DaVinci, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, even Warhol – these are the names we associate with famous paintings. Paintings that hang on museum walls or in private collections of the rich; paintings that are worth millions of dollars.
Newman, Rothco, Wool, Kelly, and Twombly – these are not names we associate with famous paintings, unless we are quite familiar with abstract expressionism. Yet their paintings have sold for millions of dollars as well.
It is sometimes difficult to understand why a particular work from a particular artist becomes so very valuable – perhaps we are missing some far deeper meaning that others see; perhaps a highly respected art critic has judged it to be “great.” Whatever the reason, they are displayed in galleries and even marketed online, to plenty of willing buyers. You can be an art critic right now, for here are five paintings of the abstract expressionist period, created by the artists mentioned above, and the prices for which they last sold.
Barnett Newman - "Anna's Light" - $105.7 Million
Newman was the child of Polish immigrants and grew up in New York City. He studied art but worked in his father’s furniture business until it was lost during the Depression. He married a school teacher and became more serious about his art, destroying all of his early work and embarking on a style that would best be described as Minimalist and part of a group of artists known as Color Field Painters. According to Newman himself, “…old standards of beauty were irrelevant: the sublime was all that was appropriate – an experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor.”
Newman’s work was first received with silence. Over time, however, it gained favor and with that favor increased in value. According to art critic Thomas Hess, having seen his exhibition in 1959, “…he changed in about a year’s time from an outcast or a crank into the father figure of two generations.”
Newman’s trademark is the “zip” – a vertical line extending from top to bottom against a solid colored canvas. Today, his paintings all sell for millions, but “Anna’s Light” has brought the highest price. You be the critic.
Cy Twombly - Untitled - $69.6 Million
Drips and scribbles – that is how most art critics saw the work of Twombly, who began to show his paintings in the 1950’s. While he was certainly a part of the post-war abstract expressionist art world, his work was not hailed as significant. In fact, many of his pieces remained untitled as they were shown in galleries throughout New York. In speaking of his own work, Twombly said, “My line is childlike but not childish…It is very difficult to fake…to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt.” Twombly moved to Italy after critics continued to write him off.
By the 1980’s, however, his work was receiving renewed interest in New York, as neo-Expressionism was on the rise. This untitled piece was last sold for $69.6 million.
Mark Rothco - Orange, Red, Yellow - $86.9 Million
Born in Russia at a time when feeling toward Zionist Jews were not favorable, Rothco emigrated with his family and settled in Oregon, where his father promptly died. The family was forced to make a living however possible, and Rothco was forced to learn English, work, and attend high school, from which he actually graduated early. His early interest was in music, and he was awarded a scholarship to Yale. He never got his degree, leaving Yale because it was too “conservative.” He settled in New York City and studied painting for three years.
At first focusing on expressionistic urban scenes, Rothko eventually found his voice in surrealism and within that group of Color Field painters, such as Twombly. His art career was sporadic, as he often took time off to read and study Nietzsche. He was fiercely loyal to his principles and often refused to sell his art to those the felt “unworthy.”
Depression took its toll, and Rothco committed suicide. After his death, his works achieved much greater fame, perhaps in part due to a long and highly publicized court battle between his executors and children.
Christopher Wool - RIOT - $29.9 Million
Born in 1955 in Chicago, Wool continues to paint today, although he is also known for photography and other art forms. His paintings are considered of the abstract movement, and many of his best known are large stenciled letters on a white background.
After a short period of study at the New York Studio School, Wool abandoned art and worked in underground film and music. He emerged from that “world” and the rest is, as they say, history. Today, he lives and work in New York City, but has a home in Texas as well.
Elsworth Kelly - Cowboy - $1.7. Million
Kelly grew up in New Jersey, where, as a child he spent a lot of time alone, studying nature. His parents were supportive of his desire to paint and sculpt but insisted that the also get technical training. This he did at the Pratt Institute of Technical Design in the early 2940’s. In 1943 he joined the Army and was part of a group of artistic souls who were responsible for deceiving the enemy with inflatable tanks.
In the post-war art world, he became an influential force, dabbling in Minimalism, Hard-Edge Painting, Color field, and Pop Art. He died last year, fully recognized for his contributions in both painting and sculpture.
For those of us who are not well-versed in the art world, these paintings seem absurdly simple to be valued in the millions of dollars. And yet, some are obviously more than willing to pay this price for an original by these artists. Is it the quality of the art or the thrill of ownership that motivates them?