All-American artists: the most influential figures in US art

Many of the most iconic artists in history have been made in the USA. Explore here as we take a look at five of the most famous and their key works.

Many of the most iconic artists in history have been made in the USA. As a country with rich cultural diversity and a focus on individualism and identity, these unique features have shaped dynamic creatives who broke boundaries, pushed evolution, and challenged the very meaning of ‘art’. From starting influential movements like pop art and bringing graffiti and street art into the mainstream, these artists knew how to make a statement and use their work to deliver powerful social and political messages.

Countless American artists made their name on the international stage, and here we look at five of the most famous.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a leading figure in the pop art movement. His work was considered controversial at first and dismissed by many critics. Now, he is arguably the most famous American artist of all time thanks to immediately recognizable pieces including Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych (a painting made up of 50 images of Marilyn Monroe).

Consumerism was a common theme of his work, which led to backlash from those in the ‘traditional’ art space. For example, in December 1962, a symposium on pop art at New York City's Museum of Modern Art was used to attack Warhol and his contemporaries for ‘capitulating’ to consumerism. While critics disagreed with his acceptance of market culture, Warhol was fascinated by the role of consumer goods in American society and frequently made these images the subject of his work. For example, his Dollar Sign series represented the importance of wealth in the USA.

Similarly, he was interested in the role of mass media and celebrity and would often combine the two, as with Marilyn Diptych which featured the publicity photograph from the film Niagara. Warhol managed to turn everyday symbols into multi-million dollar paintings, and his ability to blur the lines between high and low culture continues to influence artists today.

Roy Lichtenstein

Another famous American artist in the pop art space is Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), who was best known for his witty comic book-style paintings such as Drowning Girl, Whaam!, and Oh, Jeffrey! He also created a number of sculptures, including Mobile II — a playful yet balanced arrangement of shapes in different sizes and colors which represents Lichtenstein’s interest in the movement and manipulation of objects in space.

Lichtenstein’s work is highly distinctive thanks to his use of bold outlines, bright colors, and dots that derive from comic books. These features give his paintings an air of flatness and artificiality. Like Warhol, he was interested in exploring consumerism, mass culture, and celebrity in his work but would often do so in a tongue-in-cheek way. He frequently included speech and thought bubbles to bring humor and melodrama to the scenes he depicted, as in Drowning Girl which features a comic-style thought bubble reading: “I don’t care! I’d rather sink than call Brad for help!”

Lichtenstein would also use his unique style to parody artistic traditions. For example, Cathedral 2 depicts a Gothic cathedral and is a parody of traditional religious art that glorifies God and the Church.

Lichtenstein’s work helped define the pop art movement and, like the best pop artists, prompted people to consider how consumerism shapes the world and rethink the distinction between high art and consumer culture.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Another famous American artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), who rose to success in the 1980s bridging the gap between the street art and Neo-Expressionism movements. His fame is especially remarkable considering that his career was cut tragically short when he died in 1988 aged just 27. His raw, graffiti-like paintings explored themes of race, class, and identity, drawing inspiration from his experiences as a Haitian and Puerto Rican American.

Basquiat’s work often featured images of Black people and incorporated elements and symbols of African, Caribbean, and African-American culture, like masks and mask-like faces with bold colors as in Untitled (Head). This piece, which separates the head from the body, reflects another of his recurring motifs — fragmented anatomy. Basquiat, in fact, had a whole Anatomy series featuring works including Right Clavicle and Femur. This fragmentation could also draw on African art that often abstracted or stylized the human form, while also exploring mortality and the idea of the self, humanity, and the human condition.

Basquiat was a true trailblazer. His experimentation with composition, symbols and text, combined with his success in bringing attention to the African-American experience, had a profound cultural impact that has inspired many contemporary artists.

Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American modernist painter who is best known for her sensual, close-up views of natural objects and landscapes. Her paintings are extremely precise and evoke strong realism, yet at the same time, she incorporates abstract elements to emphasize the organic qualities and intricacies of flowers, shells, skulls, and more.

Many of her most famous paintings, such as Red Canna and Jimson Weed, are of flowers, which show off her skilled use of bold color to explore form and sensuality. The latter also still holds the record for the most expensive painting by a woman sold at auction ($44.4 million in 2014). O’Keeffe is also famous for her depiction of American landscapes. She began spending summers in New Mexico in 1929 and eventually moved there permanently in 1949. This setting proved to be a huge source of inspiration and many of her paintings feature the landscape, rocks, and bones that she found in the desert.

In the male-dominated art world of the time, O’Keeffe stood out and was key to the development of American modernist art. As she said in 1943, 'The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I'm one of the best painters.'

Keith Haring

Keith Haring (1958-1990) was an activist as well as an artist, using his bold, accessible creations to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic, promote safe sex, and break down the stigma surrounding conversation about the disease. He also explored themes of social justice, love, and life through pop art that emerged out of New York City’s graffiti scene. Warhol was one of his biggest influences, with Haring describing the pop art pioneer as the ‘first real public artist’. He followed suit by producing thousands of chalk drawings in the New York City subways.

Haring’s work is known for its bold, colorful lines and cartoon-like imagery and features recurring motifs such as babies, hearts, and dancing figures. He believed art should be for everyone and these simple, iconic images made his work accessible to a wide audience. This is also why he opened The Pop Shop in 1986. “I wanted to continue this same sort of communication as with the subway drawings,” he said. “I wanted to attract the same wide range of people, and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx.” Following pop art traditions, he was keen to explore the relationship between art and popular culture, so he sold T-shirts, hats, bags, and other souvenirs adorned with his designs.

Haring died from AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31. However, his work continues to be popular and influential today and his legacy of social activism and accessibility make him one of the most famous American artists in history.