Even Vanity Fair, the magazine which originally polled 100 of the art world's elite, admits that a list of the greatest living artists is a slightly ridiculous undertaking. To try and quantify an entirely subjective subject is essentially an impossible task, yet try they did.
Mark Stevens, the art critic behind the controversial article, defends himself by saying that the 'intent was not to identify once and for all the six most important living artists' but was instead to sketch a general portrait of the Art World as it currently stands. Although the article is well worth a read, those of us who aren't so well versed in the world of modern art will feel slightly at a loss and so the below list makes an effort to provide a bit of background and context to each of the winning artists.
100 individuals were asked to vote, and just over half of these individuals (who were predominantly 'old, American, and mainstream' critics) responded with their top six living artists. Although the poll might appear to be a touch more than faintly arbitrary, there is some sense to this kind question as it reveals in wide brush strokes a few of the general trends which are affecting the world of art which regularly makes purchases that run into the millions of dollars.
6 Ellsworth Kelly: 10 Votes
For a long time during the 70s and 80s, the fact that Kelly refused to adhere to the art movements of time worked against him, and his work remained largely unsold. Unlike many of the other artists on this list, Kelly stuck to his primary mode of abstraction, refusing to enter into the realms of cinema like Sherman, or Americana like Jasper Johns. Today, Kelly enjoys a strong reputation amongst art critics and a healthy market price for his work. In the Vanity Fair pole he received an admirable 10 votes from the art world's elite, and in 2009 his piece 'Green White' went for $1.6m.
Kelly currently resides in New York City, only 60 miles from the town in which he was born to a former school teacher and an insurance company executive. After serving in the notorious Ghost Army (the deception unit involved subterfuge tactics like painting fake tanks) in WWII, Kelly made use of the G.I Bill to study Fine Arts in Boston before moving to Paris for six years.
Kelly's career has spanned painting, lithographs, drawing, and sculpture, but his recent works have tended towards paintings which make use of a simplified colour palette. In 2013 he received the National Medal of Arts, which was presented to him by President Obama.
5 Cindy Sherman: 12 Votes
Sherman, who received 12 votes from her peers, is the only female artist to make it into the top 6, which is both an achievement and a worrying commentary on the modern world of art. Since her infamous series of movie-still style photographs of the 1970s Sherman has continued to produce her idiosyncratic performative photographs. Most of these portraits which feature the artist herself in a range of costumes, are shot alone in Sherman's studio, where she plays the role of director, make-up artist, hairstylist, wardrobe mistress, and model.
Like Ellsworth Kelly, Sherman lives and works in New York, where she has recently enjoyed a retrospective compilation at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite her success (even before the MOMA exhibition a Sotheby's auction of Sherman's work took over $13.7m), Sherman continues to go unrecognized in person, potentially because of her extensive use of costumes in her art. A New Yorker profile of the artist by Calvin Tomkins described a dinner for the artist attended by a range of celebrities such as Robin Williams and LL Cool J where Sherman was one of the least-recognizable celebrities at the table and “Dinner guests who didn’t know her kept asking which one was Cindy.”
4 Bruce Nauman: 17 Votes
Though Sherman's work is mainly limited to photography (admittedly with a little cinema), and Kelly's is mostly on canvas (with a some sculpting), most of the artists on this list make use of a range of modes of production. Bruce Nauman is no exception to this rule. His work since the 60s has spanned the performative, photographic, cinematic, sculptural, and print mediums.
Nauman, who received 17 votes, lives and works on a large area of land in New Mexico and now focuses most of his energy on sculptures. Since 1966 when he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Nauman has been interested in 'making art that didn’t look like art', which certainly seems to appeal to the international community of the richest art collectors. Nauman’s auction record is $9.9 million, which he received for his 1967 plaster sculpture 'Henry Moore Bound to Fail' at Christie’s in 2001.
3 Richard Serra: 19 Votes
As with many of the artists that make up this list, Richard Serra is an American artist currently residing in New York, (it is unsurprising that the Vanity Fair article opens with the question: "is the art world a flashy suburb of Wall Street?") where he mainly produces large scale sheet metal artworks.
Serra started creating these large scale sculptures in the 1970s having first experimented with rubber, fiberglass, and molten lead. His artworks, which are often exhibited in public spaces across America and Europe, are designed to invite the viewer to interact with, and sometimes step into the work.
Serra's works have been valued highly since the beginning of his career, with a controversial commission of $175,000 for an art work entitled Tilted Arc in 1981 for the Federal Plaza, which was removed and scrapped in 1989.
2 Jasper Johns: 20 Votes
Johns is probably best know by the general public for his early work, with the iconic painting 'Flag' being most famous. Born in 1930 and raised in South Carolina, he briefly attended university before being persuaded to move to New York by his art teachers.
Since the 1980s Johns has produced 4 or 5 paintings on a fairly regular annual basis (though some years he doesn't work). Each of his paintings are large scale and highly sought after. In 1998, the Met in New York bought his 'White Flag' painting for an estimated $200m.
Johns has however contributed to the art world in a different way since 1963, when he became the chairman of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. The foundation distributes more than ten million dollars (90% of which comes from the sale of works of art which artists donate) in grants to artists of all kinds including musicians, dancers, choreographers, and poets.
1 Gerhard Richter: 24 Votes
A fascinating article about the price of Richter's work in the Wall Street Journal states that some of his earliest paintings like the 'White Candle' series of the early 1980s, failed completely to sell. When he first started out, Richter was forced to talk his friends, family, doctors, and neighbors into buying his works, but now he is the top-selling living artist, and those White Candle paintings which originally remained unsold are now bought for upwards of $16m.
Richter is the only artist on this list whose nationality is anything other than American, and unlike many of them he doesn't live in New York. Instead, he currently resides in his native country of Germany, in the city of Cologne.
It wasn't until the mid 1990s, when MOMA bought a series of his works, that Richter's career began to take off. Since then the output has been prolific, (at around 3000 paintings he has created less works than Warhol's 8000, but more than Dali's 1200) but despite this there is a waiting list dozens of names long at the New York Gallery which is the only place that sells Richter's work, and demand is only continuing to grow.