Women at auction. Will their prices ever reach those of men?

They earn less than 1/8 compared with men, representing only the 5% of the works in major collections, they see their assessments increase only when the work of their male colleagues arrive at stellar prices. But their bodies represent the vast majority of nudes on view in museums. A gender-oriented reading of the contemporary art market.

Auction after auction, it’s growing the number of sensational records for individual artists. But about female names, do we remember someone? Jackson Pollock, Gerhard Richter, Barnett Newman are just the latest in a long line of men’s top prices, as indeed is much lower the presence of women artists in ther auction catalogs. Scrolling down the Top 100 of the annual turnover of the individual artists, how many women appear? In 2012 , for example, only two: Joan Mitchell ( 57th ) and Yayoi Kusama ( 87th ) , with a total of $ 29.8 and $20.3 million, small totals compared to the first position of Andy Warhol , which is worth £329 million. If we extend the ranking to the first 300 positions, we find five other artists : Louise Bourgeois at 116th place with $16.8 million, Tamara de Lempicka at 150th ($ 12.5), 172th Georgia O’Keeffe ($ 10.8) , 263th Agnes Martin ( $ 6.8 ) and the younger Beatriz Milhazes at 299th place with $ 5.8 million. Centuries of exclusion from the artistic production have resulted with the absence of women from the catalogs of the Old Master Paintings; decades of the sexist debates have also kept them away from the art circles, with little presence in the catalogs of the post-war period. The contemporary scene has rather different aspects, thanks to the opening of the last forty years. In fact, if we compare the ten highest prices ever beaten in the auction, divided by gender, in men’s ranking only two artists are still alive, while in the female’s half is still active. The highest price was beaten for a work of Bourgeois, followed by the abstract painter Joan Mitchell, however, she is the female artist with the highest annual revenue. The record for a living artist is hold by Cady Noland with up to $ 6.6 million stolen from the previous record of Marlene Dumas.

The queen of dots Yayoi Kusama does not yet reach these figures, but has a considerable volume of transactions thanks to the numerous prints and multiples that feed the market, bringing her into the Top 100 overall, with prices that have risen 880% since 2002. Cindy Sherman instead triumphs in his medium, with the $ 3.8 million that was paid in 2011, the highest price ever fought for photography, record that has lost some months later, when Andreas Gursky has reached $ 4.3 million, with Rhein II . To compare the difference in prices between gender, we need to think at the record for a male artist of the post-war period, held by Mark Rothko with $ 86.9 million, while the record for a woman stood far below, with the $ 10.7 million of Louise Bourgeois, reached in 2011 thanks to a sculpture of more than six meters. The success and the recent discovery of some artists is a consequence of the rapid growth of their male counterparts, making available works at the lowest price of the same artistic movement. Just Joan Mitchell is an example: a colleague of de Kooning and Pollock, she had managed to enter the circle of the Cedar Tavern – famous meeting of the exponents of Abstract Expressionism – drinking and smoking like a man, even though his colleagues struggled to recognize his talent. Lee Krasner, however , sacrificed her artistic talent to the role of wife, supporting her husband Pollock in its fragility. Frida Kahlo became famous, at least initially, more for his relationship with the great Diego Riveira rather than for his work. Agnes Martin, which marked important steps in the history of Minimalism, is experiencing a re-evaluation much later than personalities such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. Artist re-evaluated now that prices have reached their male colleagues are unapproachable. A further confirmation of this trend is the fact that the higher prices of women artists have been beaten in the last five years, especially the 2011 was a record year for many of them, from the historical Tamara de Lempicka and Irma Stern to the contemporaries Barbara Kruger, Rosemarie Trockel and Louise Lawler in 2012. The auction market, however, is only a reflection of lack of appreciation in the art world in general: for example, women artists are in the minority even in major museum collections. The research of a British feminist group, ELF – East London Fawcett, has revealed that the percentage of male artists present at the Tate Modern is even 83%, and among the 2,300 works from the collection of the National Gallery are present only 11 women. In 2012, the Seattle Art Museum wished to send a signal to balance the history of art, removing all the works of male artists to replace them with those of women, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Pipilotti Rist, even if only for a few months. The average of the female presence in the collections is still estimated at 5%, average also applies to the Metropolitan Museum. Here, however, 85% of the nudes are female bodies.

Italian version on Artribune Magazine #15

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