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Expressionism au féminin

[16/07/2019]

Less famous than Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, women artists like Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler made major contributions to American Abstract Expressionism. Their work is currently enjoying a significant revaluation on the art market.

Who are the most sought-after (and the most expensive) American artists on the market? Names like Warhol and Basquiat immediately come to mind… and then, not far behind, the Abstract Expressionists, whose large-scale works imposed their authority and power after World War II thanks, in part, to support from institutions and the US government (notably, the CIA which at the end of the 1940s partly financed exhibitions in Western Germany and Italy in the context of America’s cold war cultural policy, the objective being to advertise the ‘freedom’ of the American avant-garde compared with Stalinist dogma). And so it was that in the middle of the 20th century, New York became the centre of the Western art world… But this triumph of American art was essentially a male affair. The female artists of the movement have only recently come to the fore.

Men… and their wives

In the first generation of artists whose works have been fetching tens of millions of dollars for at least twenty years, there are artists like Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, Rothko, etc. Their creative energy became the first major “movement” in American art history (although critic David Anfam prefers the term “phenomenon” to “movement”), the influence of which appears to have continued growing throughout the second half of the 20th century and up to today.

The first emblematic artists of American Abstract Expressionism shared a predilection for large canvases, for colour as matter, for emotional intensity, for “chance” guided by the subconscious and for an abstract aesthetic. Encouraged by art critics, politicians, institutions and by the fortunes of their time (in 1948, the American Pavilion of the Venice Biennale was supported by the Rockefeller family), the prices of their works began a long and steep ascension. Pollock has been the subject of so much adulation he has become a legend of American art. On the other hand, his wife Lee KRASNER – also an Abstract Expressionist artist – has only enjoyed a fraction of the attention. When Pollock’s works were worth over a million dollars in the late 1980s, Krasner’s works hardly reached $60,000.

Likewise with the de Kooning couple: two paintings by Willem have crossed the $50 million threshold at auctions in the last three years. His wife Elaine – also a grand figure of Abstract Expressionism and an art critic for ARTnews – has never reached $100,000. And likewise again with Helen FRANKENTHALER, Robert Motherwell’s wife from 1958 to 1971 and, above all, a major figure of the very first colorfield paintings. In 2000, Frankenthaler’s auction record stood at $220,000, whereas Mr. Motherwell crossed the million-dollar threshold in the eighties. Things have changed quite a lot since then… Frankenthaler’s price index is up a massive 1,112% since the year 2000!

The current revaluation of female artists is the result of socio-politico-cultural initiatives over recent years, driven by the major prescriptive institutions and by Western art historians. The objectives of these initiatives is to credit women artists with their deserved places in history, to shed light on their contributions and to reappraise their works. The initiatives are beginning to bear fruit. Lee Krasner has just crossed the symbolic threshold of $10 million for the first time (The Eye Is the First Circle, $11.6 million at Sotheby’s on 16 May 2019)… and the way things are going, the trend looks set to continue.

The rehabilitation of female artists

Prices are also rising for the other female Abstract Expressionists: Grace HARTIGAN set a new record in May 2018 for a historic 1950s canvas that reached $435,000 at Sotheby’s New York; Jay DEFEO reached $280,000 in 2016 just after a show focused on female Abstract Expressionists at the Denver Art Museum; Helen Frankenthaler doubled Sotheby’s high estimate on 17 May 2018 when her Blue Reach fetched $3 million. And last but not least, Joan MITCHELL‘s prices are on a very steep ascension. One of her paintings (Blueberry) added almost $10 million to its high estimate at Christie’s in May 2018 (fetching $16.6 million versus an estimated $5 – 7 million). For almost a year now, the most sought-after female Abstract Expressionist has been supported by David Zwirner, one of the world’s most powerful art dealers. He has just organised a retrospective of Joan Mitchell’s work in his New York gallery (May-June 2019). Demand is still growing for this major artist, whose price index has already increased 1,645% since 2000. And the newsflow is highly favourable with the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and the Museum of Modern Art of San Francisco (SFMOMA) announcing a joint retrospective of her work in 2020, a show scheduled to migrate to the Guggenheim Museum in New York the following year.

The works created by these female artists clearly represent an interesting investment opportunity. Side-lined in the narrative of America’s first international art movement, they are still much more affordable than those created by their husbands or their friends. However, in view of the pace of their price inflation, the window of opportunity might not last long. Many have been ‘rehabilitated’ by several exhibitions aiming to rectify historical biases, including “Women of Abstract Expressionism” that was shown at the Denver Art Museum, the Mint Museum, and the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2016-2017, and the markets of Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning (among others) have already tightened significantly. With critical attention focused on their work, the auction world is much more interested as well.

It is worth noting that the market’s hitherto lack of interest in these works was not due to a lack of exposure; throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the female Abstract Expressionists were shown alongside their male counterparts. However, the market simply refused to acknowledge them. Their art was neither feminist nor ‘feminine’ but, as Helen Frankenthaler put it, at the time, “art was an extremely macho business”. Times have changed… and today, 70 years after the Abstract Expressionism ‘phenomenon’, the market has opened its eyes to a patent historical reality.

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