Artsmart Roundtable: Five American Artists Worthy of a Second Look

looking at art
Image: andybrannan.

To the uninitiated, art after 1950 can be tough to wrap your head around. Artists moved away from just a pretty picture and expanded their repertoire to include the likes of dripped paint, text on walls, boxes made of plywood or dropped the visual entirely and went conceptual. I've often overheard museum goers scoff at these works and mutter "I don't get it." or "That's not art." or, my favorite, "I could have done that." (My reply to this is criticism, by the way, is "but, you didn't.")

I appreciate that the desire to understand or "get it" is innate or perhaps pounded into our heads as schoolchildren. However, as an adult, I find pleasure in not understanding everything around me. There's a joy in looking at a work of art whose meaning is not immediately grasped or deplete of meaning entirely. I love that the artist gives us, the viewer, some of the control to allow the meaning to be what we make of it, depending on the attention we chose to give. And, I'll admit, I often let myself stop worrying about what it all means and just take pleasure in its beauty.

If you're one of these skeptics, I encourage you to not skip the modern wing on your next museum visit and take some time to acquaint yourself with some great American artists. Stop worrying about what it all means and just give yourself an afternoon of pure, unadulterated experience. But, don't take my word for it, let these five artists change your mind about the value of that art that you don't quite understand.

dan flavin

dan flavin art
Image: cosmicautumn.
flavin sculptureflavin sculpture
Dan Flavin is a New York born artist whose first solo show was in 1961 in NYC. His work falls under the Minimalism movement and is comprised of sculptures built from fluorescent light bulbs. You'll be able to see his work in any major museum in the US, including National Gallery of Art, MoMA or DIA: Beacon. Some of his most noted permanent installations include the lighting of Santa Maria Annunciata in the Chiesa Rossa in Milan, Richmond Hall at the Menil Collection in Houston, TX and at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX. I love how he uses an everyday overlooked object to create essays in light that force me to look. I can't go into a museum without walking straight over to a piece by Flavin.

donald judd

donald judd chianti foundation
Image: JWSherman.
donald judd stackreflection in donald judddonald judd stack
Donald Judd, too, was considered a Minimalist (although he disliked this label) and created art works from industrial materials such as steel, concrete and plywood, mostly in the form of boxes. His most well-known and recognizable works are the stacks of rectangular boxes in steel, as seen above. Donald Judd's work taught me to give up on "getting it." I could throw around phrases like object specificity and but I'd be lying if I pretended to understand it. I don't and it wasn't until I gave up and just looked that I began to appreciate his art. I wonder if I can't get him, because, like myself, he was thinking too much. Donald Judd was not only an artist, but also an art critic, writing articles for Art News and Arts Magazine from 1959-1965. Judd's works are a staple of museum collections, but perhaps, most proudly displayed at the The Chianti Foundation, a museum founded by Judd in Marfa, TX.

richard serra

richard serra bilbao
Image: aherrero.
Richard Serra makes me feel the weight of the world. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of all of his work, but his ellipses are things of wonder. Undulating waves of steel to wander, fear and feel insignificant against. Serra was born in San Francisco and began his artistic career in 1966 making Splashings where he would throw ladles of molten lead against the gallery wall. He moved onto COR-TEN steel sculptures, many of which are public works throughout the world. In more recent years, his pieces have become more interactive, allowing the viewer to walk through. These works include Torqued Ellipses at DIA: Beacon and The Matter of Time at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

lawrence weiner

lawrence weiner
Image: joelogon.
I am fascinated by the process of purchasing a work by Lawrence Weiner, whose complicated instructions lack the very idea of the "hand of the artist" only in literal terms. The purchase isn't for the lettering itself, but a certificate with the phrase and instructions on how to realize it, specifying the materials or the actual process. Weiner, who has been instrumental in the idea of conceptual art since the 1960s, creates phrases, often ambiguous, that appear in museums throughout the world. The next time you're in a museum and see writing on the wall, don't assume that it's wall text or that the artist himself painted it.
bruce nauman

bruce nauman green roomnauman run from fearbruce nauman
Images: (l-r) stilleben, factoids, johann j.m..
Bruce Nauman makes me laugh. Whether it's his slightly off-color neon sculptures or his confusion-inducing perceptual works, I always experience a sense of whimsy and out of place. The video above is of an exhibition entitled Days at MoMA, where days of the week were read by different voices and broadcasted from speakers throughout the room. Depending on where you were standing you would hear a cacophony of sounds or an individual stating days of the week, often in the wrong order. It's hard to characterize exactly what kind of art Bruce Nauman makes, but one always walks away from a work with a sensory experience. Look for his work the next time you're in MoMA in New York, Hirshhorn in Washington, DC, Guggenheim New York or Tate Modern in London.

Art Smart
Art Smart is a virtual roundtable discussion with other bloggers who love exactly what I do, art and travel. This month's topic is American Art. To discover more American artists that you should view in your travels, check out these posts:

Career Girl Travels: Mary Cassatt & the American Spirit

A Sense of Place: Warhol’s Art and Today

No Onions Extra Pickles: Why Abstract Expressionism Matters

This is My Happiness: An Unusual Dinner Party in Brooklyn


Interesting take! I always liked Donald Judd because it's really difficult to make something so simple look perfect. Minimalism always clicks with me since I understand that a pared down shape is often harder to execute.