Art is hardly a profession that promises a hefty monthly paycheck and a safe retirement in 2016. Instead, it is volatile, dependent on luck as much as on talent, marketing and endless promotion in news and videos as much as hard work. Many give it a try, many quit, some stick around and make a decent living out of it – and then there is the select few that hit it big and manage to stay on top. For those, having a work selling and auctioned off for a billion or two is not altogether impossible, just like in music or sports. Working with prestigious teams, institutions, and celebrities, they can achieve a status of true modern-day richest masters. And while commercial success may not always be a sign of true quality nor promise appreciation of one’s genius by the generations to come, it is inevitably one of the criteria we search for and use to judge top-notch artists and gain insight into what sort of art, in a way, represents our times. Listing top-grossing richest creative minds of our day and age can (and does) give as a nice cross-section and contact of the trends, the ideals, and the issues humanity is facing as a whole.
Featured images in slider: Cindy Sherman – Untitled #96, 1981 – image via artblart.com; Damien Hirst – For the Love of God, 2007 – image via bhmpics.com; Jeff Koons – Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP Cover – image via pinterest.com; Andreas Gursky – Rhein II, 1999 – image via tate.org.uk
Damien Hirst - Anti-Christ of Contemporary Art
Touted the “enfant terrible of the art world”, the controversial master of installation, conceptual art and painting Damien Hirst easily tops the news list with an estimated net worth estimated between $350 million and $1 billion. The richest among artists famously sold a platinum skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds for £50 million, while several of his other works (such as the Black Sheep with Golden Horns) easily raking in seven-figure numbers at auctions. The most famous of the Young British Artists (YBA), he was a protege of the collector Charles Saatchi in the 1990’s but has since then built his own empire. In possession of an extraordinary portfolio of mansions, manor houses and farmland, Hirst is as much an artist as a savvy businessman.
Featured image: Damien Hirst – Eternity, 2007 – image via cloudfront.net
Jeff Koons - Richest Living Sculptor
Selling one of his Balloon Dogs for $58.4 million in 2013, Jeff Koons broke the record for the most expensive sculpture by a living richest sculptor ever sold. With the help of around a hundred or so employees in his New York studio, he deals with popular culture subjects and often creates reproductions of banal objects, elevating their status to becoming works of art. While much of his oeuvre has been criticized as rough, impolite and based on cynical self-merchandising, the artist has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques. A true contemporary master of pop art with a net worth of well over $300 million, Koons has worked with Lady Gaga on the visual identity and music videos of her albums. He has also worked with many other musicians, such as Madonna.
Featured image: Jeff Koons – Balloon Dog Red, 2002 – Courtesy of Sotheby’s
Jasper Johns - Master of Pop Art
American painter, sculptor and printmaker, Jasper Johns was Initially working in the styles of abstract expressionism and neo-dada, but eventually burst onto the scene as a true master of pop art, cementing his status next to the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein. Johns’ innovative technique and style, unusual and outstanding, and a legacy that goes well beyond his 1955 Flag make his presence in the art world nothing short of monumental. In 1980, the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired his 1958 Three Flags for $1 million, then the highest price paid for the work of a living artist. Since then, the sums have only continued to grow. His current fortune is estimated at around $290 million.
Featured image: Jasper Johns – Corpse and Mirror, 1974 – Courtesy of the artist
David Choe - Rapture of a Dirty Style
Painter, muralist, graffiti artist and graphic novelist, David Choe (40) is the youngest on the list. Having started spray-painting on the streets of LA in his early teens, he soon spread out into various different creative pursuits, amassing a fortune of $200 million in the process. Covering a wide variety of urban culture and entertainment contexts, his work explores themes of desire, degradation, rapture and exaltation in a raw, “dirty style”. In 2007 Choe was famously commissioned by Mark Zuckerberg to paint a mural at Facebook’s headquarters. He was paid in shares of the company which are today worth well over $150 million.
Featured image: David Choe – Original Facebook Mural – image via facebook.com
Andrew Vicari - Rembrandt of Riyadh
Welsh portrait painter mostly working in France and the Middle East, Andrew Vicari remained a figurative artist working in oil throughout his career. This “Rembrandt of Riyadh” was appointed the official painter to the King and Government of Saudi Arabia in 1974 and in the next few decades painted most of the members Saudi royal family, as well as scenes of Riyadh and Bedouin life. He became so famous in the Gulf area that three museums in the Middle East are solely dedicated to his work. As of 2004 Vicari was Britain’s richest living painter and, at one point, Britain 18th richest person with a net worth of $142 million.
Featured image: Andrew Vicari – La Naissance de la Nuit (Detail), 2006 – image via flickr.com
Takashi Murakami - Between High and Low Art
Native of Tokyo, Japan, Takashi Murakami is a contemporary artist famous for constantly blurring the line between high and low art. Working in fine arts media of painting and sculpture, as well as more commercially-oriented areas of fashion, merchandise, and animation, Murakami regularly ventures into lucrative collaborations which have so far earned him over a $100 million. Starting with Louis Vuitton (on the invitation of Marc Jacobs), he went on to design the cover for Kanye West’s album Graduation as well as the animated music video for West’s song Good Morning. His sculpture, a collaboration with Pharrell, sold for more than $2 million at Art Basel in Switzerland.
Featured image: Takashi Murakami – The Simple Things (collaboration with Pharrell Williams), 2008-2009 – image via kaikaikiki.co.jp
Anish Kapoor - Creator of Large-Scale Public Commissions
Having represented Britain in the XLIV Venice Biennale in 1990 and winning the Turner Prize in 2002, the British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor is one the biggest names on the art scene today, worth just over $85 million. His reflective mirror-like sculptures are instantly recognizable. The Sky Mirror outside the Nottingham Playhouse and Cloud Gate outside Millenium Park in Chicago are but two of his numerous large-scale public commissions. Much like his colleague Damien Hirst, Kapoor has branched out into real estate, but with earnings of $27 million in 2008 from art alone, his star seems constantly on the rise.
Featured image: Anish Kapoor – Sky Mirror, 2009 – Courtesy of the artist
Antony Gormley - Finding Inspiration in Human Body
Another Turner Prize winner, Antony Gormley is a British sculptor whose fortune is now estimated at $50 million. His sculptures are almost always figures, more often than not based on casts of his own body. Gormley’s most famous works include Event Horizon (a project consisting of 31 life-size male bodies installed separately in Rio, Sao Paulo, NYC, and London), Another Place (100 cast iron sculptures of the artist’s own body installed at Crosby Beach), and the monumental installation Angel of the North near Gateshead. The small-scale replica of the latter sold at auction for approximately $6 million in 2011.
Featured image: Antony Gormley – Event Horizon, 2012 – Courtesy of the artist
Gerhard Richter - Stellar Prices of Abstract Paintings
German visual artist Gerhard Richter is known for producing both abstract and photorealistic works, completely dismissing the idea of the artist’s obligation to maintain a single cohesive style. One of the pioneers of New European Painting, he is perhaps most notable for the constant rise in prices of his paintings. Continuously knocking down records (both his own and those of other people), his Abstraktes Bild was sold for $37.1 million in 2013, and Domplatz, Mailand for $44.52 million in 2015, each setting a record price for a painting by a living artist. Richter’s current wealth is said to be somewhere in the neighborhood $42 million.
Featured image: Gerhard Richter – Abstraktes Bild (Detail) – Courtesy of Sotheby’s
David Hockney - Extraordinary Stage Designer
A central figure of the British art scene for almost half a century, David Hockney is remarkably wealthy (with a net worth of some $40 million), yet still less so than some of his peers. Artist, draughtsman, stage designer and photographer, he began his artistic search as an important contributor to the Pop art movement in the mid-1960’s. Later on, he changed styles, methods and mediums several times over, proving to be a truly versatile artist who also collaborated with many musicians. Appointed by the queen to the Order of Merit, Hockney is also a Royal Academician and his works are held in some of the most prestigious museums and collections in the world.
Featured image: David Hockney – A Bigger Splash (Detail), 1967 – image via tate.org.uk
Cindy Sherman - Most Expensive Female Photographer
Well over a century after the art academies in the western world opened their doors to women, it is strange and somewhat disheartening to find only one female name on this list. American photographer and film director with a net worth of $35 million, Cindy Sherman is an exceptional artist who has achieved fame through both her groundbreaking conceptual portraits as well as lucrative commercial collaborations with high fashion brands, makeup companies, and magazines. The 3rd and 7th most expensive photographs ever sold in the world are Sherman’s work with a print of Untitled #96 selling for almost $4 million at auction in 2011 and that of Untitled #154 for $2.7 million.
Featured image: Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Still #17 (Detail), 1978 – image via tate.org.uk
Richard Prince - Controversial Mastermind of Appropriation
Prolific painter and photographer Richard Prince is an artist who has successfully bridged the gap between the world of street culture and fashion blogosphere and the fine arts. Through collaborations with prestigious brands such as Louis Vuitton and Supreme, as well as other creative and commercial pursuits, he has gathered a cool $30 million (as of 2015). His Cowboy, a 1989 rephotographing of a photograph (originally by Sam Abell and appropriated from a cigarette ad) sold for $1,248,000 in 2005. while his paintings from the Nurse series went for anywhere between $6 and $8 million a piece in 2008.
Featured image: Richard Prince – Millionaire Nurse, 2008 – Courtesy of Sotheby’s
Andreas Gursky - Creating an Illusion of Wide Spaces
Holding the title of Professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and working in a studio created by architects Herzog & de Meuron (of Tate Modern fame), German photographer Andreas Gursky is an all round successful artist. Already a multimillionaire (his wealth has been estimated around $29 million), he achieved a string of records, including the highest price at auction for a single photographic image (for Rhein II which sold for USD $4,338,500 at Christie’s in 2011). Often employing a high point of view, his large format architecture and landscape color photographs create an illusion of spaces larger than the subjects photographed.
Featured image: Andreas Gursky – Chicago Board of Trade II, 1999 – image via flickr.com
Chuck Close - Wheelchair Bound Creative Genius
With the wealth of well over $25 million, the legendary painter Chuck Close easily makes it to this list. Initially achieving fame with his exceptionally large portraits based on photographs, he expanded his efforts to an endless number of artistic mediums, including prints, tapestries etc. Wheelchair bound since 1988 due to a spinal artery collapse, his creative urge never subsided and he continued to produce pieces of superb quality, always keeping in demand for his work which doesn’t show any signs of slowing. In 2011, he gained additional media exposure when, with a group of other artists, he sued Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses for allegedly violating the 1977 California Resale Royalty Act.
Featured image: Chuck Close – Lucas (dyptich), 1986–87 – image via umich.edu
Georg Baselitz - Playing with Vibrant Colors
German neo-expressionist, post-modern painter, temporarily a part of what is often referred to as the Neue Wilden movement, Georg Baselitz has been painting for over 50 years, and creating sculpture for just over 30, climbing up to an estimated net worth of $20 million in the process. Seemingly playing with spellbindingly vibrant colors and endlessly varying the style, his choice of powerful subject-matter goes hand in hand with his life-long focus on the artistic potential of deformation. Since 1969 Baselitz has mostly painted his subjects upside down, confronting the human and cultural tragedies of our time in his own, unique way.