Great women artists of the 20th century followed much the same patterns of innovation as the French masters of the 19th century and the women’s 20th century male contemporaries.
That’s what economist David Galenson discovered in his latest analysis of artists’ approaches to innovation and the timing of the artists’ best work, as presented the working paper “Who Were the Greatest Women Artists of the Twentieth Century? A Quantitative Investigation.” These are some of the patterns he found in the Top 5 women artists, as identified by a count of art works that are reproduced in 29 art textbooks:
Conceptual innovators (finders) whose greatest works come early in their careers
In the No. 1 spot, Cindy Sherman, with 38 works in textbooks. The greatest number of them come from the five years leading up to age 28. Like conceptual innovators such as Andy Warhol, she lets others create her artwork under her direction. She also bases artwork on ideas — she stopped making the “Stills” sequence (above) when she ran out of cliches to base them on, she said.
In a tie for No. 3 spot, Eva Hesse, with 27 works in textbooks. The greatest number come from the five years leading up to age 33. “First feel sure of idea, then the execution will be easier,” she said.
In the No. 5 spot, Frida Kahlo, with 25. The greatest number come from the five years leading up to age 34. Like many conceptual innovators, her work is full of symbolism.
Experimental innovators (seekers) whose greatest works come later in their careers
In the No. 2 spot, Georgia O’Keeffe, with 30. The greatest number come from the five years leading up to age 43. Like many experimental innovators, O’Keeffe did not plan her paintings and said that when she painted, “I never think about expressing anything.”
In a tie for the No. 3 spot, Louise Bourgeois, with 27. The greatest number come from the five years leading up to age 60. Like many experimental innovators, Bourgeois described her art (left) as a long-term quest with an undetermined goal. “Art is not about art,” she said. “Art is about life.”