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Special Issue: Searching for America

State of the Union

Ten artists whose voices telegraph across time

Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Man Riding Yellow Donkey) (c. 1960-63). Courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York © Estate of Martín Ramírez

BY Jonathan Griffin
writer and critic

In Analysis

Every artist has a voice, right? Of course—though some voices are clearer than others, and reach us in different ways. Sometimes that voice is embedded in an artist’s work; in other instances it makes itself heard only in the spaces and contexts adjacent to the work.

Having a distinctive voice is not necessarily a prerequisite for a successful art practice. Plenty of artists choose to remain blankly anonymous, sometimes even hiding behind their work. I’m increasingly aware, though, that I am drawn to art created by people whose character and life experiences seem palpably bound up in my understanding of their work. Often, their subject positions are very different from my own. Their work need not be biographical, still less narrative, but with all of them I have the feeling that it could have been made by no other human being on Earth, in no other place and in no other time.

Listed below are American, or dual-citizen, artists from the past 100 or so years whose voices seem to telegraph clearly across time and space. Some are alive, many are not; some are well known, others were known by few even during their lifetimes. Not all of them I admire. But all of them are essential to my understanding of American art—and America itself—over the past century.

Bill Traylor (c.1853–1949)

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Radio) (c. 1940–42). Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase through the
Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Photo by Gene Young

Born into slavery and having lived through the Civil War, Bill Traylor is unique amongst American artists of the 20th century. In his 80s, he took up pencil and paper for the first time and began drawing.

The 1,500 or so drawings he made between 1939 and 1942 constitute an unparalleled expression of one person’s experience of his world. Traylor’s visual lexicon includes a lively cast of animal characters, both domestic and exotic, which cavort with human figures in a seemingly endless anthology of narratives by turns charmingly comical and grimly disturbing.

Traylor’s oeuvre survives thanks primarily to Charles Shannon, a prominent local white artist from Montgomery who supported Traylor and collected his work as it was being made. It remained largely unseen until 1982, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. staged the exhibition “Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980”. Today, this self-taught artist’s voice is acknowledged by the academic, institutional art world as one of the most distinctive in 20th-century American art.

Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941)

Mount Rushmore after completion. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.

As the architect of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, Gutzon Borglum is responsible for one of the United States’ most universally recognized works—reproductions of which appear in US embassies and tourist agencies around the world. Few people also know that Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Even fewer people know that Borglum was also involved in the planning of the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, an exhibition generally credited with introducing European Modern art to America.

The belligerent conservative sculptor actually resigned from the Armory Show’s organizing committee and withdrew his work from the exhibition, disagreeing with the increasingly avant-gardist bent of the selection. He dismissed Duchamp’s notorious Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912) as “Nonsense!” Instead, he argued throughout his life for a nationalist American art that was sincere, reverent and wholesome.

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961)

Agnes Pelton, Orbits (1934). Collection of Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Concours d’Antiques, the Art Guild of the Oakland Museum of California

The painter Agnes Pelton is most widely associated with the Western desert, but she did not move from Long Island, New York, to Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, until she was 50 years old. It was in this stark landscape that she established her singular voice as an artist, drawing on her esoteric interests in numerology and Agni Yoga to create luminous abstract apparitions that seem to rise into the desert sky.

Like Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist with whom Pelton was often compared in her lifetime, she was influenced by Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art. However, in contrast to O’Keeffe, the landscape was for Pelton not a theme or a subject but a backdrop for her inner journey, both artistic and spiritual.

In the writer Jori Finkel’s new book It Speaks to Me: Art that Inspires Artists, the artist Judy Chicago describes Pelton’s work: “One of my theories is that until the advent of abstraction, women artists were not free to convey their experiences directly. Abstraction opened up the visual landscape for us to invent forms to convey our internal reality.”

Martin Ramírez (1895-1963)

Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Man Riding Yellow Donkey) (c. 1960-63). Courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York © Estate of Martín Ramírez

In 1925, Martín Ramírez left his farm, his wife and children in Mexico, traveling to California in search of work. Caught up in the Great Depression, unable to return to his native Jalisco because of the Cristero War, Ramírez slept rough and intermittently worked on the railroads. In 1931 he was picked up by police who determined he was mentally ill—probably because he spoke no English.

Interned in prison-like psychiatric institutions in Stockton and later Auburn, near Sacramento, he started making the extraordinary drawings for which he is now known. Horsemen, Madonnas, trains and tunnels feature prominently in his richly ornamented compositions.

After 1948, he struck up a relationship with the Finnish psychology professor and artist Tarmo Pasto, who collected his drawings. During Ramírez’s lifetime, on the rare occasion when his work was exhibited, it was credited only to “an aged Mexican”, due to privacy laws for psychiatric patients. When Chicago artist Jim Nutt taught at Sacramento State College in the late 1960s, he purchased most of the drawings from Pasto and promoted them enthusiastically, especially to his dealer Phyllis Kind, who finally brought Ramírez’s work to broader appreciation.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)

Louise Bourgeois in front of Sainte Sébastienne in her Brooklyn studio (1993). Photo: © Vera Isler. Art © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

It was the death of her mother, in 1932, that prompted Louise Bourgeois to switch her studies at the Sorbonne, Paris, from mathematics to art. In 1938 she emigrated to New York City and, in 1951, after the death of her father, became an American citizen.

Throughout her career as a sculptor, painter, printmaker and large-scale installation artist, Bourgeois persistently delved into the traumas of her childhood—particularly the infidelity of her father with her English governess. While she rejected the designation of being a feminist artist (she described her work as “pre-gender”) her experiences as a daughter, wife and mother were of central importance to her artistic thinking.

Bourgeois was affiliated in the 1950s with the American Abstract Artists group, which then also included Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, but it was with Surrealism, and its fascination with the unconscious, that her work seems most closely aligned: spiders, cages, mirrors and domestic furniture feature prominently. It was not until 1982 that Bourgeois was given her first retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Romare Bearden (1911-1988)

Romare Bearden, The Dove (1964), featured in the exhibition “Soul of a Nation” opening at de Young Museum this November. © Museum of Modern Art, New York. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

Does it say more about the personality of Romare Bearden or the times he lived through that this protean African American artist, designer, writer and musician—who studied at NYU and the Sorbonne, whose childhood was steeped in the jazz, art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance, who by the end of his life had received five honorary doctoral degrees—was also employed for most of his life as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Services?

Bearden’s deeply held commitment to social justice shines out not only from his curriculum vitae, but from his humanistic paintings too: he depicted in vivid, if abstracted, terms the people and events that surrounded him in Harlem, where he lived for most of his life. He became most successful (and was finally able to quit his day-job) when he started experimenting with collage in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s; his most famous works combine painted papers, photocollage and photostats, which he then re-copied photographically to create startlingly large pictures which he called “Projections”.

Forrest Bess (1911-1977)


Forrest Bess, The Hermaphrodite (1957). The Menil Collection. Photographer: Hickey-Robertson, Houston

Forrest Bess lived most of his life in and around Bay City, on the Gulf Coast of Texas, settling in the late 1940s in Chinquapin, a remote strip of land surrounded by water 25 miles from the town. He never completed his early studies in architecture, working instead in oilfields and, during the war, in the Army Corps of Engineers, before suffering a breakdown connected to his unfulfilled homosexuality. He began painting the visions that came to him when he closed his eyes in a dark room.

Bess developed a complex, private symbology around these visions, influenced especially by Carl Jung, with whom he corresponded. He developed a detailed manifesto that concluded that the secret to eternal life was based in hermaphroditism—a theory that he shared avidly with correspondents including his New York gallerist Betty Parsons. Unable to find sympathy for his ideas, in the 1950s he performed surgery on his own genitals, after which ironically his health began to decline. 

Through the support of contemporary artists such as James Benning, who has made homages to Bess’s paintings, and Robert Gober, who has curated an exhibition of his work, Bess has retrospectively assumed a special position in the mid-century development of American abstraction. 

Ruth Asawa (1926-2013)

Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture (1957). Gift of John H. Hauberg © 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust

Born and raised in Norwalk, California, Ruth Asawa was the daughter of Japanese immigrants. In 1942, at the age of 16, she was sent with her mother and five siblings to an internment camp in Arkansas, while her father was arrested and taken to a camp in New Mexico. Under these cruel conditions Ruth began to draw and paint.

After the war Asawa attended Black Mountain College, where she was taught by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, amongst others, in a course that synthesized art, design, architecture, literature, music and progressive styles of daily living. On a visit to Mexico in 1947 she observed a craftsman making egg baskets from looping wire, a technique that she adopted and developed in her hanging sculptures. Asawa’s ephemeral, biomorphic work was utterly unlike the heavy monumentalism that dominated Modernist sculpture at that time.

In the late 1960s, Asawa became involved in arts advocacy for school children around the Bay Area of San Francisco, co-founding the Alvarado School Arts Workshop and becoming a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission. In 2010 the public arts high school that she had helped found in 1982 was named the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

As Donna De Salvo noted in a recent In Other Words podcast, Andy Warhol epitomizes certain aspects of “the American story”: “He’s a hard worker, he’s the first in his family to go to college, his father was a coal miner.” As she also says, he was gay, which in early life set him apart. He was, she says, “an insider and an outsider”. To many, Warhol uncritically mainlined the values of American capitalism, which he seemed to champion in deliberately provocative statements such as “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”.

Warhol spewed aphorisms, both in interviews and in his books, many of which leave us wondering what, exactly, he meant, or if he really meant them at all. His entire persona was constructed in a way to maintain this enigma, even as his name and image dominated the media. Irony, misdirection and provocation were techniques that he honed as an openly gay man working in the homophobic climate of 1950s America, where he used the freedoms implied by his self-designation as an artist (even while working in advertising) to enable him to move more easily through the world.

David Hammons (Born 1943)

David Hammons, Pray for America (1969) © David Hammons. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

In Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, David Hammons became known for body prints that made reference to Yves Klein’s notorious blue “Anthropométries”, begun in 1958. Instead of naked female models, Hammons used his own body, and instead of International Klein Blue, Hammons smeared himself with grease and dusted the impression with dark pigment.

These works—beautiful but unflinchingly political, and often violent—were utterly unlike anything else at the time. Since then, Hammons has responded to his success by more or less withdrawing from the commercial and institutional art worlds, intermittently situating his work on the streets (as with his 1983 performance Bliz-aard Ball Sale, in which he attempted to sell snowballs) and occupying—one might say infiltrating—high-end commercial galleries, almost as a form of institutional critique.

Recent works include abstract paintings on canvas almost entirely hidden behind rough plastic tarpaulins. Despite his aversion to publicity, his voice is still unmatched in the contemporary art world: it is recognizable in his refusal for instance, in his current survey exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (“David Hammons”, until 11 August), to have a checklist or a conventional press release, preferring instead to label just some of the works by hand, in pencil.

Paul McCarthy (born 1945)

Paul McCarthy, Tree (2014)

There is no artist in the world whose work could be mistaken with that of Paul McCarthy. Influenced by the predominantly European avant-gardes of Fluxus and Viennese Actionism, McCarthy’s performance, installation and video work has, since the 1970s, constituted an incomparable assault on the entwined American institutions of the Hollywood entertainment machine, capitalist consumerism and nuclear, heteronormative family values. 

At the center of his work is McCarthy’s own—now ageing—body: he himself has appeared in nearly all of his video performances, from early works such as Class Fool (1976), in which he smeared ketchup around a university classroom, threw up and pushed a doll into his anus, to his depraved, maximal installations such as WS (2013), based on Walt Disney’s characterization of Snow White, to his current experimentation with virtual reality. McCarthy performs because no one else could ever replicate his gnarled physicality, his deranged gestures, nor his total commitment to the perverse fictions that he contrives.

Barbara Kruger (born 1945)

Barbara Kruger, Belief+Doubt (2012) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © Barbara Kruger. Photo: Cathy Carver

The conceptual artist Barbara Kruger has developed a graphic voice so distinctive that it has been copied by everyone from department store advertising campaigns to skate brands. During the 1970s she made sculpture with a craft-based sensibility that engaged with the feminist discourse of the time. Meanwhile, she supported herself financially by doing graphic design for magazines. For a period she stopped making art altogether, before striking upon a method in which she combined her photographs with text. In the 1980s, when she began exclusively using found photographs, her work came to be identified with the Pictures Generation.

Kruger’s voice is clearly detectible not only in the white-on red, sans serif font she typically uses against grainy black and white photographs, but also in what that font says: “Your gaze hits the side of my face”, for instance, or “When I hear the word culture, I take out my checkbook”. Her work addresses us directly and implicates herself too as a subject—sometimes ironically, as in her famous lithograph on a shopping bag from 1990: “I shop therefore I am”. 

Nan Goldin (born 1953)

Nan Goldin at the opening of the Nan Goldin Exhibition “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” at the Milan Triennale on September 18, 2017 in Milan, Italy. Photo by Fotogramma/ANDBZ/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

The photographer Nan Goldin is best known for her frankly arresting pictures of what she refers to as her “tribe” of friends, notably within the Downtown New York LGBTQ community of the 1980s and 1990s. Through her distinctive photographs (often compared to amateur snapshots) she gave voice to those whose voices were not widely heard, especially during the early years of the HIV epidemic.

Goldin depicts people in their most vulnerable moments, not just without judgment but with a palpable sense of personal affection. Victims of domestic violence, drug addicts, transgender men and women, and teenage lovers all feature in her images—as well as Goldin herself, as in the shocking Nan One Month After Being Battered (1984). She gave rise to an entire genre of documentary photography, characterized by its candor and intimacy.

In recent years Goldin has used her position to campaign for greater awareness of the opioid crisis, after she herself became addicted to painkilling drugs. Through her campaign Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.) she has been vocally critical of the Sackler family, part owners of Purdue Pharma, and especially of the many arts institutions that receive philanthropic gifts from the family.

Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (born 1954)

Wheel art installation by Edgar Heap of Birds outside the North Building of the Denver Art Museum, Colorado

The Cheyenne / Arapaho artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds came of age as an artist at the turn of the 1980s, when the depersonalized, dematerialized style of Conceptualism, especially text-based art, was still pervasive in American contemporary art. As a Native American artist working from a remote Cheyenne reservation in Oklahoma, Heap of Birds was not like most artists of his generation, however. Through works that adopted the standardized aesthetic of text-based Conceptualism but populated it with Native references and messages of political protest, Heap of Birds reinvigorated the form with a perspective that was not generally heard or seen in contemporary art of that time.

While works such as the public art project Building Minnesota (1990) used commercially produced signage to memorialize 40 Native warriors who were executed in the 1860s, other pieces are written by hand, in pencil, pastel or monoprint on paper. Heap of Birds’s artistic voice transmits not through a single recognizable form, but through the collision of traditions that may have previously seemed incommensurable.

Cady Noland (born 1956)

In one of her famously rare interviews, Cady Noland stated that she was drawn in her work to “anonymous kinds of things”. Chain-link fencing, handcuffs, shopping carts, Budweiser cans, barbecue grills, whitewall tires, American flags: these are just some of the things that have recurred in the instantly identifiable, far-from anonymous assemblage sculptures that Noland made between 1988 and 2001, in a body of work that stands as a biting commentary on the violence and cruelty hardwired into the accouterments of the American dream.

In 2001 Noland withdrew entirely from the art world, not only (virtually) stopping making art but also increasingly combating or obstructing what she has considered the misrepresentation of her work and, on occasion, its sale and purchase. In 2011 she became the most expensive living female artist at that time when her sculpture Oozewald (1989) sold at auction for $6.6m at Sotheby’s (est. $2m-$3m). Today her dauntless voice is heard even in its absence—she was reportedly closely involved in the recent retrospective of her work at MMK Frankfurt, which closed last month, despite never travelling to Germany see it.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby (born 1983)

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, And We Begin To Let Go (2013). © Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

The Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby emigrated to the United States when she was a teenager. She had come from a country that was experiencing something of a cultural renaissance, with internationally recognized writers, artists and fashion designers, but which was largely condescended or disregarded in the US. Her paintings have, for the past decade, vividly manifested the experience of diaspora and cultural dissonance that is familiar to immigrants such as herself.

Akunyili Crosby has devised a technique of photocollage (with a nod to the legacy of Romare Bearden) through which she transfers photographs of her family, domestic details and iconography from Nigeria into portraits and interior scenes that meld Western and African details. An iron radiator, for instance, might share space with a kerosene lamp, while Ikea furniture contrasts with typically Nigerian crocheted sofa covers. Akunyili Crosby often features in her paintings too, along with her white American husband, and other members of her family.

Janiva Ellis (born 1987)

Installation view of the Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019). Janiva Ellis, Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet, (2019). Photograph by Ron Amstutz

At a time in which much identity-based art relies on a direct, starkly simplified mode of address for its effectiveness, the paintings of Janiva Ellis stand apart in their complication and ambiguity. She makes figurative paintings that flirt with narrative without ever fully committing to it, and she appropriates mass media imagery (especially cartoons) while kicking over the traces of her references.

Ellis’s work—which featured in the 2018 New Museum Triennial and the 2019 Whitney Biennial—has been acclaimed for its intelligent and nuanced representation of the black American experience. Ellis herself spent much of her childhood in Hawaii, where she was raised by her white mother. Growing up black in a predominantly non-black community, she later realized, was intensely isolating. In her paintings she often depicts masks and other forms of disguise, in reference to what she has called “the multiplicity that occurs when we juggle who we are, how we feel, and how we are perceived”.

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