My Nine Favorite Artists

Artwork by Donald Roller Wilson

Not many people talk about fine art anymore, unfortunately. But I still get excited about it, and I think everybody should have a favorite artist. Here are my nine favorites, the artists whose work I will always make a beeline towards in museums. If you don't recognize their names or their work, I encourage you to look them up.

  1. JOSEPH CORNELL, American, 1903-1972. Far and away my favorite artist, Cornell wasn't even a painter. He was mostly famous for his surreal and beautiful box constructions, sort of like dreamlike dioramas using found objects. A self-taught artist, not to mention a Christian Scientist who lived with his mother and crippled brother and died a virgin, Cornell was one fascinating character.
  2. PIETER BRUEGEL THE ELDER, Flemish, c.1525-1569. Bruegel's busy, often funny, often satirical canvases that depicted peasant life and religious proverbs are great fun to look at. Similar to Hieronymous Bosch's wild paintings but without the monstrous characters - at least most of the time. (I like Bosch too.)
  3. CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH, German, 1774-1840. Landscape paintings rarely hold any interest for me, but I can look at Friedrich's deeply haunting work, filled with mysticism and mood, for hours.
  4. FRANS HALS, Dutch, c.1580-1666. Though not as cherished as other "Dutch Masters" such as Rembrandt and Vermeer (both of whom I also like very much), Hals' quick, lively portraits of Dutch folks at home and in the tavern are great to see up close. Here was a guy who was in complete control of his paintbrush.
  5. VIJA CELMINS, Latvian/American, 1939-. "Wheresa girls?" you might be asking. I do feel bad about not having more female artists on this list, but the fact is that not many women working in the fine arts before the 20th century are known today. And since many of the artists on this here list predate the modern era, there aren't many gals I can dig up. For the record, I greatly admire the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Lee Bontecou, and many great female photographers including Sharon Lockhart, Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus. But Celmins' incredibly precise star fields, spider webs and rippling seas, usually done in charcoal, draw me in the most. I have a Celmins reproduction hanging on my living room wall, in fact.
  6. EDGAR DEGAS, French, 1834-1917. It's my personal - and unpopular - opinion that most of the Impressionists were overrated. I do not like Monet, Pissarro or Cezanne, and am indifferent to Manet and Renoir. But Degas - now, there was somebody who understood composition and took it to dramatic new heights. He was far more confident, talented and daring than any of his contemporaries. The man could do it all.
  7. DONALD ROLLER WILSON, American, 1938-. You know that famously kitschy painting "Dogs Playing Poker"? Well, Wilson didn't do that, but his art takes that concept into the stratosphere. Concocting a rich narrative that ties together various well-dressed monkeys, cats and dogs in highly detailed surrealist settings, and laying the groundwork for the "Pop Surrealists" who are all the rage today (e.g., Mark Ryden), "Roller" is one of a kind. I even paid big bucks for an artist proof of one of his prints, though I still haven't framed it yet, years later.
  8. MARK TANSEY, American, 1949-. One of the big New York art stars of the '80s, Mark Tansey isn't quite as major a figure in contemporary art today, but his work is still great: giant, monochromatic realist paintings that comment on art history and pop culture while remaining accessible to the common viewer.
  9. VINCENT VAN GOGH, Dutch, 1853-1890. It's almost a cliche to list the hugely popular Van Gogh here, but have you seen his paintings in person? They glow in ways that cannot possibly be replicated in a book or a print. Usually I try to separate the art from the artist, but as with Joseph Cornell, the heartbreak of Van Gogh's life is there in every brush stroke on his passionate canvases.