Collecting guide: 2021’s hot artists at cool prices
Some of today's most sought-after artists are featured in Christie’s First Open sale, with fully realised works at enticing estimates
The latest First Open auctions present both established names and the best cutting-edge or emerging artists, carefully curated to appeal to first-time buyers as well as established collectors.
Here, specialist Michael Baptist selects standout pieces from the New York sale this month (9-22 July), which features works by household names such as Andy Warhol and David Hockney, contemporary favourites such as Mickalene Thomas and George Condo, and resurgent figures including Grace Hartigan and Robert Colescott.
These pieces demonstrate the major themes that are interesting collectors right now: figuration and celebratory colour, the personal and vernacular, and the energy of historically marginalised voices.
Pop, neo-Expressionism and graffiti converge in work by the Brooklyn-based artist Eddie Martinez, who was called ‘one of the most sought-after painters on the planet’ in the Huffington Post in 2014.
Appetite for his paintings and drawings has only increased since, with his auction record set at HK$15.7 million in 2019, for High Flying Bird, 2014 at Christie’s Hong Kong.
Untitled, 2018 is typical in both its informal energy and the loose, cartoonish object at its centre, among the motifs the artist returns to again and again in his work.
In the way Martinez combines abstraction and representation, Baptist sees elements of Willem de Kooning in his colourful pieces.
‘This is a petite example,’ he says, ‘but it’s very fully painted. This is the perfect example of a piece at a limited budget by an artist whose prices are really climbing right now, yet it’s not just something ephemeral.’
Shinique: Now I Know, 2011
Mickalene Thomas is certainly an established contemporary artist, and she is due to stage an ambitious four-site, cross-continental exhibition this autumn. Nevertheless, over the past year there has been increased commercial attention on her work, which is characterised by powerful views of the Black female form.
Thomas’s top five prices at auction were all achieved in the past seven months. This includes her world record in May, when Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit, 2016 sold for $1.83 million.
‘This is a really beautiful study for a large-scale work,’ says Baptist. ‘Her painting technique uses a ton of different media, and likewise, this collage incorporates print, paper, photographs and acrylic paint, so it has the physical diversity of her larger-scale works but it’s affordable.’
Combining a dreamlike colour palette with elements of surrealism, 17th-century still lifes and optical techniques from the Renaissance, the swiss-born artist Nicolas Party is enjoying a definite moment.
His first large-scale solo museum exhibition in Europe opened this month at the MASI Lugano, while his highest auction prices have all been achieved since 2019.
‘He’s one of the most desirable contemporary artists at the moment,’ says Baptist. ‘People really appreciate his technique: he’s a skilled draftsman and uses interesting media like pastel; and that translates to this small work on paper. It has that virtuosic quality.’
‘From September 1993, I painted and drew my dogs,’ said David Hockney, quoted in his 1998 book Dog Days, which gathered pictures of his dachshunds, Boodgie and Stanley. ‘This took a certain amount of planning, since dogs are generally not interested in art…’
Despite this lack of interest, the artist found his canine companions to be an enduring inspiration, and he produced more than 40 paintings of them. However, ‘they rarely come up for auction,’ says Baptist.
Hockney currently holds the record for the most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction — Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972 sold at Christie’s New York in November 2018 for $90,312,496.
This work is ‘cute and intimate’, says Baptist, and depicts the artist’s own dog. The owner will have ‘a little bit of Hockney’.
Alongside a growing interest in street art among collectors, says Baptist, ‘there’s also a premium for works from the 1980s — and this is a really great 1980s painting.’
Showing the artist’s pop-inspired aesthetic, Snake was executed on fine Brazilian sailcloth, dyed to create colour effects.
A contemporary of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Scharf is still making work today and ‘people are looking at it anew,’ Baptist says. ‘It’s fun and technically impressive’.
Many of his highest auction prices have come in the past two years. In March 2020, his 1982 canvas, LOVE, featuring anthropomorphic snails with Flintstones character heads, achieved a record $525,000 against an estimate of $30,000-50,000.
Untitled (Sculpted Painting), 1987
‘George’s story and Kenny’s story are similar,’ says Baptist. ‘They came of age in New York in the 1980s, and it almost took collectors a long time to realise how pioneering they are.’
Condo is now a definitive art market favourite. In July 2020, his painting Force Field achieved a record HK$53,150,000 during the Hong Kong leg of Christie’s global sale ONE, more than doubling its estimate.
‘This is a really great opportunity for clients to get a small canvas by one of the most in-demand artists right now,’ says Baptist.
‘Whereas now in his paintings, he’s creating compositions by collaging images, here we actually see him using collage on canvas. It’s not a study; it’s a full-blown work. And you get the best of both his drawing and painting in one.’
Beatle Boots (Negative), 1985–86
Little introduction is needed for an artist whose top 10 auction results all supersede $50 million.
Warhol executed Beatle Boots as part of the Black and White Ad series, culled from 1950s popular media including newspaper adverts and illustrations — frequent sources for his works of the 1960s.
Certain works in this later series — which also features paratrooper and work boots — demonstrate his abiding interest in footwear, and recall the images of shoes he produced as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s.
Baptist compares these works to the seminal Soup Cans of the 1960s. ‘You pick your flavour, or in this case which example from the series you identify with, and in that way engage with the paintings,’ he says.
‘It is essentially a commercial act; it’s how we engage with objects through what we buy, which is one of the geniuses of Andy. I’m a Beatles fan, so I would obviously pick the Beatle Boot.’
Temptation of St. Anthony II, 1984
‘Colescott seduces us with paint, sandbags us with unpleasant truths, and makes us think,’ writes Karen Wilkin in the Wall Street Journal, picking the touring retrospective Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott for the paper’s Best Art of 2019.
With his satirical visions of race and power in America, Colescott’s work is seeing a re-evaluation ‘more than anyone else we’ve talked about’, says Baptist.
His career spans the 1950s to the 2000s, during which time he studied under the French Modernist Fernand Léger, and worked in Egypt before joining a countercultural West Coast milieu.
In May 2021, Colescott’s work broke the $1 million barrier when George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975 sold for $15,315,900. It recast Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting with black figures, many of them racial stereotypes.
Similarly, in this large-scale watercolour on paper, ‘he’s taking an old Christian story and appropriating it; renewing it with African-American figures — I think that’s he’s at his best when he’s doing that,’ says Baptist.
One of the oldest works in the sale tells an of-the-moment story. Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan has received increased attention since the release of Mary Gabriel’s book Ninth Street Women in 2018, which reappraises the careers of Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and other female New York abstract painters.
Among the most celebrated female artists of the 1950s, Hartigan was profiled in major magazines such as Life, Newsweek and Time, and she held a string of successful shows at New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
‘Although she was one of the first [of that group] to be recognised historically, she’s been one of the least appreciated [since],’ says Baptist.
Appreciation for her work is growing, though. In May 2021, Hartigan’s The Phoenix, 1962 sold for $687,500 — a new world record for the artist. ‘Now we’re seeing her work on exhibit and in museums more often,’ says Baptist, ‘and likewise, the prices have been climbing.’