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One Hit Wonders: Why Some of the Most Important Works of Modern Art are Not by Important Artists


  • David W. Galenson


How can minor artists produce major works of art? This paper considers 13 modern visual artists, each of whom produced a single masterpiece that dominates the artist's career. The artists include painters, sculptors, and architects, and their masterpieces include works as prominent as the painting American Gothic, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. In each case, these isolated achievements were the products of innovative ideas that the artists formulated early in their careers, and fully embodied in individual works. The phenomenon of the artistic one-hit wonder highlights the nature of conceptual innovation, in which radical new approaches based on new ideas are introduced suddenly by young practitioners.

Suggested Citation

  • David W. Galenson, 2004. "One Hit Wonders: Why Some of the Most Important Works of Modern Art are Not by Important Artists," NBER Working Papers 10885, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:10885
    Note: LS

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. David W. Galenson, 2004. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young or Very Old Innovator: Creativity at the Extremes of the Life Cycle," NBER Working Papers 10515, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. David W. Galenson, 1999. "Quantifying Artistic Success: Ranking French Painters - and Paintings - from Impressionism to Cubism," NBER Working Papers 7407, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Bruce A. Weinberg & David W. Galenson, 2005. "Creative Careers: The Life Cycles of Nobel Laureates in Economics," NBER Working Papers 11799, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. David W. Galenson, 2003. "The Reappearing Masterpiece: Ranking American Artists and Art Works of the Late Twentieth Century," NBER Working Papers 9935, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Martin Bruegel & David W. Galenson, 2001. "Measuring Masters and Masterpieces: French Rankings of French Painters and Paintings from Realism to Surrealism," NBER Working Papers 8266, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. David Galenson, 2002. "The Life Cycles of Modern Artists," World Economics, World Economics, 1 Ivory Square, Plantation Wharf, London, United Kingdom, SW11 3UE, vol. 3(3), pages 161-178, July.
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    Cited by:

    1. Benjamin Jones & E.J. Reedy & Bruce A. Weinberg, 2014. "Age and Scientific Genius," NBER Working Papers 19866, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J0 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General
    • J4 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets

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