Sometimes their work is hard to collect. Other times, it’s hard to categorize. Sometimes artists are underappreciated because they belong to long-overlooked constituencies. And other times, as Claudia Gould, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, delicately puts it, “the personalities of the artists themselves are counterproductive to their careers.” According to the curators, museum directors, art historians, and artists we surveyed, some of the most underrated artists include women, documentary photographers, and the painters and sculptors who created the Baroque masterpieces of Latin America.
As for overrated artists, those cited here will likely be quite familiar to our readers. But, as artist Kiki Smith points out, reputations are rarely static. “People whom you think of as overrated at one moment can fade away very quickly,” she notes, “or will sometimes be seen later in a different light that makes their work more appealing.”
Curator of contemporary art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Museum collections often harbor a treasure trove of underrated artists—whose work was deemed important at the time of acquisition but was then relegated to storage (and excised from the art-historical canon) as tastes changed. This was certainly the case with Lee Bontecou. The first time I saw in person the Guggenheim’s holdings of her work was on the occasion of her recent retrospective.
Reviewing our postwar collection with that experience in mind, I found many artists who deserve renewed recognition, including Alice Aycock, Lynda Benglis, Mary Corse, Mary Miss, Ree Morton, Maria Nordman, Hannah Wilke, and Jackie Winsor, to name only a few. The fact that they are all women is not insignificant. Though their careers all began during the late 1960s and the ’70s, a time when feminism became an important part of art discourse, the period was male dominated, and its history still is.
Overrated artists certainly have their place at the museum as well. Visitors most often want to see work by modern masters who have become household names to the exclusion of all else. At the Guggenheim it is Kandinsky. This is not to denigrate his career or deny his genius in any way but rather to lament that the general public is less than adventurous when it comes to modern or contemporary art. Though our collection galleries are quite small, we have obliged our visitors by now offering “all Kandinsky all the time” in a changing but permanent installation of the artist’s work. One hopes that they will encounter the “underrated” in their pursuit of the “over-,” or rather the “ever-,” exposed.
E. A. Carmean Jr.
Art consultant and former director, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis
Jan Lievens was a contemporary of Rembrandt. They were the same age and painted almost side by side. Lievens was judged to be the more talented in his day. He was taken to England to be a court painter and just went straight downhill, while Rembrandt became Rembrandt. What’s interesting about them is that they painted the same subjects, such as the boys wearing turbans. Lievens is an absolutely fascinating painter, and no one seems to know anything about him. If I were running a museum, I would do a show of Lievens and Rembrandt as young artists.
I would also call John Walker an underrated artist. I love his paintings, particularly the ones after the Old Masters. He’s admired by more critics and art historians of different persuasions than any artist I know. He has an underground reputation that’s not recognized by the market or by institutions.
Georgia O’Keeffe is probably an overrated painter. She’s too dry. Her paintings are better in reproduction than they are in real life. The smaller the reproduction, the better—a postcard is better than a color plate, and O’Keeffe postage stamps would represent her at her best.
Director, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati
The underrated artist who comes to mind first is Vito Acconci. Why hasn’t he gotten a MacArthur Award? He’s someone who has been so important and influential to several generations of artists that it just doesn’t seem right. One tends to think that the commercial viability of his work or lack thereof has something to do with it. I was pleased that Judy Pfaff got the recognition of a MacArthur. She would be another person who falls into the underrated category.
Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
For my overrated candidate, I would pick Claude Lorrain. If you’ve seen five, you’ve seen them all. There’s a limit to how many sunsets and sunrises can be tolerated. His figure drawing, as everyone recognizes, is dismal. He’s kind of a Johnny-one-note of 17th-century landscape painters.
My underrated artist is also a 17th-century painter: Cristóbal de Villalpando, from Mexico. There he’s regarded as one of the major luminaries in the history of colonial painting, but outside Mexico he’s not known at all. He’s got a very fiery, late Baroque imagination and style, and he painted one of the great masterpieces, in my opinion, of 17th-century painting, which is a series of four paintings for the sacristy of the cathedral of Mexico City. They have a very complicated iconography about the exaltation of the Catholic Church and its triumph over heresy, but even if you don’t get the complex content, you can’t help but be stirred by all the visual pyrotechnics. It’s long past time that a great part of colonial American and Latin American art is recognized.
Olga Viso, Deputy director
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
The contribution of Cildo Meireles to the development of international conceptual art has not been fully acknowledged. Meireles’s early works have a raw social and political edge. I find his work unparalleled.
Other underrated artists from the Caribbean and Latin America include Carlos Alfonzo, Ana Mendieta, and Guillermo Kuitca. Kuitca’s examination of social space in his paintings from the late 1980s and early 1990s anticipated a great deal of contemporary painting today, from Thomas Scheibitz to Julie Mehretu.
The late Fred Sandback and the Brazilian sculptor Waltercio Caldas are very underrated artists whose quiet, analytical works do not always translate well. Other artists I think about in the same way include Giorgio Morandi, Jesús Rafael Soto, Julio Le Parc, and, of course, Lee Bontecou, whose recent retrospective was a revelation.
A great deal of contemporary Japanese art—the animation esthetic—and contemporary German painting and photography are overrated. Contemporary Chinese art is now well on its way. My reaction is due more to the phenomenon of the art market than to any specific dislike of the works of individual artists. What troubles me is the hype generated by the mechanics of the art world and the bandwagon mentality that results among the collecting community. The oversaturation of the market with certain artists often leads to unwarranted dismissals that are potentially devastating to the careers of individual artists.
Art historian, New York
Ronald Bladen was a terrific sculptor, and his work has be
en rather neglected. In his time he was well recognized. There were two heroic Minimalists: one was Ronnie, the other was Tony Smith. Ronnie was the star of the “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. He did nine-foot rhomboid pieces that were just sensational. One reason he fell off may be partly the attitude that he and many artists had, which involved shooting their own careers in the foot.
Another artist I always felt was underrated is Richard Stankiewicz. He was really the innovator, in my mind, of what used to be called Neo-Dada and is now assemblage. He was making these junk sculptures and showing them as early as 1953. He was eclipsed not only by artists like Robert Rauschenberg, who began to use found materials, but also, particularly, by people like Mark di Suvero and John Chamberlain.
For overrated I just don’t think Georgia O’Keeffe is as terrific a painter as she’s supposed to be, with the reputation that she has. And among contemporary artists, Tracey Emin’s reputation is terribly overinflated. In England she’s one of the most celebrated artists, and I find the work banal.
Artist, New York
Although Judy Pfaff just got a MacArthur Award, I would still call her an underrated artist. The work of older women continues to be marginalized. There are a lot of artists older than me, including Jo Baer and Mary Beth Edelson, who haven’t gotten the acknowledgment they deserve.
In the scheme of overrated in the world, the overrating of art is very minimal. And it always changes. People whom you think of as overrated at one moment can fade away very quickly or will sometimes be seen later in a different light that makes their work more appealing.
Director, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Vito Acconci has been extremely influential. I’m not so sure he’s overlooked in the minds of artists, but he’s overlooked in the commercial world. He’s MacArthur material, and I don’t understand why he has been passed over. Without him we wouldn’t have so many artists working in video and performance. I know that architects, too, like Diller + Scofidio and Steven Holl, look at him as a major influence on their work.
Another person is Judy Pfaff, who just got a MacArthur. But I’ve been wondering why she has not also gotten her commercial due. Artists who have been influenced by her, like Sarah Sze, Jessica Stockholder, and Polly Apfelbaum, are certainly more seen and recognized. I would say that Lynda Benglis also falls into the underrated category. There are so many factors that go into what makes sustainability. Often the personalities of the artists themselves are counterproductive to their careers. Women, especially of an older generation, still face certain hurdles. Surveys of their work have not been done.
Chief curator, Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin
For underrated artists within my local context, I would mention Alberto Burri and Giulio Turcato. If you look in magazines from the 1950s, Burri was sharing the same platform with most of the American Abstract Expressionists, yet for some reason he has fallen into almost total oblivion. Burri is enormously important in that postwar period and influential internationally. Rauschenberg came to visit his studio in 1952. I don’t think there would have been Antoni Tàpies in Spain had there not been Burri.
There are important artists who didn’t really align with arte poveraand therefore didn’t fit with our ideas of what the 1960s were in Italy. One would be Fabio Mauri, who, long before other people were creating installations and performance work, explored the ideological nature of signs. Enrico Castellani was important in terms of developing environments as artworks.
Underrated artists are often the ones who make less object-oriented works. They are underrated in both the market and museum collections, simply because it’s very hard to collect their work. Emilio Prini, who is less known than Mario Merz, was very influential to the basic notion of arte povera and was the most dematerialized of the arte poveraartists.
In my professional life, when I consider artists overrated I generally ignore them. I do, though, fondly remember a conversation with André Masson when he was still alive. He said to me, “You know what, Carolyn? Picasso—terribly overrated! Someday everybody will realize this!” Who knows, maybe Masson knew something that we don’t.
Senior curator, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Here in Houston there’s an elderly artist named Jim Love, who’s a classic underrated artist. He’s an amazing sculptor and is pretty well known locally but is somewhat reclusive and never makes an effort to go beyond this region. Years ago, John and Dominique de Menil were ardent supporters of his and gave him his only solo exhibition, at a gallery they had before they built their museum. He has public sculptures at Hobby Airport and Herman Park here, so people are aware of his work, but he doesn’t have broad name recognition.
Artist, New York
I’d say Ronald Bladen is an underrated artist. Time passed him by. He did a body of work in the late 1950s and early ’60s that was pretty terrific. He went from painting to making sculpture about scale and space that assassinated its neighbors in the 1966 “Primary Structures” show. He just had problems making work independently.
Mary Ellen Mark
Photographer, New York
There are many great documentary photographers who are not considered part of the art world. In fact, “photojournalism” is considered a negative term in the art world. This is not a new trend in photography. Margaret Bourke-White is one of the photographers who are extremely underrated in the field of fine-art photography. She is considered a great photojournalist and documentarian, but in the world of art she has never been given as high esteem as other photographers of her generation, like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who have both been rightly recognized as great artists. Because Bourke-White was a staff photographer for Lifemagazine, she was labeled a photojournalist. She is one of the great photographers of all time with an enormous range. She made beautiful industrial pictures, landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits, as well as some of the most powerful and important social documentary images in history.
Chief curator and deputy director of exhibitions, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Despite the fact that Fairfield Porter is in some ways a very well known artist, he is still not as well known as he should be, given how important his work is. He was of the same generation as the New York School abstract painters, but when people still had a very linear version of the progress of art history, he didn’t fit because his work was fundamentally representational. He was always very respected by artists who knew his work, including abstract painters of the period, but because he can’t be slotted so easily into that narrative, he’s not as well known as he should be, especially to the general public. When I mention him to younger artists, I get a very favorable response. His work looks extremely contemporary in some ways right now.
Independent curator, New York
Picasso is overrated. I would never deny his importance; and his contribution, especially to Cubism, was extremely significant. But what makes him overrated is the sort of mythology around him, the way people confuse his life with his art. He was a decent enough painter and certainly very prolific, and he lived an interesting life, but let’s
not confuse that
with being a genius.
Mel Chin is vastly underrated. Part of the reason is because—like so many artists who don’t work consistently in one medium—he can’t be easily pigeonholed. It happens to a lot of artists who have a very conceptual practice and make work that’s not always gallery friendly but might show up as an intervention in a place outside an institutional setting. It’s harder for the art world to ferret out, and we don’t always take the time to do that. Mierle Ukeles falls into that category as well.
Independent curator and adjunct professor, Instituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia
There are so many underrated artists, from historical figures to younger ones. The focus of the art world has expanded selectively in the past decade. Many extremely important artists from the so-called periphery have unfortunately remained little known. Among these people I would include the Brazilian Artur Barrio, the Argentine Victor Grippo, and the Croatian Ivan Kozaric. The three of them started working in the 1960s, and Barrio and Kozaric are still producing compelling work today. Lygia Pape, a member of the Neo-Concrete group in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950s and a pioneer of participatory practice, is another notably underrated artist. The remarkable lack of attention to their work can be explained only by a mixture of economic and geopolitical reasons.
On the other side of the spectrum there are a number of younger people working in the development of “experimental communities” whose efforts still have not been properly recognized, such as Jeanne van Heeswijk and Ben Kinmont, and collectives such as Raqs Media Collective from India; Eloísa Cartonera, M777, and Grupo de Arte Callejero from Argentina; and Park Fiction from Germany.
Melissa Chiu, Director
Asia Society and Museum, New York
Whether an artist is overrated or underrated, it seems to me, is dependent as much on who is voting as where and when. In New York opinions might differ greatly from those in Shanghai or Tokyo, just as they would in any of these places from year to year. I would like to mention three artists who have been underrated in New York, although all have showed in the city before.
Chen Chieh-jen lives and works in Taiwan. Some of his most powerful works are black-and-white photographs, and, more recently, videos, that draw upon archival images of violent acts from the early 1900s. His three-channel video projection Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photographwas the standout work at the Taipei Biennial three years ago.
Yun-Fei Ji’s ink paintings are often underrated because of their modest scale. He lives and works in New York, having emigrated from China in 1986. Ji’s colored paintings on rice paper often reflect his memories of, or recent experiences in, China, ranging from Communist Party corruption to the Three Gorges Dam.
Huang Yong Ping’s installations—such as his infamous Bat project in southern China, which was censored because of its direct references to the 2001 American spy-plane incident—rarely escape notice. But I have a sense that he is underrated in the United States. He played an important role in China’s art history as a leader of the avant-garde movement in the 1980s.
Curator of film and video, Whitney Museum
John Latham is one of the most important artists working in Britain today. He embraces conceptual ideas and has been a huge influence on younger artists in Britain, but his work hasn’t really been seen outside Britain. There are many European artists who are revered in Europe but not known in the States and vice versa. I’m astonished that no one in New York has done a Richard Hamilton retrospective yet.
Jack Goldstein is on a crucial cusp between the 1970s and ’80s. What he articulated in terms of appropriation really puts him up there with artists like Richard Prince. He has never been compared with Prince or discussed in relation to him, and yet what they were doing was extraordinarily prescient. Goldstein is very underrecognized, partly through his own doing. He got fed up with the art world.
Stuart Brisley was one of the most important artists in Britain working with performance. He really belongs to the group of 1970s artists that includes Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic, but he slid off the dial slightly. He was a major figure when I was studying. The Young British Artists, Damien Hirst and all, didn’t come out of nowhere. Hirst deals with death and the very dark side of things; Brisley was dealing with those themes in the 1970s and early 1980s. He’s a missing link to understanding the younger artists who got so much more attention.
Robert Fiore is a filmmaker who worked with so many artists in the 1970s. He was the cameraman for the films of Richard Serra, Joan Jonas, Robert Smithson, and many others. He’s so modest and unassuming. People sometimes forget that there was someone behind the camera because the artist is in front of the camera. His eye was very critical to the success of those 1970s films.
Director, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
In the Japanese context there are some artists who are a little underrated. Rei Naito, a conceptual artist, is highly thought of in Japan but not so well known outside. Another who’s probably going to become more highly rated would be Motohiko Odani. He’s an installation- and video artist and also makes strange, fetishistic objects.
In the United Kingdom I would say Ana Maria Pacheco is very underrated. Her work doesn’t fit into any neat categories. She does a lot of big wood carvings and tempera paintings. They’re strongly figurative and theatrical and relate to a kind of emotional Latin Americanness that many Latin Americans don’t get engaged with. She’s Brazilian and has been living outside Brazil for at least 30 years. I find her work fascinating.
Director, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
William Pope.L isn’t a very recognized name, despite his traveling retrospective. I like the way he deals with social issues while using the same language as someone like Vito Acconci and quietly working within the system to change things.
Acconci is also underrated. The recent show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery documenting his early performance pieces proved how much he has quietly influenced a younger generation of artists.
Most people think of Maya Lin almost exclusively as a monument builder. I don’t think she’s known for her artwork, which is very contemplative, inward looking, and beautiful. I would also call Rikrit Tiravanija underrated. He underscores the importance of artists as the ones always providing and giving to those willing to listen or look.
Andy Warhol is overrated at the same time that he is underrated. People just throw his name up when they talk about contemporary art. But if you think about the younger artists today, it’s phenomenal how much influence he has had. He thought of the whole idea of inventory and having a periphery of objects that gets created from your factory before anyone else, as well as the idea of living through art and documenting oneself.
I find most of the German Neo-Expressionists overrated. There are certainly artists who are great, like Sigmar Polke, but Anselm Kiefer and Markus Lupertz and A. R. Penck seem overrated.
Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum
With all due respect to some of my colleagues quoted in the previous version of this article, in 2000, who argued that Carl Andre, Robert Mangold, Gilbert & George, Barnett Newman, and George Braque have been overlooked, I disagree. Granted, some have not been given the full attention they deserve—Braque, for instance, is traditionally pres
ented as a lesser copy of Picasso—but I would never argue that they’re “underrated.” For to be “rated,” as one is when one is mentioned in a canonical Western-art survey textbook, is to be canonized, as all of the above artists have been.
Perhaps the “underrated” are precisely those talented artists who do not make it into Western-art survey texts, and who are undeservingly not recognized as among the “greats.” It should come as no surprise that the majority of those artists are either women—Lavinia Fontana, Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Elisabetta Sirani, Camille Claudel, Joan Mitchell, and especially feminists such as Claude Cahun, Judy Chicago, Mary Beth Edelson, Sylvia Sleigh, Helen Chadwick, and Hannah Wilke. Or they are persons of color—Betye Saar, Grandma Moses, Edmonia Lewis—or people who do not fit neatly into an ism, like Florine Stettheimer, Romaine Brooks, and Suzanne Valadon. Or people who were overshadowed by a partner-husband, like Sonia Delaunay, Lee Krasner, Lucia Moholy-Nagy, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp; or those who make challenging works that do not hang comfortably in a collector’s living room, like Gina Pane, Bob Flanagan, Carolee Schneemann, Ron Athey, and Orlan; or people who fall geographically outside a strictly defined Western canon of art history, like Lygia Clark, Yurie Nagashima, Sanja Ivekovic, Egle Rakauskaite, and Veliswa Gwintsa.
Artist, New York
Y. Z. Kami, an Iranian artist who lives in New York, is one of the best painters I know of. I’ve never understood why he wasn’t more recognized or brought to people’s attention. He’s in his late 40s and works consistently, and yet his work is not out there.
Part of the confusion about overrating is that we tend to think of people who are overly present as overrated. In fact, they may be really good artists, but we’ve just seen too much of them and somehow become neutral about the value of their work. Artists get overexposed. There was a moment when I felt I was too much everywhere. Then someone like Kami works every day in the studio, and yet no one sees his work. All he knows is to be an artist.
It’s a philosophical question. Do we become these romantic artists who just believe in what we believe and forget what happens outside? Or do you really develop a strategy? A lot of artists don’t have a strategy. They’re just good artists working quietly. One of my favorite artists is David Hammons, and he hardly surfaces. But when he does, I run to see what he has done. He’s so candid and so heated. He used to be more present. He has made a very clear decision that he’s not going to work within a particular system. I’m not sure he’s underrated. I think it’s purely by his choice.
Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona
Richard Hamilton is underrated in the United States but not in Europe. Same thing goes for Dieter Roth. He had the show recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but I still think he is underrated there. Artists who are underrated in Europe are Michael Asher and George Brecht. In the case of Asher, his work is so liminal that he really has no market or visibility. So much of the art that was done after the 1970s is about relationships. But when we deal with history and collections, we still think very much in terms of objects or documents. And Brecht is more important than we think. He has yet to be given a major exhibition where he can be evaluated.
Two artists who are very clearly overrated are Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons. They are overrated because the work they do is pompous, banal, commercial.
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.