For the third time in two decades, ARTnews approached a cross section of museum directors and curators to opine about one of their favorite subjects: Who are the most underrated artists today, both living and dead?
While the names may have changed, some trends are consistent. Women artists remain vastly overlooked both in terms of their achievements and their market, with Nancy Spero and Joan Semmel cited repeatedly. Artists whose base is peripheral to art-world hubs still suffer from underexposure, such as Mathias Goeritz from Mexico and Brazilian modernist painter Tarsila do Amaral. Native American sculptor Jimmie Durham, who received an underrated-artist nomination in 2000, made the survey again this year—though his current retrospective at the Hammer Museum may help remedy that.
What follow are the considered and uninhibited responses of an authoritative and eclectic group of art world professionals.
PAUL C. HA, Director, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts
In thinking about who is underrated, I’d say Helen Frankenthaler, Carolee Schneemann, Alma Thomas, and Anne Truitt all immediately come to mind. They each contributed significantly to the art movements they were part of but are still thought of as part of a second tier, after the men. Frankenthaler and Thomas in Color Field, Schneemann in Conceptual and performance art, and Truitt in Minimalism—they were founding participants and all enormously influential.
Recently, I visited a preview exhibition for a contemporary evening auction. Out of the 65 lots, only four were by women. The female artists included in the auctions over and over are Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Cady Noland, and Cindy Sherman (who all, by the way, absolutely belong in this club). Artists such as Alice Aycock, Lee Bontecou, Elizabeth Catlett, Lee Krasner, Farideh Lashai, Betye Saar, Nancy Spero, and Hannah Wilke, to name a few, belong in the market, and deserve that financial nod recognizing their significance and continued influence.
Kudos to the Metropolitan Museum for championing Nasreen Mohamedi and to the Queens Museum for its Mierle Laderman Ukeles exhibition. Both put their institutional heft behind these two important artists.
FRANKLIN SIRMANS, Director, Pérez Art Museum Miami
I think Lorraine O’Grady is incredibly underrated, given the things she’s done in performance and the ongoing examination of photography. And Leandro Erlich and Dario Robleto are the kind of alchemical artists who deserve to be seen in a much bigger light.
CONNIE BUTLER, Chief Curator, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Marisa Merz, now 90, is an artist who is well known in Europe but has never had a one-person exhibition in a U.S. museum until her current retrospective at the Met Breuer. She worked closely with her partner Mario Merz, often putting her own career in the background as she intermittently participated in the larger Arte Povera exhibitions. Mark Grotjahn is another artist in this category—a painter whose reputation has been made in the market but who deserves much greater attention from curators.
Jimmie Durham, whose retrospective is on view at the Hammer through May 7, is an artist little collected in this country, so he’s underrated in terms of the market, but he’s arguably the most influential artist of the 1990s generation. That is a decade full of rediscoveries like this: Anne Chu, Byron Kim, Liz Larner, Alix Pearlstein, Beverly Semmes. These are artists who have been showing regularly but are under the radar in some sense. Other artists just under the radar are Sarah Lucas, Paul Sietsema, and Paul Chan, who has taken himself out of the limelight of international exhibitions but continues to work as a publisher and online activist.
JULIÁN ZUGAZAGOITIA, Director, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
With immigration so central to the news, I believe reflecting on the time during World War II is relevant, particularly in terms of how exiles from the German modern movements impacted the Americas and had different “landings” that might have determined their appraised value, not their influence. Take Walter Gropius and Josef Albers, both immigrating to the United States and holding teaching positions in preeminent universities. Compare the number of books published about them and the record values for their works with other artists immigrating to Latin American countries where only recent scholarship is bringing those names to international attention such as Gego (Venezuela) and Mathias Goeritz (Mexico). Undeniably, these artists had tremendous impact and influence on the evolution of abstract art, sculpture, and architecture in their respective countries yet are just now benefiting from a more global approach to scholarship.
EVA RESPINI, Chief Curator, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
I am currently working on an exhibition exploring how the internet has affected visual production, and my research has revealed so many overlooked artists. Many happen to be women working in moving images, an area that hasn’t guaranteed much commercial success. Judith Barry, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Dara Birnbaum, and Gretchen Bender are pioneering thinkers who prefigure much of what we see today on the market as so-called “post-Internet” art. The ICA Boston’s collection has a strength in art by women artists, and I am delighted to see that many of them are slowly getting the accolades they deserve, including Françoise Grossen, Joan Semmel, and Sheila Hicks.
DAN CAMERON, Independent curator, New York
Not surprisingly, nearly all the artists I consider underrated are women: Nalini Malani, Joan Semmel, Doris Salcedo, Hito Steyerl, Sadie Benning, Howardena Pindell, Charlotte Moorman, and Kay Rosen are all artists whose work should be much better known.
BONNIE CLEARWATER, Director and Chief Curator, NSU Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale
In the underrated category, I would include Malawi-born, London-based artist Samson Kambalu, whose brief silent films are the subject of his first solo U.S. museum exhibition at NSU Art Museum. I have also long admired mid-career artist Rita McBride’s mysterious sculptures of architectural structures, and I find myself consistently drawn to 1970s artist David Haxton, who created minimal sculptures as the subject of his photographs long before Thomas Demand and Sara VanDerBeek. Cuban-born, Miami-based Jorge Pantoja, who has been creating tantalizing, poetic works since he arrived in Miami in the early 1990s, remains at the top of my most underrated list.
GARY TINTEROW, Director, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
I am acutely conscious of the role of fashion in creating taste, and how the only constant is change. In the beginning of the 1930s, the Museum of Modern Art’s founding director, Alfred Barr, predicted that Camille Corot would be as influential in the course of modernism as Paul Cézanne. He made similar predictions regarding André Derain. Ultimately, it is contemporary artists who resuscitate the work of earlier artists—just as Pablo Picasso referred back to Francisco Goya and Goya to Diego Velázquez, so Jasper Johns helps us see Picasso or Cézanne in a new light, and Bruce Nauman and Robert Gober help us understand Johns differently.
IAN BERRY, Director, Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York
Terry Adkins and Ree Morton are underrated artists who forged independent paths in their lives as makers. Both made tough decisions and stuck to their principles, continually breaking down their work and reassembling it into something new.
For current masters, Nancy Grossman and Dona Nelson both deserve more attention. The wild abandon with which they push their ideas and objects is destabilizing and affirms art’s unique power. Also in this category for me are Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Joan Snyder, Polly Apfelbaum, and Nayland Blake—always pushing, always re-creating, always challenging.
It’s hard to cite younger artists as underrated so early in their careers, but I would note Johannes VanDerBeek, Suzanne Bocanegra, Kamau Amu Patton, and Michael Oatman as deserving more looks.
LAWRENCE RINDER, Director and Chief Curator, University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, California
Although interest in abstraction is undergoing a resurgence, many highly deserving artists still haven’t enjoyed adequate attention, including Frederick Hammersley, whose work runs the gamut from haunting portraiture and hard-edge abstraction to algorithmic computer-generated compositions; Fanny Sanín, a senior Colombian painter of subtle color geometries; Irwin Kremen, a Black Mountain College–schooled maker of exquisite small collages of found paper fragments; Ralph Coburn, who married concrete abstraction with participatory aesthetics years before others like Hélio Oiticica began exploring this fertile terrain; Rosie Lee Tompkins, whose quilts capture the essential hum and pulse of being; Frederick Kiesler, a visionary 20th-century architect and artist whose “galaxies”—multipart irregularly shaped canvases of the 1940s and ’50s—anticipate by many decades later experiments in “deconstructive” painting; Nathaniel Dorsky, a San Francisco–based filmmaker who deserves to be considered one of the greatest abstract artists of our time; Charles Howard, who bridged biomorphism and Precisionism to create strange, jewel-like paintings; and Todd Bura, a young artist whose paintings somehow manage to break new ground in the exploration of painterly form.
DAVID BRESLIN, Curator and Director of the Collection, Whitney Museum, New York
The greatness of David Wojnarowicz is finally coming to light, due in no small part to Cynthia Carr’s magisterial 2012 biography. But I suspect most still know him more as a figure, myth, or even stand-in for the 1980s, activism, or the AIDS crisis than as the singular artist he was—formally daring, stylistically promiscuous, proudly queer, and inextricably political.
Like Wojnarowicz, Nancy Spero was an advocate and activist—for women and the voiceless; against the war in Vietnam and the “shadow” ones in Central and South America—in addition to being an artist steeped both in history and allegory. We need to see more of her work.
MICHAEL DARLING, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
There are so many female artists who are under-recognized such as Mary Heilmann and Ellen Berkenblit. I’m still shocked at how low their prices are compared to those of their male peers and how few shows they get in comparison. There are some corners of the 1960s that could still use more exploration. I think Alex Hay is an amazing Pop artist who is mostly unknown by a broader public but was right there in the whole heyday of New York 1960s pop culture. Another underdog is the Canadian conceptual artist Iain Baxter&. I don’t see any commercial galleries taking him on, but he’s a giant hiding in plain sight.
LISA FREIMAN, Director, Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond
Every day I encounter artists who deserve more attention. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons is an Afro-Cuban artist who emigrated to the United States in the early 1990s, when the first wave of Cuban artists post-Revolution began traveling and exhibiting internationally. Her installations poetically unpack her Black Cuban family’s history and its interconnectedness with the African slave trade and forced labor on sugar plantations. Like so many artists I admire, William Lamson, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary conceptual artist, isn’t represented by a gallery. Lamson investigates charged natural sites, ranging from New York’s East River to Chile’s Atacama terrain.
Arnold Kemp won a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship and is now the Dean of Graduate Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. His paintings, drawings, and sculptures intelligently engage abstraction, personal history, memory, and popular culture. While his work has been included in numerous exhibitions, publications, and collections, Kemp deserves deeper scholarly consideration.
GARY GARRELS, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The Pulitzer Arts Foundation recently presented an overview of the Italian modernist Medardo Rosso, a crucial figure for modern and contemporary sculpture, very under-recognized. One of the great Brazilian modernist painters and almost unknown in the United States is Tarsila do Amaral. She is a stunning, haunting painter who should be included in any history of modern painting. Often artists who are not part of movements or follow distinctly personal styles are left with marginal recognition. Two singular postwar American artists who are relatively under-recognized are Richard Artschwager and sculptor Christopher Wilmarth. Painting by three contemporary American women artists who engage figure and subject but maintain taut formal structure are Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Catherine Murphy, and Monica Majoli.
TINA KUKIELSKI, Executive Director, Art21, New York
There are countless women artists whose work I admire who could be considered still under-recognized: Gertrude Abercrombie, Lee Godie, Barbara Kasten, Gladys Nilsson, Christina Ramberg, Suellen Rocca, Barbara Rossi, Diane Simpson, and Nancy Spero, to name but a few.
In general, self-taught art still suffers in the underappreciated category including the awe-inspiring work of Susan Te Kahurangi King, Emma Kunz, and Guo Fengyi.
Also shocking to me is that Adam Curtis is not better known and appreciated outside the U.K. as the incredible documentary filmmaker and artist that he is.
XAVIER F. SALOMON, Chief Curator, Frick Collection, New York
Over the past two years I have grown very fond of Guido Cagnacci, a 17th-century painter from Romagna. He is an eccentric and wonderful painter who should be better known by an international public. For me, he is an artist who should be ranked as high as the Carracci, Guercino, and Guido Reni. The more I think about Caravaggio, the more I think that, out of all the 17th-century painters we think of, he is the most overrated and loved for all the wrong reasons. The greatest painters of that century are Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, and Nicolas Poussin, all infinitely superior to Caravaggio. He is a very histrionic painter and one who easily impresses a modern public with his cunning compositions. I often wish there were an embargo on exhibitions and publications on Caravaggio.
Hilarie M. Sheets, a longtime ARTnews contributing editor, also writes regularly for the New York Times, the Art Newspaper, Art+Auction, and W, among other publications.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 60 under the title “Hidden Lights.”