An expert introduction to the category, illustrated with works by Abts, LeWitt, Francis, Rama and more, offered from 12-20 September in First Open (Online)
Encompassing a diverse range of media — from drawing and painting to collage and beyond — works on paper can offer a glimpse into an artist’s creative process. For many, the freedom and immediacy afforded by working on paper became instrumental to their practices, spawning new techniques and aesthetics, subjects and methods.
Far from being confined to studies and experiments, works on paper represent important modes of art-making in their own right.
American painter Leon Polk Smith, for example, was among the founders of the so-called ‘hard edge’ style of abstraction. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Smith rose to prominence with his shaped canvas series, which featured contrasting painted forms defined by an irregular contour. Although Smith worked mostly with canvas, his works on paper from this period are a window into his experiments with space, shape and colour.
Executed some two decades later, Sam Francis’s lush works on paper, Untitled (top) and Untitled (below), boast a luxurious intensity. The works mark a shift from the aesthetic of his paintings and works on paper from the late 1960s, when compositions are often dominated by large fields of white.
On average, works on paper do tend to cost less than paintings — although of course they cover a wide range of price points.
It’s a category that allows you to buy work by a leading name who might be unaffordable in another medium, such as Sol LeWitt, whose ‘floor structures’ and modular sculptures sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Major museum and gallery exhibitions have underlined the central importance of works on paper to many different artists.
Works on paper were vital to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose drawings and paintings represented a constant, direct outpouring of creativity. Numerous solo exhibitions have been dedicated to these works, and they played a key role in the groundbreaking 2017-18 Barbican show, Basquiat: Boom for Real.
The acclaimed 2017 David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain, meanwhile — which subsequently toured to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — devoted an entire room to works on paper, displaying the keen, delicate visual immediacy underpinning Hockney’s entire practice.
In 2005, German-born artist Tomma Abts’ solo show at the Kunsthalle Basel featured a key work on paper, Untitled (#10) (above). Due in part to that show, Abts was awarded the Turner Prize the following year. Abts is currently the subject of a major solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London.
Perhaps no one better mastered pastel than Edgar Degas, whose use of the medium on paper was fresh and incredibly modern. Pastel opened his technique to a realm of new motifs, allowing him to capture even the most fugitive postures of his female models — something that was nearly impossible to achieve using traditional oil paint.
Not only did the malleability of pastel enable Degas to religiously study the movements of dancers and bathers, as in Après le bain, trois femmes nues (above), it allowed him to experiment with colour to a degree he had not experienced before. In Degas’ mature period, when he defined himself predominantly as a pastellist, he became bolder in his use of different textures, often juxtaposing pastel with gouache, thinned oil or watercolour to increase the intensity and luminosity of his works.
This is a question that has always been central to this market. By its nature, paper is fragile, and up until fairly recently this was a factor that made some collectors nervous — particularly those who lived in countries with high humidity or prone to extreme changes in temperature, which could impact the material in drawings.
Today, significant advances in conservation have removed many concerns collectors might have once had. Most framers now know to use archival material in their work. For collectors, conserving a work can be as simple as making sure that their frame has the right type of glass in it. If a work is not under protective glass, however, it’s a good idea to avoid direct exposure to very strong sunlight, or hanging works above hot radiators, for example.
It’s not unusual to find a drawing without a signature. But this hardly means that it is not authentic. Cézanne, for example, rarely signed his works on paper. But provenance and exhibition history, as well as the artist’s distinctive mark-making, can point to works of undoubted authenticity.
As specialists, we can often identify the hand of the artist — and we will never put a work in one of our catalogues unless we have confirmed its authenticity with the recognised authority, which is always external to Christie’s.