It may not be very gutsy to designate Jasper Johns as a "buy," but how could one do anything but that? In this writer's opinion, Jasper Johns is America's greatest living artist. Some would argue for Robert Rauschenberg and a few might insist that Brice Marden is our most important painter. However, when it comes to historical achievement, few can debate that Jasper Johns has done more to alter the direction of post-Abstract Expressionist painting than any painter that's still working. Besides, he stills holds the auction record for a living American artist -- $17 million.
There is no need to go into all the superlatives about Johns' wonderful Flags, Alphabets, Numbers, Maps and Targets. Even the lamest book on art history devotes a disproportionate amount of space to Johns' achievement. What's relevant to the Art Market Guide is what has been recently happening to his market and where it's going.
Over the last two years, Jasper Johns' prices have been unusually weak at auction. This is more a function of a lack of major paintings coming onto the market rather than a lack of demand. During the last two seasons, a total of ten Johns paintings and drawings have come up for sale, with only five selling.
The only major picture to appear was Two Flags, a diptych of two American flags placed vertically on their sides. The work was lusciously painted with Johns' trademark encaustic (hot melted wax mixed with oil paint) technique. The fact that it sold for "only" $7.15 million, against an estimate of $7 million-$10 million, reflected optimistic rather than realistic expectations. Had the painting been from the seminal 1950s rather than 1973, it would have easily exceeded $10 million.
The other nine Johns works that appeared were mostly tiny paintings and small drawings. For instance, there was a ca. 6 by 4 inch gray painting, Gray Numbers, that failed to sell for $500,000-$700,000. However, any way you look at it, a painting the size of a postcard is only worth so much money. The other four Johns works that didn't sell during this period failed to do so because of either poor quality or lack of freshness to the market.
The real issue facing a potential Johns buyer is not whether the artist's work are worth buying but whether they are worth "buying at any price." The answer is yes -- if the individual work is good enough. Currently, a quality pre-1980 Johns drawing would probably bring $250,000-$500,000. A quality pre-1970 drawing would bring $500,000-$1,500,000. A first-rate pre-1980 painting would expect to sell at auction for $750,000-$7,500,000.
A painting done before 1970 would be approximately $1 million-$20 million -- or more. When you contrast these prices with those of million-dollar-plus artists -- such as Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Charles Ray and Felix Gonzalez-Torres -- Johns looks like a veritable bargain.
Some might suggest that's because there has been a fair amount of speculation on some of the trendier artists of the 1980s and 1990s. But let's compare Johns prices with those of his contemporaries or near-contemporaries. For instance, Mark Rothko has become one of the most expensive postwar artists. An average Rothko now brings $3 million-$5 million and a great one $5 million-$12 million.
Whether you prefer Rothko to Johns is a matter of taste. But the reality is that there are fewer major Johns paintings that come onto the market than Rothkos. While million-dollar prices for works by Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder have been creeping still higher, John's prices have been stable for the last few years.
Although the Art Market Guide is concerned exclusively with unique works, an exception can be made for Johns' prints. Of all living American artists who make prints, it is generally accepted that none can touch Johns in terms of quality. This is simply because he puts the same rigorous effort into his prints that he does his drawings and paintings.
The majority of first-tier American artists produce prints that look like they're just going through the motions -- in order to feed the marketplace. Larger edition Johns prints sell for $5,000-$20,000. The better prints bring $20,000-$50,000 each. The most significant graphics, which have become scarce, sell for $75,000-$150,000. A collector who loves Jasper Johns but is priced out of his one-of-a-kind works would be wise to explore the print option.