Next up in our series of the world’s most expensive living artists: the Americans. Auction results reveal both the usual suspects as well as some surprises, making this list more diverse than might have been expected. Some of these artists are auction darlings with thousands of works on the block, while others have had nary 100 lots to their name. Many of these examples demonstrate a taste for Americana, whether kitschy objects that reference a peculiarly American innocence, or works that defy that guileless posture or otherwise engage the country’s culture and history.
1. Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons, unsurprisingly, dominates the artnet ranking for the most expensive living American artists. As of last November’s sale at Christie’s New York, his Balloon Dog (Orange) (Executed in 1994–2000), which went for $58.4 million, broke the world’s record for the highest price ever paid for an artwork by a living artist and also moved Koons into the top spot for this ranking globally (beating out Gerhard Richter, the top living German artist, who formerly held the position).
Koons has been a top-selling American artist for years, at least since 2001, when his 1988 work Michael Jackson and “Bubbles” sold for $5.6 million at Sotheby’s New York. Of the 1,378 times his work has appeared at auction, 29 of those lots are among the top 100 sales by American artists, according to artnet Analytics, more than that of any other American artist. Five of those (which are all from his beloved “Celebration” series—a series of large-scale sculptures conceived in 1994 that was so costly the project had to be funded in part by selling off works before they were fabricated) are in the top 10. Koons’s upcoming retrospective at the Whitney, the last show before the museum’s move downtown, might have had something to do with his recent market dominance, or vice versa. Perhaps it’s a case of which came first, the chicken or the Cracked Egg.
2. Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns rose to prominence in the 1950s, when his paintings of recognizable symbols—like targets, numbers, and flags—served as rebellious gestures against the Abstract Expressionist practice of using the canvas as a platform for abstract personal expression. Inspired by a dream he had of the American flag, his paintings of flags from that period are among his most celebrated works, and those for which he’s best known. MoMA owns a 1954–55 version, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a white monochromatic version, White Flag (1955), in 1998. During the 1960s and 70s, Johns created over 40 works based on the flag. It’s no surprise that one of these, Flag (1960–66), in encaustic (a wax and pigment blend) and paper collage on canvas, became his top-selling work at auction when it sold for $28.6 million at Christie’s New York in May 2010, nearly tripling its low estimate of $10 million.
3. Christopher Wool
When Christopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now (1988) sold for $26.5 million at Christie’s New York in November 2013, it far outpaced the artist’s earlier auction record of $7.7 million and instantly placed him among the ranks of the highest-selling American artists. The painting, one of his iconic black-stenciled-letter-on-white-canvas numbers that features the line “Sell the house sell the car sell the kids” from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film Apocalypse Now, also made waves because of its last minute withdrawal by a private collector (believed to be former hedge-fund manager David Ganek) from the Guggenheim retrospective only days before the show opened in October, in order to place it in the sale. Known for capturing the mood of the high-flying eighties, Wool’s paintings resonate just as much, if not more strongly, in today’s heady art market.
4. Brice Marden
Born in Bronxville, New York in 1938, Brice Marden came of age as a painter at a time when painting was all but pronounced dead. While he started with muted monochromatic paintings, which were the subject of his first solo show in 1966 at Bykert Gallery, it is one of his more recent works, The Attended (1996-99)—an oil on canvas painting with a thick network of curving calligraphic lines (a form he began exploring in the late 1980s) in yellow, green, and red—that ultimately broke the $10 million mark at auction when it sold for $10.9 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2013. The work was sold by SAC Capital founder Steven Cohen. Although Marden, who had a well-received retrospective at MoMA in 2006, may not have altered the course of painting à la Jackson Pollock or Johns, he gets kudos for having made painting gorgeous and promising again.
5. Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman is something of an anomaly on this list. Though a towering figure of postwar American art who is highly sought-after by some of the most prominent collectors, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from his auction record. His name, in fact, only appeared once in the top hundred works sold by American artists. The work that places him there, the punny 1967 plaster and wax sculpture Henry Moore bound to fail (Back view), created from a photograph of Nauman’s back with his arms tied behind him, finds Nauman contending as a young artist with the lionized reputation of British sculptor Henry Moore. The work sold at Christie’s in May 2001 for $9.9 million, almost five times its low estimate of $2 million, and more than twice his next highest price achieved at auction—$4 million for the 2009 sale of one of his seminal neon works, Violins violence silence (1987). But as a sign that he’s still very much on the radar of major collectors and institutions, in 2011 Christie’s owner Francois Pinault (a significant collector of the 72-year-old artist’s work) went into a joint purchase with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art of Nauman’s For Beginners (2010), a video showing Nauman’s hand enacting all of the 31 possible positions of the fingers on a single human hand.
6. Robert Ryman
When Robert Ryman’s minimalist 1962 painting, Untitled, sold for $9.7 million to an avid phone bidder at Sotheby’s New York in 2006, it didn’t just break the artist’s auction record, it exceeded it by more than threefold (the previous record was $2.3 million), and more than doubled its low estimate of $4 million. The work, one of the 83-year-old artist’s earliest, displays Ryman’s penchant for experimentations with white on white, this one an oil-and-charcoal painting on stretched canvas. Though the sale indicated a potential spike in interest in Ryman’s work, his paintings have not fared as well post-recession and have been trickling out at auction fetching in the lower ballpark range of $2–3 million. Last year, however, his work Convention (2002) sold for $6.9 million at Sotheby’s New York, indicating that he may yet be on the verge of another moment on the market.
7. Richard Prince
Richard Prince’s nurse paintings, inspired by the chintzy covers of pulp fiction novels, are the artist’s most popular works at auction. While Prince’s work has come up at auction some 1,270 times (as per the artnet Price Database), and his name appears 13 times in the top 100 sales, his top 10 lots are all from his nurse paintings series, and of the top 25 lots, all but four bear images of nurses—the other four are split evenly between his text paintings and reappropriated imagery of cowboys. His auction record was set in 2008 by Overseas Nurse (2002), a hot pink and red number, which sold for $8.5 million (within, but on the low side of, its $8–$12 million estimate) at Sotheby’s London. The inkjet and acrylic work on canvas was consigned by British collector Frank Cohen and was part of a historic sale. Realizing $189 million, that summer sale at Sotheby’s was the highest on record for a contemporary sale in Europe.
8. David Hammons
Unlike most of the other contenders on this list, David Hammons—much of whose work reflects his devotion to Civil Rights and the Black Power movement—has kept the art world at arm’s length for most of his career, in part by refusing to join a commercial gallery. Thus, he notably turned heads in 2007 when he staged his first show at L&M Arts, an installation of painted and singed fur coats. He joined the gallery and is still with Dominique Lévy (the “L” in “L&M Arts”) today. His record was set at Phillips New York in November 2013, when his sculpture, Untitled (2000), a basketball hoop and backboard fashioned from steel, crystal, brass, and frosted glass, with light fixtures, sold for $8 million, exceeding its estimate of $5–7 million and far surpassing his earlier record of $2.3 million. That previous record was set by Untitled (1996), a sculpture fashioned from African masks, wire, and string that sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2011. Thus far, five of the 70-year-old artist’s works have broken the million-dollar mark. Though he is known for his works from the 1970s and ’80s, it’s his work from the ’90s and 2000s that has fetched the highest prices at auction.
9. Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha’s drawings, paintings, photographs, and artist books depicting the iconography of Southern California—from gas stations to the swimming pools of suburban homes—hold a particular place among artworks that take as their subject matter emblems of American culture. His book Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (published the year of his first solo show at LA’s legendary Ferus Gallery), though poorly received initially, later achieved cult status and has been considered the first modern artist’s book. It’s no surprise, then, that among the 2,842 works by the artist that have hit the block—50 of which have broken the million-dollar mark—the one holding the top spot at auction is Burning Gas Station (1965–66), an oil-and-graphite work on canvas which sold for just under $7 million at Christie’s New York in 2007. Ruscha, who has been showing with the Gagosian Gallery since 1993, has a show of prints and photographs opening at the Madison Avenue gallery on May 8 and will be unveiling his first public project in New York, a mural overlooking the High Line, on May 6.
10. 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. It also puts her among the artists on this list. The work, of silkscreen ink on aluminum plate, depicts a black-and-white image of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he’s being shot, 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. Noland, who was born in 1956 and is the daughter of Color Field painter Kenneth Noland, made other news at that same 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.