Encompassing a diverse range of media — from drawing and painting to collage and beyond — works on paper can offer a glimpse into the artist’s creative process. For many, the freedom and immediacy afforded by working on paper became instrumental to their practices, spawning new techniques, subjects and methods.
Not confined to studies and experiments, works on paper represent important modes of art-making in their own right.
On average, works on paper do tend to cost less than paintings — though of course they cover a wide range of price points. It’s a category that allows you to buy a work by a leading name that might otherwise stretch your budget in another medium, such as Günther Förg, whose painting Ohne Titel (Untitled), realised £422,500 in 2016.
Executed in 1986, Günther Förg’s set of 32 works (above) is an iconic example of his sequential chromatic explorations, and was a precursor the 32-part painting series he developed for the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, the following year. A similar set of works on paper by Förg has now entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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 recent retrospective of David Hockney’s career at Tate Britain, meanwhile — recently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — devoted an entire room to works on paper, displaying the keen, delicate visual immediacy that underpins Hockney’s entire practice.
Many artists placed working on paper at the core of their practices. For Basquiat, an avid draughtsman since childhood, paper was a transportable outlet for his visual imagination. Basquiat considered drawing a key means of expression in its own right and no less significant an art form than painting; his works on paper are notable for their remarkable range, incorporating oilstick, crayon, acrylic, pen, pencil and watercolour.
But if some artists almost exclusively produced works on paper, relishing its texture and luminosity, others adopted it at carefully chosen moments. Though primarily known as a painter and photographer, Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) in fact utilised a wide range of media. His work, at once irreverent, playful and acerbic, was above all a critique of art itself.
Stretching nearly two metres high, Untitled (Comics), (above) is a key example of Polke’s appropriation of readymade imagery. Beginning in the 1960s, he obsessively collected newspaper clippings, cartoons and advertisements; these images fuelled his investigations into the distinctions between high and low culture, figuration and abstraction. The populist comic-book imagery in Untitled (Comics) also alludes to the languages of high art — from Roy Lichtenstein’s brushstrokes to the geometric forms of Modernist abstraction.
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. 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.