In a recent phone conversation with a major collector in Dallas, I was struck by the following statement: "How can you issue a "Buy, Hold, Sell" recommendation on artists such as Pollock, Kline or Rothko? Or, for that matter, Jasper Johns? These artists no longer have markets in the traditional sense." What I think this collector was trying to say is that paintings by these artists become available so infrequently that you don't really gage whether their work is a good buy -- you already know that it is.
At this point in the art market, it is an established fact that there is virtually no down-side to buying first-rate works by the established masters of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism. Sure, in theory, you can always overpay. But as an art-market analyst, it almost becomes ridiculous for me to issue a "Buy" recommendation for an artist like Jasper Johns.
Switching gears, I recently came across a book that doubles as the catalogue of a handsome group of works called the Pisces Collection. The book's opening essay reveals that the collection was named after the owner's astrological sign -- but the owner himself wishes to remain anonymous. As I flipped through the pages, I saw that the collector had bought some of the following artists in depth: David Salle, Ross Bleckner, Richard Prince, George Condo, Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool and others who emerged from the 1980s. However, once I put the book the down, I shook my head at how bad most of the work looked.
For instance, Salle's work looked confused, Bleckner's looked amateurish and Condo's pictures looked inconsequential. What I am suggesting is that much of the work from the 1980s is not holding up very well. With the exceptions of Sean Scully, Robert Gober, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Philip Taaffe, it doesn't seem as if very much of the work of that era will ultimately matter.
Obviously, Jeff Koons produced some individual works that will survive the test of time: the stainless steel bunny, the large blue stainless steel balloon dog (in the Broad Foundation Collection) and the giant Puppy composed of living flowers. Among the other luminaries of that decade, Julian Schnabel remains a compelling figure, but more for his ambition than his paintings. Even Eric Fischl, who has many fans in the art world, is simply not a great painter -- his figures remain awkward (though not intentionally).
Then you get into the financial valuations of the artists from the 1980s. For instance, a Robert Gober painting on a scrap of fabric recently sold for $207,500 (Sotheby's, May, 2002). Good quality Schnabels average $250,000. Eric Fischls routinely bring in excess of $500,000 at auction. Jeff Koons is a multimillion-dollar artist. A major Basquiat now brings what an important Franz Kline would sell for -- $5 million.
I could go on, but the point is that these prices are crazy when you consider what the same money would buy if these collectors turned their attention to the work that came out of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
As a tremendous Joseph Cornell fan, I'm always astounded that a substantial box can be acquired for $150,000 -- far less than the cost of a new Schnabel. Of all the major American artists of the last century, Cornell remains the most undervalued. You can pick up a small John Chamberlain sculpture for as little as $35,000 -- which would barely buy you a minor Basquiat scrap on paper. Yet, Chamberlain, along with Richard Serra, Martin Puryear and Joel Shapiro, remains one of America's greatest living sculptors. The art market is full of comparisons like these. I am suggesting that, with a few exceptions, collectors should think carefully before buying much of what came out of the 1980s -- at these sky-high prices.
Moving in a new direction, I just leafed through a copy of Art in America's latest Annual Guide to Museums, Galleries and Artists. Among other useful information, the Guide lists upcoming museum exhibitions. Included in this category is a retrospective for James Rosenquist -- probably the most underpriced artist to come out of the Pop era. Rosenquist, who is now 69, was one of the original Leo Castelli Gallery artists. His fractured and disparate imagery accurately captured America's mood during the 1960s. His work is in every significant museum in the world and every art-history book, yet with the exception of the 86-foot long F-111 ($2 million, Sotheby's, Nov. 1986), his paintings have never come close to approaching the magical $1 million figure at auction.
Overall, the artist produced some brilliant works during the 1960s -- including the remarkable F-111 at MoMA -- slumped badly in the 1970s, rebounded in the 1980s, and has since then produced some of the most consistently compelling work of any living American figure. With a retrospective in his future, it seems like an obvious move to consider buying one of his works. The Gagosian Gallery hosted his most recent show with paintings starting at $150,000 and running as high as $450,000.
As for trying to acquire a Rosenquist at auction -- don't count on it. His pictures, especially the prime early works, rarely come up for sale. If you combine the fact that most of his work is outstanding, with the knowledge that he produced relatively few paintings, you have the recipe for an artist destined to appreciate in value.