Back in 1995, when I published my first Art Market Guide, someone apparently gave James Rosenquist a copy. As a result, I wound up receiving a lengthy letter from him that essentially told me that I was wrong about his market. Despite the fact that I rated him as a "buy," he vehemently disagreed with my assessment of his prices.
The Guide had mentioned that outside of his famous F-111, which brought in excess of $2 million (at Sotheby's Robert Scull sale in November 1986), no other painting of his had sold for more than $1 million at auction. Rosenquist countered by citing a number of paintings of his that had been sold for over $1 million in private transactions -- all large commissioned works sold in Europe.
He was concerned that readers would be misled into believing that F-111 was an anomaly, when in fact he routinely sold work for big money.
While I was flattered that Rosenquist took the time and energy to contact me, I was also amazed that an artist of his stature would even care about what I wrote. Then, in order to try and understand why, I began to think about his actual work. When you look at a Rosenquist, your first impression is often one of confusion. After all, what sense can you make of a painting that juxtaposes some spaghetti with a couple of radial tires? In other words, his imagery is fragmented. It's then left up to the viewer to determine what (if anything) it all means.
Going a step further, if you've ever met Rosenquist or read an interview with him, you discover that his speech pattern and thoughts are also fragmented. Yet, after reading his completely lucid letter about his market and work, I had to conclude that Rosenquist was incredibly savvy -- when it came to strategizing his career as well as when organizing images from everyday life into paintings. Suddenly, his concern about how his market was perceived made a lot more sense.
Rosenquist initially came by his imagery as a billboard painter. In these days of high-tech printing, it's hard to believe that people used to risk their lives to paint billboards by hand. While up on the scaffolding making these large-scale representational images, Rosenquist perfected a certain economy of hand. If you look closely at the surface of a Rosenquist, it often comes as a surprise that the brushwork appears hasty -- a logical development that came from trying to get the job done between 9 am and 5 pm. Regardless, Rosenquist's technique proved to be perfect for the scale and subject matter of his fine-art paintings. Predictably, his work gets better as it gets bigger.
While it's a given that collectors should pursue work from the 1960s, they should be careful to avoid work from the 1970s. During that period, Rosenquist went through a creative bankruptcy brought on by personal circumstances beyond his control. The canvases from that era are simply bad and the works on paper are even worse.
However, Rosenquist rebounded in the 1980s to paint some first-rate pictures. He superimposed snippets of female faces -- whose jagged shapes are derived from palm tree fronds -- on top of tropical flowers. The imagery is layered and complex and more coherent than it sounds. The last one of these paintings to appear at auction brought $160,000 (at Sotheby's London in February 2003).
Unfortunately, as the 1990s wore on, Rosenquist's work became increasingly bizarre. A series from the 1990s depicts close-up portraits of doll heads wrapped in cellophane that seem straight out of the Twilight Zone. Another group of paintings portrays close-ups of handguns -- once again, not exactly what most collectors want to live with.
While it's not the artist's job to create art that's easy to digest, neither can the artist complain when critics and collectors fail to respond. Last May, a pair of "Guns" came up at auction and brought $54,000 each (in Sotheby's day sale, May 2003). A year ago, two "Dolls" appeared on the auction block, bringing $59,750 (Sotheby's day sale, Nov. 2002) and $65,725 (Christie's day sale, May 2002).
The main issue with the Rosenquist market is the lack of major pictures for sale from the prime 1960s. Without exaggerating, there hasn't been an "Evening Sale" Rosenquist at auction since the last century! A modest "day sale" painting of a woman's hand holding a colorful carpet sample, brought $56,400 (at Christie's day sale, May 2001).
With the opening of the Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim, the hunt for classic early Rosenquists will now take on an even greater urgency. Chances are that the next important one to appear on the open market could threaten the record price brought by F-111.
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of the newly released book on the art market, I Bought Andy Warhol (Abrams).