7 Contemporary Female Artists Using Erotic As Their Subject Matter

It’s up there with death and religion as a no-go area in polite company, but these women artists invite the viewer to question, explore and change their ideas about sex.

Mar 29, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
7 Contemporary Female Artists Using Erotic As Their Subject Matter
Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires, Mickalene Thomas, 2010, The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection © Mickalene Thomas


Explore the minds of these female artists who have produced works so sexually charged, we may find their ideas radical. Erotic art in the past was of men painting, sculpting, or taking photographs of the female form. These contemporary female artists have taken the genre into their own hands, showing us a brave new way to showcase erotic topics.


1. Tracey Emin

My Bed, Tracey Emin, (b. 1963), executed in 1998, via Christies UK


Renowned for her intensely personal and intimate work, British artist Tracey Emin gained notoriety in the art world for her 1998 work “My Bed”.


After four days of lying in bed, having sex and drinking herself into oblivion, Emin rose, took a look at the sordid disorder, and realized she had created an autobiographical masterpiece. The bed, complete with condoms, discarded underwear, and empty bottles, first went on display at the Tate Gallery in London in 1999. Following this, media mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi bought it for £150,000 and exhibited it in one of his galleries. In 2014, “My Bed” went under the hammer at Christie’s and was sold to the tune of £2.5 million.


While arguably her most famous piece, “My Bed” is not the only example of the erotic in Emin’s work. In 1995, she plastered the inside of a small camping tent with the 102 names of every person she had ever shared a bed with. Creatively entitled “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995”, the work referenced both sexual and non-sexual unions. Most striking of all is the name of her lover, the artist and musician Billy Childish, which is emblazoned directly opposite the entrance. A gallery fire destroyed the work in 2004 and Emin never re-created it.


2. Betty Tompkins

WOMEN Words, Betty Tompkins, (b. 1945), executed in 2002 & 2013, via Gavlak Gallery, USA

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Winning censorship and acclaim in equal measure, the work of American artist Betty Tompkins embodies the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when she began her career.


Often labeled a feminist artist (although early feminists kept her at arm’s length!) Tompkins has had work seized by the French government and seen her Instagram account temporarily shut down, all due to the raw and controversial nature of her artwork.


Interestingly, her most pivotal works are from both her earliest and more recent years. Painted between 1969 and 1974, her infamous “F**k Paintings” are hyper-realistic depictions of sexual intercourse that attracted outrage and scandal when first exhibited. This may have been down to the fact that they were based on a then-illegal collection of pornography belonging to her husband.


Most recently, her “WOMEN Words” series strives to capture contemporary attitudes towards women. In preparation for the project, Tompkins appealed to friend and foe alike for their description of the fairer sex. The words ‘Bitch’, and ‘Mother’ were the most common. Tompkins collected these and superimposed them on famous paintings of female figures. The juxtaposition of modern words and timeless images aims to explore, reveal and portray the whole spectrum of attitudes towards women – and, unsurprisingly, it ranges from humorous to dark.


3. Cecily Brown

Pyjama Game, Cecily Brown, (b. 1969), executed in 1998, via Saatchi Gallery, UK


Cecily Brown plays with forms that are in a suspended state of transformation, challenging the viewer to question their perspective of the metamorphosis. What change is happening? Where is the motion leading? What will be the end result?


This approach perfectly suits the subject of sex, and indeed, while striving to make a name for herself in the New York art scene, Brown turned to erotic matter to capture her audience’s attention. An early work, entitled “The Skin Game”, consists of a canvas covered in figurative yet undeniably sexual figures. It invited visitors to the prestigious Gagosian Gallery to explore their perception of sex.


4. Gillian Wearing

Pin-Up, Gillian Wearing, (b. 1963), executed in 2008, via Regen Project, USA


The hidden-self has always been the inspiration for British conceptual artist, Gillian Wearing. On reading that two-thirds of young women in Britain wanted a career in glamour modeling, Wearing placed an ad online calling for men and women to star in her “Pin-Up” project. Out of the hundreds of replies, the artist eventually selected a group of seven to take part. None had any experience in the world of glamour modeling.


The result was simultaneously disturbing, moving and very revealing. Each model posed provocatively and scantily clad as their fantasy-self, and then the images were transformed in glossy, airbrushed-style paintings, according to the models’ preferences.


Exhibited at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, the pieces appeared alongside real-life photographs of each ‘glamour’ model, as well as a handwritten account of why they wanted to portray themselves in such a way. The paintings of their sexy alter-egos exposed a deep-seated sense of insecurity among Britain’s youth and provoked questions about the sexualization of society.


5. Mickalene Thomas

Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires, Mickalene Thomas, (b. 1971), executed in 2012, via Brooklyn Museum, USA


Celebrating female sexuality, sensuality, beauty and power, Mickalene Thomas was inspired by the glamour of her own mother.


Based in Brooklyn, New York, she’d grown up with the traditional concept of femininity through the great nudes of western art. It was her own mother’s influence that led her to explore the femininity of Afro-American culture.


Thomas works through a range of media, from traditional painting to installations, collages to video, and contains a variety of materials from paint to rhinestones. They often evoke a sense of déjà vu, as Thomas reinterprets masterpieces in western art through an Afro-American lens. Invariably, the center stage is taken by strong, beautiful women who own their own sexuality.


6. Jenny Saville

Passage, Jenny Saville, (b. 1970), executed in 2004, via Saatchi Gallery, UK


The career of English painter Jenny Saville exploded before she even left art school when Charles Saatchi bought her final postgraduate exhibition and offered her a contract for an original exhibition at his London gallery.


Saville is obsessed with flesh because of the challenges it poses to the painter. Consequently, she has become known for her huge canvases depicting various forms of the human nude. She uses this subject matter to draw attention to the politics of gender and sexuality.


Much of her focus during her career has been on the female form in all its shapes, sizes and distortions: overweight women stand and gaze candidly down at the viewer; women and men engage in sexual acts; hermaphrodite nudes hover in the twilight, a no man’s land of sexuality.


Indeed, in interviews, Saville has spoken of her fascination with the “in-betweenness” expressed in the hermaphroditic form and in the appearance of transvestites. This direction led her to create the work ‘Passage’, a project featuring a transvestite with real genitals and false breasts. The work gave Saville the chance to create a visual journey across fluidity in gender and sexuality.


7. Cosey Fanni Tutti

Kiss, Cosey Fanni Tutti, (born 1951), executed in 2001, via Cosey Fanny Tutti, UK


Christine Carol Newby, aka Cosey Fanni Tutti, has worked across performance and visual art since the 1960s in a quest to examine and reveal the underbelly of the porn industry.


Facing censorship, Tutti drew on her own personal experience as a stripper and glamour model for both film and print. For her, the boundaries between art and life were blurred, an idea that she literalizes in her work.


Brutally honest, “Prostitution” is a multi-media work that looks at the sex industry from both an insider’s view and outsider’s critical eye, creating an uncomfortable tension to draw the viewer in. It included an exhibition and forums for the public and sex workers to discuss the issues around the industry.


The word ‘sex’ often conjures up images of back streets, sordid pornography and sleazy parts of town. But these seven female artists have taken the subject and examined it from every angle to create works on a multi-faceted subject matter that opens our hearts, minds, and eyes.

Author Image

By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.