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Essential modern artwork in the Albright-Knox

If you’re going to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, here are 10 paintings not to be

100 Cans / Andy Warhol / 1962

Many of the central themes of Andy Warhol’s work are on display in this iconic painting of 100 Campbell’s Soup cans. His transformation of the everyday into the stuff of art; his suggestion that art can be as much a commodity as anything on your grocery store shelf; his keen eye for the simple, clean and unadorned visual reference that dwarfs that of any advertising executive. All that and a lot more is wrapped up in this slick package, which invites endless repeat viewings.

1957-D, No. / Clyfford Still / 1957

Jagged yellow stalactites and stalagmites jut into the center of this mammoth piece, one of the most famous by the fiercely independent artist Clyfford Still. Though it’s easy to compare the piece to the similarly jagged and awe-inspiring landscape of the American Southwest, the forms of the painting actually may have their basis in the human body. The piece is nothing less than Still’s attempt to create art that captures something essential about the human soul, something you can decide for yourself if this piece accomplishes. No matter what it says to you about your species, its rough beauty is tough to deny

Orange and Yellow / Mark Rothko / 1956

If de Kooning and Pollock were all about ego and drama, their fellow abstract expressionist comrade Rothko took the spiritual approach. His two-tone paintings, prints of which were probably hanging in your college friend’s apartments if not your own, have a somnolence and quietude about them that is welcoming when viewed in the company of louder painters. They’re enough to tempt even the most ardent skeptic to dip his toe into the realm of spirituality, and this is perhaps Rothko’s most spiritual painting of all.

Gotham News / Willem de Kooning / 1955

The meticulous organization and total madness of this piece should put to rest any suggestions about kids being able to achieve the same effect as the 20th century’s great abstract painters. De Kooning’s piece contains fragments of newspapers, forms based on the women he drew in an earlier phase of his career and violent scrapes and swaths of paint that evoke the clatter, clamor and hard-edged harmony of the New York City streetscape.

Convergence / Jackson Pollock / 1952

A riot of color and lines that at first glance seems random and gradually resolves itself into a kind of supreme order, this masterpiece by the cocksure painter Jackson Pollock is an emblem of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Its imposing scale, confident construction and insistence on distracting you from anything and anyone else in the room – all of it speaks to the grand ego that drove Pollock’s art and that of his macho contemporaries. Like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Pollock’s painting knows itself and knows its greatness. It may be the least shy painting in the world.

The Liver is in the Cock’s Comb / Arshile Gorky / 1944

This large canvas by Amernian-born painter Arhsile Gorky seems to be the projection surface for a strange and frightening nightmare. It swirls with vaguely human forms and colors that suggest less than savory things that might have emerged from Gorky’s experiences growing up in the Caucasus. But, like other abstract works of the time, it denies any easy interpretations. Others may view it as an innocuous fantasy and still others as a particularly inspired acid trip. Like the best paintings in the Albright-Knox collection, the longer you look, the more possibilities open up.

La Musique / Henri Matisse / 1939

Stare at this canvas long enough, and you might actually start to hear the music that seemed to inspire French painter Henri Matisse to create it. The product of many painstaking revisions, the painting is a return to form for Matisse to his early experiments in dimension and color. Writing in the 1999 publication “Masterworks at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery,” former Albright-Knox curator Steven Nash called it “an image on the one hand elegant and rich and on the other classical and hieratic.” “Beautiful” works just as well.

Carnival of Harlequin / Joan Miró / 1924-25

Spanish painter Joan Miró had more ammunition in his imagination than he knew what to do with, but he spent an awful lot of it on his mid-’20s masterpiece. Miró used a great deal of iconography in his work to represent or evoke feelings and events. Aside from the sheer whimsy of its unlikely forms – which look like a bunch of Pixar creations getting ready for a party – the painting acts as a key for much of the artist’s other work. It also seems to reveal something entirely new every time you look at it.

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash / Giacomo Balla / 1912

A favorite of art history professors everywhere, and for good reason, Balla’s simple study of a dog on a leash is a beautiful illustration of the way artists were thinking about the potential of paint in the early 20th century. Like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” from the same year, this painting attempts to illustrate not just an object, but time itself. Like a long-exposure photograph that follows the impossible physics of human dreams, Balla shows us the walking legs of the dog and its waving leash in various permutations. It’s captivating.

Spirit of the Dead Watching / Paul Gauguin / 1892

Even without its ominous title, this disquieting nighttime scene by Paul Gauguin, painted during the artist’s long sojourn in French Polynesia, is enough to make you shiver. Against a surreal purple background of flowers, a strange figure in a dark cloak looks over the prostrate body of a woman based on one of Gauguin’s Tahitian mistresses. There’s a whole world of dark stories one could invent about the scene, though the artist suggested this one as a starting point: “Either she is thinking of the spectre or the spectre is thinking of her.”

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