It may have not been as successful as the year before, but 2016 brought some interesting auction sales and donned additions to the list of the most expensive paintings ever sold. The roaster of modern and contemporary artists whose work was offered at the high-profile auctions in New York and London, particularly at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, is nothing short of top-notch. Although there have also been some warnings about the art market plunging due to shifting political and economic situation, collectors spared no money for freshly made artworks: let us remember Yusaku Maezawa’s $98 million spree in May. Many legendary names, such as David Hockney and Willem de Kooning, managed to reach records, while artists like Adrian Gehnie and Njideka Akunyili had a serious break-through toward the buyers, establishing firm prices. With a couple of weeks left till the next sales season, we take a look at the highest grossing artworks of the year.
Described as the painting that ”encapsulates all of the drama and psychological intensity of an artist who became one of the most celebrated and influential artists of the twentieth century,” Mark Rothko’s No. 17 is one of the most seminal works of the 1950s. The luxuriant blues and verdant greens segmented into three parts that spread across the canvas elude the artist’s famous “immediate radiance”. The painting sold a little over low estimate for $32,645,000 with buyer’s premium, even though its high estimate was at $40 million, at Christie’s New York sale in May.
According to Sotheby’s, who sold Gerhard Richter’s A B, Still in November, the painting ”ranks amongst the very finest achievements of the artist’s abstract output.” Part of his iconic Abstrakte Bilder series, it is an example of a visual stimulus through the use of color, in this case the tonal vivacity of red, yellow and blue, drawing our attention to the physicality of the oil paint itself, as a physical substance in both its original and manipulated forms. The work reached the price of $33,987,500 with buyer’s premium, from the low estimate of $20 million.
In 1979, Francis Bacon said he “loathes his own face”. At a rare time when he produced a significant number of self-portraits, he explained he had no one else to paint, because people were dying around him like flies. This is perhaps where the real significance of Two Studies For A Self-Portrait lies - rarely do we see the artist’s honesty, vulnerability and startling virtuosity like this, on his own face. The painting, which has only been exhibited twice, sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $34,970,000 with buyer’s premium, exceeding its high estimate of $30 million by little.
Cy Twombly’s Untitled (New York City) is the only painting from the artist’s famed Blackboard series executed with blue loops on grey ground. It was acquired from the artist’s studio in 1968 and has not been seen public since. He often described his lines as “child line” but not “childish”, which came after the vibrant, wild paintings he created while living in Rome. Untitled (New York City) are predominantly grey and explore the repetition of shapes in a way that looks like doodling, the technique of drawing line. At Sotheby’s, the canvas achieved $36,650,000 with buyer’s premium.
The 1902 Pikene på broen (The Girls on the Bridge) by Edvard Munch captures all of the hallmark of the Norwegian master’s genius: bold color, sharp perspective, sinuous line and existential angst. In fact, by using the power of hues, he explains the feeling he had during the observation of the scene he conveyed, suggesting emotions like melancholy, loneliness, anxiety, jealousy. The motif of the bridge can also be found in his legendary Scream for instance, perhaps evoking the fragility of the mind and the states it stands between. The artwork was sold at Sotheby’s for $54,487,500 with buyer’s premium.
Jeanne Hébuterne (Au Foulard) by Amedeo Modigliani was executed shortly before both the artist’s and Jeanne’s premature deaths which were two days apart. Oozing in the aesthetic that the Italian painter developed in the last years of his life, it is very elegant and in a way calming, portraying a woman that was Modigliani’s companion and muse at the time. Jeanne committed suicide at the age of 22 and even though she was a painter herself, Modigliani’s portraits are her only artistic references. This work went for $54,890,730 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s London.
Measuring 2,3 meters in height and 5 meters in length, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Black Devil Head) is a monumental work which is described as his most accomplished piece. From the demonic figure in the center of the canvas to the ensemble of painterly drips, splashes and brushwork, broad swaths of muted pinks, yellows, reds and blues to streaks of explosive reds and neon greens, this piece is the artist’s self portrait which, in a way, announces his radical approach to art in general, in the years that will follow. The artwork went for whopping $57,285,000 at Christie’s New York in May.
A painting worth $61,675,630 with buyer’s premium, as sold at Sotheby’s London, Pablo Picasso’s Femme Assise is one of the portraits of his lover Fernande Olivier, from the time they spent in a remote Catalan village. Widely recognized as from the beginnings of true Cubism, in particular the Analytical one, the work is characterized by geometricized, broken down forms which explore the figure from multiple points of view, achieving a highly voluminous, sculptural feel. Picasso also executed actual sculptures of Fernande immediately after painting several paintings of her.
In November, the 1977 canvas Untitled XXV by Willem de Kooning smashed the artist’s previous auctions record by the double, selling for $66,327,500 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s. It is one of the works de Kooning painted in the middle of a period dedicated to sculpture, dedicating himself to the sensual experience of the very act of applying paint with a brush. It was a very productive period, which was described as “a sudden burst of activity”, and it lasted over the course of the next three years. It marked the beginning of a new way in which the artist saw the world around him: the space, the light, the trees.
As the most expensive painting of 2016, Claude Monet’s 1891 Meule or Haystack remained in private hands for $81,447,500 with buyer’s premium. Sold at Christie’s New York, it is a part of the Grainstack series that the then-50-year-old artist painted through a total of 25 canvases in total. The pictures were differentiated almost entirely through color, touch and atmospheric effect, and this example shows the play of light and color, oozing in the late afternoon sky glowing peach and gold, and the stack immersed in pink and red. The colors become the protagonists themselves, deprived of rural workers or any other element that would disrupt the composition. It is indeed a fine opportunity to experience Monet’s true poetry of colors.
Here, we take a look at the 1000 most expensive paintings of the year, sold at the world’s top houses.
All images courtesy Christie's and Sotheby's, used for illustrative purposes only.