salman Toor studied painting and drawing at Ohio Wesleyan University and received his MFA from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. The figurative painter portrays scenes of “ultra freedom,” vulnerability, and his experience of navigating a conservative family, friends, and relationships as a femme South Asian man. Toor frequently uses an emerald green tone to evoke the inviting “nocturnal glamor and fantasy” of gay life, and also to color what he calls “fag puddles,” his depictions of “heaps of objects and tubular body parts.” In 2021 Toor’s work was exhibited alongside paintings by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer at the Frick Museum’s exhibition “Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters” in New York. A solo exhibition of Toor’s work, “No Ordinary Love,”which debuted at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is currently at the Tampa Museum of Art and will travel to Honolulu and elsewhere later this year.