Blessed by the generous donations by alumni, such as Stephen Corning Clark, the 20th century section at the Yale University Art Gallery is an exclamation point to the museum experience. From the perspective that this is where the market has shifted, it simply adds to the visual shock and awe. If one wishes to understand good-better-best in the market right now, these should serve as a guide.
The giant of Twentieth Century painting, in 1900 the young artist set up shop in Monmartre of Paris, then regarded as the playground of Europe. At the dawn of his career, the style used then was a Post Impressionist figurative manner, about to enter his blue period then rose, before going abstract with the advent of Cubism.
An early cubist work by the artist, cubism was a quasi abstract manner at depicting motion or ideas by reducing objects down to basic geometric shapes rendered into two dimensional picture shapes.
It was an American, Marsden Hartley, who was the first to synthesize Cubism with Expressionism, these advanced abstractions were painted during the first years of World War I while living in Berlin (March 1914-December 1915). His German Officer series, are intensely powerful canvases in an Expressionist vein; they reflect not only his mourning of wartime death and destruction, but also incorporated a fascination with the Imperial pageantry that preceeded the carnage of the Great War. Collection of Numbers, Letters and Designs Seen by Me at the Beginning of the War in Berlin, Military in Nature, 1915, shows Hartley's assimilation of both Cubism (the collage-like juxtaposition of visual fragments and the hieratic structuring of geometric shapes) and German Expressionism (the coarse brushwork and the dramatic color once called by Gauguin as synthetic). The condensed mass of images evokes a collective psychological and physical portrait of the lost.
The Dutch master of DeStijl abstraction, incorporating non representational forms he called neo plasticism. The best known example of this is the famous painting at the Museum of Modern Art, called Broaway Boogie Woogie for its so called resemblance to a NYC subway map. Mondrian escaped the carage of the Second World War when he left Holland and moved to the United States, setting the stage for New York City to eclipse Paris as the center of the art world.
While Europe embraced the avante guarde of abstraction in the era between the two world wars, an isolationist United States stubbornly held to earlier ideals of aesthetics. Thomas Hart Benton and regionalism best exemplified this reactionary strain of art. In his picturesque manner to hold on to a bygone era, he merelyy delayed the inevitable. One of his foremost students was a young painter from Wyoming named Jackson Pollock.
A wounded veteran of World War One who lost the use of his right arm while serving in the legendary 369th Harlem Hellcats, Pippin took up art in the 1920's as a way of strengthening the wounded limb. His subject matter were wartime memories and scenes from his childhood. As a self taught artist his quasi primitive works enjoyed great patronage from collectors of the day such as Albert Barnes then spending huge sums on building his French impressionist museum collection in Philadelphia.
An American Icon, Edward Hopper was the last true realist holdout of the post war era, especially as Abstraction dominated the critics attention. His best works often show a solitary figure going about their mundane routine, often caught in a pensive pose. The artist was not a big fan of excessive reading into the meaning of his work. Once when he walked into a lecture given by Whitney Museum curator Lloyd Goodrich, and listened to him expound on something the artist never thought of, Hopper took one look at his friend, took a drag off his cigarette, said, "You kill me," and walked out of the room.
While not the role model for other artists, his paintings left their greatest impact on certain movie directors, most notably the British born director Alfred Hitchcock, many of the famous movie scenes, such as rear window were based on paintings by Hopper. Indeed, think of House by a Railroad, or a Lonely Victorian and one easily imagines the Bates Motel of the movie Psycho.
Abstract painter Mark Rothko was a leading meber of the New York School of painting which dominated the art world after world war Two. A Yale grad himself, Rothko's art is difficult to understand from photos in which the color masses seem monolithic or lifeless. Only in person does one finally discern the roiling brushwork that causes the colored mass to seem alive. Painted with a small brush atop an underlayer of color, the small strokes of color enable the pigment to give an illusion of shimmering.
This artist has reached the stratosphere for prices, numbers flirting with the one hundred million dollar mark. A seemingly unthinkable achievement when the artist took his one life in 1970, save to that of his dealer, the unsavory Marlborough Galleries which executed an option to buy unchecked by his estate, the entire mass of his work at artificially low numbers through a series of she'll corporations designed to hide the true gains from his estate. Eventually this went to court, Marlborough became a legal disgrace, and was ordered to return all the paintings, which they didn't do as they had sold off more than one hundred works, even while under court orders not to do so.
Alexander Calder and his mobiles, as his friend Fernand Leger titled them, enabled cubism to break out from the two dimesnions on a canvas into three dimesnions where steel rods and hangers allowed the shapes to move freely.
Jack the Dripper, one time pupil of Thomas Hart Benton, shown here in his surreal war time phase before going complete action painter with the drips we best know him for painting. The surrealist phase had a nightmarish quality to it, a disturbing take on the times which once peace broke out enabled the artist to look forward, in a new fashion of painting with no regrets.
A giant drip canvas from 1948, this type of painting was done using enamel house paints thinned down by turpentine spirits, so as to give it a controlled viscosity, which in turn allowed the artist to paint layers and layers of dancing figures.
A rare female member of the New York School, Mitchell painted with a ferocity rarely demonstrated by her female peers. By 1965, with some success, her fury ebbed and her palette shifted brighter more towards what we call the color field.
A near exact contemporary of Jackson Pollock, Guston survived the Fifties and Sixties by moving out of the city and to a studio in rural Woodstock, NY. Not exactly a teetoler, his art had an alcoholic belligerence which morphed out of Abstract Expressionism and coalesced into cartoon type figures and shapes.