Jasper Johns' 'Flag' (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Are there any truly great American artists?

The Davis Museum pulls all art made by immigrants from its collection. What would U.S. art be without them?



Noah Charney
February 20, 2017 12:00AM (UTC)

Alongside more traditional exhibits (like a killer Carlo Dolci show), the Davis Museum of Art at Wellesley College has just announced a statement un-exhibit, “Without Immigrants,” in which all objects on display that were either made by immigrants or donated by immigrants will be temporarily removed or covered, in a protest against the current administration and the international attitude toward immigrants in this time of crisis (check out #art-less). Never mind that the United States is comprised almost entirely of immigrants or their near descendants (I’m still waiting for the new administration to propose shipping Native Americans “back to India”).

It’s a very bold, clever concept, and one that got me thinking: What exactly would American museums be left with, if stripped of the art made by those born outside the U.S.? There would be art left over, sure, but would it be any good? And would any of it be truly great?

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The United States is a young country and, as such, has had relatively little time to develop artistic traditions. In focusing on traditional fine arts, largely painting and sculpture, most artists in the Western world adhere to traditions that are centuries old, far older than the U.S. We might first consider which important art movements were truly a) conceived of and developed in America, and b) conceived of and developed by artists born in America (which are two different things). We should emphasize and define terms like “important” and “great,” because they tend to be over-used (particularly by Americans, and I’m guilty of doing so as well — just ask my British book editors). We should focus on works that either launched a new movement that drew other artists to it, due to its surprising and fresh approach (like Turner’s atmospheric abstraction or Caravaggio’s dramatic naturalism and play of light emerging from shadow), or were seen as great but were unique to a single artist, often imitated, never equaled (like Klee’s childlike pictures or Rousseau’s folkloric primitivism). We’re also looking for artists who are more than one-hit wonders. I would argue that Grant Wood’s "American Gothic" is a great painting, but I would not consider Grant Wood to be a truly great artist (with apologies to the Wood family, he does not rub shoulders with Turner and Caravaggio).

This task of identifying which American artists are canonical is harder than it seems, and Google isn’t helping. Google “list of American artists” and you get thumbnail portraits of people like Josef Albers and Lyonel Feininger (both born in Germany), while Wikipedia’s list is similarly studded with immigrants who spent a lot of time in America, but were not born there: like Joseph Stella (born in Italy), Edward Steichen (Luxembourg), Eadweard Muybridge (England), Arshile Gorky (Ottoman Empire), Mark Rothko (Latvia), Willem de Kooning (the Netherlands), Ben Shahn (Lithuania), Louise Bourgeois (France), John Singer Sargent (born in Italy, but to American parents), Man Ray and Mary Cassat (both born in Pennsylvania but lived most of their lives in France and are associated with French Impressionism and Surrealism — should they count?), Jean-Michel Basquiat (born in the U.S., but to immigrant parents — is that OK?) and that most American of artists . . . Marcel Duchamp? Huh?

Google and Wikipedia actually make the point for me, and for the curators of the Davis show. Even the mighty Internet struggles to gather a list of American artists who were actually born in America — many who would quickly make my list of greats moved to America and worked there, but were born abroad. That sounds like an immigrant to me. It is safe to say that the best of American art comes from artists born abroad, or whose parents were born abroad. At what point are they “Americans” and not immigrants? This starts to eerily recall the “grandfather clause,” the origin of which was an attempt in 19th-century America to prevent poor, illiterate African-Americans from voting, while allowing poor, illiterate whites to vote.

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It is fair enough to say that, prior to 1900, the list of great American artists is understandably short. The centers of the art world were Florence and Venice (15th and 16th century), Rome (16th and 17th century), the Lowlands (15th and 17th century), all before America was a nation. It was then Paris (18th and 19th century), with New York only really coming to influence after the Second World War. So naturally the postwar period is where the list really expands.

And that’s part of my point. Set aside museums of American art, like the Whitney, and modern art museums, like MOMA. Encyclopedic national galleries, which try to draw fine examples of art from as many periods as possible, have almost no American artists on display. Well, you might argue, the U.S. can hardly be blamed for having been founded late, and look how influential its artists have become in just a few decades. True, and perhaps we need the benefit of hindsight, a few centuries hence, to determine which artists of the last few decades are paving an enduring legacy. In 500 years, we might see artists who I personally like very much but do not consider canonical (Brice Marden, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Ben Shahn, Thomas Hart Benton, for example) elevated in status.

The earliest American art was made by untrained hands, and has a folksy charm to it (I happen to appreciate a late practitioner of this folksy style, Grandma Moses). The first art academy in American was founded in Pennsylvania only in 1805. Top American artists would travel to Europe to learn their craft, copy European paintings, and draw inspiration from European movements. Which major movements are truly American? I’d offer the Hudson River school (though this is derivative of Romanticism and the sublime landscapes of the like of Caspar David Friedrich, and did not cast a broad influence), Abstract Expressionism, Photorealism and Pop Art. That’s not bad, but it’s a short list.

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This is, of course, just one art history professor’s opinion. There’s a distinct lack of female artists, but that is a problem throughout the history of art (for reasons you can read about here). You could argue that Frederic Edwin Church is canonical for his depictions and idealization of the grandeur and sublimity of the American wilderness. But is he on a par with the established, universally-acknowledged greats? Would a Mount Rushmore of painters really sit comfortably with Raphael, Ingres, Manet and Church?

I love Edwin Austin Abbey, but he was simply an excellent practitioner of a long-established style. The same might be said for countless other names some art historians might put forth for consideration. Childe Hassam’s paintings are heavenly, but he was an American Impressionist which, as the movement’s name suggests, was an American adaptation of Impressionism, continuing a style at a high level, but doing nothing groundbreaking. Frank Weston Benson is amazing, but draws his influence from Vermeer and Velazquez. Daniel Chester French made beautiful, noble sculptures (I’m looking at you, Lincoln Memorial), but he was not doing anything that had not been done before. He’s no Donatello, Bernini, Canova or Brancusi. That’s the test I’m going to apply, while also checking to see which American-born artists appear in standard introduction to Western art history textbooks, most of which represent the collective input of dozens of art history professors over many decades.

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I’ve divided my list into those I consider truly great by any standard, and those that I’m on the fence about (with each of those lineups divided into careers that flourished primarily pre- or post-World War II). Only painters and sculptors, and we’ll narrow it to those born in the U.S., who neither immigrated nor emigrated (as rightist objectors would probably want to disqualify Cassat and Man Ray, for having had the gall to live most of their lives over in froo-froo Europe). My main point is that, if we could include immigrants and emigrants, then this list would be as strong as the lineup of great artists from just about any world country, particularly after the Second World War. But without them, there are many excellent artists, but precious few who could be honestly considered canonical.

The Canonical Greats

These are the artists who established or perfected a new style or movement, revolutionaries whose influence, as well as ability, was such that they deserve to be placed alongside Europe’s Western Art History 101 giants.

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(These lists are in no particular order.)

Pre-World War II:

  1. John James Audubon
  2. Thomas Eakins
  3. Edward Hopper
  4. Georgia O’Keefe
  5. Norman Rockwell
  6. James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Post-World War II:

  1. Jean-Michel Basquiat
  2. Chuck Close
  3. Jasper Johns
  4. Donald Judd
  5. Jeff Koons
  6. Jackson Pollock
  7. Robert Rauschenberg
  8. Andy Warhol

Great, But Are They Canonical?

This is the long-list of artists I admire greatly, sometimes love, and hugely respect, but who I’m not sure belong in the highest echelon. This is largely because they were excellent practitioners of a style or movement developed by someone else, their work in some way derivative. They are in good company: While Michelangelo and Cellini and Giambologna are surely in the top echelon of 16th-century artists in Florence, I would relegate luminaries like Vasari, Bronzino, Pontormo, Ammannati and Torrigiano to the long-list.

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But I welcome thoughtful counterarguments — that’s the point of lists like this, not to be definitive but to invite discussion. (Again, these lists are in no particular order.)

Pre-World War II:

  1. George Bellows
  2. Thomas Hart Benton
  3. Alexander Calder
  4. William Merritt Chase
  5. Frederic Edwin Church
  6. John Singleton Copley
  7. Daniel Chester French
  8. Grandma Moses
  9. Maxfield Parrish
  10. Benjamin West
  11. N. C. Wyeth
  12. Grant Wood

Post-World War II:

  1. John Currin
  2. Walter De Maria
  3. Richard Diebenkorn
  4. Keith Haring
  5. Ellsworth Kelly
  6. Anselm Kiefer
  7. Sol Lewitt
  8. Maya Lin
  9. Barnett Newman
  10. Brice Marden
  11. Robert Motherwell
  12. Richard Serra
  13. Robert Smithson
  14. Frank Stella
  15. Clyfford Still
  16. Cy Twombly
  17. Andrew Wyeth
  18. Roy Lichtenstein

Articles with lists, like this one, are designed to prompt debate. Who have I left out, making you think, “Charney, what the heck are you thinking?” (Or for that matter, who have I included that prompts a similar response?) Please add comments with your input — I’d just ask you to also include a well-considered rationale for who you would include or exclude, a paragraph arguing for or against their inclusions in the list of Great American Artists, rather than just a name. This is a precaution against our conflating “famous” with “great” or “important” in grand art terms (as opposed to popular name-recognition or auction sales). I’m sure there are some I’ve overlooked, and so I’d love your input.

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Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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