The 10 Most Expensive Living American Artists

Frank Stella, Papier, 1967
Frank Stella, Papier, 1967

For the outsiders, the art market today is all about monthly prize records, big communication campaigns, and star system – at least in the highest spheres of the art market. Artnet recently published the list of the 10 most expensive living American artists based on the sales of the main auction houses between 2005 and 2015, and on this occasion, Artsper has decided to have a closer look at those artists !

There is no clear tendency, yet most of them belong to the pop art movement, are from the same generation and their path have crossed more than once. However, a few adopt a conceptual approach and have an experimental art practice, which makes them look like exceptions in this ranking.

1. Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons in front of the Baloon Dog and the Bouquet of Tulipes.

The first of this list is, without surprise, the American king of kitsch Jeff Koons, since the purchase of one of his “Balloon dogs” by business man Peter Brand for 58,2 million USD.

Born in 1955 in Pennsylvania, he studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art of Baltimore, a biographical detail that is often forgotten in favor of his professional beginnings as a broker in Wall Street – which is undeniably revealing of his personality.

Walking in Duchamp’s footsteps, Jeff Koons started twisting daily objects away from their original purpose from very early on, and also took his inspiration from Andy Warhol’s pop art imagery as well as his communication strategy.

The recurring themes of his work are childhood (and toys more precisely), myths and legends of our mass culture while eschewing the notions of “good tastes”. As the Pompidou museum descriptive panels cleverly put it on the occasion of the retrospective of 2014-2015, Jeff Koons succeeded in being one of the most controversial artists of the 21st century while making the most consensual art. If the final product looks like easy art, the approach behind it is indeed provocative: as critic Christopher Knight wrote, “he turns the traditional cliché of the work of art inside out: rather than embodying a spiritual or expressive essence of a highly individuated artist, art here is composed from a distinctly American set of conventional middle-class values.”

Besides, Jeff Koons claims to be an idea man, and is happy to delegate the making of his work to a crew of technicians. For him, the artist’s hand is not everything in the creative process, but communication about the work is !

2.Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool.

Christopher Wool is born in 1955 in Chicago and gained recognition in the course of the 1980’s. He is particularly known for his large-format paintings of black and stenciled letters on canvases as well as his questioning of pictorial process. Wool’s work creates a tension between creative and destructive gesture, depth and surface. He applies layers over layers of painting in order to overlap previous elements. His work is therefore often better defined by what it has been covered up than what is actually visible.

His practice navigates between pop art and conceptual art: he combines minimal and conceptual art methods to the pop art repetition process.

Since the 2000’s, he is working on a more complex imagery associating screenprint techniques and painting.

Chrisopher Wool has worked a great deal with Richard Prince, another artist of this top 10.

3. Richard Prince

Richard Prince, Portrait

Richard Prince is born in 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone. He started his artistic career as a member of the “pictures generation” side by side with Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons: a generation of young artists who came to age in 1970 and were disillusioned by the socio-political changes carried out by the Vietnam war and the Watergat scandal.

Richard Prince belongs to the “appropriation art” movement, defined by the conscious and orchestrated strategy to copy the work of other artists, which makes it an art genre and not plagiarism. In his work, Richard Prince recycles images of mass media, advertisement and pop culture, for example by taking photographs of photographs, reframing them or screenprinting them. His work questions and redefines the concept of the artist’s aura.

Recently he created a huge scandal with his series “New Portraits” exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery, a project for which he used Instagram pictures of random people to which he simply added a few lines of comments.

4.Ed Ruscha

Ed Rushka

Ed Ruscha is born 1937 in Nebraska and moved to Los Angeles in 1956, where he started to gain recognition on the local art scene doing collage inspired by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

His work is associated to Pop art because he draws on advertising and mass culture images. Jasper Johns plays with words and his approach is provocative while showing a taste for absurd at the same time. However he uses a lot of non-conventional materials such as gun powder, food, and organic substances such as blood, vegetable juice and ivy.

His privileged media are painting and photography.

5. Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns

Born in Georgia in 1930, Jasper Johns is one of the pioneers of the pop art movement. He met Robert Rauschenberg in 1954 with who he became very close and experimented different styles. Jasper John initiated a return to figurative painting after abstract expressionism.

In 1958, he was spotted by the famous New York art dealer Leo Castelli and had his first solo exhibition for which he showed his flag, target and number paintings made out of wax for the first time. His paintings are flat and represent familiar objects, two characteristics of pop art -of which Warhol became the main figure in the 1960’s.

He met Duchamp in the 1960’s and soon after started making sculptures of daily objects such like electric bulbs or beer cans, drawing on the ready-made trend.

6.Wayne Thiebaud

Wayne Tiebaud in front of Cold Case.

Born in Arizona in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud began his career as a commercial artist in the Disney studio. He spent a sabbatical year in New York when he immerged himself in the local art scene and met artists like Willem de Kooning, Jasper John and Robert Rauschenberg.

He then applied his commercial art technics to his own creation and started painting food products in flashy colors: cakes, pies, candies, and ice-cream. It is only in 1961 that his career took off when he met New York art dealer Allan Stone, who became his exclusive dealer and friend.

He was then exhibited during the first pop art exhibition organized in United States at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962, next to Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, and Roy Lichtenstein.

Wayne Thiebaud never quite fitted in the pop art movement defined by the criticism and parody of the consumption society. On the contrary, Thiebaud’s art, far away from being critical, embraces and praises the classic American culture and its clichés.

Instead of a pop artist, Thiebaud describes himself as a traditional and illusionist painter. Besides, he is also very famous for his natural landscape paintings.

7. Robert Ryman

Robert Rayman

Robert Ryman is born in 1930 in Tennessee. He worked 7 years as a security agent at the MoMa, during which he developed a taste for art.

His work is a reaction to abstract expressionism and is often associated with conceptual art. His paintings are minimal: from the beginning of his career, he works only with white paint and square canvases, that he experimented on different surfaces and scales.

Ryman wanted to prove that visual complexity could be obtained by using only a very limited range of variables. All through his career, Ryman was interested in the materialistic detail of the work itself: frame, opacity, texture etc. The relation between the work and his hanging system is also very important. After 1976, he started to integrate the hanging device in the composition of the work itself. Close to minimal art, Ryman’s work differs from it by the importance he gives to the paint strokes and the artist’s intervention. He declares himself a realist painter and rejects the distinction between realism and abstraction. What defines his practice is experimentation, since Ryman worked with every medium, from oil to pastels, acrylic and gouache, copper, wallpaper and enamel.

8. Frank Stella

Frank Stella

Frank Stella is born in 1936 in Massachussetts.

After having studied art in Princeton, he moved to New York where he discovered Jasper Johns’s work and found inspiration in his geometric lines and curves. After 1960, New York art dealer Leo Castelli put up a solo show for him and represented him afterwards.

In 1970, the MoMa dedicated him a retrospective exhibition. During the following decade, Stella introduced volume in his work, and called it “maximalist” for its sculptural aspect. He started using wood and aluminum, and evolved towards more elaborate and baroque compositions.

His work became more and more tridimensional: he resorts to models, technicians and digital technology. In 1990 he started working on architectural projects for public spaces and in 2001, a monumental sculpture of his was installed in the garden of the National Gallery in Washington.

9. Robert Indiana

Robert Indiana, in front of LOVE.

Robert Clark –alias Robert Indiana– is born in Indiana in 1928. He moved to New York after graduation and took part in the pop art movement. Mostly known for his “LOVE” sculptures and paintings –first exhibited in 1966- his interest for sociopolitical matters differentiates him from other pop art artists.

The format of his work is inspired by road signs that deeply marked his childhood. He uses bright colors and bold characters, which recalls the graphic style of highway road signs.

His artworks are like comments of the American life and culture. The American dream is a recurring theme of his work: a matter of criticism as well as praise. His work explores the American identity but also the power of language and abstraction.

In his paintings and sculptures, he gives a deeper meaning to common words like “LOVE”, “EAT” or “LOVE”. Represented in bold characters and flashy colors, they seem to force the spectator to consider them under a new light.

10. Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21

Cindy Sherman is born in New York in 1954. Se dedicated herself to photography very early on and considers it the most appropriate medium in our society governed by images and media. Her photographs question the status of images and are invariably portraits of herself staged in an infinity of scenarios in which she mocks woman stereotypes. Her characters and settings are inspired by popular culture –old movies, tv shows and magazines.

Her first series “Film stills” deals with the image of woman in the cinema of the 1950’s: she embodied icons of the cinema like Sophia Loren or Marilyn Mornoe. It brought her instance success.

The atmosphere of her photographs ranges from contemplation to suggestion, horror and grotesque.

Her art carries the ironic message that creation is impossible without resorting to the stereotypes that shape our identity. For her, identify is all at the surface and not in the reality, a vision strongly embedded in our television and advertisement culture.

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