What earns an artist a place in history? There’s certainly no strict equation; revolutionary skill and originality might combine with a compelling biography and a dash of luck. In more recent times, market forces—fairs and auctions—and high-profile international biennials help cement an artist’s legacy. Each era has had its iconic figures, from Old Masters like Canaletto and Pieter Bruegel, to French bon vivants Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet, rigorous modernists like Piet Mondrian and Jasper Johns, and commercially minded radicals like Andy Warhol.
While it’s the work that truly matters, it’s impossible to ignore the often dramatic lives of the artists themselves: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric fame and untimely demise; Vincent van Gogh’s tortured genius. Caravaggio, an aesthetic rebel in his time who has become one of the quintessential Old Masters, was notorious for getting into bar fights—he died in exile at age 38 after killing a man in Rome. Francesca Woodman turned the genre of photographic self-portraiture inside out when she was still a teenager, only to die by her own hand at age 22.
Often, individual talents are overshadowed by the movements or schools they belonged to. The Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico may not be the first Surrealist most people think of—that honor goes to the omnipresent Salvador Dali--but his eerie urban vistas helped lay the groundwork for that movement. Georges Braque kept at Cubism throughout his career, and is indelibly associated with it, even while his friend Pablo Picasso continued to evolve in myriad directions, earning greater fame as the quintessential modernist genius.
Some artists have stood out, though, precisely for the fact that their singular work defies any tidy classification. Take Francis Bacon, with his violently surreal, psychologically charged, and hugely popular figurative paintings, which blend elements of surrealism and expressionism with nods to classical portraiture. Similarly, Wassily Kandinsky may have been a co-founder of the Blue Rider group of Expressionists, but his work progressed into a terrain of dynamic abstraction that is still hugely influential to contemporary painters.
Predicting the winding paths of art history is an impossible task—but we still get a thrill in trying to do just that. Over the course of the latter 20th century, some talents remained consistently popular (like Lucian Freud); others, like Lucio Fontana or Enrico Castellani, experience a revival only after their oeuvre is re-appraised. Who knows how critics 100 years from now will look back on contemporary artists as varied as John Currin, Jeff Koons, Iza Genzken, Dana Schutz, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Frances Stark?