Pablo Picasso, Guernica
Perhaps Picasso’s most famous work (as if you can pick just one), Guernica is a prime example of how to do socio-political commentary without being preachy. Part portrait, part abstraction, all chaos, this 1937 work was conceived as a protest of the Spanish Civil War and perfectly illustrates a world we would never want to see, yet as an historically violent species seem desperate to create.
Current location: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain.
Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes
A clinic in detail. The painting is enormous (5’ 6’’ x 9’ 11’’), but Church attended to every leaf on every tree. At various junctures you see snowcapped mountains, crystal blue waterfalls, and a burial site signified by a small wooden cross. You could revisit this canvas ad nauseam and always come away appreciating something new. Also, Church famously compounded scenery from various places he had been, which is to say: creative license is real.
Current location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Marina Abramovic, by Marina Abramovic
The artist as her own subject. This is a trope we also see attempted in fiction from time to time (Paul Auster’s City of Glass, Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King), although in Abramovic’s case the project is ongoing, and in the visual-physical realm the concept is far less muddy. There is no distancing medium between Abramovich and the audience, no pages or screens. Often it is just the air between them.
Current location: ?
Lee Bontecou, Untitled
Annoying title, but simply engrossing work. This is one of a series of similar black hole sculptures, ahead of their time both in terms of look and installation: before 1959 and Bontecou’s original canvas and steel works, wall-mounted sculptures were not common. A helpful reminder that it’s not just your content that matters, but also how you present it.
Current location: Scattered throughout multiple museums (MoMA, Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago).
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar
May sentimentality never cloud our vision. Here we see the artist at the beginning of the end (he died ten years after completing this painting), depicting himself unromantically, as he truly was: wrinkled and jowled and exhausted, yet also dignified. A mirror could not have done better conveying his awareness of life no longer being what it had been, and slowly leaving him.
Current location: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Nan Goldin, Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC
A study in contrasts. The eponymous Misty and Jimmy are biologically male, but dressed as women. In their dresses and makeup they appear ready to party, yet their faces convey a somber mood. It is easy to forget but imperative to remember that people and by extension characters are far more complex than we tend to give them credit for.
Current location: The Tate, London.
Photo credit: Kevin Kennefick
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawings
This is for the James Patterson lovers out there. Most of these graphite-on-wall works were completed by a team of 65 LeWitt-trained artists and students, an assembly line method conceived of by LeWitt in the late 60s with the reasoning that “each person draws a line differently.” LeWitt died from cancer in 2007 and these drawings continue to be produced. Not a bad way to secure your legacy.
Current location: MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA.
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
A tiger shark suspended in a giant tank of formaldehyde. You could argue all day about whether this or for that matter many of Hirst’s works qualify as “art,” but doesn’t the fact of that conversation suggest that they do? At any rate, some things are just plain cool. Bonus points for the wordy title.
Current location: private collection
Rineke Dijkstra, I See a Woman Crying
Excerpted here, this video installation depicts on a triptych screen a group of British schoolchildren looking at and commenting on Picasso’s The Weeping Woman. All told the video lasts about 12 minutes, during which time the kids’ observations evolve from the merely observant (“I can see lots of bright colors…”) to the speculative (“Looks like someone’s coming for her.”). Meta in the wrong hands is awful. In the right hands, sublime.
Current location: The Tate, Liverpool.
Richard Serra, The Matter of Time
I worked in the art world for six years and would periodically hear what a jerk Richard Serra was. Yet those same gossipers would nearly fall to one knee when discussing his work, and with good reason. In gigantic, white walled, perfectly squared rooms, his snaking steel structures alter your sense of space to the point of dizziness, and the memory of that sensation stays with you. Who cares if he’s not a nice guy?
Current location: The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain.