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What’s the point?

Mostly, to have fun. But also to see what happens when you cross the world of sports with the world of art. I’m a fan of both, and it seemed interesting to apply the rigid rules of the NCAA college basketball tournament to the much more nebulous world of art history.

And while I didn’t intend anything high-minded when I set this up, I’ve noticed I’m seeing some of these artists in a new way once their works are juxtaposed against those from different eras or genres. Common themes start to emerge, and the building blocks of art – line, tone, color – are consistent across styles. So we might all learn something by accident.

I don’t know anything about art. Can I play?

Of course. I’ve tried to provide a representative sample of each artists work – just vote for what you like. And you probably know more about art than college basketball, anyway.

What’s the format?

I tried to mirror the classic NCAA men’s basketball tournament structure as closely as feasible. So: 64 artists broken down into four  brackets, and seeded 1 through 16. In the first round,  the No. 1 seed plays No. 16, No. 2 plays No. 15 etc. In the second round, the winner of 1 vs. 16 plays the winner of the 8 vs. 9 and so on.  This year, I started the contest with four play-in contests to select the 16th seeds (something the NCAA now does).

How did you choose and seed the artists?

The idea was to start with the 68 most significant visual artists of the 20th century. I included painters, sculptors and photographers, and omitted architects, film makers and performance artists. That might seem arbitrary, but it I had to draw a boundary somewhere.

Then I went through lists of artists and grouped them in four tiers, from obvious top seeds down to more marginal cases. Those tiers formed the basis of the seedings, with the top group making up  the 1-4 seeds, the next group 5-8 and so on. I wanted the list to reflect conventional choices, but I also wanted diversity in genres, geography and gender. So when there was a border line call, I tended to choose a photographer or sculptor vs. yet another abstract expressionist. I tried to keep my own biases out of it, and I excluded some of my favorites. To get to 64, lots of major artists were left out but hopefully my choices make sense. If not, let me know.

The match-ups were somewhat arbitrary, although I tried to avoid having similar artists face each other in the first or second rounds. The contests are more fun when the styles are so different, and I didn’t want a major school eliminated by the second round.

Why did you put some artists in the 20th century and leave out others?

For artists that span two centuries, I had to make a call based on what century I thought they belonged in, usually based on what movement they are associated with. So I consider Monet, Rodin and Cezanne 19th century artists, while Klimt belongs in the 20th. And frankly, given how many great 20th century artists had to be felt out, I was happy not to have to consider more.

How did you choose the works?

This is a contest of artists, not artwork, so mostly, I’m picking works that are representative of their careers. For the most well-known artists, I sometimes try to use their less obvious works. And for the lower seeds, who might only be in the contest for one round, I tend to give them their most iconic works, so at least they go down swinging.

For some 20th century artists whose work is more conceptual, like Bruce Nauman, or whose works are meant to be viewed together, like Cindy Sherman, I’ve found picking single works frustrating. But I don’t see an easy way around it – posting multiple works seems unfair to the other artists. I’m open to suggestions, though.

Occasionally, two very different artists will have works that echo each other, and sometimes I’ll make selections based on those if I see them, but mostly that’s a happy accident.

How come (my favorite artist) isn’t in the tournament? 

Again, choices were made and limiting it to 68 artists resulted in some tough calls. I left out a lot of my personal favorites. In truth, you could swap out the bottom 20 artists in the field with the first 20 left out without much drop off in quality.

What happens next?

After the close of the first round Thursday, I’ll post the second round of 32 artists Friday. Then we’ll reduce the field to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four before choosing the champion in the first week of April. Stay tuned!

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