In the early to mid-2010s, there was no hotter painter than Christopher Wool.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York filled its entire spiral rotunda with the artist’s canvases in 2013. The exhibition was supported by major collectors, including Tom Hill, Dan Sundheim and Stefan Edlis.
Wool painting Apocalypse now (1988), owned by hedge fund manager David Ganek and included in the show’s previous outing at the Art Institute of Chicago, never reached the Guggenheim. Instead, it went to Christie’s, where it sold for $ 26.5 million, a milestone reached by just a handful of living artists.
At the time, new works by Wool went for as much as $ 650,000 at his longtime gallery Luhring Augustine, which kept tight control over access. Lack of supply triggered a period of intense speculation. In 2015, Wool’s annual auction sales reached $ 115.3 million – an increase of 3,503 percent from a decade earlier. That year, a painting with the word “RIOT” adorned with block letters sold for $ 29.9 million.
That sale is still the artist’s record to date. After reaching its zenith, Wool’s auction market has entered a state of contraction. In 2016, his total sales fell by more than 50 percent, according to Artnet Analytics. Last year, his work generated only $ 17 million at auction (nearly 85 percent down from the top in 2015), with 27 percent of the land not sold. In May, a text painting that spelled “OH OH”, estimated to fetch between $ 8 million and $ 12 million, flopped at Christie’s, which had guaranteed it.
“Nothing goes up forever,” said one retailer, who used to offer secondary market wool at major art fairs. “I do not think one can point to any major catalysing factor. It’s just that the work saturated the market and new buyers do not show up at a rate necessary to sustain rising prices. The usual suspects have finished collecting Wool so far.”
A big test for the artist’s market is just around the corner. Seven works are on their way to the auction block at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips during the November auctions in New York, together estimated at as much as $ 34 million.
They arrive at a time when taste has changed from abstraction to figuration. Collectors, curators, and speculators are more focused on those who have been overlooked, including color artists and female artists.
Wool’s supporters say his influence and reputation remain strong even though his auction prices are deflated. Representatives of the Luhring Augustine Gallery did not answer calls to seek comment.
“It’s very important to separate an artist’s art history contribution from the auction market, which has a life of its own,” said Jeffrey Deitch, an art dealer and former museum director. “He is the definitive abstract painter of his generation.”
Deitch included Wool in a four-artist show, “Strange Abstraction,” in Tokyo in 1991 and in a 2012 show about the history of abstraction at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, during his short tenure as its director. He sees Wool’s major contributions as uniting the innovations of two great American artists: Jackson Pollock’s overall composition, the use of drips, and the tension between control and randomness with Andy Warhol’s pop language and silkscreen technique.
When Deitch saw Wool’s prices rise to tens of thousands of millions, he thought to himself, “This is unsustainable,” he said. “Thirty mio [dollars]”That’s the price of a great Turner or Picasso from a certain period.”
This season, Christie’s has four Wools, most of the three houses and possibly a few too many. Sotheby’s has two, including one from the long-awaited Harry and Linda Macklowe collection; Phillips has one. Six of the seven have irrevocable bids, which means they are confident of selling.
All of Christie’s Wools come from the collection of neurosurgeon Abe Steinberger, who is the anonymous sender of a crowd of 1980s art that also includes trophy works by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince.
As a sign of how much the wool market has recalibrated since the mid-2010s, one of the works, a 1990 canvas that spells “HA-AH”, has an estimate of $ 6.5 million to $ 8.5 million – significantly less than the $ 10.4 million it raised. last time it hit the block at Christie’s London in 2014. (The auction house declined to comment on the seller’s identity, but its ancestry suggests that Steinberger acquired it from the person who bought it in London.)
“This is exactly what everyone wanted at the top,” said Ana Marie Celis, Christie’s senior vice president and leader of the 21st Century Arts Night Outlet. The work is nine feet high and six feet wide, the same size as the record Without title (Riot).
The most expensive wool hitting the block this month, also shipped by Steinberger, is an abstract untitled canvas from 1995, estimated at $ 7 million to $ 10 million. The enamel-on-aluminum work in black and white reveals several layers of images hidden by smeared, dripping white paint.
Phillips, meanwhile, has a small enamel-on-aluminum word painting, Blue fools (1990), is expected to bring in between $ 800,000 and $ 1.2 million. That’s significantly less than the $ 2 million the Richard Gray Gallery offered it for at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2016. It was bought there by collector Kenny Schachter, who wrote about the acquisition in his Artnet News column the following year; he declined to comment when he arrived this week.
The performance of the seven works – two of which are word paintings, the rest abstract compositions – will also show whether buyers continue to award Wool’s word paintings from the 90s above all else, or whether the taste of his work has also changed. Critics praised his abstract works, which he created with a combination of screen printing, spray gun and digital printing, to challenge what a painting can be.
Deitch says there is still demand for wool – albeit at more reasonable price levels. He recently sold a painting to a major customer for $ 6 million, he said. “It’s not crazy speculation,” he remarked. “He has the support of really serious collectors.”
A closer look at a work that is making waves in the market this week
The November sale will also be a test for the market for Adam Pendleton, a conceptual artist whose language-based work is indebted to Wool’s tight black-and-white palette and silkscreen printing technique.
Sotheby’s scored Pendleton’s Untitled (WE ARE NOT), an eight-meter-high silkscreen print on canvas, estimated at $ 100,000 to $ 150,000, for the new “The Now” evening auction on November 18th. 2019-20 the work, sent anonymously, is from the same series as the artist’s current one the exhibition “Who Is Queen?” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Pendleton’s works are collected by Steve Cohen, Laurene Powell Jobs, Venus Williams and Leonardo DiCaprio, but relatively few have come up for auction, and he has not been exposed to the kind of wild speculation that some of his peers have experienced. His $ 262,812 auction record was set two years ago at a Phillips sale, raising money for a nonprofit.
Prices for new paintings start around $ 200,000. Loïc Gouzer sold a Pendleton painting for $ 333,000 on his Fair Warning app last year.
Pace, the gallery representing the artist, is not happy about Sotheby’s cameo.
“We did not sell it to them to get them to sell it again,” said Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery. “People generally want to keep them, and we only sell to people who want to keep them. So if a recent Pendleton comes up for auction, it’s a mistake on our part to have placed it incorrectly. “
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