Have you ever seen an abstract painting in a gallery and wondered just what all the fuss was about?
Sure, there’s such a thing as minimalism, but the prices of these so-called masterpieces can be downright crazy. Whether you’re a pro painter or a novice, you’ll want to hear about 10 abstract paintings that sold for fortunes. They are so simple, you could make them yourself.
10. Cy Twombly: Untitled (1968)
This work of abstract art might look like a child’s crayon drawing on a blackboard, but this is actually one of the most popular paintings of artist Cy Twombly. What’s more, it sold at auction in Sotheby’s in 2015 for a record-breaking $70.5 million! Yes, you heard that right – 70.5 million dollars.
To attempt to understand this horrifically high price, let’s take a closer look at the man himself. In his early career he was a cryptologist. Critics used that background of his to defend the supposed simplicity of his paintings, such as Untitled.
According to Kirk Varnedoe, the random doodling is actually “the orchestration of a previously uncodified set of personal “rules” about where to act and where not” to the extent that Twombly “illuminates a complex sense of human experience” which is unseen in previous art. Sotheby’s, it would seem, agree with him: Untitled is described on their website as the “most mature from this ground-breaking series for its complexity and its monumental scale”… a quote in which the word ‘complexity’ stands out resoundingly. Still doesn’t fully account for all those zeroes on the price tag in my opinion…
9. Mark Rothko: Orange, Red, Yellow
In 2012, Mark Rothko’s painting ‘Orange, Red, Yellow‘ set a new record for the highest price ever received for contemporary art at auction. It sold for a staggering $86.9 million at Christie’s in New York. Where Orange, Red, Yellow is concerned, you might well think that some price inflation has occurred here too.
However, according to art critics, it may be the simplicity of the colour palette chosen by Rothko that has attracted buyers, since “collectors historically pay more for works that are red and gold, as opposed to gray.” In fact, a New York Times article of 2012 called Orange, Red, Yellow “the most powerful” of all of Rothko’s works. Whilst his portfolio isn’t that diverse, I’ll let you decide for yourselves… Since then, his other pieces have attracted buyers with similarly deep pockets, including Untitled which sold for $66 million in 2014 and No.6 (Violet, Green and Red) for $186 million.
And if you think the last of those paintings sounds like an incredible sum, you’d be right: the dealer who sold the artwork to its eventual buyer was investigated for misleading his customer about its true price.
8. Barnett Newman: White Fire I
Another painting to grace the halls of Christie’s is White Fire by Barnett Newman, which sold for $3.8 million in 2002. It’s part of a series of artworks which contain straight lines of different colours, including his painting Black Fire, which sold for $86 million in 2014.
Newman is credited as “probably the most influential artist in abstract expressionism”. Looking at White Fire, there doesn’t seem to be much going on. However, if you choose to believe the art critics, there’s much more to this painting than meets the eye.
Newman’s paintings are existential, with the intention of communicating a sense of locality and presence. They call the lines in his paintings as “zips”, which simultaneously unite and divide the composition. Newman himself is quoted as saying that “the painting should give man a sense of place” and in this way he hoped that the public would be able to relate to him through his work. Whether that works with so little content is debatable, but it’s interesting to note that people mostly overlooked Newman as an artist until the end of his life.
7. Lucio Fontana: Concetto spaziale, Attesa
This painting by Lucio Fontana sold for an impressive $1.7 million at an auction in Munich in 2015. It forms part of the “spaziale” collection which, according to the auction website, are “the artist’s most sought-after works” on the international market. Take a look at this painting. If you thought someone had slashed a canvas with a razor blade, then you’d be right.
But according to critics, the bold application of slashes “explores the mysterious depth of the seemingly infinite space, making it meditative”. In Fontana’s own words, even, his methods were not intended “as a means of destruction of the image” but instead as “a means to explore what lies beyond it”. In fact, one exhibition space in which Fontana’s works were recently featured described his razor slashes as a “brief moment of creation” which created “the cosmos in microcosm” and was immortal and irrevocable. This is very impressive when you consider that most of us, artist or not, could easily buy a canvas and deface it with a blade. The real question is, would we be able to sell it for over $1 million…?
6. Ellsworth Kelly: Green and White
It may not look like much – yes, literally just a large uneven green circle on a blank canvas – but this abstract painting by Ellsworth Kelly sold for a cool $1.6 million at Christie’s in 2008. And this is from an artist whose works, while revered, are known to generate rather subdued activity at auction houses. This was because Kelly himself took a keen interest in the buyers of his art. He favoured loyal collectors who truly understood his work.
In his own words, Kelly “worked to free shape from its ground and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it”. He believed it symbolised freedom. Simple objects which he observed in everyday life, and also his work during the war in the special camouflage unit, influenced him in this painting. This is used as a defence to the supposed simplicity of his work, since he became adept at scrambling both visuals and ideas. So maybe there’s hidden genius inside those simple shapes? I personally doubt it, and side more with the argument that this work, like others in this post, is part of some money laundering scheme.
Using art as a money laundering vehicle is nothing new, and it would be easy to hide illicit gains by buying these pieces with dirty money and then cleaning it by getting a loan from the bank against it or just selling off vast collections with auction houses. It’s almost impossible to substantiate. But why else would you pay millions for a poorly drawn green circle?
5. Gerhard Richter: Blood RedMirror
Who knew that a plain block of colour would generate so much interest and money? Certainly not me, or I would have tried selling one years ago! But perhaps it’s because I’m not German artist Gerhard Richter, who sold this abstract painting for $1.1 million at Sotheby’s in 2009. This seems like a huge sum for not much content, but is there something I’m missing? Well, for one thing he painted the art onto glass, rather than canvas, because Richter is a photo painter.
Through the years, Richter has experimented with different mediums with the intention of creating a “non-art” appearance, including painting over photographs and using coloured mirrors. Richter’s aim was to explore the interplay between realism and abstraction, as seen with the glass in Blood Red Mirror. The mirror is a tool for seeing things as they really are. But it intends to show that the truth is not always as certain or objective as we may believe. Not convinced? Well, while the New York Times article at the time of the sale says the piece sold for “a good price”, there is at least some mention of it not being “an easy work to sell”.
4. Barnett Newman: Onement VI
This is another entry from artist Barnett Newman. His piece Onement VI sold for $43.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2013, with the painting being described in The New York Post as “a field of blue paint crossed by a ragged white line”. That ultra-creative explanation aside, Newman’s work does tend to generate huge sums of money from auction bidders.
But there may be a good explanation for that, according to Jonathan Jones, who wrote in 2013 that “Newman is a great artist” and that work such as Onement is “a bargain at any price”. And why does Jones think this? Well, that’s where things get a little more complicated. The vertical white line is a recurring motif in Newman’s work, and according to Jones, this symbolises a “crack in space and time”, which both “speaks of creation” and “draws you in at a psychic level”. Basically, it expresses the human yearning to find meaning in our world. Personally, I think I’m still trying to find meaning in the artwork…
3. Kasimir Malevich: Suprematist Composition
In 2008, this piece by Russian artist Kasimir Malevich sold for $60 million at Sotheby’s – and this was during a recession! Apparently abstract art is just as popular now as it was when Malevich painted it in 1916. And people still have more than enough money at their disposal to drop millions on a relatively unremarkable abstract painting. That’s because in 2018, the painting sold again for a staggering $85.8 million, making it the most expensive work in the history of Russian art.
People know Malevich as a pioneer of geometric abstraction. This painting intends to display a constellation of geometry and colour in space. In fact, it has been called the “visual manifesto” of the entire Russian avant-garde movement. According to critics, the abstract painting shows “shapes stripped of their symbolism”. Also it allows us to think in a broader sense about the composition, since there “is no hierarchy of importance between the aesthetic elements”. In this way, Malevich was creating new art for a new world. Or, this could have been an expensive receipt for some type of shady transaction. I’ll let you decide.
2. Jackson Pollock: No.5
Even if you’re not a professional, Jackson Pollock artwork is easy to replicate, right? In fact, MoMA even has an informational video which teaches you just that! Unfortunately for us laypeople, without the name Jackson Pollock it is unlikely to sell for $140 million – which is the price that No.5 sold for in 2006. This shows just how much of a phenomenon Pollock and his abstract painting style has become, since initial responses to the piece included onlookers questioning why anyone would pay to own it.
It was at this time that Pollock had begun to lay his fibreboard on the floor and drip paint on it from above, a method which he believed better allowed him to “incorporate himself” into the painting and to “express his feelings rather than illustrate them”. So while it would be accurate to look at No.5 as an artist’s cathartic passion project, it is precisely because of the “strong emotion” behind Pollock’s work that art critics claim neither a toddler nor a house painter could fully emulate him. However, it is widely agreed that most people still view the painting as a mess akin to a dense bird’s nest…
via Maxpixel (copyright-free)
1. Robert Ryman: Bridge
When a collection of Robert Ryman’s work was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1993, he protested that Bridge was “not a blank canvas”. In fact, he said, “it’s got a lot in it” since its painted in white. Buyers clearly agreed, since the painting sold for a massive $20 million at Christie’s in 2015. Interesting, then, that the piece looks eerily similar to White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg; a three-panel painting known as a triptych. A lot of white abstract paintings are available actually. They are made by artists who formed part of the Minimalist movement; they were working to counteract the expressionism of painters such as Pollock.
Besides, according to curator Elizabeth Sherman “white isn’t a pure thing…it is always tinted in some way”. So there’s actually a lot more depth to abstract paintings such as Bridge, than meets the eye. And if you agree with MoMA curator Leah Dickerman, they are “radical statements” in which the canvas acts as a screen which can absorb the“ambient effects of a room”. This sounds great, but wouldn’t it be even more radical to paint something besides plain white? Or, you know, not price it at $20 million…
So, what did you think of the price tags for these “works of art”? Do you think their price is justified, or perhaps you may think it’s all part of some money laundering scheme.
Let me know in the comments section down below. Thanks for reading!