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World-Class Art

Thomas Hoving Picks a Collection of American Artists Who May Be the Picassos and Monets of the 21st Century
| By Thomas Hoving | From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

The question I'm asked most often is, "Who are the finest artists alive in America today that I should collect? You know, for investment?"

My answer is in two parts: Never buy art for investment, only for love and to enrich your soul; and always collect contemporaries the way the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr, did--with an intense contempt for acquiring what's chic at the moment or "stylish" or representative of some style.

Whatever one thinks of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, most people generally agree that Barr bought the best and most diverse examples of paintings and sculptures of his day. He was enormously proud of the way he acquired works without giving much of a hoot about individual styles. He chased after specific works of excellence and punch, and landed them.

I remember him telling me with justifiable pride about how--in a month's time--he would bring into the collections works by Picasso, Miró, Picabia, Dalí, Peter Blume, Yves Tanguy and Andrew Wyeth. Whether a work was abstract or surreal or even magic realism realist wasn't the point; only the power and superiority of the individual piece counted.

That's how to drive for an incomparable collection.

Who are the absolutely prime artists working today? Who should you buy now so that your grandchildren can dangle their wills before the covetous eyes of the biggest museums in the land, and be wined and dined for the rest of their lives at the nation's greatest museums and the toniest homes of museum trustees?

Here are my picks, greatly helped by three connoisseurs of the current scene whose eyes I admire and trust--Peter Norton of California and Larry Gagosian and Wynn Kramarsky of New York City.

Mark di Suvero. He is without a doubt the premier American sculptor of his generation and quite possibly the most glorious of the second half of the 20th century. He's bold and experimental, free and mysterious, harmonic and earthy. The works are huge, witty, energetic, impolite, incongruous and surpassingly timeless. Di Suvero has painted the American Way with steel, scrap and wood. One of his most superb works, pictured on page 215, is a 24-foot-tall, yellow steel piece titled "Oneoklock," 1969. Andre Emmerich Gallery, Inc. 41 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, fax (212) 371-7345; Larry Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10021, fax (212) 772-7962

Jenny Saville. Her enormous oils of huge, fatty, sometimes bloated naked women, some of whom are covered with strange writings, evoke the universal images of Great Mother Earth that have been created since the beginning of mankind. These works can be upsetting and ugly, but they are as sensitive and poignant as works of the high Renaissance. I look upon them as truthful, gripping representations of humanity--ungussied, unairbrushed, uncosmeticized. Sensational. One feels that mankind will be lucky to have these grotesque figures--such as those above in "Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face)," 1993-94--as exemplars in thousands of years. Larry Gagosian Gallery

Charles Ray. Anyone who passed by the entrance to the Whitney Museum during the run of the 1993 biennial was startled by what appeared to be a red fire truck parked in front of the institution. On closer examination, the vehicle turned out to be a huge, plastic-and-chrome silver-painted toy--50 by 10 by 8 feet. It was not a trick, not a gimmick, but a powerful and legitimate sculpture by Charles Ray; its very ersatz nature makes its reality more profound.

The piece confused me in a delightful manner. I found myself thinking about my childhood, whether or not I had suddenly become a child again and if the perceptions of a child were not more acute than any adult. The sculpture established that delightful confusion between reality and artifice--which is fundamental to so many naturalistic works of art and which seldom has been so admirably captured. Feature, 76 Greene Street, New York, New York 10012, fax (212) 431-7187

Jeanne Dunning. Her works in Cibachrome mounted onto Plexiglas, such as her untitled image of 1994, on page 218, are disturbing, superbly made images of looming sexuality. I find her work profound, totemic, powerfully echoing our troubled--and occasionally exalted--times. Her strength lies in the very enigmatic nature of her semihuman scenes--images that come from the closets of all our minds. Feature

Jason Rhoades. He has got to be the most provocative installation artist working at the moment. His "Garage, Renovation New York," 1993, amply shows its strong character. Ragged, hallucinatory, dynamic, his huge works evoke the shattering activity of artists at work, their doubts, turmoils, fears and triumphs. They are really stupendous and theatrical self-portraits. David Zwirner Gallery, 43 Greene Street, New York, New York 10013, fax (212) 966-4952

Lorna Simpson. Her works possess an incredible emotional blast. She has the ability to make something minuscule grow to important dimensions. Her work, "III," is a box made out of wood and has three wishbones made of ceramic, rubber and bronze. The piece evokes a series of nerve-alerting responses. What are these wishbones? Fragments of carcasses or perhaps divining rods seeking something crucial for the rest of time? Sean Kelly Gallery, 22 Wooster Street, New York, New York 10012, phone (212) 343-2405, fax (212) 343-2604

Mark Innerst. His landscapes are vivid, sometimes strangely brooding icons of high emotion. Each one is a deftly captured specific moment in a special season. In "Central Park South," 1995, above (9 1/4 inches by 12 1/4 inches in a beautiful, handmade frame), the artist has evoked the sunlit glory of the great South Lawn as an oasis of peace and hope in the center of a threatening city, whose dark and cruel forms loom ominously, yet curiously safely, just outside Eden. The paint passages are thrilling. Curt Marcus Gallery, 578 Broadway, New York, New York 10012, phone (212) 226-3200

Frank Stella. The veteran artist's work has never been better than right now. I've watched Stella's work for a lifetime--from the spare and dour pin-striped paintings of the late 1950s which were poetic, remote and bereft of tricks, through a sort of kicky wasteland of the past 25 years in which he seemed to sound off and partly sell out in attractive, three-dimensional, highly colored but strangely uncolorful pastiches. But some recent sculptural work is almost unbelievably hard, uncompromising and powerful. They are like giant gnarled hunks of some petrified forest of the imagination. This one is called "Fos," 1994. Stephen Mazoh Gallery, 67 East 93rd Street, New York, New York 10128, fax (212) 289-5991; Larry Gagosian Gallery

Nari Ward. He makes grandiose, rugged installations out of many media, such as his 1993 work on page 215. They distinguish themselves by their drama, their sensitivity and their poetic strength. Jack Tilton Gallery, 49 Greene Street, New York, New York 10013, phone (212) 941-1775, fax (212) 941-1812

Stephen Antonakos. Some might think the lean masterpieces of this artist are minimalist creations. That would be a mistake. When one really gets into them, one recognizes them as dazzlingly rich and wondrously complex combinations of rectitude and freedom, stillness and boundless energy. Antonakos places the forms--crosses, circles, half-circles, arcs--with intense care onto grounds of flickering color or blackness. The artist conveys a feeling of startling spirituality in his extraordinary pieces, which are made with colored pencils on French plastivellum paper. Stephen Antonakos, 435 West Broadway, New York, New York 10012, phone (212) 925-5956

Sara Sosnowy. She's one of the most accomplished colorists working today. Her large constructions of rectangular four-inch-by-four-inch paper panels, painted in a dazzling array of colors and stuck to a seven-foot-by-eight-foot board like a series of Post-its, are breathtaking--at once delicate, dreamy and expressive. John Weber Gallery, 142 Greene Street, New York, New York 10012, phone (212) 966-6115, fax (212) 941-8727

Damien Hirst. There's no telling what medium or what images fine artists will choose to create their most expressive achievements. Why not, say, dead animals or a shark, preserved in perfect condition floating in a formaldehyde solution, in cases of steel and glass? Hirst has chosen these bizarre forms. In his gifted hands images such as his "Away from the Flock" are at once frightening, riveting and grand. Larry Gagosian Gallery

David Jeffrey. The works are stark. Many are white, black and grayish rectangles on a white ground, made of pencil and white beeswax in daring scumbles on the surface. They are stunningly evocative and full of character--beautiful images which open the viewer's mind. This one from 1992 is untitled and is made out of beeswax, charcoal and a wax medium on paper. The central image measures 27 1/8 square inches and the overall dimensions are 40 inches by 60 inches. David Jeffrey, 230 Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11205, phone (718) 636-3669

Kry Bastian. The found objects brilliantly embellished and manipulated by Kry Bastian are nerve-shatteringly poetic. "Untitled (Bronze Box)," 1994, is 7 1/2-by-6-by-5-inches and is made of bronze, fabric, hair and thread. Her works make you want to embrace them. They give the impression that they are the only objects remaining in civilization at the end of time. Hers is an immense talent. Kry Bastian, 46 Hoyt Street, Apt. 2, Brooklyn, New York 11201, phone (718) 875-0565

Bill Thompson. There's almost nothing to see in his monochromatic square pictures, such as "Stage," an acrylic on wood, 24 inches by 24 inches. Gradually, from within this apparently bland and formless beige object emerge the most uncannily complicated architectural forms and the most subtle and pleasing gradations of shades enhanced by thin, almost imperceptible white lines. It is not easy to explain why or how such tension exists in this and other patently placid objects. They work. Alpha Gallery, 14 Newbury Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02116, fax (617) 536-5695

Wendy Mark. There's a universe of artistry to be found in her diminutive monotypes. Her subjects are diverse. They range from still-lifes, a portrait, swimmers bounding from Ektachrome waves, a red splash of a car and infinite varieties of landscapes--some bright, some Stygian, all deep in perspective and harmony of light--and clouds, filled with light, imparted with the kind of secret life all clouds possess. Her "One Path Leading Away," 1994, (above right) measures 3 1/2 inches by 3 1/4 inches. Wendy Mark, 2 West 67th Street, New York, New York 10023, phone (212) 874-2455

Helen Frankenthaler. She has managed to perfect complete abstraction as few other artists have. To look at one of her pieces on canvas or paper is to be calmed, put into a peaceful frame of mind. They are lyrical, sincere and satisfying. Living with a Frankenthaler brings peace to one's life. She has brought a needed longevity and purpose--and even a proper dignity--to the New York School. Knoedler Gallery, 19 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021, phone (212) 794-0550

Andrew Wyeth. His creations are observant, independent, quixotic, romantic and never "merely real." "Whale Rib," below, painted in 1993, is an uncannily perceived picture and a deeply emotional and dramatic one--possessing a host of delicious, 'false' surrealistic touches.

The painting is a portrait of Maine as a state of physical reality, a state of mind and also a sort of inventory of the flora and fauna that can only exist on this specific and single tiny island, an environment which is utterly different from one a stone's throw away. It's at once broad, universal, specific and emotionally powerful--the reminder of the inevitable end of all things. Nicholas Wyeth Inc., 1120 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10128, phone (212) 348-8500

Nicole Eisenman. She is equally adept at installations and paintings such as her imposing "Amazon Composition," 1993, on page 222. Her works are amazingly imaginative and thought-provoking. She makes more startling and splendidly ominous images--many of them of women under stress--than any other artist working today. Jack Tilton Gallery

Jeff Koons. I find many of his works awful, almost arrogantly destructive--especially the raw porn he once employed in commemorating himself in coitus with his then wife Ciciolina--the pornstar cum Italian parliamentarian. But part of artistic stature is shock value, and Koons is an accomplished shocker. I don't think Koons' works are contrived shock or kid's shock or some kind of practical joke.

His marbles are gripping. You might not like them, but he's got an exceptional talent. One mark of his abilities is the hatred he generates among the mainstream art critics. Jeffrey Deitch, 721 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022, fax (212) 371-9594

Eric Fischl. The beautifully crafted images of this exceptional painter, like the one on page 215, are compellingly enigmatic. This is a man who dares to paint the nude and does it as well as any artist in American history. He is far from a contemporary realist but is more a dynamic classicist who instills in his works the disturbing tones of today's world. I am convinced that, in several generations, Fischl will be counted among the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century. Mary Boone Gallery, 417 West Broadway, New York, New York 10021, phone (212) 431-1818

Kim Dingle. Her work is wild, sometimes undisciplined and richly diverse, ranging from installations to constructions to oil paintings. More often than not it depicts young girls or disturbing babies like this installation titled "The Priss Room" . There's a nasty and invigorating edge to her pieces. They never fail to stick in one's mind. They are extraordinary exemplars of trouble, malaise, wounds and illness--which amount to important statements about mankind. Jack Tilton Gallery

Richard Maury. He's a splendid realist working in Florence. His works are particularly moving, primarily because of the electric excitement he imparts to his interiors, his vivid portraits and his studies of objects of everyday life. Maury expands our visions and perceptions. He achieves an uncanny poetry in his thoughtful and fresh works. With every clean and entrancing painting, he's making new discoveries in the realist style. Gerold Wunderlich & Co., 50 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, phone (212) 974-8444

Wayne Thiebaud. He's great, primarily, because he defies being categorized. He was once mistakenly even branded a pop artist. Thiebaud is a painterly magician who transforms the most banal objects--things like mens' ties, round cakes or candy apples--into adventurous admixtures of the real, the abstract and the mysterious. The ties are far more than a jumble of colorful cravats; they form a turbulent environment, a cluster of ravines and sharp cliffs one might encounter in the back country of northern Arizona. And his landscapes of San Francisco are vertiginous, cruel and dramatic impressions of the urban scene, rich surges of painterly bravado, as unnerving as the first shocks of an earthquake. The 1993 oil on canvas on page 215--a full five feet by four feet--is a heady example of his incomparable portraits of one of the world's unique cities. Wayne Thiebaud, 1617 Seventh Avenue, Sacramento, California 95818, phone (916) 447-4980

Jennifer Pastor. There are hundreds of artists out there who make enormous constructions out of plastic, paper, wood, glass, bronze bits--you name it--but few have any inner passion. Pastor does. Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90036, fax (213) 965-5579

Rez Williams. He paints out of West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard, but he's about as far from one of those sticky-sweet chroniclers of island life and times as one can get. His scenes of the Vineyard smash into your eyes like crescendos. The spaces warp and move. The colors clash and rebound. You gaze at something like "Gay Head Light" for a few seconds and you get out of breath. Williams is light-years beyond the Vineyard, yet no one has distilled it better. Rez Williams, P.O. Box 3143, West Tisbury, Massachusetts 02575, phone (508) 693-1253

Matthew Barney. The artist is one of the most bewildering, inchoate, agonizingly frustrating image-makers in the world today. As the art writer Jerry Saltz has so aptly pointed out, Barney is a kind of "athlete-aesthete who crafts psychosexual works" of the most gripping quality. Writes Saltz: "It's as if Rube Goldberg, Charles Atlas, Paul Bunyan, Audie Murphy and the Marquis de Sade teamed up to make art." Barbara Gladstone Gallery, 99 Greene Street, New York, New York 10012, fax 212-966-9310

Catherine Opie. She creates photographs of the most arresting variety--troubling, dark, yet gifted images of flesh engraved and wounded, such as her self-portraits in the guise of afflicted and outcast members of American society who don't seem to care in the least. Her works are arresting and curiously universal for all their arcane weirdness. Stuart Regen Gallery, Inc., 629 North Almont Drive, Los Angeles, California 90069, phone (310) 276-5424, fax (310) 276-7430

Gary Simmons. One of the most important artistic forms of this decade is social and political protest and commentary. Simmons' work stands out as profoundly fierce and moving, with installations such as the one in the Whitney 1993 biennial in which eight pairs of gold-plated sneakers were placed in a police lineup wall, or a 1994 work titled "Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap)," which represents a whitewashed boxing ring with seven pairs of black wing-tip shoes hanging on the ropes and, on the canvas, a chalked-in series of steps. Simmons can be lyrical, too, as his "erasure drawings" such as the one on page 222, "Wall Drawing," 1992, so admirably demonstrates. Metro Pictures, 150 Greene Street, New York, New York 10012, fax (212) 219-2027

Fred Wilson. He uses casts of Greek classical and ancient Egyptian sculpture in mock museum installations to make the point that Western civilization is truly a combined African and European ancestry. But the objects he brings together are striking and evocative on their own, and his installations are indelible. Metro Pictures

Millie Wilson. Using the oddest materials, this artist is becoming justifiably famous for her arresting visions of mankind. Some of her work sets our imaginations to running double-time, such as her striking image entitled, "Daytona Death Angel," 1994, (not pictured) made of synthetic hair, wood and chrome. Jose Freire Fine Art, 130 Prince Street, New York, New York 10012, phone (212) 941-8611, fax (212) 941-7232

Chris Finley. The artist's sculptures--or installations--appear on the surface to be pure witticisms--amusing assemblies of mundane objects such as white metal kitchen stools, pet bowls, take-out food containers. But with the passage of time the pieces somehow transform themselves into architectural enterprises of far greater beauty and significance than those in some of the most renowned cities of the world. Acme Gallery, 1800-B Berkeley Street, Santa Monica, California 90404, fax (310) 264-5820

Will the reputations of all these artists burgeon? Live forever? And in two generations will they be preeminent in art history? Will their works increase in value ten times, a hundred times?


But you must know what Alfred Barr would always say: If one out of 10 lasted a generation, he felt he had chosen particularly well.

Thomas Hoving is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and former editor-in-chief of Connoisseur magazine.