Iconic visual and musical artist from the 1960s

The 1960s were the most tumultuous decade in American history since the 1860s. There was one United States before the 1860s, and a very different one after. The same can be said of the 1960s.

The 1860s saw the Civil War and the near dissolution of the country. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Indian wars.

The 1960s saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy (1963). The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), Robert F. Kennedy (1968), Medgar Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965).

The Cold War reached its peak during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). America was humiliated on the global stage following the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961). The Vietnam War escalated and escalated and escalated.

The 1960s saw the Civil Rights Movement and passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964). Feminism took off. The American Indian Movement. The Chicano Movement. Power to the People.

Hippies and the Summer of Love. A man on the moon.

The nation – the world – looked nothing in 1970 like it did in 1959.

If you were an artist from the 1960s, you were responding to all of this.

Famous musicians of the 1960s and famous painters from 1960s commented on the earthshaking political and social changes they were experiencing and observing through their work and, in many cases, contributed to them. As with society at large, art expanded, evolved and changed more rapidly in the 1960s than it ever had before.

Famous Musicians of the 1960s

Photograph of John Lennon from 1960s.
Photograph of John Lennon from 1960s. Courtesy Deposit Photos.

The Beatles defined the decade of the 60s in a way no musical act has before or since. The Beatles were the 60s. Youthful. Optimistic. Fresh. Enthusiastic. Catchy.

That was the mood at the beginning of the decade, anyway; by the end of the decade, after all the assassinations, as the death toll kept rising in Vietnam, after one cataclysm after another, the vibe had changed. The Rolling Stones were more the order of the day. Edgier. Bob Dylan’s social commentary came to define the later years of the 1960s.

When thinking about famous musicians of the 1960s, start there: The Beatles, The Stones and Dylan.

Elvis Presley was still more famous than any of them, but he spent most of the 1960s producing bad movies, not making great music like he did in the 50s and would do in the 70s.

While rock and roll and pop music were taking off, Frank Sinatra remained one of the most famous musicians of the 1960s. His record labels released over a dozen albums of all varieties during the decade – original material, compilations, TV specials, duets. “It Was a Very Good Year” in 1965, “Strangers in the Night” in 1966, “My Way” in 1969 and other hits resulted in millions of albums sold and a handful of Grammy awards.

All of the most famous musicians of the 1960s are household names with countless books, movies and documentaries produced about them. This article in no way attempts to replace those or serve as biography. It’s an overview. A starting point.

The best single-site source for learning more about the famous musicians of the 1960s, the important musical artist from the 1960s, is AllMusic.com.

60s top artists

Closeup of isolated vinyl record 'My Generation' debut album from the Who band, released 1965.
Closeup of isolated vinyl record ‘My Generation’ debut album from the Who band, released 1965. Courtesy of Deposit Photos.

Rock and Roll was still in its infancy in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, however, it had found itself. The guitar god was born.

Pop music centered on the British Invasion and the surf sound.

While there were enormously popular country music stars prior to the 1960s, when most people today think of “classic country music,” the names, faces and songs recalled center on this decade.

Rhythm and Blues were evolving, transitioning into Motown and merging with pop music.

Folk music had never been, nor would it ever be, more popular than in the 1960s. The 60s top artists featured many folk musicians. That would never again be the case.

Same goes for jazz. The 60s was a peak with the icons of the genre still playing live and recording.

The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Elvis, Sinatra, they were at a different level. Exempting them, what follows are six of the 60s top artists from the six most popular musical genres in America during the decade.

Rock and Roll

  • Eric Clapton
  • The Who
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • The Byrds
  • The Beach Boys

Pop

  • The Monkees
  • Herman’s Hermits
  • Dusty Springfield
  • James Brown
  • The Four Seasons
  • The Supremes

Country

Rhythm and Blues

  • Tina Turner (with Ike Turner)
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Ray Charles
  • Gladys Knight (and the Pips)
  • Smokey Robinson
  • Marvin Gaye

Folk

  • Simon & Garfunkel
  • Neil Young
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Buffalo Springfield
  • Joan Baez
  • Peter, Paul and Mary

Standards

  • Tony Bennett
  • Dean Martin
  • Sammy Davis Jr.
  • Bobby Darin
  • Mel Tormé
  • Bobby Vinton

Jazz

  • Miles Davis
  • John Coltrane
  • Thelonious Monk

Famous painters from 1960s

Andy Warhol (American, 1928 – 1987), Self-Portrait, 1986, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 203.2 x 203.2 cm (80 x 80 in.), © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

1960 is generally considered the demarcation line between the periods of Modern art and Contemporary art. Though often used interchangeably, Modern art covers roughly 1850 through 1960, beginning with the French Impressionists through Abstract Expressionism. Modern art covers post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and a variety of other “ism’s.”

Contemporary art is everything which followed beginning with Pop art and continuing through to the present day.

For famous painters from 1960s, I’m going to highlight artists at their peak. Picasso, Dalí and Willem de Kooning were all alive in the 1960s, and very famous, but their fame was earned in previous generations. My list of famous painters in 1960s made their reputations in that decade or were at their peak during.

The list begins and ends with Andy Warhol, the most famous contemporary artist, the most influential contemporary artists, the Beatles of the art world in the 1960s. There was art before Andy Warhol, and then art after Andy Warhol, and the two looked very different.

Warhol initiated the Pop art movement, a melding of fine art with the ubiquitous visual popular culture and advertising of the day blanketing TV, newspapers, magazines and street life.

Andy Warhol 'Triple Elvis'
Andy Warhol ‘Triple Elvis’

As with all lists and rankings, mine has inherent bias. It is weighted heavily toward American artists and artists working from the Western/European tradition. That tradition is heavily slanted in favor of white men.

That said, along with – and well behind Andy Warhol as famous painters from 1960s – here are the others in my top 10:

  • Roy Lichtenstein – the second driving force behind Pop art, best known for his comic strip inspired, dot matrix, text paintings
  • Robert Rauschenberg – better known for his “combines” and assemblages, his paintings in the 1960s were groundbreaking
  • Georgia O’Keeffe – timeless, very famous, O’Keeffe was a presence in the art world from the 1920s onward and produced one of her greatest paintings in the 60s (below)
  • Jasper Johns – while his best work, targets and flags, came in the 1950s, he was still at the peak of his prowess and widely famous in the 60s
  • Jacob Lawrence – similar to Johns, Lawrence made his name in previous decades, but remained relevant throughout the 60s.
  • Joan Mitchell – and another; Mitchell came to fame with the AbEx painters of the 1940s and 50s, but didn’t slow down one bit through the 60s… or 70s
  • Helen Frankenthaler – like Mitchell, Frankenthaler earned her chops with Abstract Expressionism, but would evolve from there to help develop the Color Field movement
  • Ellsworth Kelly – the progenitor of the Hard Edge painting movement
  • Francis Bacon – one of art history’s handful of greatest self-portraitists

Famous paintings of the 1960s

Georgia O'Keeffe, Sky Above Clouds IV (1965) at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Sky Above Clouds IV (1965) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Warhol again dominates this list. His soup cans and Marylin and Elvis portraits are among the most recognizable in art history.

Links go out to images and analysis of the famous paintings of the 1960s

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