Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jackson Pollock's Painting No. 5, 1948 - The Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold

*This is the research paper I wrote my last semester of college. It is a great paper talking about value in art, Jackson Pollock, the art market, and investing in art. Enjoy, and let me know your thoughts. I will try to link to the sources I used.

Investing in Art

On November 1, 2006 history was made as Jackson Pollock’s painting No. 5, 1948, sold in a private sale for $140 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. Why would someone pay $140 million for a work of art, specifically for No. 5, 1948? Perhaps it is driven by a love for the specific work, where the buyer would pay anything to have it, or perhaps the buyer has a love for all of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. But, perhaps more realistically, the buyer sees this purchase as an investment; he sees this painting as something that will make him a profit someday. The practice of buying art is a complicated financial investment that most people do not venture on, but can prove extremely beneficial to those who do. But what is it that makes this painting worthy of the $140 million price tag? Exploring the sale of this item, the artist who created it, and the reasons for its hyped up value will allow one to see how there are certain criteria that make a piece of art a prime investment opportunity.
According to The New York Times, David Geffen sold No. 5, 1948 (see image)—a four by eight feet classic Pollock drip painting done on fiberboard—allegedly to David Martinez for $140 million on November 1, 2006. Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s is said to have brokered the deal of this famous painting from the Abstract Expressionism Movement. When this painting was originally sold by Pollock back in 1948 through the Parson Gallery in New York, it fetched $1,500 (Robson, 20), which would be around $ $12,615 in 2006 US currency (HBrothers), a far cry from the $140 million it sold for in 2006. So what made the change from 1948 to 2006?

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) had a short-lived artistic career with only a few of those years (1943-1951) dedicated to his famous style. However, these abstract paintings left a legacy behind just as his alcoholism and untimely death. His painting style and technique brought together elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Impressionism, and transcended them all (Remer).

When Pollock painted he pushed the bounds of modernity by completely removing the brush from the canvas. He would place his unstretched canvas on the floor or tack it to a hard wall so that he could work from all four sides of the painting and literally be in the painting. Instead of a typical set of painting tools such as an easel, palette, and an assortment of brushes, Pollock preferred to use sticks, trowels, and knives, to drip his paint or his heavy impasto mixed with sand, broken glass and other material (Harrison and Wood, 571).

These large-scale works did not have a subject matter, center, focus, or figure—they were truly abstract, and Pollock wanted it that way. It is this reason that many of his paintings are not given a title, but a number. He did not want the viewer to be looking for anything in particular. Pollock said, “The source of my painting is the unconscious” because “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about” (qtd. in Harrison and Wood, 571). Harold Rosenberg, an art critic of the day, described Pollock’s method of painting as ‘action painting.’ He said, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to [Pollock] as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event” (qtd. in Harrison and Wood, 589). This new form of painting made art no longer so much about the finished product, but about the process, about art for art’s sake, and about expression; hence the term Abstract Expressionism was born. It was also from this new concept that performance art began to enter into the art arena for the first time. But, it was Pollock’s abstractness that had many people in an uproar.

The critic Robert Coates once derided a number of Pollock’s works as “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless” (qtd. in McElroy). It was hard for many people to understand the message of his works. The average person was used to a subject matter, or at least a reference to one.

It is because of the chaotic nature of Pollock’s work that the interpretation of its meaning has been so contested over the years. At the time No. 5 was created even the CIA had an explanation of the meaning behind the work. They believed the ambiguity of the work and works like it left them open to political manipulation, and it has been suggested that the CIA secretly funded the promotion of Abstract Expressionism as a weapon of the Cold War. Simultaneously, however, members of the U.S. Congress, such as George Dondero, were actually claiming the opposite—that Pollock was making paintings that were a "means of espionage" and that "If you know how to read them . . . [they] will disclose weak spots in U.S. fortifications. . ." (qtd. in Halsall, 2). Recent scientific analyses of his works has shown that there are in fact mathematical patterns in the chaos of the paint known as fractals—patterns that are the same at different levels of magnification (Halsall, 3). But, in general most people and critics simply feel an emotional response when looking at the naturally flowing lines found in his works, enjoying creating and finding shapes just as people do when looking at clouds.

While it took some time for Pollock’s art to become popular to those within the art community as well the less discerning eye of the everyday public, he did finally begin to find some notoriety. In fact, Life Magazine asked on August 8, 1949 “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” At the time the article was written Pollock had five paintings hanging in American museums, works included in forty private collections, and was starting to receive international acknowledgment and criticism as well. On March 31, 2003 Time Magazine mentioned Pollock in their 80th Anniversary edition in the article “80 Days That Changed the World.” One of those 80 days was January 4, 1948—the day before Jackson Pollock’s first gallery show of his drip paintings at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York City. While he may have only sold two canvases the next day, his show was in a large way the seminal moment for American art on the world stage. Pollock became America’s first painter-pop star, securing that fame with his untimely death in an alcohol-related car crash in 1956 at the age of 44 (Lacayo).

In 1957, shortly after his death, The Metropolitan Museum of Art paid $30,000 for Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, 1950. They purchased it from The Museum of Modern Art that had reluctantly paid $8,000 for the painting previous to Pollock’s death. Even though the hefty price of the sale was due in large part to Pollock’s death, the sale proved to be an important validation for the Abstract Expressionism movement, boosting the sales of other artists in the genre. It brought the price tag of Abstract Expression works to the level of European artists of the day (Robson, 22).

Jackson Pollock’s legacy on the art world certainly makes him an artist whose work would be valuable because of its context in art history. Pollock bridged many gaps with his work, and was also quite the character in life. A Western-born artist, he moved to New York to study art and begin his career. Along his road to fame he had many important promoters including noted art critic Clement Greenberg, artist and wife Lee Krasner, as well as art dealers like Peggy Guggenheim. But, his alcoholism, unusual painting practices, and emotional instability add to the aura that is Jackson Pollock. It is for this reason that he is the subject of many biographies, a movie biopic, and major retrospectives (Remer). For these reasons it is easy to understand why his work, to some, would be so expensive and prized today.

However, not everyone agrees that Pollock’s work should be so valuable. Teri Horton, a 73-year old truck driver from California purchased a $5 painting from a thrift store for a friend, only to later find out that it could be a Jackson Pollock, though she had no idea who he was (“Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?”). While the authenticity of the work is still debated, Horton is determined to take on the art world, and wants $50 million for the work. Horton, who says she is a fan of Normal Rockwell, doesn’t see the beauty in the painting. She said, “Do I personally think it’s worth [$50 million]? Hell no. It’s worth the $5 I gave for it. It’s ugly” (Tam). So why is it that while Teri Horton does not value her Pollock, many others do? What is it that makes a work of art so valuable?

It is often argued that anyone could make a piece of art like Jackson Pollock’s, anyone could lay a huge canvas on the floor and drizzle paint all over it, even a child. It is often this criticism that makes people wonder why these random, chaotic, even sometimes ugly paintings are worth anything. Many do not see skill or real artistic talent present in these pieces, and do not think they are valuable or deserve the hundred million dollar price tag. And to those who feel this way, it may be true.
For a moment consider someone who copies Jackson Pollock’s technique, like Francis Hogan “Frankie” Brown, who some might argue makes an end product that is more visually appealing than Pollock’s No. 5. Regardless of the supposed quality and aesthetic beauty of this new work, it will never yield the lofty price tag of $140 million as Pollock’s No. 5, or perhaps garner much monetary worth at all. There are two main reasons for this: one the art itself, and two the artist. Drip paintings, or “splatter-dash” paintings, as Frankie Brown calls his (Phillips), done today are “old hat” and of little or no value because it doesn’t make sense in the ever evolving art world. Art is just like other culturally driven industries such as music and fashion, where artists are constantly pushing forward in the never ending quest for the next “big thing.” Copy or emulation artists like Frankie Brown are not unique to the world of paint, just like cover bands and outdated fashions are not unique in the music and fashion industries, and as such typically never gain even a fraction of the notoriety of the originals they copy. At the end of the day, these knock off artists find that their works only value is as a pretty picture hanging on the wall.

When Pollock made and showed these works for the first time it was revolutionary, culturally it was like the Beatles at Shea Stadium, or Coco Chanel in Paris. It was building off the Modernity theory, and commenting on the political instability of the time. Because of this Pollock’s works were important in the context of art history. It is therefore Jackson Pollock’s name and reputation that help drive the sales more than the art itself, as well as his untimely death (Ekelund, Ressler, and Watson 1-2). An unknown or little known artist will never fetch a very large sum, because it is too risky to invest in someone unknown, unless they prove very promising. Much as in any artistic venture, an artist who copies a dead artist’s work is not promising.

There are certain characteristics of a work of art that add value to it generally. Of course the artist is the most significant factor, but only if the work is typical of the artist. Pollock’s early works are not as valuable as his drip paintings for example. Other components are authenticity, condition, rarity, and technique. Because No. 5, was a painting sold during Pollock’s lifetime, it is rare, as well as proven authentic. This painting comes with a pristine provenance—the history of the ownership or location of a particular piece of art. Previous owners include the painter Alfonso A. Ossorio, a major Pollock collector from East Hampton, N.Y., and S. I. Newhouse Jr., the publishing magnate, who sold it to David Geffen, who went on to sell it for $140 million (Vogel). It has remained in good condition because of its previous owner’s care for the piece.

Since the sale of No.5 was a private sale with an unconfirmed buyer, it can only be assumed that the buyer of Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 did his homework. He most likely knows that Pollock is a legendary artist and that his works are highly praised, and will continue to be for many years to come because of his place in history. It is perhaps this reason that he was willing to part with such a lump sum. He most likely believes that he will be able to sell the painting for more than that amount some day in the future. However, there is no guarantee that he will. There are many cases when people spend millions of dollars on a piece of art, only to later sell it for less. For instance, one Japanese executive spent $161 million on a Van Gogh and a Renoir. His creditors later quietly disposed of his purchases at a steep loss. The reason for the negative returns was speculation and a lack of knowledge of the art market (Woliver). Only time will tell if the buyer of No. 5 will make a profit.

This begs the question then, how can someone be so sure of something as risky as investing in art? Often as the stock market and banks start taking a turn for the worse people look for alternative ways to invest their money. Art is one of those ways. However, art is not a typical investment. People of taste often want to invest in art as they recognize arts historical significance and its rarity, something which few other investments offer (Haramis). The art market has been in existence for a long time because of its returns—capital gain, pleasure, and social status (Haramis). One of the main advantages of art ventures is that top-quality art tends to be more stable than most financial investments in difficult times (Haramis). Also, art has an ever-increasing demand but there exists an absolute limit to the supply of valuable pieces (Haramis).

On the flip side there are many difficulties in art investing, mostly in regards to valuing art, and the unregulated nature of the art market. With the art market being unregulated, there runs a high risk of forgery, mislabeling, and auction fraud. The art itself also typically requires a specially controlled environment where temperature, humidity, and light are continuously monitored, which can make the art expensive to upkeep, adding a large back end to the expense of the investment. Also, art is a long-term investment typically, something that slowly appreciates over time. But, sometimes it can give quick returns. For example, Marion Kahan, of New York City-based Kahan Art Management and exhibition manager for the Guggenheim Museum, bought a limited-edition photograph by Michael Kenna at a show in 1993 for $500. By the end of the next day, when the entire edition was sold, it had become hot and scarce. The laws of supply and demand sent its worth to $750 (Woliver).

While art may or may not be the right investment for everyone, anyone who invests in art should not do it solely for capital gain. Art experts, gallery owners, and financial advisers all agree on this point, because while the art (hopefully) appreciates in value, the owner has to live with it. Fortunately buying art is a great way to spend money, because an engaging piece of art can provide its owner with a lifetime of enjoyment and then fetch cash (Haramis). Most people when they first begin buying and collecting art do so out of love for the piece itself; after all, a works’ most important values are still its aesthetic and emotional qualities to its viewer.

Indeed we do see that buying art is a complicated financial investment, but it does prove beneficial to those who wisely enter into the venture, for many reasons. First and foremost the buyer has a great piece of art that will visually please him for years. Second, it brings about a sense of prestige as well as social status, especially for famous works, to the buyer, while lastly, it garners a monetary gain when the buyer is ready to part with his art. When looking at the sale of Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948, in 2006 for $140 million, it seems like a crazy amount of money to spend on a piece of art, but after looking at the importance of Jackson Pollock and his art in history, it is easier to understand. Any drip-painting by Pollock that is verified authentic, in great condition, has a pristine provenance, and is rare will acquire a large price tag now, and, more than likely, will gain an even higher one in the future, because it is a prime investment in the arts.

Non-linked Works Cited:
Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood. Art in Theory, 1900-2000: an Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 569-571; 583-586. Print.

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