Hyperrealism… past and present



At roughly the same time as the emergence on the American scene of Pop art, with its appropriation of the codes of a ravenously consumerist society, a number of their fellow countrymen started producing painstaking works that explored the tenuous boundary between reality and illusion.

Using photography as their basic reference, the hyperrealists applied themselves to reproducing, using paintbrushes, images that had been effortlessly captured by the camera. In so doing, they succeeded in (re-)producing copies of copies with extraordinary fidelity… the reflection of the shiny bodywork of automobiles… the most intricate details of people’s faces… the startling impact of neon lights… and countless other technically difficult effects. Founded in the late 1960s by the gallery owner Louis K. Meisel under the name Photorealism, the works of this movement supposedly reflected an objective observation of reality without any subjective influence from the artist, and were, in that sense, a kind of antithesis to the Abstract Expressionism that preceded them. Today, however the prices of the latter movement are rising rapidly on the auction market and Abstract Expressionists works are currently worth an average of ten times more than their Realist peers on the secondary market.

But hyperrealism survived… and has in fact evolved over three generations, with each generation taking full advantage of the technical possibilities of their era. From Richard ESTES’ urban landscapes to Cindy SHERMAN’s photo-paintings… the famous trompe l’oeil concept has even been reversed, going from photography to painting in Estes’ work, and from body-paint (excessive make-up) to photography in the case of Cindy Sherman. These inversions all question the relationship between illusion and reality and their attention to detail enhances our vision and understanding of the world.

Different signatures… different prices
The American masters in the first generation of Realist artists include Richard ESTES, Ralph GOINGS, Chuck CLOSE and Robert COTTINGHAM, all of whom achieved international recognition via their participation in the 1972 Documenta 5 in Kassel. Works by all four virtuosos were quickly snapped up by major museums. Forty years later, their works are rare at auctions mainly because the slow and painstaking work involved meant relatively few works were produced. With major works being seldom submitted to auctions, the auction records of these artists are often quite old.

This is notably the case of the movement’s best portrait artist, Chuck Close. With no oil or acrylic by the artist submitted during 2004, the first work to hit the market in 2005 immediately set a new record – which still stands today – of $4.3 million (monumental portrait of a certain John, dated 1971-72, sold by Sotheby’s New York on 10 May 2005). Large formats by Chuck Close fetch well into 7-figures; but there are still some drawings for less than $10,000, like the pixelated portrait of Robert (1982) which fetched the equivalent of $6,405 on 5 November 2011 in Tokyo by Mainichi Auction.

In Close’s work, the facial realism generates a more powerful psychological impact than the urban landscapes of Richard Estes or the still lifes by Ralph Goings, and that impact has carried Close’s best paintings to much higher price levels. Neither Estes nor Goings have ever reached the million-dollar threshold (Estes’ record is $500,000 for 34th St Manhattan on 12 May 2004, and Goings’ record is $580,000 for Still Life with Peppers on 12 May 2010).

The larger and the more detailed the works, the more they fascinate and the higher prices they fetch. The less intricate works by American realists are consequently less expensive and usually fetch between $5,000 and $15,000. For example, the prices of works by Don EDDY (born in 1944) have shrunk significantly in 20 years, while in Europe artists from the same generation are sometimes sold under $5,000, like Bruno SCHMELTZ (born in 1943). In fact, with a much smaller market for such works, the leading European Realists are very substantially cheaper than their American counterparts. Gérard SCHLOSSER, a leading light of the Narrative Figuration movement in France, has seen his price index rise by more than 80% over the decade; but his auction record (for 11:35 [1969]) stands at the equivalent of $133,920 [€100,000] by Versailles Enchères on 11 December 2011) while his American counterparts have changed hands for at least 40 times that amount.

Sculpture more appreciated than painting…
Hyperrealism is not only about painting and is in fact often best expressed in sculpture. More life-like in three dimensions, the works seem to captivate their viewer by taking them by surprise in their own living space. How can one not be destabilized by the presence of such realistic “imitations” that seem to lack only one thing: breath?
The 3D trompe l’oeil is particularly sought after and, in this field, some young artists are fetching better prices than the fathers of the movement. Collectors appear to prefer the youngsters of their epoch to the figureheads in the history of contemporary art: Ron MUECK’s record is three times higher than that of Duane HANSON and Maurizio CATTELAN has done even better with an auction record of $7 million (20 times higher than that of Hanson).

John Louis DE ANDREA and Duane Hanson have never reached the million threshold at public auctions. Stranger still, De Andrea’s top price is just $120,000 (for Sitting woman sold by Sotheby’s on 11 May 2011) even though he is a historical figure known worldwide. His prices are rising… but very timidly compared with the million-dollar leaps of our contemporaries. This huge gap between the pioneers of realism and its ultra-contemporaries is not just about hype; it is also due to the additional level of realism achieved over the last twenty years, and an intensification of the emotional impact of the works. At this game, Maurizio Cattelan and Ron Mueck are the new darlings of contemporary hyperrealism.