LUNCHTIME THINKER: The greatest artists “Part Two”

By Alec Clayton on March 1, 2011


Continuing my choices for the greatest artists of all time, I move swiftly to the modern era.

At the risk of oversimplifying, all of modern art (or all of modern painting at least) is based on the idea that a painting is an arrangement of shapes and colors on a flat surface and not, as previously thought, a window on the world. That idea pretty much started with Édouard Manet in the mid 19th century and was further defined by Paul Cézanne, and reached it's zenith with the true giant of modern art who towered over all others - Pablo Picasso.

And let's not forget Henri Matisse.

There were three threads to 20th century art: Cubism, Dada/Surrealism and abstraction. Picasso mastered and combined all three. With the exception of pure abstraction, meaning no subject matter at all, there was nothing done in 20th century painting that Picasso didn't do first. I can't emphasize enough what a huge figure he was. Other giants of these various movements were George Braque, Wassily Kandinsky and Marcel Duchamp (if you don't know them, look them up). Everything to come after about 1920 was an outgrowth of either Cubism or the related movements of Dada and Surrealism.

In America, Willem de Kooning and other New York painters synthesized Surrealism and Cubism to form a painting style known as Abstract Expressionism. On a personal note, these were the painters who most influenced me when I was an art student, and I don't think any artists since have done anything quite so exciting. The greatest of these were de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. You know them. Look at their paintings. Look closely. Study the textures and the peekaboo forms that weave in and out of space, the startling contrasts of lyrical and harsh shapes and lines. Take any and every opportunity to see their works in person (they're both in the permanent collection at Seattle Art Museum).

Modern art - first in Europe and later in America - has developed in a pretty linear fashion with a few divergent branches. Next in this line of development in America were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who took the methods and styles of Abstract Expressionism and applied them to a kind of tongue-in-cheek glorification of banal subject matters and blurred the distinctions between painting, sculpture and performance art.  Rauschenberg turned a bed on its end and painted it, covers, pillows and all, and put a stuffed goat and chicken in his assemblages; Johns borrowed a drawing from de Kooning and erased it and called it - what else? - "Erased de Kooning." Their work set the stage for Pop Art, which has in turn influenced pretty much everything that's happened in the world of art since about 1960.

The giants of Pop were Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Not quite as great but one of my personal favorites was Tom Wesselman who piques my prurient interest in a humorous way.

Since the advent of Pop Art there has been such an explosion of artistic activity that it is impossible to list the greatest artists without leaving out many who deserve to be on that list. Here are just a few not yet mentioned whom I consider to be among the greatest:

Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Frances Bacon, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Phillip Pearlstein, Anselm Kiefer and Susan Rothenberg.


LINK: The greatest artists "Part One"