Riopelle… dedicated to Abstraction

[15 May 2018]

A life spent between France and Quebec… an œuvre intimately related to the history of the 20th century avant-garde in Europe and the United States, Jean-Paul Riopelle was one of the first Canadian artists to attain widespread international recognition.

Born in Montreal in 1923, Jean-Paul Riopelle started drawing in early childhood, a passion that intensified after the age of 13. By his early twenties, the young Riopelle had developed a strong character which he expressed through a free and spontaneous style in his first “automatic” paintings and it was clear he was not afraid of experimentation. Traveling to Paris in the late 40s, he met André Breton, the “guru” of Surrealism. He signed the Surrealist’s anti-communist manifesto Rupture inaugurale and then settled in France in 1948. Admiring Riopelle’s spontaneous technique and his inner landscapes (inscapes), Breton described him as a trappeur supérieur in the introduction he wrote for the catalogue of Riopelle’s first solo exhibition in Paris in 1949. For the Parisian Surrealists, Riopelle’s creations were “initiatory” in nature. Ten years later, in 1959, the American avant-garde came to a similar conclusion at the artist’s first exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. At that time, his relationship with New York also had just acquired a sentimental dimension having fallen in love with the great American Abstract painter Joan Mitchell in Paris. His 25-year relationship with Joan Mitchell passionate and explosive on both personal and artistic levels. Riopelle’s and Mitchell’s works were mutually influential… even after their breakup in 1979. Shortly after their separation, Riopelle began painting in black and white, with white symbolising the end of their relationship. After Joan Mitchell’s death in 1992, Riopelle created a monumental legacy work entitled Hommage à Rosa Luxembourg believed to be a coded tribute to Joan Mitchell. The work consists of 30 paintings in a triptych measuring 40 metres in width.

The market often adopts unequitable preferences regarding artistic duos (cf. Rodin & Claudel or Kahlo & Rivera). Likewise with the Riopelle-Mitchell partnership, which despite its fruitfulness, was no exception with a very substantial price gap between the American and the Canadian artist that has lasted for many years…

    1. Riopelle’s market prices

Since the Joan Mitchell retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2002, her prices have been climbing at a steady pace, posting an aggregate increase of +1,100%. By comparison, the price index of her Canadian companion, who died in 2002, has posted a modest rise of +350% over the same period. One explanation for the gap between these two progressions is quite simply the marketing differential: Mitchell’s work has been promoted far more vigorously in the US than Riopelle’s in Canada. In New York, Joan Mitchell’s market is efficiently animated by an eponymous Foundation with 25 employees managing her archives. One of the Foundations declared missions is the “promotion and preservation of the Joan Mitchell legacy”. This effort is of course an ‘international’ initiative and includes ensuring the healthy functioning of her secondary market. Auction results clearly reflect the Foundation’s success with no less than 20 of her abstract works fetching results above the $5 million threshold over the past 10 years.

By comparison, the prices of “the greatest Canadian painter” have remained much lower. Before last year, none of his work’s had reached the $5 million threshold. In fact… Riopelle’s market has suffered one or two hesitations in recent years, one of which followed the announcement in 2003 of a sale including no less than forty works from the artist’s estate. However, amidst a flurry of media comments about the sellers’ haste and the large number of works, the sale was cancelled a week before its scheduled date for fear of destabilizing the artist’s prices.

But that was then… and today Riopelle’s prices are on the ascent and his market posted unprecedented results in 2017 with two works crossing the $5 million threshold: the first in Toronto in May and the second in Paris in December. The first record was hammered for an ideally-dated large canvas measuring nearly two meters titled Vent du nord (1952/53) and estimated at around a million dollars. Defying the expectations, the painting fetched $5.5 million at Heffel Fine Art. The result narrowed the gap between Riopelle and Mitchell, but also between Riopelle and France’s most sought-after Abstract artist of that generation, Pierre Soulages. At the end of 2017, a new record confirmed the trend, with an untitled canvas fetching over $5.7 million at Christie’s in Paris. Both results represents a distinctly new stage in the market value of the famous Canadian painter.

Riopelle explored a number of different artistic fields, including figuration and stencil work, but his dialogue with abstraction represents his most fertile exploration… and the most valued. The style of his vigorous and colorful mosaics is immediately recognizable and stands out from the rest of the Abstract work being produced at the time. In his paintings, Riopelle applied colour directly from the tube and worked the paint in depth with a spatula. Described as ‘inner’, physical and forceful, some believed Riopelle’s work reflected a Shamanic connection with nature. In many respects it can be compared with that of his contemporary Jackson Pollock: explosions of paint on all-over surfaces suggesting a kind of infinity. Pollock of course received highly positive attention in the United States and was rapidly elevated to the status of a mythic figure in American art. His prices followed suit with an auction record of $58.3 million for Number 19 (1948) at Christie’s New York on 15 May 2013, ten times higher than Riopelle’s latest auction record.

Apart from Riopelle’s Abstract and paint-loaded productions, some of his later works in aerosol are available for less than $50,000. Others, from the Oies Blanches (White Geese) series can be acquired for under $15,000. Back in Quebec in the late 1980s, Riopelle also made numerous prints rendering his work widely accessible. Last year 20 of these changed hands for less than $1,000. Considering the momentum currently driving the entire Abstract art market (French, American and Canadian), fans of Riopelle should definitely consider acquiring some of these cheaper works.