Which artists are underrated? And which are overrated? We asked two of our correspondents, Robert Rigney and Penelope Rowlands, to pose these questions to an international spectrum of curators, critics, and artists. Most chose to answer the first question rather than the second. Partly, this was owing to decorum (although we did indicate that the artists cited could be living or dead). But, as we discovered, the terms “underrated” and “overrated” can be harder to define than they might seem. Overrated according to whom? The critics? The collectors? Taste and fashion? “History sometimes has a different assessment of an artist than the market does,” notes Donna De Salvo, a curator at London’s Tate Modern. “Sometimes it coincides, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Some of the answers we got were unexpected. For example, while certain Young British Artists dominated the overrated list, two beloved Old Masters also turned up.
As for the underrated artists, many of our experts returned to certain themes: That women artists have been and continue to be neglected. That artists from the periphery—Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia—are often unknown and therefore underrated. That within one artist’s oeuvre there can be bodies of work that are both under– and overrated.
There were more than a few artists on the underrated lists who were heretofore unknown to our editors. But that doesn’t mean there is an infinite supply, says Klaus Biesenbach, director of Kunst–Werke in Berlin and a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to be an underrated artist,” he notes, “because, after all, it’s every curator’s dream to discover and promote a forgotten artist.”
Chief curator, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
I think that one of the most underrated artists at the moment is Carl Andre. Since the publicity surrounding his trial for murder, I think it has been difficult for people to look at his work without conflict. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most rigorous of the Minimalists. He focused on site specificity very early on, and his applying it with an economy of form that we might associate with Brancusi was extremely impressive.
Another underrated artist is the late Italian painter Alberto Burri. He’s one of the Europeans who offered a visual equivalent to the existential angst of the 1950s. Every one of his works is like an open wound. Except for de Kooning and Pollock, I can’t think of a painter whose work is more visceral and related to the human body through abstraction.
Another person is Joan Mitchell. Her paintings from 1955 to ’70 are some of the most intelligent and sensuous of their time. You have to clear out the overly colored and less gestured works of her late period to get at the core of what is both stunningly beautiful and strangely violent imagery.
When we talk about overrated artists, the first who come to mind are the Chapman brothers, but then again, I’m not sure they were ever rated.
Art critic, The Nation, New York
I think everybody is underrated when you consider what people are up against in the world. I know woefully neglected artists who are quite forgotten; they’re underrated because no one knows them.
For example, two artists I thought were wonderful—David Sawin and Gandy Brodie—have just disappeared. They were both oil painters, which is something that has become marginal. Both Meyer Schapiro and I liked their work a lot.
The really interesting question is, Who’s remembered and who’s not? Piero della Francesca was forgotten until the 19th century. Chardin and Botticelli were also once forgotten. Caravaggio was only rediscovered after he’d been forgotten for centuries. They were never underrated, just forgotten.
Another forgotten artist is James Harvey, the man who did the Brillo box that Warhol copied. He was going to have a brilliant career as an Abstract Expressionist but died in his early 30s. I’d like to revive him.
Artist, Los Angeles
One artist who hasn’t had enough recognition is Robert Williams. He’s more known in the comics world than in the art world. But he doesn’t do comic books per se; he does oil paintings that look like comics. His imagery revolves around fantasy, showing hot rods in a surrealistic style. I think he deserves recognition from the legitimate art world.
Art critic, Accord, New York
I think Rembrandt is overrated. His drawings are fabulous, but his paintings are often opaque and murky and not particularly unusual. He was a master draftsman. You look at his drawings and see the brilliance of his hand, but he didn’t have much of an eye for color and form.
As for underrated artists, I think of the 19th–century painters who are the craftsmen who have been deemed to be Salon painters. They’ve been tarnished by their negative association with modernism and seen as retrograde. They’re now starting to look good, not because they’re sentimental but because of their technical ability with paint. In a way, they were the last generation of painters who made a commitment to exploit all the possibilities of oils. An example is William–Adolphe Bouguereau. There’s also a painting in the Met by Pierre–Auguste Cot called The Storm. It’s of a young man and a young woman fleeing a storm, and it’s a very erotic painting. It’s a very saccharine painting, but technically it’s very good.
You can look at Rembrandt’s Bathshebanext to some of the Salon painters’ work and say, “Exactly why is Rembrandt considered the better painter?” His self–portraits are acutely revealing and sensitive. He’s clearly willing to look at himself with total honesty, but the rest of the time he was doing these mythological subjects.
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Migrateurs–curator, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Hans–Peter Feldmann, who was born in 1941 and lives in Düsseldorf, is one of the greatest and most influential artists working today. Feldmann has escaped formalism all the way, mistrusting comfort of style and the seeming permanence of objects. For more than three decades, Feldmann has legitimized previously illegitimate art forms (daily life, photo albums), has constantly blurred boundaries, and has removed fences high and low.
During the 1980s Feldmann stopped his activities in the art world in favor of other projects, such as his thimble mail or his shop in Dí¼sseldorf. He subsequently founded a company to manufacture tin toys and a publishing house, where he self–produces his own artist’s books; he also founded the magazine OHIO with other artists—a magazine without text, images only. Today all these activities coexist with his exhibitions. Feldmann’s most recent works are 100 black–and–white photographs depicting 100 different people. The first picture shows a baby born in 1999; the second picture, a child of one; the third, a child of two, etcetera. The work ends with an image of a 100–year–old person.
One underrated artist is Wifredo Lam. When Picasso and all those modernist artists were interested in African art, it was an exotic discovery. Lam was the only one who was already a part of that culture, and he really influenced all the others. He was the one who touched the subject with a real approach. He was a black Cuban, and his work was about the Afro–Cuban religion and embodies that sensibility in its symbolism. Picasso was very influenced by Lam, but Lam is not as well known as he should be.
The overestimated one is Pic
asso. For me his real legacy was this idea of the modern artist, about how the artist has to behave, what he has to do. There are all these mythological stories about how he went to restaurants and paid with drawings. They define the concept of the modern artist.
I think his work is overrated too. He didn’t do anything better than any other artist, and he dealt too much with commerce at a certain point in his career.
Director, Caixa de Pensiones, Barcelona
Robert Mangold is an extraordinary artist who doesn’t get the attention he deserves. His paintings are about space and form. The most recent works are like Italian Renaissance frescoes. Their surfaces are very beautiful. It is true he gets some attention, but the prices are not comparable with, say, Brice Marden’s.
Txomin Badiola, a Basque artist, is also underrated. His work is ambiguous and strong. His constructions are about the body and about violence. You sense the violence; you feel it behind the work.
Luis Gordillo is another underrated artist. His paintings are complex and surrealistic and rather difficult to present. You can’t say whether they are abstract or figurative. In the late 1960s and beginning of the ’70s, he was a Pop artist. He was more related to British than American Pop. But he was very abstract at the same time. His images are very attractive. He works a lot with photography. He was a conceptual artist too. His evolution was very interesting.
Artist and dean of the art school at CalArts, Los Angeles
There are two artists I think of as underrated. One is Rose Finn–Kelcey, a London–based artist who works in performance and video installation. She has been active since the early 1970s. Part of the reason she’s underrated is that she doesn’t stick to one look. She’s pursuing an investigation of the meaning of being a person. It’s about the body and the relation of the body to the self and the relation of the body to the world. It’s about sexuality, politics. One of her pieces was a large, refrigerated room. You entered it and froze.
Her work uses high production and technology to create a very striking and immediate response in the participants, both visually and physically, which gives a kind of emotional kick.
Someone else who’s underrated is Michael Hurson. He’s based in New York, and he’s a very sophisticated and witty portraitist. I think that his portraits work better than Alice Neel’s gloomy satires and are livelier than David Hockney’s works of technical wizardry. Hurson’s portraits tend to be of people in the art world; they’re mostly his friends, artists, and collectors.
My overrated artist of the moment is Matthew Barney. I think his work is overproduced and overhyped. I’m assuming that it’s dealing with issues that Rose Finn–Kelcey is dealing with—issues of sexuality and the body. I think it privileges effects over content. I think it’s impersonal and emotionally cold, supercilious and pretentious. The last Cremasterfilm drove me to the nearest bar.
Director, Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Among the most overrated artists is Pierre–Auguste Renoir. He painted some brilliant works, but he also painted some far–from–brilliant ones. When he falls into a cliché, as he did with his late nude series, he keeps replicating a formula. If anyone’s overexposed, it’s Renoir. But when he was on target, he did some fabulous, fabulous paintings.
Among the most underrated I would include Karel Teige, the most important Czech proponent of modernism in the 1920s and ’30s. He is just another one of those artists who slipped through the cracks of art history. Among my favorite works are his Surrealist collages. M.I.T. Press has just published the first volume of his work in English, and we’re hosting an exhibition of his work in May. I first learned of his work from an exhibition proposal. It was one of those things that comes through the mail. Before then, I’d never heard of him.
Director, Museum of Modern Art, Ludwig Foundation, Vienna
One underrated artist is Roman Opalka, a Polish artist living in France. He is one of the deepest existential artists I know—someone who reflects an incredibly complex vision in a very simple, clear, direct way by just writing, writing, writing. He began to write these numbers in 1965, beginning with one; now he is at 700 million. He will paint these numbers until he is dead. The last number is when he dies.
The paintings are black on white, as in an exercise book. But they are very painterly and vivid and have an interesting texture. He dips his brush in the paint and paints as long as the color remains. The numbers have a rhythm that reflects the rhythm of the hand. It is repetitive, but metaphorical as well. Gradually, the proportion of black to white paint becomes smaller and smaller. Slowly, the difference between the black and the white paint disappears. Then you can only imagine the numbers. It is about dualism—good/bad, dark/light, man/God. He eliminates the differences. There is a mystical, spiritual aspect of his work that comes from his Polish–Slavic culture.
Over the last 40 years you find artists like him: Lucio Fontana—the incredible reduction to one element—Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni. But of all these artists, Opalka is the least known. And he is one of the most important.
Artist, New York
Women abstract painters have not necessarily been considered as part of the canon. Joan Mitchell, for example, was very bitter about this. She ended up moving to France. There’s a black woman artist named Alma Thomas from Washington, D.C. I believe she started painting really late in her life. She’s an abstract painter. You hear about her in the African American art world and sometimes in the white feminist art world, but you really don’t hear about her in the commercial world. It’s a combination of sexism and racism.
There’s a Native American artist named Jimmie Durham. His work is wonderful. You’ll see him in a show now and then, but it’s as if he’s in the margins. I chalk that up to racism, which is so endemic in the art world. You rarely hear about Native American artists being included in anything. Durham reminds me of Joseph Beuys—that kind of deeply serious work that’s also really on the edge. When you read the work, it’s like he’s inventing a whole new language.
Director, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Every artist who is underrated will be overrated, and every artist who is overrated will at some time be underrated. Artists who are unknown will become known; artists who were known will become unknown. As was the case once with Vermeer and Leonardo. And there will come a time when people will have great difficulty remembering who van Gogh was. In the future, people will be amazed that at the turn of the last century people were in awe of Bruce Nauman, or Pollock.
Gilbert & George are underrated artists, because they are now seen as exotic artists—strange English people. But they uncorked the bottle full of imagery that has nourished an entire generation, including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. Gilbert & George broke the ice. You see, English art has always had a very genteel aspect—landscapes, Constable, Gainsborough. But then Gilbert & George came along, and it was as if a whole new side of life opened up. Damien Hirst has always acknowledged this, but the English press has ignored it…. There is a particular tendency in criticism and collecting that feeds on the fact that something is original.
A discovery is like an orgasm. Hirst’s sheep floating in formaldehyde. It’s new. But only 20 percent new
. Eighty perc
nt of it is old, can be traced to the English pastoral tradition, the pre–Raphaelites, Victorian romanticism. So Hirst is overrated, but overrated in relation to Gilbert & George. Gilbert & George are famous, but they are still underrated—underrated intellectually.
Impresario, former candidate for mayor of London
Everyone today is overrated, from Damien Hirst to many Young British Artists, just like the 1980s New York artists. They’re very much about branding a culture. I don’t think contemporary art is a very profound medium anymore.
Director, Art in General, New York
Men from the ’70s have received an enormous amount of recognition, but many of the women are being forgotten. They have been completely overlooked by galleries. One underrated artist is Michelle Stuart. She’s been involved for many years with natural surroundings, landscape and the way it impacts with a Minimalist tradition. Nature is her subject matter, and people overlook that.
For me, Damien Hirst is overrated. When I went to see his current show at Gagosian in New York, I thought I was in the ’80s again. It felt like a science–fair project that had little to do with conceptual framework or content and more to do with opulence and production. At least in his earlier pieces I could grasp some art component. This felt to me like it could have been in a display window.
Director, Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Oporto, Portugal
I would like to concentrate on artists who are underrated and alive. Well known in Germany, but that’s about it, is Reiner Ruthenbeck, a student of Beuys, and of the same generation as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. He is an artist’s artist, but a major one. He uses very simple, precise means to achieve an effect that changes perception. For instance, for one of his installations he took white and black paper, crumpled it up into loose balls, and made a pyramid.
He always abides by the nature of his materials. The work has to do with perception, precision, transcendence. The material becomes the piece, and the piece transcends the material. For another work, he had two horses, one white, one black, ride through Münster, one from one direction and one from the other.
Senior curator, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
There are a number of women artists, such as Hannah Wilke and Yoko Ono, who just weren’t given the kind of attention they deserved, but they had this amazing influence on the last ten years. There’s a real need now to look at their work.
Carolee Schneemann is almost singlehandedly the inventor of the performance–art genre. She pioneered the notion of using the body as the main material and medium of one’s art. It was a breakthrough.
I think Peter Saul is one of the most egregiously overlooked artists there is. He’s the only major figure from the Pop era who hasn’t been given his due. He wasn’t making art according to a certain formula. He added social, even political elements. I think that scared people.
Another underrated artist is Jimmie Durham, a full Cherokee Indian who’s lived as an expatriate for the past 20 to 25 years, first in Mexico and now in Belgium. I think he has an extraordinary mythopoeic way of using materials, forms, and text—like no other artist working today. He’s pretty respected in Europe, but his work hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves in this country. Perhaps because, in a way, his art speaks to a primitive underside of American culture, which some people have misinterpreted as reflecting that primitivism, rather than offering a window on it. It refers to the historical legacy in our country of how indigenous Americans were, and continue to be, treated.
Consulting curator, Menil Collection, Houston
I can think of two very different artists whom I consider to be underrated. One is a younger abstract artist named Virgil Grotfeldt. He has a New York gallery, a gallery in New Orleans, and a gallery in Dallas, but he’s not part of the more widely appreciated new art, which is imagist—not realist, but imagist. It’s a harder time for abstract artists, unless you’re Frank Stella. It’s even hard for Terry Winters; he’s a very fine abstract artist with biomorphic forms who’s had a fair amount of recognition.
Another underrated artist is James Eller. Eller lives in Southern California, and he’s been doing interesting work since the late 1950s. He does image work, and he keeps changing. He’s done some very interesting conceptual work. By 1963 he was conceiving of an empty, clean room where a heating cord was installed at about the height where most people’s hands would be. Just a gentle warmth as you circumnavigate the room. I don’t know anything more minimal than that. Just when people think they’ve got a handle on him, he changes. He’s a fascinating artist.
Curator of modern and contemporary art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
I’ll give you the answer closest to home. I’m organizing a Barnett Newman show at the moment [scheduled for 2002 at the Philadelphia Museum and the Tate Modern in London]. Newman really fits this underrated category, which is why we’re doing the show. He’s certainly underappreciated by the general public, largely because his art is unfamiliar. It’s a very small body of work, concentrated in very few locations. He’s not like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko—he didn’t have the tragic life that they had, the kind of life that would have propelled him into the public eye. His work is certainly hard. It’s difficult if people don’t or can’t or won’t work at it a little, asking themselves, Why does this art matter? It takes a lot of time to see. His paintings have to seep into your consciousness, and you have to enter into them.
Harold Rosenberg once said something along the lines of, Any artist who’s rated is overrated. And I agree that, in a funny way, overrated can go together with underrated. In Newman’s case, his mythology precedes the experience of his work for many people, and that can result in a certain worshipfulness that seems wrong too. It also actually works against really looking at the paintings.
Director, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris
Who is an overrated artist? It’s a difficult question. What do you mean by overrated? Overrated within one’s generation? On the art market? Within the actual situation? Personally, I am surprised at how overpriced contemporary photography is. Of course, the artists themselves are not the cause of this. They are in a system that makes them overrated.
As far as underrated artists go, there are artists in certain parts of the world who are very underrated. For instance, in Latin America or East Asia. Most good young artists are coming from these places, and yet they get no attention and have no chance of getting into the market. We are in a situation with no system of objective valuation.
If you think of European artists after World War II—say Alberto Burri or Antoni Tàpies—they are very underrated in relation to American artists from the same period. Certainly, Tàpies is a well–respected artist, but not on the art market, a symbol of how artists are valued. It was only when Tàpies was around 75 that his works started fetching high prices, and still, they are not in the same price range as Rauschenberg, say.
Director, Kunst–Werke, Berlin, and senior curator, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Queens, New York
John Wesley is an underrated artist and an artist’s artist. In a sense, many underrated artists are artist’s artists. He is a painter in his 70s, a Pop artist from the 195
0s–’60s generation, but still very contemporary and cutting edge. He is just now being reconsidered. There were a couple of shows recently that made him a part of Pop. He works with a cartoonlike structure.
Santiago Sierra is another artist who deserves more recognition. He is 35 and just beginning to get exposure. He has a ten–year body of work. He escaped the art system and went to Mexico City. He was influenced by arte povera. His work is in the same tradition as Jannis Kounellis and Marina Abramovic. He puts on performances dealing with the relationship between personal integrity and money.
A third underrated artist is the American Henry Darger (1892–1973). He is shown in various folk–art museums, but he is not at all a folk artist. He is, on the contrary, very relevant. He was a janitor for most of his life, wrote a 15,000–to–17,000–page book about a kind of world war. The book is rather like Tolkien in a way. He illustrated the book with all kinds of maps and diagrams. He also made hundreds of watercolors. He was put into the “Outsider” category, but although he had no contact with the art world, he isn’t an outsider. To say that he is is to make him too harmless.
Certainly, geography plays a role in whether an artist is underrated. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to be underrated, because, after all, it’s every curator’s dream to discover and promote a forgotten artist.
Director, Boymans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam
Only a real misanthrope would dare to state that this or that artist is overrated. I guess I can say that one artist is more important than another one. But, even so, it is more appropriate to judge individual works of art. For instance, I find the recent pictures of Andreas Gursky—huge, computerized blowups of spectacular postcapitalistic environments—less relevant than his early landscapes, which are, by the way, highly underrated.
Cultural critic and curator, Lima
Overrated? The list is almost as long as it is uninteresting. Underrated: much (so–called) Third World art, all too expediently considered derivative, when in fact it can be devious in the ways it takes (so–called) First World models to extremes that radically transgress and revitalize them. Just to be facetious, or perhaps merely wicked: even such splendid artists as Cindy Sherman pale when confronted with, say, the Chilean Carlos Leppe’s visceral performances during the Pinochet regime. Likewise, brilliant Raymond Pettibon is child’s play compared with the Peruvian Fernando Bryce, who makes installations of drawings that subvert publications generally related to tourism and governmental public relations.
Huayco—a defunct collective active in Lima circa 1980—swallowed and transformed all of Warhol and Lichtenstein in just a couple of jolly bites that radically returned Pop art to popular culture.
But then again, Third World artists have a probably unfair advantage: they can still harbor the fantasy of participating in a scene where art may be conceived as part of a broader symbolic exchange—and thus of transforming economies and overthrowing dictatorships. Wild as this delusion may seem, it certainly accomplishes wonders for art.
Artist, professor of visual arts, Columbia University, New York
Among the least known of truly commanding artists is Bartolomeo Bimbi, whose tablescapes of fruit, in the Pitti Palace, were of great importance to Courbet, whose own work after Bimbi directed the Symbolists and Giorgio de Chirico back to Bimbi’s paintings. And then, de Chirico’s appreciation of Bimbi’s painting was a huge influence on Philip Guston’s late work. He was an absolutely terrific painter. It’s remarkable that art historians haven’t pulled these paintings to the forefront.
Ben Katchor is the greatest draftsman in America—one of the few people I know who I would call a genius. His body of narrative illustration is consistently astounding, not only for its drawing but for its conception and writing as well. Even though he just got a MacArthur grant, few people outside of those who read his newspaper work are familiar with his production. He constructs situations that have the odd baggage of genetic memory attached to them, as if we all could remember living in 1950s Brooklyn or 1940s Manhattan or 1930s Lithuania or the Lower East Side of 1920. His work smells of the gray air stuffed into the works of Bruno Schulz, and I am continually surprised to find that I relate to all of this information as purely American information.
I actually think that Georges Braque is severely underrated. I don’t think Americans have a tolerance for work you need to meditate on. They like something you can understand quickly, like Edward Hopper.
Helen Frankenthaler basically invented a technique that most contemporary painters are indebted to, which is staining a canvas for ground color. The fact that she isn’t given credit for that innovation is staggering.