The New York School

[02 Jan 2007]


After World War II, American painting was revived by a number of young artists. Influenced by surrealism, they eschewed reality and began a free style of painting that developed into two basic trends: « Action painting » and « Colorfield painting ».
The term Action painting refers to the importance accorded to the physical gesture by certain abstract expressionists. This type of work was the visual result of the expression of physical and emotional energy through the body in movement such as Pollock’s drippings or the aggressive brush swipes of Kline. Colorfield painting on the other hand was an experiment in which fields of colour are proposed for the “resonance” they produce in the context of meditation. The viewer is captivated by the sensitive environments of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. Other artists such as Adolph GOTTLIEB, Arshile GORKY, Ad REINHARDT and Clyfford STILL are harder to classify although they were very much part of the era’s abstract adventure.

Abstract expressionists are currently the top-ranking post-war artists on the market. Willem DE KOONING holds the record for the most expensive public auction sale. On 15 November 2006, his Untitled XXV sold for 24.2 million dollars at Christie’s in New York. In the last sales of the autumn, Christie’s sold no less than 12 pieces by de Kooning, including some late 50s and 60s oil paintings for between 150 and 250 thousand euros (16 November, N.Y.)

In 1947, Jackson POLLOCK abandoned a classical use of the paint brush and adopted dripping (projection of paint onto the canvas). Having sold Number 12 (1949) for USD 10.4 million at Christie’s New York on 11 May, 2004, Pollock is one of the most expensive abstract expressionist artists. However, that record was apparently pulverised last November when his Number 5 (1948) was exchanged for USD 140 million in a highly publicised private transaction.
Art collectors also compete vigorously to acquire works from Pollock’s pre-dripping period: on 14 November last, his Blue, white & orange Composition (1945) doubled its low estimate when it sold for USD 1.6 million at Sotheby’s, New York. Drawings are also generating record prices: Again in November, a small ink entitled P12, estimated at between USD 60,000 and 80,000 by Christie’s, sold for USD 270,000. In today’s market, only Pollock’s etchings are accessible for under USD 10,000.
In 2005, Franz KLINEFranz Kline figured among the 10 top sales of the year with his Crow Dancer (1958) generating USD 5.7 million at Christie’s New York on 11 May 2005. The masterpieces are sold in London and New York; but it is still possible to acquire less prestigious and more affordable works through the more confidential auction houses such as the mixed technique which sold for EUR 14,000 at Lempertz in Cologne on 2 June last.
Like Kline, Robert MOTHERWELL also worked extensively using black and white as his chromatic base. In 2006, 25 of his paintings came up for auction: no million-dollar records this year; just affordable works such as his “Drawing” (1958) which went under the hammer at Sotheby’s (London) in June for GBP 10,000.

Mark ROTHKO developed a “meditative” approach to painting via his colour fields. In November 2005, his work Homage to Matisse (1954) generated a new price record when it sold for USD 20 million at Christie’s in New York. Since that date, no major Rothko works have come up for sale. Today one would expect to pay over a million dollars to acquire a quality work by Mark Rothko, whereas 10 years before his 2005 price record, certain pieces were still changing hands for around USD 100,000 (sale on 28 June 1995 at Sotheby’s London of an acrylic (100 x 65 cm) for GBP 85,000).
The market for Barnett NEWMAN has remained thin. Only 18 paintings have been offered at auction in 20 years and two were presented by Tajan in Paris last year. Both were minor works (less that 20 cm wide) and neither found a buyer despite the significant date of each (c. 1945). Small paintings by Newman are accessible for less than EUR 5,000: in June 2005, a lucky amateur art collector acquired a Newman painting for USD 4,800 (from Swann Galleries, in New York). When it comes to his best works, the collectors are very demanding and prices can go very high: for example an ink offered by Christie’s N.Y. last November which sold for USD 300,000, thereby retracing its value of 1990 (at the height of the speculative bubble).

For Newman, as for the other artists of the New York school, the market for large format works has completely dried up as they have all been acquired by major museums and private collections. In 2006, the price index for this group of artists gained a further 12%, reaching double its 1990 level