With the triumphant Philip Guston retrospective in full swing, it seems like an opportune time to evaluate his market. When analyzing Guston's work, it's almost as if you're talking about the careers of two separate artists. There is the Abstract Expressionist Guston of the 1950s and the figurative Guston of the 1970s.
Guston, in his original incarnation during the grand days of Abstract Expressionism, was a lesser figure -- not in terms of quality, but in terms of visibility. Though he was a former classmate of Jackson Pollock and knew most of the major players, he was almost overlooked by the art market. Part of the problem was that he produced very few canvases. The other half of the equation is that his work is subtle -- no dramatic sweeping gestures, a la Franz Kline. Gustons from the 1950s can loosely be described as scumbled "pluses and minuses," painted in muddy pinks, browns, blues and reds. His richly worked surfaces display confidence, but offer few clues of what was yet to come.
The last 1950s painting to appear at auction, White Painting II, brought $355,750 (Sotheby's May, 2000). Yet, that result is really not a true indicator of the market for these paintings. Back in 1996, the greatest example to ever appear at auction, Beggar's Joys, brought an impressive $1.7 million (Christie's November, 1996).
In 1968, Guston's work underwent a radical shift that was deemed by his colleagues to be so risky to his career that they considered it suicidal. He went from abstraction to cartoonish figuration that looked as if it was influenced by R. Crumb comics. What's more, his subject matter wasn't exactly living-room material -- paintings of hooded KKK figures, creepy crawling spiders, disembodied appendages and heads with bulging eyeballs. Once again, Guston turned to his unique sense of color, incorporating the same palette used in his works of a decade before, but now being more liberal with his application of greens, reds, blues and oranges. As far as I know, only the retired San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator, Henry Hopkins, initially "got it," as evidenced by being the first museum curator to show the work in 1980.
Today, Guston is considered a master. Along with Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol, he is one of the painters most often sighted by young artists as an influence. What is it about Guston's tortured figures that get under the viewer's skin? Besides the obviously successful combination of distinctive color, deft paint handling and original iconography, Guston's work offers the most elusive of all qualities -- soul. Besides artists, collectors also like Guston. His market has been on an upward trajectory since the late 1980s. Even during the dark days of the early 1990s, Guston more than held his own at auction. Then like now, few paintings showed up on the auction block.
Current prices for large figurative Gustons routinely break a million dollars at auction. The last major picture to appear, a self-portrait titled Painter in Bed, brought $1.8 million (Sotheby's November, 2002). Six months earlier, a smaller but equally high quality painting, The Wall II, sold for $1 million. Just two months ago, a good but not great painting on board, Window, brought $288,000, against an estimate of $125,000-$175,000 (Sotheby's May, 2003). To err on the side of caution, not everything sells. The big painting Maverick Sun, an auction retread, recently failed to make its modest $350,000-$450,000 estimate (Christie's November 2002, Day Sale).
Are there any bargains left in Guston's work? Certainly. But they are not the transitional pictures, from the 1960s, that a number of art dealers claim are a "steal." In my estimation, they still remain just that -- transitional. It would seem to me that the best deal around would be the figurative charcoal or black ink drawings, currently in the $45,000-$150,000 range -- especially those with well-defined imagery, such as clock faces and hooded figures. Even though his figurative paintings on paper are now $125,000-$250,000, they are still a fair deal. Especially when you compare them to the prices of works on paper by the far more prolific Cy Twombly. However, ultimately, if you have the money, acquiring a full-blown Guston figurative canvas is one of the surest bets on the horizon.