What Makes a Great Painting Great?

Experts on Johns, Warhol, and Richter explain how they evaluate a modern masterpiece.

When the Met thought to acquire a major painting by Jasper Johns,” says Nan Rosenthal, consultant in the department of modern art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “we went after White Flag, a canonical masterpiece and the first Johns painting to enter our collection.” Procured in 1998, the 1955 painting now hangs in the museum’s 20th-century galleries, between a Willem de Kooning and a Cy Twombly. “Much larger than his other paintings of this time, White Flag has a superbly worked encaustic surface,” Rosenthal says. “Its subtly modulated monochromes range from translucent to opaque. The fast-setting medium of encaustic makes each brushstroke distinct. It is both gesture and object, lushness and reticence.”

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase. Photograph © 2000 The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gerhard Richter’s Confrontation (1), from the 1988 series “October 18, 1977,” about the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Though she thinks Johns has been “consistently remarkable throughout all his stages,” Rosenthal explains that “people are especially attracted to the early work for the way it radically reformulated pictorial syntax. It set the stage for Pop, Minimal, and, to an extent, Conceptual art.”

Rosenthal here offers a rare glimpse into the way she, and the Met, evaluate a modern masterpiece. The classics generally come to us fully validated, but who determines—and how—what makes a modern masterpiece? To find out, ARTnewsasked eight people, including art historians, museum directors, curators, and an artist, to discuss what they consider to be the greatest works of three pivotal artists of the last 50 years: Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Andy Warhol (1928-87), and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Each focused on one of the artists while sometimes commenting on the others.

Like Rosenthal, Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, discussed Johns, but he found it difficult to single out any one piece. “The whole body of work is so interwoven,” he says. “Johns keeps returning to the same subjects, the same motifs.” What he would acknowledge, however, is “the standard wisdom,” according to which “the paintings Johns presented at his first show, in 1958—the flags, targets, and numbers—are the most compelling, the most universally prized.” Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, with their spontaneous brushwork, Johns rendered familiar imagery using the labor-intensive encaustic process, dipping newsprint and other elements in hot wax and affixing it all onto canvas. “He created a powerful combination of an immediately apprehensible image and a slow, complicated surface,” says Varnedoe. “It had a decisive and revolutionary impact—it laid the groundwork for art of the 1960s.”

Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, says Johns is at his best when he’s the least specific. This goes for the early work, the single images of the late 1950s, but also for the more recent ones. “The best ones for me have the fewest images, with a simple catenary arc floating over this gray field,” says Auping. “Johns’s best work exists in shadow. The gray field is a shadow and there are shadows within the field—it’s the only reason why you’d stand and stare at a gray field. There’s an element of concealment and withholding to it, and it leaves so much room for our imaginations. When he’s specific in his imagery, he’s painting a thing; when he’s painting a field, he’s just painting.”

What makes a great Warhol great, remarks Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, is the way it can capture the tragic and sublime simultaneously, as in the Marilyn Monroe portraits. Warhol achieved this not only by choosing a loaded subject—he began the Marilyn series after the actress died, in 1962—but also through his silk-screen process. “He was very purposefully off register in his color,” says Sokolowski. “Every time you put a screen down, colors should hit exactly, not blend. But in his case, they blurred. This was intentional. It gives his work a tension, and with Marilyn, it suggests internal trauma. We see a mask of makeup and color that could be pulled away to reveal something else. There’s a ferocity behind the beauty queen. In Warhol’s hands, there is more to Marilyn than a 1950s sex goddess. There was the Marilyn with Joe DiMaggio, the Marilyn with Arthur Miller, the Marilyn of the Kennedys, the Marilyn from Kansas, the Marilyn who committed suicide. Warhol’s portrait suggests all that.”

“Andy Warhol’s work is so deeply democratic, it’s hard to do anything as hierarchic as pick the best,” maintains Deborah Kass, an artist who has evoked Warhol often in her own work. “That said, I keep coming back to the ‘Electric Chairs’ and Gold Marilyn. Both are images that continue to haunt cultural consciousness. And both are about death. One presents an image of the power of the state over the lives and deaths of its citizens, be they the Rosenbergs [Warhol used a photograph of the chair in which they were executed] or Gary Graham [executed in Texas last June 22]. The other conveys the annihilation of the self through the media, fame, and the stereotype. In a way, both of these images are about the political nature of death. The work that tends to be simultaneously the most familiar and horrifying is my idea of the greatest.”

Auping, too, points out that what makes Warhol so great is that his notion of tragedy continues to have currency. “A single work that is the most affecting is the 1963 Lavender Disaster, a photographic image of an electric chair duplicated many times,” says Auping. “It’s such an amazing thing to conceive of. Who else would ask the question, What color would you conjure right before you’re put to death? When you think of lavender, you think of a certain sweetness and gentleness, and to combine it with the image of an electric chair is profoundly disturbing and profoundly moving. But I’m talking at a time when the death penalty has once again become very controversial. Maybe that shows the importance of Warhol. In six months, whatever the new controversy would be, I bet I could find a Warhol painting that would describe its sublime and tragic aspects.”

Offering a different perspective on Warhol, Robert Rosenblum, curator of 20th-century art at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and a professor of fine arts at New York University, considers the artist’s abstractions, which he painted in the last decade of his life, as “among his most important works—and vastly overlooked. He entered history with such a bang in the 1960s that people have neglected his later work.” Here, Rosenblum explains, “Warhol took the ordinary, the unobserved, such as a Polaroid of a tangle of yarn lying somewhere in the corner of his studio, and blew it up to mural-size paintings.” Also in this category are series of what Rosenblum calls “found abstractions,” the “Eggs,” “Shadows,” “Camouflages,” and “Rorschachs.” “Warhol discovered in the ordinary a quotation from the earlier history of abstraction”—with the “Camouflages” resembling some Mirí›s; the “Eggs,” Ellsworth Kellys; the “Shadows,” Franz Klines; and the “Yarns,” Jackson Pollocks. “Warhol was very knowledgeable of art history and aware of the references,” says Rosenblum. “He was consciously re-creating these signature styles.”

chter, by contrast, emerged on the German Pop scene in the 1960s with paintings based on enlarged copies of slightly out-of-focus black-and-white photographs. He used amateur snapshots and images taken from newspapers and magazines, projected them onto canvas, determined their blurriness, outlined their form, and then painted without further projection. With this process he attempted to empty painting of its historic baggage and such conventional considerations as composition and content.

“These very early black-and-white paintings are highly valued,” says Dieter Schwarz, director of the Kunstmuseum Winterthur in Switzerland and curator of a Richter drawings show (on view through October 8 at Stichting De Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands). “But I don’t think you can reduce Richter to that period. His later work has become very important. It’s really here where he’s at his best, because the painting becomes more personal,” he explains. “When he was younger, the images were at times more arbitrary, but now they’re more loaded, even more significant.”

Schwarz singles out Richter’s “October 18, 1977,” a series of 15 paintings that the artist made in 1988 (now in the Modern’s permanent collection). They deal with the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang, which launched a campaign of terrorism in West Germany in the late 1960s and early ’70s. On October 18, 1977, three imprisoned leaders of the group were found dead in their jail cells, and though their deaths were reported as suicides, murder was suspected.

The Modern’s senior curator Robert Storr, who is organizing a Richter retrospective for 2002, considers the “October 18, 1977” series a masterpiece. “The works suggest history painting with their narrative dimension, but they are highly disjunctive. There is no set order to them, and their relationship to the events they describe is incomplete,” he says. In one, a gang leader hangs in her cell; in another, a figure lies dead, with gunshot wounds. “They are extremely economical, direct paintings,” says Storr, referring to the spare depictions in shades of gray. “Richter distills things not to get to their essence, their essential truth, but to get to their ambiguities, the essential question mark.”

For Auping, what makes a great Richter great is the distance the artist establishes between himself and the viewer. “When you think of art and artistic expression, you think of the artist trying to make direct communication with the observer. Richter almost tries to create a distance. I never feel like I’m looking at Richter directly.”

Auping likes Richter’s “Seascapes” of the late 1960s. “Their surfaces seem to reject my gaze. The image of the seascape calls me forward in the way Caspar David Friedrich’s monk is drawn forward to the edge of the sea—these are clearly references to Friedrich and German Romanticism—but as I get closer to the sea, to Richter’s painting, the porcelainlike surface stops me. I find that interesting.” Auping continues, “If I wanted to go see Friedrich, I’d go see Friedrich. But perhaps this is not the time for that kind of romanticism. This is a time of doubt, and I think Richter epitomizes a certain kind of doubt. Not doubt in a pessimistic way. It’s doubt in the possibility for personal expression and in the believability of the image.”

As composer Leonard Bernstein summed it up: “Any great work of art revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world.”

Katie Clifford is an associate editor of ARTnews.

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