The Decade's Best Art

The most important artists were those who made the biggest impact on other artists

Top artists of the decade: There's a proposition. Living or dead? Market-approved or commodity-resistant? This is, after all, an assignment that undercuts Barthes, Foucault, and the whole postmodern attempt to kill off canonizing. And the fact is, I don't love the work of a lot of artists who were celebrated this decade: Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Olafur Eliasson, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, the bulk of the Chinese.

So, to make my methodology transparent, for about two weeks, I asked everyone I ran into, and whose opinion I sort of respect, how they'd respond to my "top" artist question: Who had the biggest impact on other artists? That's how artist immortality is measured, not salability. At some point, you're either an artist's artist or irrelevant. After filtering the suggestions through my own aesthetic/critical/political conscious, here are the results:

Tacita Dean: Her 16mm films look austere, initially, but they're seductive: a solar eclipse shot on a dairy farm in Cornwall; a Merce Cunningham rehearsal in a former factory space in California; a revolving restaurant on top of a TV tower in Berlin. Time, light, space, and decay. She also moved to Berlin in 2000, which, I should mention, is the art city of the decade. (Sorry, New York.) Artists from around the world were congregating there, and at the beginning of the decade you could still get a cheap apartment that had bullet holes from World War II on the exterior walls. Trauma culture rules there, as in the works of W.G. Sebald, whose translator, Michael Hamburger, was one of Dean's recent film subjects.

Franz West: A classic Viennese nut job whose sculptures look like early Oldenburg mixed with an orthopedic clinic. Actually, the orthopedic part isn't too far off, since West's mother was a dentist and he got his start with the plaster in her office. West's own prosthetic-inspired sculptures have morphed into monumental, public-art untouchability, but he's largely responsible, I think, for the reigning brutalist, formalist's-distrust-of-formalism approach to sculpture. Plus, his twisted sensibility feels in concert with another literary writer—another Austrian—embraced by the art world this decade: Thomas Bernhard.

Isa Genzken: If you're wondering where the whole messy "Unmonumental" thing started, it started with Rauschenberg—or Dada, really—but Genzken, another Berlin-based artist, is probably the finest practitioner of this dominant strain of scavenging-readymade. Plants, photographs, a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair: nature, culture, the psychic effects of late-capitalist consumer culture translated by artists living in rarefied urban ghettos. Rachel Harrison, a generation younger, does a good job of parsing this grammar for Americans, but Genzken is the real virtuoso.

Luc Tuymans: Why Tuymans and not Richter? The best response I got from my sources was: It's easier to copy a Tuymans ("Fast-Hand Luc," one writer dubbed him) than an immaculate Richter, which is why you saw a million Tuymans knockoffs this decade. Beyond the painting-after-photography nexus, some of the other painters that got mentioned were Dana Schutz, Mark Bradford, and Julie Mehretu. The other reigning veteran painters of influence this decade were Mary Heilmann and Thomas Nozkowski.

Gabriel Orozco: It's good to have someone from south of the border on the list, although you have to put an asterisk next to Orozco's name because he's Latin American quasi-art-royalty—his father was Mexican muralist Mario Orozco Rivera—and he divides his time, rock-star-biennial-curator-like, between New York, Paris, and Mexico City (the other big art city of this decade, and onetime home of the last literary figure I'll mention, whose writings provided much discussion fodder at openings: Roberto Bolaño). Orozco is in many ways a '90s artist. But museum shows during this millennium have brought his earthy, interactive postmedium aesthetic to larger audiences. Now that his exhibition is at MOMA, you see "My Hands Are My Heart"—one-half of a photographic diptych showing a ball of clay being squeezed into the shape of a human heart—all over town. But there are worse things to be confronted with in the coda of The Decade From Hell, as Time magazine christened it a couple of weeks ago.

Performance/video: The performance and video vote was all over the map: John Bock, Andrea Fraser, Kalup Linzy, Tino Sehgal, Tamy Ben-Tor, Ryan Trecartin. I will go with Fraser, partly because her 2003 work in which she had sex in a hotel room (the Royalton, reportedly) with a collector, arranged by her dealer, Friedrich Petzel, provided one of the strangest art-viewing experiences of the decade. I wrote about it for some publication and so had to watch the whole thing—which meant standing in the gallery for a solid hour with a bunch of pervs, waiting for The Event to take place. Plus, her other shows at Petzel this decade were strong, and Fraser is a great writer. I assign students her Institutional Critique classic Museum Highlights, in which she impersonates an off-the-leash docent—although I often end up sitting there laughing alone.

Cindy Sherman: She wasn't the first to photograph herself. That credit goes to Claude Cahun, David Lamelas, Ana Mendieta—or the Countess de Castiglione, if you want to dig back into the 19th century. But Sherman has inspired a generation of artists weaned on the culture of MySpace–YouTube self-presentation, which reached critical mass this decade. Tomoko Sawada, Zoe Crosher, Nikki S. Lee, Aneta Grzeszykowska, and K8 Hardy are some standouts of the genre, but Sherman herself created three good bodies of work this decade, which is a lot: the California ladies, the clowns, and the aging socialites. Someone once told me that it takes her three weeks to make a series, then she can take the year off (or, more likely, tend to the business of being Cindy Sherman). I don't know if this is true, but it sounds like a great artist-as-leisure-class fantasy to me.

Dead artists: At the beginning of the decade, you couldn't walk into a gallery without seeing some riff on Donald Judd: Judd boxes, Judd wall units, Judd furniture. Then it was Robert Smithson and entropy. Félix González-Torres is pulling ahead now. I think I took a photo-poster off a stack sitting on a gallery floor—the artist's signature motif, along with the candy landslide—just last week, out of habit.

Obama: One artist convinced me to give money—twice—and another nearly had me on a bus to Pennsylvania until I remembered I don't do well talking to strangers in the countryside about politics. Even after seeing the Behind the Music–style campaign documentary, this is one juggernaut I'm still processing. Are artists more center-left than they used to be? Did being pro-Obama count as political "activism"? But then, I'm not a political theorist. Just that other thing declared defunct (again) this decade: an art critic.

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