The Best Modern Paintings of the Last 100 Years

In this edition of AIA’s favorites series, we look at the best modern paintings of the last hundred years

The term, “modern paintings” usually refers to paintings produced between the late 1880′ s up to the 1970’s. Typically, these painters rejected previous tradition and favored experimental  forms of painting . They used different materials and techniques and developed new ideas about how paintings should reflect our perception of the world. Styles associated with modern paintings include Cubism, Pop Art, Impressionism and  Surrealism, among others.



1) NUMBER ONE ON OUR LIST OF Best Modern Paintings: Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950

During the summer of 1946, Jackson Pollock moved into a house with a barn in East Hampton, New York. The large, open space of the barn allowed Pollock to set up his canvases in the most natural way for him – on the floor. It was on this barn floor that Pollock created his masterpieces of modern painting – the drip paintings. One: Number 31, is one of only four of these paintings and is a triumph of line, color and space. At first glance, the composition may seem random; chaotic even (of course there’s the old refrain: “my five year old could paint that!”) but upon closer inspection, Pollock’s complete control of his drips is evident. One is a unified, harmonious composition that radiates energy and soul.


2) Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans TAKES THE SECOND SPOT

Warhol’s Soup Cans are absolutely the most iconic images from the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. As the name suggests, the Pop Art movements and its artists aimed to blur the lines between high art and popular consumption (advertising, comic strips and the general mass commodification of goods). Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans were first exhibited in 1962, together lined on shelves, the way real soup cans would be presented at a grocery store. By lining up the identical (save for the hand painted names of each individual soup flavor) cans in multiple, Warhol was able to achieve his desired effect of draining any meaning the viewer may place on the Campbell’s soup brand.


3) NUMBER THREE OF THE Best Modern Paintings: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory


When you think Surrealism, you think Salvador Dali. And when you think Dali, you think The Persistence of Memory, most definitely one of the greatest modern paintings of the last 100 years. The story goes that Dali painted the well-known masterpiece in a single evening, after guests had left his home and he sat contemplating the melting Camembert cheese left on the dining room table. The paintings small size (it’s barely over a foot wide), distorted reality, and the metamorphosis of everyday objects in an unnatural environment are the hallmarks of a Surrealist painting.


 4) MARK ROTHKO TAKES OUR FOURTH SPOT OF Best Modern Paintings: Picasso, Guernica

In the months preceding the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Picasso was asked to create a mural for the event, which was to be the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion. The theme of the entire event was the celebration of modern technology, a subject that drew little inspiration out of Picasso. It wasn’t until news traveled to Paris that the Nazis bombed Guernica, a small town in Northern Spain, that Picasso found the inspiration he was looking for, however un-celebratory the subject matter. Guernica is an emotional portrayal of the events immediately surrounding the bombing: men, women, children and animals full of anguish – either dying or already dead – in the Cubist style for which Picasso was famous. Only the bull remains calm and seemingly unaffected by the horror surrounding him. Some critics argue Picasso painted the bull this way as a symbol of Spain’s resilience and strength. Guernica is a powerfully damning censure of the brutalities of war and one of the most masterful modern paintings of the 20th century.


5) NUMBER FIVE SPOT GOES TO Edward Hopper, Nighthawks

Nighthawks is one of the most recognizable and beloved modern American paintings. The subject is a simple one; three people sit around a New York City diner bar while an elderly owner busies himself behind the bar. The simplicity ends there, thought, as Hopper’s masterful use of light and shadow creates a complex and somewhat eerie atmosphere that draws the viewer in, wishing to know more. Hopper was interested in the theater and stage set design, which is evident in his handling of the streetscape; while he paints quite a realistic picture of a diner, sure, the lack of detail in the windows, on the walls and the facades of the buildings calls to mind the set of a play – the viewer must use their imagination to fill in the missing pieces.



6) NUMBER SIX OF The Best Modern Paintings: Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace

Frida Kahlo first picked up a paintbrush in 1925, while convalescing from a bus accident that crushed her spine, pelvis and foot. Her primary – and most captivating – subject matter was herself; Kahlo painted a series of intimate and revealing self-portraits over the course of her professional years as an artist. One such self-portrait, and maybe her most famous, is Self- Portrait with Thorn Necklace, wherein she paints herself as a martyr (with heavy Christian symbolism), impaled by her necklace made of thorns.


7) SEVEN OF THE Best Modern Paintings: Fernand Leger, Three Women

Leger’s Three Women blends his classicism tendencies with his obsession with the machine and order. While the subject matter – three nude women reclining in a salon – tends toward the classic, the rigid, orderly lines, angles and circles betray Leger’s interest in machinery and technology. This fusion of old school classicism and technology may seem dissonant, but Three Women was one of Leger’s first post-WWI paintings – while his past lay with his classical training, his present was full of modern, quickly changing technology.

8) EIGHTH ON OUR LIST OF Best Modern Paintings: Max Ernst, La Ville Entiere

Max Ernst made a conscious decision to quit his university studies and pursue art professionally in 1912, when he saw modern works by Cezanne and Picasso at the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, Germany. He often worked in the Surrealist style with heavy use of iconography and metamorphosis. In La Ville Entiere, Ernst uses a common Surrealist technique, grattage (scraping). Grattage involves putting canvas directly over wood or other textured mediums and scraping paint across the canvas and using the subsequent forms made as the basis of the painting’s imagery. Here, Ernst seems to be working through some dark pessimism in response to the rise of Nazism in his native Germany.


9.THE NUMBER NINE Best Modern Paintings IS HELEN FRANKENTHALER:Grant Wood, American Gothic

Grant Wood garnered instant fame after winning a $300 prize for American Gothic when it was exhibited for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood was inspired to create the national icon after visiting a small town in Iowa and seeing the “carpenter gothic” style farmhouses dotting the landscape. He used his sister and dentist as subjects and borrowed from the 15th century Flemish style to create the Puritanical and homespun feeling of the painting. While some felt Wood’s stylistic choices suggested he was mocking his subjects, he has said that instead he wanted the painting to be a positive symbol of strength and resilience in the face of national disillusionment.


10) OUR FINAL SPOT ON Best Modern Paintings List: Vasily Kandinsky, Composition VIII

Kandinsky regarded Composition VIII as the pinnacle of his post-war period achievements. It was during this time that he really began to favor hard-edged, abstracted geometric forms above all else. He, along with other Russian avant-garde artists, believed that abstracted forms were the conduit to express universal truths. He once wrote: “The contact of the acute angle of a triangle with a circle is no less powerful in its effect than that of the finger of God with the finger of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Man.”


The Best Modern Paintings of the Last 100 Years

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