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10 Most Expensive American Artists
A closer look 16 Sep 2020

10 Most Expensive American Artists

Blue and White Abstract Painting

What is the world of contemporary art today? The constant sales records, the major com’ operations, and the star system, at least in the highest circles of the industry…

Artprice published a list of the most expensive contemporary works sold at auction (July 2018-June 2019). Artsper has decided to take a closer look at 10 multi-millionaire artists. Despite different aesthetics, the trend remains with the great supporters of modern and contemporary Pop Art. On the fringes of this current, some stand out for their affiliation to the conceptual trend and experimental approach. But, who are the 10 most expensive American artists?

1. Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Rabbit (1986)

Unsurprisingly, the most expensive American artist and the first on this list is the King of Kitsch, Jeff Koons. Especially since the sale at Christie’s (New York) of his work “Rabbit” for the modest sum of 91,075 million dollars.

Did you know that before studying art at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Koons was a stockbroker on Wall Street? In the tradition of Duchamp, Jeff Koons practices the diversion of everyday objects. He is also inspired by Andy Warhol in Pop Art imagery and the creation of a sultry public image.

His favorite theme is childhood, especially toys. He also explores the myths and legends of mass culture combined with the notions of “good taste”. Jeff Koons brilliantly succeeds in the paradox of being one of the most controversial contemporary artists while making the most consensual art.

The artist is a self-proclaimed “designer” and delegates the production work to a team of technicians. For him, the intervention of the artist in the production process is not essential. Communication around the work produced, on the other hand, is.

2. Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Pollo Frito), 1982 

On November 14, 2018, at Sotheby’s New York, the diptych “Untitled (Pollo Frito)” by Jean-Michel Basquiat was sold for $ 25,701,500.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career was as dazzling as it was brief. It is more athletic than that of a traditional artist. Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother in 1960 in Brooklyn, Basquiat died at the age of 28 in 1988 in New York after an overdose. Today, he remains one of the most recognized American artists.

A true comet of modern and contemporary art, he is the artist who elevated Street Art to the ranks of other arts. Fleeing from school benches, the young Basquiat prefers the alleys of New York, which he tags with his graffiti friends. The group signs their works under the name SAMO (Same Old Shit), which they accompany with a crown and the copyright symbol.

The work of this artist is rich in popular references, from cinema to literature, including automobiles. He does not hesitate to draw inspiration from his roots, but also from current events. Basquiat wishes to express through his work a triple criticism: against the system, religion, and the politics of his time.

3. Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool, Untitled (1990)

In 2018, Christopher Wool sold a work at Christie’s (New York) for $15,218,750.

The artist, born in Chicago, 1955, began to gain recognition in the 1980s. He is particularly known for his large-scale paintings. These come in the form of black letters stenciled on a white canvas. Above all, he is known for questioning the pictorial process. His entire work plays on the tension between creative and destructive acts. Between gesture and suppression of the gesture. And between depth and surface. He applies layers of paint on layers of paint to remove pre-existing elements. So it is often defined more for what it is not, or for what it has erased, but rather for what it shows.

Its aesthetic finds its source between Pop Art and Conceptual Art. It is an application of methods borrowed from minimal and conceptual art and combined with an aesthetic of diversion and repetition. From the 2000s on, he developed more complex imagery. On this occasion, he combines screen printing techniques and hand painting in great formal freedom.

4. Kaws

Kaws, The Kaws Album,  (2005)

In April 2019, this New York artist sold his work “The Kaws Album” at Sotheby’s (Hong Kong) for 14,772,700 US dollars!

Real name Brian Donnelly, Kaws, is an American artist and designer born in 1974 in Jersey City (New Jersey), United States. Street artist, painter, illustrator, sculptor, and publisher, Kaws touches on everything that surrounds the universe of Pop Art. After graduating in 1996 with a license in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York, he worked for a while as a freelance for Disney.

Through painting, sculpture, design, and the creation of “toys”, Kaws has truly established himself on the Pop Art scene. His work, inspired by popular culture (Disney, The Simpsons) is exhibited in many renowned museums. Think, for example, of the High Museum in Atlanta, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth in Texas, and the Rosenblum collection in Paris. Like Jeff Koons, this artist enjoys blurring the lines between fine art and commercial art.

Now recognized on the international scene, he works for large commercial brands such as Nike for whom he will design a pair of sneakers. But also for the music and film industry by collaborating in particular with Kanye West, Burton, Pharrell Williams, and many others.

5. Mark Rothko

On May 16, 2019, Mark Rothko sold a work at Sotheby’s (New York) for $50,095,250.

Rothko is undoubtedly one of the most influential and famous post-war American artists in the world. His abstract canvases, recognizable by their blocks of color, sell for a high price.

From the beginning of the 1930s, he became interested in expressionism and represented closed scenes in bright colors. Ten years later, he added surrealist accents and chose more abstract images. There are human and animal forms reminiscent of the symbols of ancient myths. He paints humanity struggling against its free will. Recognized as an artist linking abstraction and spirituality, Rothko stands out from the artists of his time. Later in his career, the painter gradually moved from figuration to abstraction. However, expression and especially emotions remain central in his work.

6. Edward Ruscha

Ed Rusha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, (1964)

On November 13, 2019, a buyer at Christie’s (New York) spent $52,485,000 for a painting by Ed Ruscha. The work is part of a collection of the artist’s “text paintings”. Ruscha is one of the most innovative American artists of the 1960s. Around the same time as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtentstein entered the booming Pop Art scene, Ruscha offered his own take on the movement.

Ed Ruscha was born in 1937 in Nebraska and moved to Los Angeles in 1956. There, he began to make a name for himself on the art scene by making collages. His work is associated with Pop Art because it draws its inspiration from today’s society, advertising, and mass culture. His favorite mediums are painting and photography. From the end of the 1950s, Ruscha began to introduce text into his works. Inspired by the style of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, he wishes to use graphics to explore painting not only as an object, but also as an illusion. He thus considers his works as “visual constructions”.

7. Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type], (1963)

You can’t talk about the most expensive American artists on the market without mentioning the name Andy Warhol! More than 30 years after his death, the Pop Art icon continues to sell his works at a high price … As evidenced by the sale of November 30, 2019 at Chritie’s (New York) of his painting “Double Elvis [Ferus Type]” for $53,000,000! The work was produced for an exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in 1963 in West Hollywood. Warhol photographs Elvis Presley upon his return to the United States after two years of military service. A pure Hollywood product, Presley could only be a favorite subject for the artist!

Born August 6, 1928, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Andrew Warhola is one of the American artists who revolutionized art from the 1960s to the 1980s. Today he has become a true myth, if not more, an indisputable icon in the world and the history of art. At the start of his career, Warhol worked for renowned advertising magazines, such as Glamor, Vogue, or the famous Harper’s Bazaar. Socialite and eccentric publicist, he left his mark on contemporary art. A leading figure in Pop Art, he understood, before much, the importance of the image in the consumer society.

8. Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II, (1964)

On May 15, 2019, Christie’s (New York) sold an iconic canvas by American artist Robert Rauschenberg for the sum of $88,805,000! The work was estimated at around $50 million.

Robert Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born on October 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas, and died May 12, 2008, in Captiva, Florida. The American visual artist was associated with the movements of abstract expressionism and neo-dada; he is also one of the precursors of Pop Art. His works range from painting to engraving, photography, choreography, and music.

The work sold is an emblematic silkscreen print of the painter, which superimposes the world of art and the world of politics. Huge in size, its composition is also rich in semiological elements, ranging from the iconic (for example, a portrait of John F. Kennedy) to the banal (a key). Taken together, the elements on the web represent the whole of America. Here the painter appropriates the images he sees in newspapers and magazines and combines them with his own photographs.

9. Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, (1929)

The famous painter Edward Hopper’s, “Chop Suey”, was sold at Christie’s auction in New York in November 2018. The price? $92 million… while the work was originally purchased for $170,000 in the 1970s.

He was born in Nyack in 1882 and died in New York in 1967. Edward Hopper is one of the American artists known worldwide for his canvases representing the backdrop of the American Dream. A lover of French life and culture, Hopper nevertheless decided to devote his work to the representation of the country where he was born. He chose to paint interior scenes. The latter often evoke silence and nostalgia, loneliness, and melancholy. His works, striking in their realism, show an America in the midst of economic change, but above all social change.

10. Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning, Women as Landscape, (1954-55)

On November 13, 2018, Christie’s (New York) sold a painting by the painter of Dutch origin but naturalized American, Willem de Kooning, for $68,937,500.

De Kooning is one of the most famous American artists. He is considered to be one of the precursors of abstract expressionism. After training at the Rotterdam School of Arts and Techniques, he decided to emigrate to the United States. He arrived illegally in New York in 1926, aged 21.

The canvas, executed during a pivotal period in the painter’s career, belongs to a series of works that have revolutionized the representation of the female body. The Spanish master Pablo Picasso, with his Demoiselles d’Avignon, surely inspired him! Like the latter, De Kooning deconstructs notions such as femininity and beauty. When De Kooning’s work was exhibited for the first time in 1950, it shocked the canvas. But it was this scandal that made the work enter the list of the most famous creations in the history of art.

Without a doubt, American artists dominate the market! Many canvases are snapped up at high prices in auction houses. And if the art market is appreciated for its extreme diversity, the trend still remains with the big names in the history of art. And behind the United States? Not surprisingly, the United Kingdom and China.

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