After an untitled work by Jean-Michel Basquiat recently became the priciest work ever sold by an American artist at an auction, art critic Jerry Saltz was quoted in an interview saying “the art world has been so distracted by ridiculously obscenely high prices that mainly the only art that people are even aware of is art that costs a lot of money.”
Saltz may be guilty of slight exaggeration, but there’s some truth in his basic premise. It is now an axiom in the art world that fetching a high price at an auction is certain to guarantee a work’s place in the “canon”, never mind its actual artistic merit. What would a canon, comprising only the most “expensive” paintings, be like and, more significantly, what would it say about the way we attribute importance to an artwork? Perhaps, like so much else in culture, it would reflect our own histories of prejudice and privilege. For the purpose of this piece, we’re looking at only the most expensive paintings whose sale price, calculated at the current value of USD, would be over 100 million.
There are 33 works currently, estimated to add up to over $100 million. African-American Basquiat is the only artist of colour to make the cut.
The only other people of colour who make it to the elite club are the two Tahitian women depicted by Paul Gauguin in his painting Nafea faa ipoipo (When will you marry me?)
There is no woman artist in this club. As the subjects of paintings, however, women outnumber men.
Many of the women are depicted as nudes, such as in Amadeo Modigliani’s Nu Couche or in Pablo Picasso’s Cubist masterpieces such as Les Femmes d’Alger.
The artistic style most represented is Abstract Expressionism, with works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Old masters make a poor showing, with only Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci making it.
The artist with the most number of paintings on the list is Picasso. One of these is an early painting called Garcon a la Pipe, a work that is so minor in the artist’s complete body of works as to prove the truth of Saltz’s words.