POP ART made in France



Although pop art has so far only reached its full potential in the United States, the movement also has roots in Europe. Now, the market is starting to remember.

Just as the world’s artistic centre of gravity was shifting to the United States, two pop art-like movements were springing up in France

New Realism had its defining moment in 1960, in a manifesto drafted by the critic Pierre Restany and signed at the home of Yves KLEIN. This manifesto proposed an alternative view of reality, involving the re-creation of everyday materials to express their meaning. The works are neither abstract nor figurative—the new realists sought to reform objects in a new perspective: CÉSAR crushed, Fernandez ARMAN smashed, Daniel SPOERRI sealed them under glass, Jean TINGUELY linked them in moving sculptures, Klein applied colour. Sculpture was their key medium.
Figuration Narrative is principally a painting movement. The output of ERRO, Valerio ADAMI, Jacques MONORY and Peter KLASEN marks a return to traditional works on traditional canvas. Their view of society is colder, more reasoned, and, in the case of artists such as Gérard FROMANGER, militant.

French pop art is less pleasing on the eye and uses more complex symbols than American pop art. No mass market product, it appeals to a narrower public, mainly knowledgeable collectors. And the less prolific, less sexy and less media-friendly French pop artists, do not command the same kind of hammer prices as their American counterparts, particularly since the market’s focus shifted from Paris to New York in the 1960s. Strong demand has driven American pop art prices up by 150% over the last ten years, while the price of French pop art has risen only 35% over the same period.

New realists: openings in the United States

Each year, the New Realists sell around twice as many works as the Figuration Narrative painters (but only half as many as the American pop artists). This does not explain the difference in turnover generated by the two movements: EUR8.5 million last year for the new realists versus EUR1.5 million for figuration narrative. The gap reflects the new realists’ greater international appeal. Only 30% of figuration narrative turnover was made abroad in 2002 while only 18% of New Realist turnover was made at home.
New Realist artists such as Yves Klein, Martial RAYSSE, Niki DE SAINT-PHALLE, Jean Tinguely and César sell well in the United States, either because they lived there and built friendships with famous American pop artists, or because they are promoted by major New York galleries. These internationally-renowned artists fetch considerably higher prices than do figuration narrative artists, who are relative unknowns outside their home market. Yves Klein, with his monochromes, is the only one to have topped a million dollars at auction. In November 2000 at Christie’s New York, the hammer came down on his RE1 at USD6.1 million.

Figuration narrative: going for a song?

Figuration Narrative cannot yet boast such records. The highest-ever price paid for a work by one of its artists was just EUR149,400 for a Valério Adami in 1990. Many collectors are delighted to find canvasses of exceptional quality selling in France at very affordable prices (half of them go for less than EUR4,500). But since 1997, the figuration narrative price index has risen much faster than that of the New Realists (+70% versus +31%). Apart from Daniel Spoerri (+67%) and Raymond HAINS (+60%), the New Realists seem to have been out of favour with collectors for almost a year now, and their prices are down by 10%. In contrast, the Figuration Narrative movement seems to be the focus of speculative buying. The best performers have been Fromanger (+377%), Monory (+285%), Adami (+180%), Erro (+172%) and Klasen (+150%). Price rises on this scale suggest new all-time highs are likely, following the records hit at the most recent auction of French pop art, held on 4 February 2002 in Paris by auctioneers Poulain Le Fur, in association with Robin-Fattori: Le prince de Hombourg, a major 1965 work by Gérard Fromanger sold for EUR61,000, Malcolm X by Bernard RANCILLAC went for EUR38,000 and Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Alain JACQUET (1964) fetched EUR35,000.

The sale organised by Artcurial-Briest-Poulain-Le Fur for 30 April 2003, entitled “Pop Art – Les Sixties”, could well consolidate the price rises now being posted by a group of artists too long sidelined by the market.

    Figuration Narrative Artprice Index paintings, base 1997 = 100, currency: EUR   New Realism Artprice Index paintings, base 1997 = 100, currency: EUR   American Pop Art Artprice Index paintings, base 1997 = 100, currency: EUR