The Reappearing Masterpiece: Ranking American Artists and Art Works of the Late Twentieth Century

David W. Galenson

NBER Working Paper No. 9935
Issued in September 2003
NBER Program(s):   LS

A survey of the illustrations in textbooks of modern art produces the startling finding that art scholars consider Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty to be the most important individual work made by an American artist during the past 150 years. More generally, quantifying the evidence of the textbooks reveals the source of the pluralism,' or stylistic incoherence, of American art since the late 1960s. A persistently high demand for artistic innovation has produced a regime in which conceptual approaches have predominated. The art world has consequently been flooded by a series of new ideas, usually embodied in individual works, generally made by young artists who have failed to make more than one significant contribution in their careers. The dramatic and monumental Spiral Jetty, made in 1970 by a young artist who was killed soon thereafter while in the process of making his art, has become a symbol for the art of this era.

download in pdf format
   (328 K)

email paper

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w9935

Published: Galenson, David W. "The Reappearing Masterpiece: Ranking American Artists and Art Works of the Late Twentieth Century." Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 38, 4 (Fall 2005): 178-188.

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded these:
Galenson w7407 Quantifying Artistic Success: Ranking French Painters - and Paintings - from Impressionism to Cubism
Galenson w10885 One Hit Wonders: Why Some of the Most Important Works of Modern Art are Not by Important Artists
Galenson w10515 A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young or Very Old Innovator: Creativity at the Extremes of the Life Cycle
Galenson w9539 The Life Cycles of Modern Artists: Theory, Measurement, and Implications
Galenson w13377 Artists and the Market: From Leonardo and Titian to Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us