CONCEPTUAL ART – The mind to the fore!



As Leonard de Vinci was already affirming, back in the XVth century, art is ‘Cosa mentale’, a thing of the mind. Five centuries after this premise, artists gave the concept precedence over the realisation of the work and the skill of the artist. The work became witness to an idea. Officially born in the 1960s, the conceptual trend is still around today, its tone neutral and the message clearly to the fore.

After eight years of stagnation, conceptual art began to emerge from its slow death in 1999 and prices have since made virtually steady progress, such that the movement was even to recover, in September 2007, the robust health of 1990.

Historically, the movement has its roots in the United States with artists such as Sol LEWITT, Robert MORRIS, Donald JUDD and Joseph KOSUTH and continues in the twenty-first century with very diverse works ranging from the aphorisms of Barbara KRUGER to the 8.7 cm stripes by Daniel BUREN (BMPT group).
The movement’s theoretician, Sol LeWitt, died last April at the age of 78. He has a strong following amongst collectors and has shown a price rise of more than 330% over the past decade. The rigour of his modular sculptures particularly appeals to the Americans who sell 47% of his works, although the French realize 5% of his sale proceeds in selling 3% of the artist’s oeuvre. His record at auction was set in New York in November 2006 when Christie’s sold Wall Floor Piece #. This sculpture, in the form of a truncated pyramid and repeating the same cube-shaped module, saw the hammer come down at USD 450,000, or EUR 351,000.

This sale does not make Lewitt the price leader. He is easily outclassed by Donald Judd, backed by a spectacular USD 8.75 million sale (EUR 6,455,750), achieved in May 2007 at Christie’s NY! The work, Untitled (77-4 I Bernstein), is a steel and blue plexiglass stack from 1977. This record was set just one year after the historic sale, at the same auction house, of 35 sculptures from the Judd Foundation. No fewer than 5 million-ticket sales were achieved during this auction. With the artist at an all time high, you can’t hope to secure a pencil or ink sketch for a sculpture project for less than USD 10,000. 2007 is, moreover, a strong year for conceptual art, for which prices are regaining the levels of 1990, the peak of the speculative bubble.

Here too the drawings of his friend Sol LeWitt are more affordable with many accessible for under EUR 5,000 (more than 60% of his works, whatever the medium, sell for below this threshold), although properly dated works on paper are rare and can reach high prices like the ink Six Variations using two Lines superimposed which achieved USD 100,000 in February 2007 compared with a pre-sale estimate of between USD 30,000 and 40,000 (EUR 75,730, 42.5 x 43.2 cm, Christie’s NY).

Conceptual art lovers tend to focus on sculpture from the 1960s and 1970s. But those on a lower budget will be relieved to hear that Robert Morris and Joseph Kosuth are more affordable than Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. For around EUR 10,000 they can set their hearts on a late (1994) Kosuth sculpture such as (This part obscure) sold for USD 11,000, or around EUR 8,700 (Sotheby’s, NY) or a multiple work in glass (40 examples) entitled Arbeitszimmer R.Musil for under EUR 1,000 as was the case at Germann in Zurich last 21 June (the hammer came down at CHF 1,200, or EUR 722). Large-scale works by Robert Morris change hands for between EUR 15,000 and 30,000 on average, whereas his relief work Golden Memories edited in 17 examples, is a tenth of the price: Christie’s sold one in New York last February for USD 2,200, or less than EUR 1,700.

Amongst the following generation of conceptual artists, a few rare Dan GRAHAM installations come up at auction (9 have been on offer since 2000), for which you’d need to pay between EUR 20,000 and 50,000. There are more of his photographs, which are accessible at between EUR 3,000 and 6,000 on average, like the lots sold in Paris (Christie’s) in April 2006. In this price range, Untitled, Selections from the Living Series, a paint on aluminium aphorism by Jenny Holzer edited in 5 examples, went for USD 8,000, or EUR 6,651, at Christie’s NY.