The 10 Most Important Artists of Today

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Byline: Blake Gopnik

We're living in a great moment for art. NEWSWEEK critic Blake Gopnik chooses the creators who could be the next Leonardo, Rembrandt, or Picasso.

We live in an excellent moment for art. Yes, I'm surprised too. Given the sheer quantity of junk to be seen, such a declaration seems absurdly Pollyannaish. But after a friend asked me to tell him which artists to watch, I was shocked to find my lsist verging on 50 names. At the top were a solid 10 artists--some already famous, some little known--who seemed not just good, but so good they might enter the history books. (I was counting only artists who belong to our moment. Other living geniuses, like Jasper Johns and Richard Serra, proved themselves in earlier eras.)

Think back to the great years and places in art: 1515 in Rome, or 1912 in Paris. How many of us can cite 50 Renaissance talents, or that many cubists, whose work still shines? Finding so many artists worth getting behind in 2011 must say something about the moment we're in.

Here, then, are the top 10 artists of our time--at least as I judge them. A handful are showing work right now at the Venice Biennale, the world's most important roundup of contemporary art. Many others will have work for sale at Art Basel, the huge commercial fair that opens in Switzerland on June 15. I'm not certain all the artists on my list are flawless, or that I won't change my mind about some of them. But I can say this to anyone who cites today's junk as supposed proof of art's current failure: it's just the dross on which quality work always floats.

Newsweek Exclusive Gillian Wearing has redefined portraiture by photographing herself in rubber masks she's cast from other people's faces. In this specially created piece, titled Me in My Mask, she dons a mask of her own face now. To see Wearing unmasked, turn the page.

Francis AlA s

His interactive works are a commentary on existence.

He's one of our best artists, but luckily Francis AlA s came late to his calling. When he first labored to make art, with scant background in the field, he made art that was all about labor. For all the years since, his art has talked about the exertions we all make to survive.

In one video we see the artist pushing a huge block of ice through the streets of Mexico City, where he lives, until his giant load is no more than an ice cube to be kicked. Watching him complete an absurd, self-imposed task reminds us of ourselves most of the time.

For his piece When Faith Moves Mountains, AlA s got 500 shovel-wielding volunteers to line up at the edge of a huge dune and, as per the work's title, push the first few inches of sand up over the top and down to the bottom of the other side. Had they continued for years, their "mountain" might have moved to Brazil.

And then there's Tornado, a wild new video in which AlA s hand-carries his camera into the raging center of oak-sized Mexican dust devils. He's yet another artist "at the eye of the storm," but this time not metaphorically.

AlA s, now 51, was a Belgian architect working in Mexico City when visa problems stranded him there in 1989. He took advantage of the break to try making art. As a latecomer to the business, it seems as though he could only distill it to its strange essentials, as a pointless effort to reach vague goals that aren't clearly worth reaching even once you're there.

In another video, called Rehearsal I, AlA s himself attempts to surmount a steep hill in a crummy Volkswagen Bug. An AlA sian catch makes the task more complex: he syncs his driving with a recording of a Mexican brass band rehearsing a tune. As long as the band plays correctly, he steps on the gas; when it stops for a flubbed note, he lets his car roll back. The musicians need more rehearsal; AlA s never reaches the top.

This may seem to be art about how strange and hard it is to make art. …