Top Ten American Abstract Expressionists



Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week: the Top Ten bids for American Abstract Expressionists

Top Ten American Abstract Expressionists
Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Mark ROTHKO $77 500 000 Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) 05/08/2012 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
2 Mark ROTHKO $67 000 000 « No. 1 (Royal Red And Blue) » 11/13/2012 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)
3 Mark ROTHKO $65 000 000 White Center (1950) 05/15/2007 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)
4 Clyfford STILL $55 000 000 « 1949-A-No . 1 » (1949) 11/09/2011 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)
5 Jackson POLLOCK $52 000 000 Number 19, 1948 (1948) 05/15/2013 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
6 Mark ROTHKO $45 000 000 « No.15 » (1952) 05/13/2008 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
7 Mark ROTHKO $41 000 000 No. 11 (Untitled) (1957) 11/12/2013 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
8 Barnett NEWMAN $39 000 000 Onement VI 05/14/2013 (Sotheby’s, NEW YORK NY)
9 Franz KLINE $36 000 000 Untitled (1957) 11/14/2012 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
10 Jackson POLLOCK $36 000 000 Number 4 (1951) 11/13/2012 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)


Abstract Expressionism officially came into being in 1948, at an exhibition in New York. Since then, it has been considered America’s first great artistic movement. It falls into two main categories: action painting, and colour field painting. The former highlights the importance of the creative process used by certain artists (vital energy), while the latter is expressed in coloured areas conducive to meditation.
Firmly supported by the American government and rich patrons from the late Forties onwards, Abstract Expressionism rapidly became established as one of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century. The first travelling exhibition, entitled « The New American Painting », produced with the aid of the Fairfield Foundation, brought this new style of painting to the fore in 1958 at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and then toured through Europe, eventually reaching the Tate Gallery in Britain. 17 painters were selected, including Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.

With an entry ticket of $36 million and a top price of $77.5 million, prices for Abstract Expressionists bear witness to the continued hegemony of the American market today. The spectacular bids in this Top Ten were all registered in New York, unsurprisingly, and it should be noted that they are particularly recent: the oldest goes back to only 2007, while seven of them were recorded between 2012 and 2013.


Mark Rothko
Mark ROTHKO set the tone in 2007 with a hammer price that caused quite a commotion at the time for the painting White Center, which fetched $65 million at Sotheby’s. At that period, White Center (1950) became the most expensive post-war work in the auction market, with the highest hammer price of 2007. This record has been beaten twice since then: the first time in May 2012 with Orange, Red, Yellow, sold for $77.5 million (8 May 2012, Christie’s New York) – the finest hammer price ever registered in the West for a post-war work – then six months later with No. 1 (Royal Red And Blue), knocked down for $67 million. The sale of only six works by Rothko in 2012 raised some $166.7 million.
The master of meditative colour field painting accounts for half the Top 10, with one very recent result obtained in 2013: $41 million for a 1957 work with orange vibrations (No. 11 (Untitled)). This two metre-high masterpiece stimulated bidding to $6 million more than the high estimate put forward by Christie’s. In the market, the determination of buyers and level of competition are extremely intense where Rothko is concerned. However, the ever-mounting bids for some of his compatriots are sometimes even more remarkable.


Clyfford Still
Like Rothko, Clyfford STILL mainly worked with the dramatic confrontation of large areas of pure colour. He forces the viewer into total visual immersion through the exclusive use of large formats, avoiding any detail, and giving no titles to his works. Before he moved to New York in 1950, where he worked with Pollock and De Kooning, Still spent nearly ten years in San Francisco teaching at the California School of Fine Arts. His influence and charisma as a teacher proved crucial to his career. Still is the American Expressionist least often found in the sale room: only 35 works have gone to auction since the end of the Eighties. At that time, his paintings sold for less than $100,000. Today, you would be unlikely to acquire one for under a million. His record of $55 million has garnered him fourth place in the highest-priced American Abstract Expressionists.


Jackson Pollock
Better known to the general public than Still, Jackson POLLOCK owes his fame to the invention of a new way of painting, and is still celebrated for his impulsive abstract compositions: drip paintings created by applying liquid paint with a stick, or directly with a pot of paint previously pierced with holes.
Pollock’s price index has literally rocketed: in 2013, the painting Number 19, a historic drip painting from 1948, drove bids up to $52 million, smashing by $17 million the high estimate hoped for by Christie’s – which had nonetheless based its estimate on the artist’s previous record (Number 4, 76,5 cm x 63,5 cm, knocked down for $36 million on 8 May 2012). Number 19 posted one of the finest records of 2013.


Barnett Newman and Franz Kline
The new record for Barnett NEWMAN is even more impressive than Pollock’s in terms of high prices. The inventor of the famous « zips » (vertical stripes separating the blocks of colour) reached a peak of $39 million in 2013, smashing his previous record by $19 million!
Judging by the records, the different levels of prices achieved by Newman over the past few years have been truly spectacular, going from $4.6 million in 2008 (Untitled, 1969, 13 May 2008, Christie’s), to $20 million in 2012 (Onement V, 8 May, Christie’s), then to $39 million in 2013. The artist’s record has thus risen by $34.4 million in the space of five years. The last artist in the Top Ten, Franz KLINE, confirms this dramatic price rise: his record at auction rose by $30.3 million during the same period…