The New York School



The European artists who sought refuge in New York during the Second World War helped stoke up a simmering US art scene. A resurgence in US painting was in the making. A resurgence that would be abstract and manifest in two key movements: Action painting, consisting of gestural painting that emphasised the physical act of painting, and Color Field painting, characterised by large, flat areas of vibrant colour conducive to meditation.

In 2007, Mark ROTHKO’s vibrant colours set some of the most prestigious auctions of US art alight, with a 1950 canvas fetching the top price of the year. Coming under the hammer at USD 65 million, White Center broke the record selling price for any post-war painting in public auction (Sotheby´s). Unimaginable just two years earlier, when Rothko’s Homage to Matisse broke the USD 20 million barrier in a 2005 public auction at Christie´s NY, this record crowned the explosion in demand for his Color field paintings. The price of certain canvases doubled in just ten years: first sold at auction in 1998 for USD 1.6 million, in November 2007 No.7 (Dark Over Light) came under the hammer at USD 18.75 million at Christie’s NY. The Sotheby’s New York auction of May 2008 confirmed the artist’s leading position when the sunny colours of his untitled work No. 15 went under the hammer at USD 45 million.

When not able to acquire one of Rothko’s mythical canvases, wealthy collectors are now turning their attention to other protagonists of the Color Field movement, including Barnett NEWMAN, Ad REINHARDT and Adolph GOTTLIEB. The surge in the price of Rothko’s work was followed by the first million-dollar sale of a Gottlieb, achieved on 22 May 2007, just a week after the record breaking sale of White Center, when Blast III sold for USD 1.2 million at William Doyle. Prices have remained on an upward path in 2008. On 13 May, having been offered at a record price of USD 2-3 million, Gottlieb’s large canvas Cool Blast surpassed even the most optimistic expectations, coming under the hammer at Christie’s NY for USD 5.8 million.
Certain collectors have seized on this acquisition fever as an opportunity to resell works acquired only a few months earlier……Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract painting, blue, for example, was auctioned at Christie’s in May 2007 for USD 1.7 million but fetched USD 400,000 more when resold at the same auction house a year later.

Another factor in these price increases – the scarcity of canvases by Arshile GORKY, Barnett NEWMAN and Clyfford STILL, inter alia – has sparked some real battles at auction. Only 12 signed works by Clyfford Still have been brought to market in ten years! As a result, when a top-class work appears on the market, a high price is guaranteed. After a one year wait, in May 2008 art dealers and collectors had the opportunity to bid for Still’s 1946 (PH-182) at Christie’s: bidding reached USD 12.5 million! Rarer still are works by Barnett Newman – and museum-quality works of his even rarer. His last top-class canvas to go to auction was White Fire I, a Color Field painting punctuated by “zips” that fetched USD 3.3 million at Sotheby’s five years ago.

The other movement of the New York School, Action painting, is encapsulated in the “drip” technique of Jackson POLLOCK. The US art critic Harold Rosenberg used to say that Pollock used his canvas as an arena within which he entered into physical combat as he controlled the flows of paint (which was dripped or poured). His best price at public auction was fetched by drip painting Number 12 (1949), sold at Christie´s NY for USD 10.4 million on 11 May 2004. It was, however, a private sale that really put the artist in the headlines: in 2007, Number 5 (1948) changed hands for USD 140 million! Jackson Pollock produced hundreds of drawings with prices varying on a scale of 1 to 10 according to the technique used: an ink drip painting will fetch between USD 200,000 and USD 300,000, whereas a drawing without “spills” sells for between USD 20,000 and USD 40,000.
Of the other “gestural” painters, Willem DE KOONING is the only one to have fetched eight figure prices, mainly for works from the 1970s and 1980s, i.e. post New York School. None of Franz KLINE’s canvases have reached such heights. His best works, forged from gigantic brush strokes, change hands for between USD 1.5 million and USD 2.5 million. Interested in the Kline signature even if not representative of the movement? A small figurative oil painting will set you back around USD 5,000 only (Woman with Cat, sold at William Doyle in November 2007). William BAZIOTES’ works, meanwhile, can be acquired for between USD 50,000 and USD 100,000.

At less than EUR 10,000, the big names in American abstraction, including Pollock, Rothko, Reinhardt and Still, are also affordable: 16% of works by these artists (drawings, prints, etc.) sold between 1998 and June 2008 changed hands at less than this price.