The U.S. has played a central role in shaping modern and postmodern art since the beginning of the twentieth century. Like the principles the nation was founded on, American art revolved around challenging the traditions of the European art world. Many American artists’ careers were marked by controversy as they pioneered new cutting-edge art movements, such as abstract impressionism, pop art and neo-expressionism. Initially scrutinized but later held in the highest esteem, American masterpieces massively influenced the art of the 20th century.
Today, there are 100,000 artists working in New York trying to make an impression on the 1,500 galleries there. The city is overflowing with internationally celebrated and admired individuals, whose masterpieces receive worldwide recognition. Artsper invites you to discover its picks of the best-of-all-time American masterpieces.
Jackson Pollock’s No.5 (1948)
Jackson Pollock’s 8’ x 4’ masterpiece is arguably the crowning achievement from his remarkable career. Painted in 1948, it coincided with abstract expressionism and established the artist as a crucial contributor to the movement. Deviating from the traditional application of paint, Pollock used his now infamous “dripping” technique with enamel gloss to create the painting. Initial reactions to this artwork were underwhelming, with one critic comparing his handling of paint to that of “baked macaroni”. However, it became the artist’s most expensive and famous artwork, and considered the epitome of abstract expressionism. More of his innovations are available to purchase on Artsper.
Andy Warhol’s Eight Elvises (1963)
This 12 foot painting is composed of eight overlapping Elvis Presley images, silkscreened over a silver background. It incorporates all the signature elements of a Warhol artwork, a figurehead of the Pop Art movement. This includes themes such as fascination with the famous, repetition of image and striking use of color. Furthermore, this painting was not mass-produced like much of Warhol’s work, creating an elusivity that interests art dealers. In fact, the artwork has not been seen publicly since the 1960s and its location remains unknown. However, the artwork remains an important emblem of the Pop Art movement. It is also an exemplary example of Andy Warhol’s artworks, some of which are available on Artsper today.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982)
This artwork is an iconic piece from artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a pioneer of neo-expressionism and art brut. The artwork is unequivocally Basquiat in its style, from the palpable anguish of the teeth-baring skull to the chaotic letters scribbled across the painting. The viewer can emphatically sense the creative energy and emotion emanating from the canvas. Like much of his work, Untitled features aspects of the morbid and macabre. An internationally recognized painting, this artwork is considered one of his masterpieces due to its energetic yet violent style which is quintessentially Basquiat.
Shepard Fairey’s HOPE (2008)
Shepard Fairey (also known under the alias Obey) became an internationally recognized artist after his creation of a poster during the US presidential campaign in 2008. The poster features a stylized image of Barack Obama with the word “HOPE” inscribed beneath in capital letters. This artwork was not only significant artistically, blending iconic imagery of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art with Alexander Rodtchenko’s Russian Constructivism, but highly influential to the political campaign itself. So much so that Fairey received a personal thanks from President Obama upon his election for the positive effect his poster had. Fairey’s extensive art portfolio, with many of his works available on Artsper’s website cements him as the leading American street artist. Discover top 10 American street artists in this blog article.
Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930)
This artwork is one of the most recognizable on this list. Its notoriety derives from the numerous pop-culture parodies which have further popularized the artwork. American Gothic is a staple of the American Realism movement which began in the second half of the 19th century. It depicts a worried looking woman and a man with an austere gaze in front of their atypical midwestern home. The structural depth of the image and the highly detailed and polished style of the subjects never fails to captivate the viewer. Originally intended as a positive statement about rural American values, it was often understood as a satirical comment on the midwestern character. Its ensuing popularity and influence on popular culture elevates makes it one of key the masterpieces of the century.
Robert Rauschenburg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)
Robert Raushcenburg’s 1953 work, Erased de Kooning Drawing is considered by many as an exceptional example of Neo-Dadaist conceptual artwork. Rauschenburg asked artist William de Kooning for a drawing with the intention of erasing it. However, the drawing was so densely worked that it took Rauschenburg over a month to erase using a variety of different erasers. The artwork was then subsequently framed and captioned by his artist friend and fellow Neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns. The artwork is considered one of the masterpieces of the 20th century due to its significance in laying the groundwork for Neo-Dadaism and its implication of so many important artists. Many more of Rauschenburg’s influential works are available on Artsper.
Keith Haring’s Best Buddies (1990)
Keith Haring was known for his iconic stylized outline graffiti art. His rise to success coincided with the increased popularity of the New York graffiti culture during the 80s. His colorful large-scale murals often included social and political themes. Recurring issues featured include homosexuality, safe sex, the AIDS crisis, anti-apartheid and anti-drugs. The artwork Best Buddies is another example of his activism through his artwork. It was created and donated to the Best Buddies charity in 1990, a charity which works internationally to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The artwork is available to buy on the Artsper website.
And there you have it, Artsper’s pick of the all-time best American masterpieces. Perhaps what is most interesting about the list is the range of artistic style each of these incredible artists had. Not only was each masterpiece an exemplar of American artistic innovation, but each was important, if not crucial, to the development of the main artistic movements of the 20th century. Their desire to break away from European traditionalism and make their own unique mark on the world at the time resulted in extreme controversy, however, it was undoubtedly to the nations advantage, with the U.S. being consecrated as the world’s leading artistic power.