Contemporary abstract art: Rothko, and company

[02 Aug 2016]


Today’s prices of American Abstract Expressionist art illustrate the country’s dominance of the global market, with works by Mark ROTHKO, Clyfford STILL, Jackson POLLOCK and Sam FRANCIS easily fetching more than $50 million at auction.
The last stage in the ascension to the market’s pinnacle began in 2007 when Marc Rothko’s (1903-1970) White Center made front-page news by fetching $65 million at Sotheby’s. At the time, White Center (1950) became the highest-paid Post-War artwork on the auction market and it was the best result of 2007. Since then that record has been beaten three times. Rothko’s record now stands at $86.8 million (Orange, red, yellow, Christie’s New York, 8 May 2012) and he is still one of the world’s top selling artists. Last year was another exceptional year with demand for his work generating more than $219 million at auctions, including $81.9 million for a large 1958 canvas entitled No. 10 (Christie’s New York on 13 May 2015). The master of meditative colorfields always galvanises bidders and demand is showing no signs of waning. Of course, over time, his colorfields are becoming increasingly rare: only eight paintings were auctioned in 2015 (all sold) and so far in 2016 only two paintings have appeared at prestige sales (both sold). Although you have to be a multimillionaire to bid for one of his paintings, that is not the case for his drawings. One can still pick up a small Rothko work in ink or watercolor for less than $50,000. The main problem is finding a seller…

Even rarer on the market than Rothko, Clyfford STILL also worked on the violent confrontation between large fields of pure colour forcing the viewer into total visual immersion by the exclusive use of large formats that evict anecdotal information by remaining untitled. Before his move to New York in 1950, where he worked with Pollock and De Kooning, Clyfford Still spent almost ten years in San Francisco as a teacher at the California School of Fine Arts. His influence as a teacher turned out to be a crucial element in his later career. Still is the rarest American Expressionist on the secondary market: only 40 of his works have been offered for sale since the late 1980s, including two this year! A leading art collector acquired the superb painting PH-234 (1948) for $28.1 million on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s New York… a museum-quality piece now worth the same as Jackson Pollock’s top-selling works. For works like this — reflecting some of the great moments in art history — the price is more a reflection of passion and financial firepower than about any tried and tested benchmark.

Expressionism is not dead… far from it. It didn’t stop with the end of a historically delineated movement and its spirit has continued to renew itself through artists like Gerhard RICHTER (born in 1932 in Dresden) and Cy TWOMBLY (1928-2011). Although not Abstract Expressionists per se, they have pursued an approach and an energy that is clearly visible in the work of the great American artists of the 20th century, and their work meets strong demand from museums and major collectors that has pushed up their prices to match those of the original American stars of the movement. Cy Twombly is a perfect example of this phenomenon: his auction record was set at $70.5 million for Untitled (New York City) at Sotheby’s on 11 November 2015. That this is more than was paid for a rare masterpiece from the beginning of Picasso’s Blue Period (La Gommeuse (1901), which fetched $67.5 million at Sotheby’s (on 5 November 2015).
Cy Twombly therefore reached the same level as the best works by Picasso in a very short timeframe since his previous auction record was just $19.2 million for Poems to the Sea (Sotheby’s New York) just two years earlier (2013). Five of his works crossed the $10 million threshold in 2015 compared with just two in 2014. In art market terms, this represents a phenomenal growth rate and his price index has risen by 340% in just five years. The art dealer Larry Gagosian definitely backed a winner when he made Twombly the cornerstone of his gallery in the 1980s. Now one of the key signatures at prestige Western art sales, Twombly has performed an extraordinary price catch-up versus other Post-War American artists: last year, his auction turnover was even better than Pollock’s and Rothko’s.So Abstract expressionism is not dead …

In fact, it is one of the strongest creative energies powering the Western art market today, despite becoming increasingly rare. It is also a liberating wave that is still a relevant and inspirational force in 21st century creation.