While I was back bullshitting with Chris in Ann Arbor, he asked me to name five artists that I thought were "the best." Not my favorite but "best," which allows me to vest my subjectivity in criteria rather than naked aesthetic judgment.
1) Pablo Picasso
We got onto this because I started talking about some floppy softcover retrospective on Picasso that I just took out of the library. Like every time I read about Picasso, I was struck by his tremendous range and productivity. Something like five canvasses a day when he moved back to Barcelona after his first trip to Paris. He's the name, right?
Picasso has two criteria that I think are important for deciding "the best," that of technical mastery (his earlier portraits are totally solid) and an experimentation that enlarges what art is.
Plus, he never got called an asshole.
2) Gerhard Richter
RIchter hits those same criteria for me, the enlargement of art in general along with technical skill. His Capitalist Realism ties in well with Warhol's commerical Pop, his wiper abstractions are lush and engrossing, and his blurred photo paintings are one of the few series from artists that make me more interested in the biography of the artist and of the subjects (in contrast to the flat iconography of Warhol's Elvis or Jackie Kennedy).
And, frankly, I just tend to like him. Nearly everything I've seen from him, I've enjoyed. That's not even something I can say about Picasso, though I suppose saying it at all shows just how quickly I let go of making any attempt of objective purity in "best" artists.
(I also love this article, right down to the little toes of the author's last name being Kuntzman, not Künstmann or Künstler.)
3) Edouard Manet
What brought me over to being a big Manet fan was seeing an exhibition of pen and ink drawings at the UMMA, which included a lithograph of Le Balloon, along with a handful of sketches that he did for the print. In seeing them up close, I was amazed at his sense of gestural line and the flip and effortless feel of these sketches that managed to sum up so many people in so few marks.
I love Manet's apparent slap-dashery, what with his overt brush work and his lack of transition colors. I like his referentialism and early Modern feeling and his sense of humor. He's a lot more narrow than Picasso or Richter, but he both innovates and demonstrates technique.
I also love to call him Edweird Mayonnaise when no one is listening.
4) Edward Weston
Even more than Adams or Stieglitz, Ed Weston nails Modernist photography. His nudes, the still lifes, the Point Lobo work, everything shot with an immaculate sense of tone and composition and printed brilliantly. I might like more Walker Evans images, but there's no way that I'd call Evans the "better" artist, he just can't compare with the incredible tone that Weston gets on EVERYTHING. He makes green peppers sexy.
He also has a huge range within his career, from early pictorialism through Modernist abstraction and fairly classical nudes; his influence is felt on pretty much every photographer worth seeing… It doesn't even matter that he was a tremendous dick to every woman around him his entire life, because his work covers that up.
5) Marcel Duchamp
Duchamp's here mostly because of the LACMA exhibit last year that featured a huge amount of Joseph Beuys' work. In a lot of ways, what I like about Beuys is there in Duchamp, the puns and gags as well as a real sense of not just moving art forward but moving humanity's ability to conceive forward. Which, of course, is the sort of lofty earnestness that Duchamp loved to skewer. I went with Duchamp mostly because I suspect that my bias toward Beuys is due to how recently I've seen a bunch of his work.
Dude was the best painter, sculptor and architect in the world all at once. Pretty badass. Maybe shoulda put him higher, but I found his performances too pizza focused, and never found his sewer surfing credible.