Who Are the Top 10 Most Expensive Living Women Artists?
Women artists can earn their keep.
Among the crop of the most expensive living women artists, which we have gathered here by a search of artists’ auction records by individual lot via artnet Analytics, some are abstract painters, some figurative, others use photography or blend mediums or have seen an astonishing resurgence in popularity at auction after decades-long periods of relative obscurity. At least one has been on our radar of late for her masterful transition from platforms of visual art to those of social media, and she’s not even a Millennial. At least one has previously appeared on another of our Most Expensive Artists lists. Here then, without further ado, is our list of the Top 10 Most Expensive Living Women Artists.
1. Cady Noland
When Cady Noland’s Oozewald (1989) sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2011 for $6.6 million (exceeding by threefold its low estimate of $2 million and eclipsing her earlier record of $1.8 million), it broke the record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living female artist and puts her first on this list. It also garnered the artist a spot on our tally of the Top 10 Most Expensive Living American Artists. Oozewald, of silkscreen ink on aluminum plate, depicts a black-and-white image of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he’s being shot; he’s gagged with an American flag and his body riddled with white spots that evoke gun shot wounds. The piece captures the spirit of Noland’s work, which frequently traffics in the broken illusion of the American dream. That illusion is also conveyed in Noland’s Gibbet (1993–94), which sold for $1,762,500 at Sotheby’s New York in 2010. Noland, who was born in 1956 and is the daughter of Color Field painter Kenneth Noland, made other news at that same 2011 groundbreaking Sotheby’s sale when she disavowed Cowboys Milking (1990), a silkscreen print on an aluminum sheet, due to damage, and had the auction house withdraw it.
2. Marlene Dumas
Had this been 2005, Dumas would have been at the top of this list. It was in that year, that Dumas made headlines as the most expensive living artist when her painting The Teacher (sub a) (1987)—a forbidding portrait taken from a class picture from her childhood in South Africa—sold for $3.3 million. In 2008, the year of artist Marlene Dumas’s first US survey (which opened at the Los Angeles MOCA and then moved to New York’s MoMA), the artist’s auction record reached a new high with the sale at Sotheby’s London of The Visitor (1995), an oil painting of a group of strippers standing expectantly by an open door. Dumas’ paintings often have moribund subject matter, frequently featuring drowned and hanged people or babies with bloodied hands, and seem to drip with a nightmarish subtext that one imagines must have been informed by the politics of her early surroundings (the 60-year-old artist was raised during Apartheid). Grim as they are, though, her work caught the attention of mega-dealer David Zwirner, who in 2008, after years of courting her, finally signed the artist.
3. Yayoi Kusama
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama may now be, thanks to social media, best known for the sensation she created this past November with her celestial installation at David Zwirner gallery, “Infinity Mirrored Room.” Visitors lined up for hours to get 45 seconds in the darkened room outfitted with tiny flickering LED lights and mirrored walls that evinced the sensation of free-floating through an endless cosmos. But it is perhaps Kusama’s Infinity Nets, or paintings in which the entire canvas is filled with a hypnotic “net” of monochromatic brushstrokes, that are the 85-year-old artist’s trademark. And with the sale in 2008 of “No. 2” (1959), an early white-on-white iteration of one of her Infinity Nets, Kusama’s auction record (which was already well-established with 3463 lots at auction) hit an all-time high. Selling for $5.8 million, more than doubling its presale low estimate, the painting, which had been owned at one time by Donald Judd, brought in the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living female artist.
4. Bridget Riley
Around 1960, while working part-time as an illustrator at an advertising firm, British artist Bridget Riley began to develop the Op Art style that would become her signature. While initially, she worked in black-and-white, in 1967, she would begin using color and created her first stripe painting. One year later she would represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale where she scooped up the international prize for painting, and was the first woman and the first contemporary British painter to win the prize. Chant 2 (1967), a painting of alternating vertical blue and white stripes, which was part of three works that went to the Biennale, was purchased by an American collector in 2008 at Sotheby’s London for $5.1 million, outpacing her own record, set only a few months earlier, by a couple of million. (If looking at British Pound Sterling, this record was broken by the February 2014 sale of the same painting at Christie’s London, though when converted to US dollars, the 2008 sale remains the record for Riley.) Perhaps the market high was encouraged by her retrospective that year at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. But in 2006 Riley’s work was already attracting renewed collector interest, as indicated by the sale to Jeffrey Deitch of Untitled (Diagonal Curve) (1966) for $2.2 million, roughly four times its low estimate.
5. Julie Mehretu
Amongst the youngest in the group is Julie Mehretu (born in Ethiopia in 1970), whose abstract painting Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001) broke the artist’s record when it sold for $4.6 million at Christie’s New York in 2013. Mehretu’s abstract paintings, which are created with layers of acrylic on canvas followed by marks in pencil, ink and more layers of paint, were already fetching six figures in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2010, at the sale of works from the Neuberger Berman and Lehman Brothers corporate art collections at Sotheby’s New York in 2010, that one of her abstract paintings first garnered $1 million. That same year, Mehretu’s work was the subject of a novel high profile legal dispute brought by contemporary art collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann against Mehretu’s gallery at the time, the Project Gallery for failure to uphold a contract that granted him access to Mehretu’s work: in exchange for a $75,000 loan, the gallery was to provide the collector the right of first refusal for work by any artist represented by the gallery, at a 30 percent discount. The case, which Lehmann ultimately won, showed not only that the young artist was in high demand, but that money alone can’t secure the privilege of buying art.
6. Cindy Sherman
When American artist Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96, a 1981 print of Sherman in a pumpkin-colored sweater as a lovesick woman lying on the kitchen floor, sold for $3.9 million at Christie’s New York in May 2011, more than doubling the low estimate of $1.5 million, it became, at the time, the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction. By that point, Sherman’s market had already been on the rise for several years. While the 60-year-old artist is one of the best-known and most critically acclaimed artists working today, at auction she has trailed behind other artists of her generation, including Julian Schnabel and Richard Prince (who made our list of Top 10 Most Expensive American Artists). Though something of an auction darling (Sherman’s work has been offered 1738 times (according to the artnet Price Database), her staged conceptual photographs of herself in costume only broke the $1 million mark in 2007 with the sale of Untitled film still no. 48 (1979), a black-and-white image of herself as a hitchhiker on a desolate highway.
7. Jenny Saville
Jenny Saville‘s unsettling massive female nudes brought her much attention during the 1990s, as she came of age among the Young British Artists. Born in 1970, Saville is best known for these large-scale paintings of nude women, some obese, with their bodies marked up as they would be before having liposuction. Plan (1993), a prime example from this body of work, is also the painting that holds her record at auction. Though Saville has been on the scene for years, she only had her first solo show in Britain in 2012. And interest in her work appears to be on the rise. In February of this year, Plan sold for $3.5 million at Christie’s London, more than doubling its low estimate of $1.3 million.
8. Vija Celmins
Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins is known for her laborious paintings and drawings of images taken from the natural world such as the surface of the moon, the night sky, and the interiors of shells. Her images, which border the photorealistic and the abstract, tend to be her most popular at auction, including Night Sky #14 (1996–97), an oil on linen painting for which her record was set at Christie’s New York in 2013 when it sold for $2.4 million. For Celmins, a 75-year-old artist who has over 40 global exhibitions under her belt since she first started showing in 1965, and whose work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, among many others, Night Sky #14 was only the third work to sell for more than $1 million and may indicate that her auction record is finally catching up to her institutional acclaim.
9. Beatriz Milhazes
Interest in Brazilian born artist Beatriz Milhazes’s vivid kaleidoscopic paintings has been steadily growing since she was invited to participate in the 1995 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t until the Contemporary Art Day auction at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008, at which her work O Mágico (2001) sold for $1.1 million (more than quadrupling the low estimate of $250,000), that that interest seemed to take on more serious proportions. It was the first time the artist’s work would bring in $1 million at auction. But since then, it has surpassed that mark six more times, the most expensive of which was Meu Limão (2000) a work that sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2012 for $2.1 million (tripling its low estimate of $700,000). Though her work has only been at auction some 80 times, more than three dozen of them have sold in the six figures. Fomenting interest and solidifying her global reputation over the past 10 years, Milhazes, who was born in 1960, represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale in 2003; had a 2009 show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris; and has been granted several prominent public art commissions in the UK, including a massive installation along the archways of a London Underground station. While interest is gathering steam, supply is, as always, limited. Milhazes has a meticulous process whereby she applies paint on plastic sheets and later transfers the pigment to canvas to achieve a smooth, brushless surface that shows no sign of the artist’s hand.
10. Lee Bontecou
2003 was a good year for Lee Bontecou. On two consecutive days, the 83-year old artist astonished auction goers by breaking her own record twice. First, on November 11, at Christie’s New York, her welded steel work Untitled (1960) sold for $298,700 roughly six times its low estimate of $50,000. The very next day at Sotheby’s, another welded steel work Untitled (1959-1960), blasted past its presale low estimate, which was also $50,000, tenfold realizing $456,000. Perhaps aided in part by her retrospective that year co-organized by the Hammer Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, the artist who had been living in relative obscurity in Pennsylvania, was yanked back into the spotlight. Her ominous welded steel sculptures (covered with recycled canvas) from 1959 to 1960, which seem to conjure, with all their insectoid armor-like carapaces, gnarly visions of the future, are among her most recognizable works and continue to command high prices at auction. Her record is held by the sale Untitled (1962), which sold at Christie’s New York for $1.9 million in 2010. And with all the talk of the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair, her sculpture in the David H. Koch theater at Lincoln Center, which was commissioned when the buildings were constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair, are decidedly timely and a good way to check out her work whether or not you’ve got millions to spare at auction.
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