Painting Under the Influence: After Rauschenberg, Richter & Guston

TOP: Robert Rauschenberg, Palladian Xmas (Spread), 1980 | Solvent transfer, acrylic, fabric and collage on wood panel, 74.25 x 133.75 x 7.5 inches. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. BOTTOM: Jessica Stockholder, installation view of Sailcloth Tears, Mitchell-Innis & Nash, New York.

Last month, the editorial staff at New American Paintings posed the poll question, "Which artist, dead or alive, has most influenced contemporary painting?" Like many 20-somethings, I have suffered the youthful ignorance of generations that came before mine, but the fact remains that artists are often indebted to those that came before them. In the world of contemporary painting, there are a few artists that have emphatically led the pack in their generations, and they comprise the three names that received the most votes: Robert RauschenbergGerhard Richter, and Philip Guston. Each revolutionized painting in their own right and have inspired entire generations of contemporary artists since. Read more after the jump!  —Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco contributor

Rachel Harrison, Huffy Howler, 2004. (via the New Museum, New York.)

Robert Rauschenberg is perhaps the modern father of incorporating found objects into his art, a practice that has been perpetuated by countless others. His 'combines' pursued the creation of objects that blurred the line between painting and sculpture, and his habit of using objects found on city streets resonates in the work of many artists today, like Rachel Harrison, Jessica Stockholder, Gabriel Orozco, and Chris Johanson, to name a few. In some cases it’s a matter of form—finding an interesting object and repurposing it out of context, as Orozco often does—and in other cases it’s become an environmental concern, like in the case of Johanson.

Gerhard Richter, Gilbert & George, 1975 | Oil on canvas, 31.5 x 39.5 inches. (via

Walking the line between image and abstraction is Gerhard Richter, whose enormous and diverse body of work is equally poignant for artists and art-lovers alike. Richter's over-sized abstract compositions evoke landscapes, with strong color combinations that range from browns and blues to neon pinks. The highly textured pieces show the distinct traces of his tools and almost seem rebellious in contrast to the elegant, realistic paintings he made after photographs. Indeed, the latter could often be mistaken for photos, save for the blurred edges that reveal the artist's hand. Richter’s paintings from life essentially serve as historical documents for their content—portraits of athletes, soldiers, family members, artists—which conjure the work of Luc Tuymans and Vija Celmins in their overtly political and documentary nature. And as a post-war German artist whose work was at times a direct protest to political conditions, the parallels between Richter and contemporary artists whose work carries a strong message of activism is staggering.

Philip Guston, Untitled (Blood), 1969 | Acrylic on panel, 30 x 32 inches. Courtesy McKee Gallery, New York.

When Philip Guston really emerged on the scene in the 1950s, his Abstract Expressionist paintings were praised for their gestural, spontaneous compositions in muted reds and pinks. His shift to figuration in 1970 was a jarring change for the art world, and widely criticized. He retained his trademark palette, but the cartoonish figures of his later work were visceral and haunting social commentaries, with recurring imagery of hooded Klan members, disembodied limbs, shoes, bottles, and trashcans filled with waste (motifs possibly influenced by his father’s job as a trash collector, who committed suicide and whose body Guston was the first to discover at the age of 10 or 11).

The deeply personal narratives and distinct figures of his late work have, despite their initial rejection by the public, had the strongest influence among younger artists. The sculptor Robert Arneson has taken Guston’s figures and transformed them into three-dimensional forms, in homage to the artist. The paint colors Guston typically used have become a powerful component of his legacy as well. Contemporary painter Jonas Wood, who will often paint portraits of his heroes (usually athletes), created this imaginary portrait of Guston wearing a shirt patterned with the quintessential hues from his own paintings.

Jonas Wood, P. Guston, 2006, Collection of Tim Blum.

I read recently that there are paintings of Guston's in which the surface has been so thickly worked up with paint, that they still have not dried completely, which begs the question: If the paint is still wet, is the piece finished? In a way, I love the implication that maybe it isn't. Although there is a limit to the work that these artists have created in their lifetime, there is no limit to the reach of their influence into future generations. In Guston's lifelong search for the perfect marriage between truth and beauty in his painting, I like to think that at least some of those pieces remain unfinished.

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).