Simon Hantaï

[30 Jul 2013]


The Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris has organised a first major retrospective of the work of Simon Hantaï (22 May – 2 September 2013). With more than 130 paintings, all created between 1949 and 1990, this is the largest exhibition of Hantaï’s work since a 1976 exhibition at the French Museum of Modern Art in Paris. If Hantaï’s abundant work has remained in the shadows for so many years, it is primarily due to the artist himself, who voluntarily withdrew from the world of art and its value systems as of 1982.

Hantaï and the art world
So what happened in 1982? In 1982 Simon HANTAÏ had his first real confrontation with the international art scene when he represented France at the 40th Venice Biennale with a set of tabulas. But the show was a failure. He subsequently isolated himself from the art world, and spent the rest of his life (until his death in 2008) engaged in intellectual exchanges with his philosopher friends and theorists (Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy) and occasionally reworking his previous works. In fact his artistic silence after 1982 was not completely unprecedented: after the 1976 exhibition at the French Museum of Modern Art in Paris, Hantaï stopped painting for three and a half years. And yet, Hantaï had been relatively well-received by institutions and galleries for many years. Did he not win the first edition of the Maeght Foundation Prize in 1967?

A superb colorist, Hantaï effectively created his paintings using a “blind” method which, as of 1960, involved folding and/or screwing up his canvases. Using these methods he developed a strong and spiritual body of work before his retreat from the market. Meanwhile, collectors have been quick to show strong interest in Hantaï’s unique work, snapping up his paintings as soon as they started to appear on the secondary market in the late 1980’s.

Hantaï and art market
Auction houses initially offered works from the 1950’s, some of which still showed signs of surrealist influences. Hantaï’s auction debut dates back to 1986 when a large-scale composition from 1956, fetched the equivalent of $3,300 in London (216cm x 152cm, £2,200, Sotheby’s). Today that painting would fetch 40 to 60 times more.

On 7 October 1989 Hantaï’s market suddenly picked up whith one of his first folded canvases fetching the equivalent of $30,000 at Charbonneaux in Paris (Untitled, 1963, 120cm x 105cm). Two days later, a 1972 composition twice that size sold for five times more when it went under the hammer for $150,000 at Briest (1989, 220cm x 243cm). This was the first time the artist’s work had fetched above $100,000 and that threshold has since been crossed 56 times (nearly 20% of his paintings sell for more than $100,000) including a personal auction record of $779,000 (roughly $935,000 including taxes) at Sotheby’s in Paris in 2005 for Etude (1969, 274cm x 236cm). The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC also possesses a very similar work (same year and same size) in which the red replaces the blue. Although some works by Hantaï have been acquired by American museums, his market is very thin indeed in the United States where only five works have been sold since the early 2000’s. The bulk of his works change hands in France (81.3% of the artist’s auction turnover) with the Netherlands accounting for 4.2% of his turnover and the United States for less than 2%.

Hantaï’s almost exclusively French market has not stopped the rise of his price index because his notoriety and demand are international. Over the 2003-2013 decade, his price index rose 275%, with fairly high price levels (50% of his works fetch more than $40,000).

For affordable works, it is worth noting that Hantaï became interested in screenprinting, not as a medium for disseminating his work, but rather for its capacity to proliferate patterns. His prints regularly appear in auction rooms, either as single lots or in batches, with an average price per screenprint of $150 ‑ $300.