The Art Biz

On May 10, an auction at Christie’s set new prices for recent contemporary art. A Willem de Kooning, Two Women, painted in the mid-1950s, sold for a record $1.2 million, the highest sum ever paid for a work by a living American. Work by other Abstract Expressionists also sold high—a Franz Kline for $240,000, an Adolph Gottlieb for $110,000, a Sam Francis for $242,000. A harder-edged painter, Richard Lindner, brought $300,000 and an early Frank Stella fetched $260,000. (Add 10 percent to all these prices for Christie’s cut.)

As far as de Kooning fans were concerned the price paid was juste, since Two Women is regarded as one of the artist’s finest canvases. More interesting, perhaps, was the perspicacity of the purchaser, the art dealer Allan Stone, who in the past has acquired many de Koonings in all shapes and sizes. Obviously, Mr. Stone was confident that if and when he offers this painting for sale he will make a decent profit. De Kooning’s reputation has been secure for years; such an acquisition would hardly seem like a gamble.

But at the same auction, two other paintings by much publicized artists failed to reach estimated prices—a Mark Rothko and a Roy Lichtenstein. High evaluations were placed on these “names.” The Rothko—long in the possession of Mr. Ben Heller—was frozen at $500,000, below which Mr. Heller would not budge. The bidding never reached it, and both the Lichtenstein and the Rothko were withdrawn.

Were these artists overevaluated any more than those who brought in equally spectacular prices? Was there a change in the taste or mood of the buyers, as in the case of buying or selling any other commodity? The more one examines these questions the more difficult it becomes to frame plausible answers. Well, one says, there is the reality of time passing; the public becomes accustomed to the successes of celebrated artists and the volume of publicity that attends them. But how then to account for the enthusiastic reception now being given to a wholly new batch of painters, around New York only for a few years, all of them in their early thirties or late twenties? Variously called New Realists or Neo-Expressionists, they have “arrived,” from Germany, Italy, and the provinces of America. The new painters, for all their brashness and ineptitude, have attracted a lively market which admires big, splashy, noisy, turbulent canvases, filled with soft-porn and hardcore banality. The new collectors are willing to pay handsomely in the tens of thousands, and do.

Can one explain this latest phenomenon because of another change in taste or a change in investment styles? Has art collecting acquired a street-smart angle? Have art dealers learned a new form of hype and have more artists become willing to fill the demand? More than 200,000 “artists” compete with one another in New York, and of them only a few dozen crash the big time. On the other hand, in Fernand Braudel’s notion of the longue durée, it would seem…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.