The comeback kings and queens of art

A series of dramatic comebacks for once-celebrated artists is seeing collectors in hot pursuit of the next “old but new guard” rediscovery – before prices soar. Pernilla Holmes reports

Sam Gilliam in his Washington DC studio, 1980
Sam Gilliam in his Washington DC studio, 1980 | Image: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

It was the 1960s and 70s, and America was teeming with groundbreaking protest and game-changing political action as African-Americans fought for their civil rights in the wake of segregation and racial inequality. Alongside social change, a cultural revolution was taking place, from the Black Panthers to Blaxploitation films, musical revelations and education. In its midst, African-American artists such as Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, Howardena Pindell, Al Loving and more were forging important new directions in abstract art – experimenting and asserting their place in a field historically dominated by white America.

Sam Gilliam’s One On acrylic on canvas, 1970
Sam Gilliam’s One On acrylic on canvas, 1970 | Image: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery

But while certain of these artists gained recognition at the time, the majority later fell into the curious abyss of underappreciation. Until now. We are currently seeing a series of dramatic comebacks for once-celebrated artists from around the globe – from 20th-century African-Americans and Korean Dansaekhwa minimalists from the 1970s to the postwar CoBrA (standing for the members’ home cities of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) neoprimitive artists, European Zero movement, spatialist and Milan School, Japanese Gutai and more. Institutions are in the process of revising art history to give these artists their due, and the art market is in hot pursuit – pushing prices skyward. As the scholarly New York gallerist Alexander Gray puts it, “Old is the new black.” “The word ‘trend’ doesn’t do it justice,” says Katerina Gregos, an influential curator and artistic director of the Art Brussels fair, where she has pioneered a new section called Rediscovery, dedicated entirely to underappreciated artists from 1917 to 1987. “Mainstream art history is always being corrected, and in recent years museums and academics have been exploring the important work that until now has fallen outside the narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male viewpoint.”


Globalism, it seems, has caught up with the art world, which missed a lot thanks to its western-oriented views. A clear case in point comes via the Guggenheim New York’s 2013 show, Gutai: Splendid Playground – a comprehensive survey of the radical, freethinking post-second world war Japanese movement that shattered the common narrative of the west’s domination of avant-garde art. Gutai’s unifying cry in the wake of the disasters of war, the atomic bomb and the ensuing anxieties was to try to break with anything that resembled the past. “Never imitate others!” declared leading Gutai artist Jiro Yoshihara, and, “Make something that has never existed!”

Kazuo Shiraga’s Lizuminokami-Kanesada oil on canvas, 1962
Kazuo Shiraga’s Lizuminokami-Kanesada oil on canvas, 1962 | Image: Tom Powel Imaging

In response, artists threw themselves into raw performances (such as Saburo Murakami’s hurling himself through layers of paper), clothes as sculptures (as in Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress) and work that pointed to the ethics of freedom (such as Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely, 1956, a collective drawing that invites adults and children to collaborate, think and imagine for themselves). New recognition of the movement’s importance has had a knock-on effect in the market, especially for the grand performative paintings of key Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga – large, unctuous, abstract canvases painted while wearing Pinocchio costumes or suspended by rope and painting with his feet. Shiraga was a leading light of the movement, gaining renown for his Challenging Mud performances, in which he would wrestle with large clumps of mud to tease out sculptural forms. Ten years ago you might have picked up a painting for $50,000. Just prior to the Guggenheim show – when key advisers with foresight, such as Allan Schwartzman, had collectors such as Dallas’s Howard Rachofsky buying top pieces – a great work from the right year would have set you back between $400,000 and $1m. But in 2014, the record at auction was set at $5.3m, and the following year leading New York gallery Dominique Lévy held a major Shiraga exhibition.

 Kazuo Shiraga during one of his Challenging Mud performances, 1955
Kazuo Shiraga during one of his Challenging Mud performances, 1955 | Image: Amagasaki Cultural Centre

These prices may seem extraordinary – until you compare them with those for key American artists from around the same period, such as Jackson Pollock, whose Number 19 from 1948 fetched a record-breaking $58m in 2013. And paintings by the other 17 or so Gutai artists are not yet at the Shiraga level – Tanaka’s works have only crested the $1m mark at auction three times, with Yoshihara’s auction record set at $690,000 in 2012 and Tsuyoshi Maekawa’s at just over $285,000 in 2015. Whether growth will continue is still speculative – but if Gutai comes to be considered as important as other major art movements, with backing from the now significant number of Asian collectors as well as those from elsewhere, it wouldn’t be surprising.

Günther Uecker at his Between exhibition at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1969
Günther Uecker at his Between exhibition at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1969 | Image: Dominigue Lévy Gallery

Korea’s Dansaekhwa movement, led by artists such as Lee Ufan, has seen a similar explosion in prices for the varied, beautiful, minimal works created by the likes of Chung Sang-Hwa, Yun Hyong-Keun, Kim Whan-Ki, Ha Chong-Hyun – who used humble burlap as canvas, pushing the paint through from behind – or Park Seo-Bo, whose meditative, repetitive and purely abstract Ecriture works feel loaded with feeling. Prices have jumped as much as fivefold in the past two years, with a terracotta-toned monochrome from 2005 by Chung selling for a new high of almost $1m in October, while Kim’s work fetched $4.2m at auction in April. Galleries have also got on board, from early adopters such as LA-based contemporary gallery Blum & Poe, which represents artists Ha Chong-Hyun and Yun Hyong-Keun, to, more recently, Galerie Perrotin, which signed Park Seo-Bo (this year shown at White Cube) and Chung Chang-Sup.

Günther Uecker’s Chair II, 1963
Günther Uecker’s Chair II, 1963 | Image: Dominigue Lévy Gallery

Art historical revisions are key to the new uptake of these artists – but something else is going on too… The past 15 years or so have seen the art market dominated by a voracious appetite for emerging art, with the hunt for “the next big thing” creating massive waiting lists, rampant speculation and prices pushed well into six figures for artists with careers too green to have garnered significant museum or other curatorial support. That market, which Gregos describes as “almost violent towards young artists”, is seeing something of, in market parlance, “a correction”. In reaction, collectors are turning their wallets towards the so-called “old but new guard”, who, with museums, shows and history on their side, seem safer. As are dealers – with super-cool galleries like David Kordansky in LA and Gray in New York doing their own looking back a little closer to home. Kordansky is tapping into the eye-opening work of African-American artist Sam Gilliam in the 1960s and 70s, while Gray is turning to Gilliam’s contemporaries Jack Whitten and Melvin Edwards.

Subject Optical Dynamic No 1, 1963, by Dadamaino
Subject Optical Dynamic No 1, 1963, by Dadamaino | Image: Museo del Novecento, Milan, Italy/Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Luca Carra/Bridgeman Images

“We’re at an exciting tipping point for African-American art from the 1970s,” says Gray. “We’ve been raised with multiculturalism, feminism and a global outlook, and it’s finally being applied to art history.” Reacting against America’s strong historical bias to white (and predominantly male) artists, museums are rushing to correct the holes in their collections and recognise the important work of African-Americans in this period – indeed, throughout the 20th century. As well as buying individual works, important shows about 20th-century African art have been staged, such as Black in the Abstract: Parts I and II at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2013 and the Whitney Museum’s 2013 show Blues for Smoke. MoMA has long championed Jacob Lawrence, most recently with its installation of a landmark 1940-41 mural. London’s Tate Modern is planning a show of 1960s and 70s African-American art in 2017, as are several major American institutions, and major retrospective shows for artists such as Pindell are rumoured to be in the planning.

Park Seo-Bo in his studio in South Korea, 1977
Park Seo-Bo in his studio in South Korea, 1977 | Image: Park Seo-Bo/White Cube

Gray first showed Whitten in 2007, when, he says, it was mainly other artists and a small handful of curators who knew about the work. “The market and demand has shifted dramatically since then,” he says. “It emanated from a number of important museum acquisitions – Tate, MoMA, the Walker Art Center. The crème de la crème of museums recognised a gap in their collections.” It has just been announced that Whitten is now being represented by über-gallery Hauser & Wirth.

Park Seo-Bo’s Ecriture No 140106 (left) and Ecriture No 120209 at a 2014 show at Galerie Perrotin
Park Seo-Bo’s Ecriture No 140106 (left) and Ecriture No 120209 at a 2014 show at Galerie Perrotin | Image: Galerie Perrotin

Gilliam, now 82, was part of the Washington School of painters, associated with colour field painting – a style characterised by large expanses of solid colour, and whose earlier famous practitioners include Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Gilliam’s breakthrough came in the late 1960s, when he took his canvases off stretchers and draped them in sculptural, but still painterly, formations, liberating painting from its classic two-dimensional format. He received some recognition in the 1970s and was among artists representing the US at the Venice Biennale in 1972, but by the 1980s things had gone quiet.

CoBrA artist Karel Appel with one of his frescoes, 1958
CoBrA artist Karel Appel with one of his frescoes, 1958 | Image: AGIP/Bridgeman Images

The situation slowly began to shift after a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in 2005, but it wasn’t really until a well-known younger artist, Rashid Johnson (who cites Gilliam as a key influence), curated a show of his work at the Kordansky Gallery in 2013 that things really changed. Kordansky then started showing Gilliam at fairs and placing works with important collectors. Prices for early pieces went from below $50,000 to $300,000-$500,000 in a short time – a great leap, but still well below other important artists from that time.

Vragende Kinderen (Questioning Children), 1949, by Karel Appel
Vragende Kinderen (Questioning Children), 1949, by Karel Appel | Image: Karel Appel Foundation/Pictoright Amsterdam

So far, the revision of 1970s abstract African-American art has been a largely US phenomenon, though the signs are that this is changing. But the tipping point at which any revival of interest becomes global is inevitably hugely impactful on the market. Several postwar European artist movements are teetering on this point, such as the Zero artists from Germany, who, after the horrors of the second world war, wanted to throw away all that had gone before and set the dial for artistic language back to zero. According to Peter van der Graaf, head of Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Art in Amsterdam, “The Guggenheim show in 2014-15 brought the movement a lot of new attention – it was the biggest show of its kind in America, and prompted some Americans to buy, but also created speculation from Europeans who thought ‘now the Americans will buy’, so they bought too.”

Eduardo Terrazas in his studio, 1971
Eduardo Terrazas in his studio, 1971 | Image: Timothy Taylor

Ideologically full of the kind of optimism that only evolves out of disaster, the Zero movement rejected the then fashionable gestural abstraction and personal expression in favour of monochrome painting, serial structures and non-art materials, and eventually came to explore the use of light and movement. From the late 1950s, Otto Piene used stencils to lay paint on canvas in grid-like patterns intended to emphasise the play of light. Heinz Mack applied serial lines to his paintings to generate a sensation of dynamism. Günther Uecker pierced his works with nails; contrary to the violence this might suggest, he found the undulating waves this created and the repetition of hammering meditative. In one piece, Uecker attached nails to strips of canvas hanging down like a massive, towering skirt – a work that could be switched on to send the whole thing spinning up in the air in a strangely compelling dance.

 Possibilities of a Structure: Diagonals 1.3.19, 1970/2015, by Eduardo Terrazas
Possibilities of a Structure: Diagonals 1.3.19, 1970/2015, by Eduardo Terrazas | Image: Timothy Taylor

Prices for Zero artists first jumped in 2010, when an important 1964 Uecker nail piece with an estimate of between £100,000 and £150,000 shot up to £825,250 (about $1.3m). That record was topped in 2014 when a 1962 example fetched about $1.7m at a small Munich auction house. Last year, Frieze Masters saw a rush on Uecker’s work, with dealers trying to cash in, but also to push him to the next level. “There’s been a lot of interest – but it’s still largely European buyers,” says van der Graaf. “I think a smaller group of Zero artists – such as Uecker, Mack, Piene – could make another step in the US and internationally.”


Demand for Zero’s Italian counterparts, such as Lucio Fontana and his peers, has also soared. Fontana has always been well-known for his slashed spatialist monochrome canvases, but prices have been steadily growing since his first museum show in the US for 30 years, at the Guggenheim New York in 2007, which prompted Americans to buy. Several months ago the record for Fontana at auction reached $29m. The heat then expanded to fellow Milan School artists Enrico Castellani and Paolo Scheggi. “The 1960s saw a kind of miracle economic flourish in Italy,” says Edmondo di Robilant, who deals in Italian art from the 1950s to the 1980s. “It was an optimistic period in which artists could thrive, supported by local collectors.”

Scheggi, who died aged 31 in 1971, made just over 300 wall pieces in the 1960s and, like Fontana, sought to move painting into a new perceptual dimension: objective, physical and spatial. In 1962 he developed his Intersuperfici (Intersurfaces), typically single-colour canvases with smooth cutouts, superimposed on top of one another to create optically complex spaces that explore the dynamics of perception. Their minimal aesthetic very much appeals to today’s collectors.

“The market for Scheggi has been phenomenal and it has been extremely quick,” says di Robilant. “A work sold recently for $1.8m that would have cost about $70,000 five years ago.” Interestingly, this jump has been largely created by the market itself – artists such as Scheggi and Castellani have been in few major museum shows. Scheggi is due to have a catalogue raisonné out soon, which adds security and scholastic backbone to an artist’s career, but the surge has already happened. In considering why, di Robilant ventures, “Works by hugely well-known movements such as abstract expressionism now start at $5m and up – not many collectors can afford that, so they expand their scope.” Among the Fontana and Scheggi contemporaries who are still more affordable is the only woman in the movement, Dadamaino, whose works are as important historically as those of her contemporaries.

Less overhauled career-wise, but perhaps at the start of the process, are certain artists associated with the short-lived CoBrA movement. Working together for only three years, 1948 to 1951, but with similar aspirations to escape the blighted past and start anew, CoBrA took a kind of neoprimitive approach – its members were especially interested in children’s art and also borrowed from surrealism. Their work became a kind of milestone movement for European abstraction, led especially by Karel Appel, but also Ernest Mancoba, who featured in last year’s Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

“We see huge potential in this market,” says van der Graaf, “especially for high-quality earlier works.” The latter comment taps into something that is important to all the artists mentioned here – selecting the right piece from the right time. The current auction record for an Appel work is just under $1.1m – set in 2012. Blum & Poe has taken on the Appel estate, and is hard at work to reintroduce him to larger audiences at arts fairs – such as Frieze Masters, where it showed a museum-quality selection in 2014. An Appel show just closed at Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou and there was recently a retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands.

With such spectacular works of merit and financial windfalls at stake, the whirlwind of rediscoveries is likely to continue. Gregos reels off such names as Eduardo Terrazas, Jules Olitski and Bob Law as examples of artists beginning to be reconsidered at present. There are numerous shows by important postwar eastern European artists appearing in gallery and museum shows – such as Julije Knifer at Galerie Frank Elbaz, Jirí Kovanda at GB Agency Gallery and the current Dóra Maurer show at White Cube, and Sotheby’s will dedicate a sale to these artists in June, with examples by such artists as Poland’s Roman Cies´lewicz and the Czech Bela Kolárová. Such market explosions are unlikely to happen for all – but then most would be content with recognition and some steady sales. Bringing both a dealer’s and an academic’s point of view, Gray says, “I’m optimistic. This trend for looking back really does require art-historical analytical skills, and that can only inspire collectors in a positive way.”

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