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    Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
Record price for a painting (1960s):
(shown here in "Open Ends" at the Museum of Modern Art)
at Sotheby's
Nov. 1986
Fruit Salad
at Sotheby's New York
May 18, 2000
Gift Wrapped Doll IV
at Christie's New York
Nov. 10, 1999
Females and Flowers
at Sotheby's New York
Apr. 30, 1991
Blue Spark
at Christie's New York
Nov. 7, 1989
Back in the early 1960s, who could have known that James Rosenquist's fractured imagery would predict the channel-surfing mentality of our current times? Rosenquist's hard-to-come-by early paintings incorporated the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. He thought nothing of juxtaposing images of spaghetti and meat sauce with a couple of radial tires. Was there a connection? That was left up to the viewer to decide. The point is that Rosenquist was an original whose paintings accurately reflect the confusion of the 1960s. Their visual sound bites continue to resonate.

Despite the scarcity of early Rosenquists, they still don't bring big prices at auction. With the exception of his tour de force F-111 painting, no Rosenquist has ever brought more than $500,000 at Sotheby's or Christie's. This past season saw the usual dearth of early Rosenquists.

The best painting to appear was the small canvas, Fruit Salad. The painting measures 33 inches by 33 inches and was painted in 1964. Estimated to bring $80,000-$120,000, it sold for $192,750. While this price is indicative of the hunger for Rosenquists from the 1960s, you have to keep the price in some perspective. These days, that hardly buys you a large photograph by Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth.

One of the things that holds Rosenquist's market back is that his new work has become increasingly bizarre. A series from the 1990s depicted close-up portraits of doll heads covered in cellophane that seemed straight out of the Twilight Zone. Another group of paintings portrayed close-ups of handguns -- once again, just what every collector wants 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.

Another negative factor in the Rosenquist market is that the artist currently lacks representation. Rosenquist was originally represented by the legendary Green Gallery, once it closed, he joined the Leo Castelli Gallery. Castelli gave Rosenquist instant credibility and access to the pioneering Pop collectors, including Robert and Ethel Scull, who bought the 86-foot-long F-111 for a rumored $60,000 (a phenomenal price for new work back in 1965).

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, Rosenquist perfected a certain economy of means while learning to paint representational images on a large scale.

If you look closely at the surface of a Rosenquist, it often comes as a surprise that the brushwork often appears surprisingly hasty -- a logical development that came from trying to get the job done between nine and five. As it happened, Rosenquist's technique proved to be perfect for the scale and subject matter in his fine art paintings. Predictably, his work gets better as it gets bigger.

While it's a given that collectors should pursue Rosenquist's work from the 1960s, they should be careful to avoid work from the 1970s. 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 sections of female faces on top of tropical flowers. The imagery is layered and complex and more coherent than it sounds. Expect to pay $50,000-$150,000 at auction for one of these paintings.

For the James Rosenquist market to prosper in the future, the artist needs to find a dealer befitting his historical prestige. At this writing, the odds-on favorite to represent him is the Gagosian Gallery, a partnership that would benefit both parties. Secondly, Rosenquist needs to develop comprehensible imagery. His last body of paintings resembled abstract images that appeared to have been sucked into a vortex -- not exactly the right paintings to convince an increasingly skeptical audience that the work is improving.

Regardless, if Rosenquist finds the right representation or direction, his early work remains formidable and so do his paintings from the 1980s. Both of these bodies of work are worth buying and should do well at auction for years to come.

Recommended reading:
James Rosenquist by Judith Goldman.
James Rosenquist: The Nineties
by Roberto Damiani et al.

RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at