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The Most Important Art in American Art

The below artworks are the most important in American Art - that both overview the major ideas of American Art, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Thomas Cole: A Wild Scene (1831-32)
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A Wild Scene (1831-32)

Artist: Thomas Cole

Artwork description & Analysis: This dramatic landscape exemplifies the work of the Hudson River School. A stunning vista of rocky outcrops and precipitous mountains opens upon a waterfall, in the center right, breaking into a luminous pool that flows into the ocean on the left. A craggy ancient tree frames the right border, its twisted limbs curving vertically toward the darkly portentous sky. Native American figures, dressed in animal hides and armed with bows, occupy the lower third of the canvas, one outlined against the pink and blue patch of sky on the left, the others located beneath the two prominent trees. As art historians Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Tim Baring wrote, the work is "a fine essay in the sublime: the rough, uncultivated landscape and dark, rolling clouds...convincingly represents an untamed wilderness." Precise detail reflects the influence of Naturalism, while what the artist described as its "flashing chiaroscuro and a spirit of motion pervading the scene, as though nature was just waking from chaos," reflects a Romanticist inspiration.

Art historian Carl Pfluger wrote that Cole "virtually invented a new style of landscape, specializing in views of the wilderness." The artist described the painting as "a vision of the earliest form of society, the 'perfect state' of nature, with appropriate savage figures." The portrayal of Native Americans and the description of them as "savage" played into the growing mythology of uncultured peoples who on one hand added something like authenticity to the landscape but on the other were not "civilized" enough and had to be removed as settlers moved West during the era of Manifest Destiny. Cole and the Hudson River School significantly influenced American environmental movements, as well as new art directions, including American Regionalism and Group f/64. Contemporary artists Charles LeDray, Stephen Hannock, and Angie Keifer have repurposed Cole's works, as seen in LeDray's Empire (2015).

Oil on canvas - Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland

George Bellows: Cliff Dwellers (1913)
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Cliff Dwellers (1913)

Artist: George Bellows

Artwork description & Analysis: Bellows' Cliff Dwellers, with its depiction of the gritty vitality of slum life, exemplifies the Ashcan School. In a neighborhood of tenement buildings, its denizens crowd into the streets, engaged in a variety of activities; some women and children sit on the steps, a mother admonishes her child at center, while working men and a street vendor throng in the background. Only a touch of horizon and sky remains between the vertical rows of apartments and the network of clotheslines that diagonally cross the street from building to building. As the people gather outside to avoid the heat in the stifling apartments, the brushwork, vibrant and vigorous, creates a sense of physicality. Apartment dwellers can be glimpsed in the upper levels of the buildings, as they seem to be caught up in private conversations or lean out of their apartment windows. The work reflects the impact of immigration in the era, as recent arrivals were densely crowded into slum neighborhoods. Yet as art critic Michael Kimmelman writes, "the joylessness of the subject is undercut by the soft light that streams into the scene and by the characters on the stoops and in the streets whom Bellows endows with more charm than misery."

Part of the second generation of the Ashcan School, Bellows used the group's then favored strategies in this work, employing a geometric compositional scheme as well as the "chords," or triads of complementary colors expounded by Hardesty G. Maratta's color theory. Yet, his fluid brushwork and vibrant color made his work distinctive, as he conveyed the robust swagger and energy of working class life.

Oil on canvas - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Alfred Stieglitz: The Steerage (1907)
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The Steerage (1907)

Artist: Alfred Stieglitz

Artwork description & Analysis: This photograph has become famous both as a cultural document of immigration to America and as a pioneering work of American modernism and Straight Photography. The image is cropped to emphasize the diagonals of the gangplank horizontally crossing the frame while intersecting the massive column on the left, echoed by the stairway on the right intersecting the horizontal planes of the upper deck. The upper level, reserved for the well-to-do, seems peopled primarily by men, the shape of their hats catching the light as they look down into the steerage, where women and children, along with clothing hanging up at the left, create a sense of a lived-in space like a crowded tenement. Though the work highlights class and gender divisions, Stieglitz was primarily interested in its formal qualities, as its sharp focus converged on intersecting planes, shapes, and angles.

Around 1900 Stieglitz began using large format cameras and considered this his first truly "modernist" picture, as he said, "Intensely direct. Not a trace of hand work on either negative or prints. No diffused focus. Just the straight goods." He published the photo in Camera Work in 1911 along with several of his other photographs.

Photogravure - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Grant Wood: American Gothic (1930)
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American Gothic (1930)

Artist: Grant Wood

Artwork description & Analysis: Exemplifying American Regionalism, this iconic image depicts a dour couple in a frontal pose, reminiscent of folk art portraits, in front of their American Gothic Revival-style farmhouse. The man, aloof but confrontational, grips an upright pitchfork, while gazing directly at the viewer, while the woman's slight turn toward him conveys a hint of deference, as she stares into the distance with downturned brows and lips. The vertical lines of the pitchfork rising to the lightning rod on the roof and echoed in the fabric of the man's shirt and the house's paneling emphasize the stasis and rigidity of the figures. Influenced by Hans Memling, a 15th-century German artist, Wood employed a grid-like structure, echoing patterns, and precise detail to create the instantly recognizable portrait.

Yet for all of its apparent clarity and accessibility, the work has aroused much debate, over the identity and relationship of the couple and the artist's intention. Wood based the portraits on his dentist and his younger sister, but many viewers took the two for husband and wife. As art critic Dennis Kardon noted, "One is struck by the incredibly subtle details, cues, and complex formal structure that undermine any simple reading." When the work was first shown at the Art Institute of Chicago's 1930 annual exhibition, some debated whether the portrayal was ironic or meant to be, as Woods insisted, a celebration of the Iowa he loved. The work was also widely featured in national newspapers as embodying a new American art that portrayed hard-working American farmers. Subsequently, the image has been parodied in countless magazines, advertisements, videos, films, and TV series, making it among the most recognizable of American artworks.

Oil on Beaver Board - Art Institute of Chicago

Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother (1936)
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Migrant Mother (1936)

Artist: Dorothea Lange

Artwork description & Analysis: This iconic photograph depicts Florence Owen Thompson, a migrant mother with three of her seven children, at a pea pickers camp in California. Due to freezing rains, the crop had been destroyed, leaving the pea pickers out of work, and many of them faced starvation. Her face creased with worry, she looks into the distance as if contemplating a harsh and bleak future of poverty and grinding work. Her two young children on either side of her turn away from the camera, as if leaning into her for comfort and shelter, while an infant swaddled in worn blankets rests in her lap. In the 1930s, the image evoked a kind of modern Madonna and Child but viewed within Social Realism's unflinching look at the plight of workers.

Lange took this photograph for the Farm Security Administration program, a program that both provided aid to farmers effected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and supported the work of photographers to document the human cost. Lange described the occasion in her notes, "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that [she and her children] had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food." Taking a number of photographs of the mother and her children in their make shift shelter, Lange, felt this one was the most powerful image, due to its composition and its close-up focus on the mother. Almost immediately, the photograph was widely published throughout the United States and became the iconic image of the era, and today remains one of the most recognizable photographic images of all time.

Gelatin silver print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration of the Negro, Panel 3 (1940-1941)
Artwork Images Google images

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 3 (1940-1941)

Artist: Jacob Lawrence

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting depicts one of the sixty panels in the artist's Great Migration series, a signature work of the Harlem Renaissance. Depicted as elemental forms in flat planes of color, a group of African Americans, carrying their possessions, form a pyramidal shape that conveys their collective purpose and unified strength. Pressing horizontally forward, they also rise up, outlined against a barren hill, as a curving line of crows both echoes their flight and evokes a sense of danger escaped. Each of the works in the series had a caption, and this one reads "From every Southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north."

Influenced by Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco, Lawrence saw these small works, each 12 by 18 inches, as a single work, in effect, a mural but innovatively divided into parts. He worked on all sixty panels simultaneously. The panels also resemble film storyboards, and as art historian Elsa Smithgall noted, "He thought very carefully about the progression from one image to another," using "syncopated refrains that remind us of the backdrop of jazz." Calling his synthesis of broad color planes and flat linear design, "dynamic cubism," Lawrence was also, and primarily, influenced by his own childhood and the colors and shapes of Harlem. He studied with painter Charles Alston and, later, sculptor Augusta Savage, and as art historian Leslie King-Hammond noted, was the "first major artist of the 20th-century who was technically trained and artistically educated within the art community in Harlem."

Fortune magazine featured Lawrence's series after its exhibition, and the Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection purchased the work and divided the 60 panels between them. Lawrence's work later influenced Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Robert Colescott, Hank Willis Thomas, and Alexis Gideon

Tempera on gesso on composition board - The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Jackson Pollock: Autumn Rhythm No. 30 (1950)
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Autumn Rhythm No. 30 (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork description & Analysis: This work exemplifies Abstract Expressionism and what Harold Rosenberg defined as Action Painting. The "drip" painting, with its energetic swirling web of black, brown, and white lines, embodies a vortex of movement, as intense gestures verge toward chaos while unified and controlled by a sense of rhythm. The scale of the work at 8 by 17 feet creates a monumental effect, overwhelming and enveloping the viewer, and lacking a central focal point or hierarchal composition, every inch of the surface becomes equally significant.

Pollock placed the unstretched canvas on his studio floor and used trowels, sticks, and paint poured directly from the can; he moved around the work's edges as he dribbled, flicked, spattered, poured, and flung pigment. He remarked to an interviewer, "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing...the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through."

Pollock created his first "drip" painting in 1947, which his wife, the artist Lee Krasner described, "seemed like monumental drawing, or maybe painting with the immediacy of drawing - some new category." Allan Kaprow recognized this "new category" in his 1958 essay "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock" where he argued that Pollock took painting as far as it could go, and now artists had to leave the canvas all together. A host of artists, including Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Eva Hesse, and Claes Oldenburg, went beyond painting in Happenings, Minimalism, and Post-Minimalism to explore the implications of the pioneering Abstract Expressionist's work.

Enamel on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Andy Warhol: Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)
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Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)

Artist: Andy Warhol

Artwork description & Analysis: This signature work of Pop Art depicts an image of Marilyn Monroe, centered within a gold background, that suggests a Byzantine religious icon. The black and white publicity photo that the artist used was taken from the hit film Niagara (1953) where Monroe, having developed her signature make-up look, played the femme fatale who met a tragic end. The film noir was famous for its nearly nude scenes of the actress and its 30-second long filming of her walking away down the street, in slow motion with her hips swaying. Here, a garish color palette has transformed the photo, though its underlying black and white creates a sense of emerging darkness. By portraying her as an icon, Warhol subtly critiques the modern cult of celebrity, as well as suggesting that it was this depersonalization that drove the tragedy. While the surface is gold and shiny, the space she inhabits is empty. At the same time, only her disembodied head is depicted, suggesting a lack of agency and empowerment, leaving her to be the object of a gaze.

In August 1962, the superstar Marilyn Monroe died from an overdose of sleeping pills, and the world became obsessed with her life, her film career, her celebrity as a "sex goddess," and the tragedy that both occurred throughout her life and led to her death. Warhol made a series of works from this image, reproducing it again and again, just as it was reproduced in magazines and newspapers, evoking the superstar as a brand, another item on the shelf of consumer culture. Warhol's Diptych (1962), another work in his Marilyn series, was named by a survey of 500 artists and critics as the third "most influential piece of modern art," in 2004.

Silkscreen - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970)
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Spiral Jetty (1970)

Artist: Robert Smithson

Artwork description & Analysis: This famous Earth Work is a counter clockwise, 1500-foot long spiral that extends into the Great Salt Lake in Utah, replicating the growth patterns of crystals and seashells. Smithson chose the northeastern section of the lake because the environment had been negatively impacted when the Southern Pacific Railroad cut off the influx of fresh water into the lake in 1959, resulting in an explosion of Dunaliella salina, saltwater tolerant red algae. He found the resulting red and violet hues evoked a dystopian landscape and felt that the piece would draw attention to how human action could both ruin and transform the environment.

Shaped out of mud, crystalized salt, and black basalt, the shape has taken on the crystallization and coloration of changing conditions, but for many years remained completely submerged underwater. Spiral Jetty embodies the artist's emphasis on the concept of entropy, or the devolution of systems over time. At the same time, the shape evokes a primal symbol, often replicated on ancient cave walls and stones within many cultural contexts. As art critic Jonathan Jones noted, "When Smithson built Spiral Jetty, he reinvented the stone age. Its mysterious marking of the landscape deliberately resembles the prehistoric architecture of neolithic Britain...has forebears in the Americas, from the Nazca lines of Peru to...Serpent Mound... This neo-primitivism lives on in art, from James Turrell's continuing bid to turn Roden Crater in Arizona into an astral observatory (or temple) to Olafur Eliasson's current efforts to place 12 huge lumps of Arctic ice in the heart of Paris."

Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water coil - Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah

George Segal: Gay Liberation (1980)
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Gay Liberation (1980)

Artist: George Segal

Artwork description & Analysis: This life-sized work depicts a gay couple and a lesbian couple in intimate conversation. One man has his arm around the shoulder of the other, as he turns toward him as if listening attentively. While holding hands and turned toward one another in conversation, the two women relax on a park bench. The work creates a sense of comfortable privacy within a public space, here in the triangular park in Greenwich Village. The sculpture commemorates the events that followed a New York police raid on the gay bar Stonewall Inn in the summer of 1969. The Stonewall protests that erupted became a primary impetus for the Gay Pride movement.

Segal created his sculptures by using orthopedic bandages dipped in plaster that he then applied to living models. He then placed the cast figures, usually in small groups, in an ordinary setting as if at a lunch table or in a train station. Though part of the Pop Art movement, unlike most of the Pop artists he explored existentialist themes and the psychology of the underlying human condition. As a result by the early 1980s he had begun creating memorial works like this one, followed by The Holocaust (1982) and Depression Bread Line (1991).

Though the work was commissioned in 1972, due to controversy, it wasn't installed until 1992. Anti-gay critics were offended by the celebration of gay couples or by the public display of affection. Those who had participated in the Stonewall protests felt the work's two Caucasian couples failed to represent the diversity of the gay community that led the movement. As a result, the work has continued to be a flashpoint of Queer art, often repurposed or reimagined by contemporary artists.

Bronze, steel, white lacquer - Christopher Park, New York

Barbara Kruger: I shop therefore I am (1990)
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I shop therefore I am (1990)

Artist: Barbara Kruger

Artwork description & Analysis: In this famous Feminist and Conceptual piece, Kruger combines text and a magazine image, creating what art critic Ron Rosenbaum described as "formal verbal defacements of glossy magazine pages, glamorous graffiti." The phrase refers to stereotyped media portrayals of women who seem to live for shopping, while the masculine hand, displaying the phrase like an ad markup, reflects how those advertising campaigns are primarily created by men and based upon their assumptions. The work's use of color makes the slogan more direct, powerfully contrasting with the grainy black and white of the background image, as it rephrases the famous statement of the French philosopher René Descartes, "I think, therefore I am." As Rosenbaum noted, "She has appropriated this statement to fit the idea of material consumption," creating an effect of "short machine-gun bursts of words that when isolated, and framed by Kruger's gaze, linger in your mind, forcing you to think twice, thrice about clichés and catchphrases, introducing ironies into cultural idioms and the conventional wisdom they embed in our brains."

Kruger first worked as a page designer for Mademoiselle magazine then went on to work in other high-level graphic design and advertising jobs, where as Rosenbaum described, "She turned out to be a master at using type seductively to frame and foreground the image and lure the reader to the text." Leaving the field, she employed those same strategies to challenge social assumptions, saying, "Although my art work was heavily informed by my design work on a formal and visual level, as regards meaning and content the two practices parted ways." Favoring a direct and powerful approach, she said, "to deal with the complexities of power and social life... as far as the visual presentation goes I purposely avoid a high degree of difficulty."

Photographic Silkscreen/Vinyl

Kehinde Wiley: Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005)
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Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005)

Artist: Kehinde Wiley

Artwork description & Analysis: This large equestrian portrait depicts a contemporary African-American man riding a rearing white steed, in an appropriation and re-visioning of Jacques-Louis David's famous Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800.

The young man wears camouflage army fatigues, a white bandanna, and red sweatbands, as a gold cloak swirls and flows around his shoulders, echoing the gesture of his tattooed arm pointing upward and onward. On the rocky path, stones are inscribed, as in David's image, with the names of military leaders, including "BONAPARTE," "HANNIBAL," AND "KAROLUS MAGNUS," though Wiley has added "WILLIAMS," lending equal importance to the name of his model.

The long history of American portraiture had developed out of the European tradition where it communicated the subject's wealth, social standing, and cultural significance. By depicting an anonymous young black man in what Wiley has called a "hyper-heroic" depiction - using a monumental canvas and reducing the scale of the horse to emphasize the figure of the rider - the work reflects his belief that "art is about communicating power, and it's been that way for hundreds of years...What I choose to do is take people who happen to look like me, black and brown, people all over the world increasingly, and allowing them to occupy that field of power." At the same time, his work critiques the marginalization and disenfranchisement of black males in contemporary America. A pioneering example of Identity Politics, the work expresses the artist's statement, "My painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us."

Oil on canvas - Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York



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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

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" Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 13 Feb 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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