AbEx Pioneer Kikuo Saito Achieves a New Record in Artnet’s Post-War Abstraction Sale

The painting 'Sugar Moon' reach a new record in last month's GEMS: Collecting Post-War Abstraction sale.

Kikuo Saito, Sugar Moon (2011). Price realized: $175,000.

Last month, in the Artnet Auctions sale GEMS: Collecting Post-War Abstraction, Kikuo Saito’s Sugar Moon (2011) broke the artist’s previous auction record, setting a new all-time high with a price realized of $175,000, far surpassing the high estimate of $100,000. The 54-by-71.5-inch oil on canvas painting is the latest example of an overall record-setting trend Saito’s work has seen over the past few years. His previous six auction records were also all set within Artnet Auctions sales, with Sea Rose (2013) reaching $162,500 in February 2023, and Clay House (2013) in February 2022.

Abstract gestural painting with colors swirling over a beige canvas ground.

Kikuo Saito, Sea Rose (2013) set the previous auction record for the artist at $162,500, also achieved with Artnet Auctions in February 2023

Speaking of reception to Saito’s work in the greater art market, Artnet Auctions’ Co-Head of Postwar and Contemporary Martina Batovic commented, “There is increasing demand in the market for works by historically important artists who have been overlooked over the years, and Saito—and the quality of his works—is no exception. Artnet Auctions currently holds 9 out of the top 10 auction records for the artist, and every time we offer a work by him, we have a strong contingent of international collectors bidding in the auctions.”

Echoing this sentiment, Senior Specialist of Post-War and Contemporary Jason Rulnick added, “There is a very international audience now for his work. We recently had bidding between Japan, Switzerland, and the U.S., we have also had bidding in the past for Saito from Germany and Hong Kong.”

Abstract gestural painting predominantly in greens, blues, yellow, and some orange.

Kikuo Saito, Clay House (2013). Price realized: $100,000.

Saito was born in Tokyo in 1939 and began painting while a teenager. At the age of 27, he moved to New York City, where he later took painting classes at the Art Students League, introducing him to fellow artists as well as new styles and techniques. Accompanying his painting practice, Saito was deeply involved with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, creating props and costumes, designing sets, and developing theater productions—all of which saw Saito synthesize elements of Japanese avant-garde with his own distinct style.

The artist’s first solo exhibition in the city was in 1976 at Deitcher O’Reilly, and over the next decade, he went on to exhibit widely and have his work acquired by several major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Abstract painting full of gestural brushstrokes of sherbet orange, bubblegum pink, red, and puce.

Detail of Sugar Moon (2011).

“Kikuo Saito worked alongside some of the greatest painters in the movements of post-war abstraction and Color Field painting, he worked as an assistant to Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Larry Poons,” said Rulnick on the artist’s significance within the context of 20th-century art history.

“Saito’s work presents the best of gestural and lyrical abstraction, and the movement and subtlety of his works is something that resonates with clients; they appreciate the texture, gestural quality, and emotion of the works, and they want to be part of that narrative by owning the work,” continued Batovic.

Sugar Moon is rife with vibrant color and an edge-to-edge composition that subsumes the eye and is in many ways representative of his practice on the whole. “Sugar Moon achieving a world record price for the artist at auction came as no surprise to us since we know that Saito’s late works bring all of his experience of working across Color Field, lyrical and gestural abstraction, and theater—all of which were a big part of his life and practice leading up to this work,” Batovic said. 

Explore current sales on Artnet Auctions here.

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