artnet News’ Top 10 Most Expensive Living French Artists
France's auction stars, from Pierre Soulages and Claude Lalanne to Daniel Buren.
artnet News’s ongoing series on the world’s most expensive living artists by nationality turns next to the French—after previous installments devoted to the Brits and the Germans. And a quick glance at the list below is enough to realize how isolated (others might say undervalued) the market for French art remains. Only three of the auction records presented here hit the million-dollar mark.
Perhaps surprisingly, the generation of French contemporary artists best-known abroad—the likes of Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and Xavier Veilhan—is nowhere to be seen. The youngest artist to make the cut is Huang Yong Ping, who turns 60 this year.
It is also worth noting that only one of these records was achieved in the French capital. Most of the others were set in London and New York. As a marketplace, Paris still has a lot to prove.
1. Pierre Soulages
The master of dark abstraction is something of a national treasure. The artist, now 94, celebrated his 90th birthday with a major exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2010. A Soulages Museum will be inaugurated in Rodez, in the South of France, at the end of May. Soulages became the country’s most expensive artist at auction in 2013, when his Peinture, 21 novembre 1959 (1959) sold for $6,651,08 at Sotheby’s London, doubling its presale estimate. According to arnet Analytics, the average value of Soulages’s non-print work has increased by 680 percent over the last decade, in tune with the growing interest for post-war abstract art.
2. Martial Raysse
Martial Raysse was a key member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, a proto-Pop movement also including Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, César, and Arman. L’année dernière à Capri (titre exotique), which set the artist’s record when it reached $6,542,323 at Christie’s London in 2011, crystallizes some of the group’s concern with found objects and mass media. It was painted in 1962, a year during which the artist spent a lot of time in New York, and also resonates with the work of Raysse’s American contemporaries Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist.
3. Claude Lalanne
Claude Lalanne and her late husband François-Xavier started exhibiting together in the 1950s, when abstract art was all the rage. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé were among the very few who appreciated the sculptors’ talents. Inspired by animals (usually François-Xavier) or plants (usually Claude), the pair made sculptures with practical uses, walking the line between art and design. Claude Lalanne’s Ensemble de quinze miroirs aux branchages (various sizes) (1974) fetched $2,375,288 at the sale of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection at Christie’s Paris in 2009. Interest in the Lalannes’ work is now on an upward trend. The record for François-Xavier Lalanne’s work was set in 2011 with Moutons de Pierre (10 works, circa 1979), which sold for $7,474,500 at Christie’s New York, 10 times its presale estimate.
Although mostly associated with the New York Pop scene, Marisol Escobar, known as Marisol, was born in Paris to Venezuelan parents. She moved to the US as a teenager. Her record was set with the sale of the large installation The Cocktail Party (1972) for $912,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2005. It is composed of 15 life-size figures, all bearing the artist’s features. “When I first sculpted those big figures, I would look at them and they would scare me,” the artist said at the time. “Late at night they looked as if they were alive.”
Jean-Pierre Cassigneul’s record wasn’t set during a postwar and contemporary art sale, but at an Impressionist and modern art sale—and it might not be by chance. His oils on canvas are infused with the memory of the late-19th and early-20th century. Dans la Roseraie (1975), which went for 10 times its pre-sale estimate, fetching $893,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2013, is a case in point. Although painted in 1975, it evokes Van Dongen and Gauguin with what can only be described as nostalgist brushstrokes.
6. Bernar Venet
Bernar Venet has been associated with lyrical abstraction, and Nouveau Réalisme, but it’s his minimal Indeterminate Lines sculpturesthat have had most success at auction. His record is for the 2008 piece Four indeterminate lines. It sold for $722,500 at Sotheby’s Doha, in Qatar in 2009.
7. François Morellet
The godfather of French geometric abstraction, François Morellet has pursued quasi-scientific research in the field, most notably through the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, founded in 1960. His record was set in 2010 at Sotheby’s Amsterdam with the sale of 2 Trames de tirets 0° 90° for $590,060. The 1972 piece is emblematic of Morellet’s experiments with superimposed lines, started two decades earlier, and designed to reduce the artist’s decision process to an absolute minimum.
8. Daniel Buren
It is surprising to find Daniel Buren, undoubtedly one of the country’s best-known artists, so low on the list. But his fame owes much more to his monumental installations than it does to his canvases. Peinture émail sur toile de cotton, the piece that set Buren’s auction record when it sold for $542,500 at Phillips de Pury New York in 2010—dates from 1965. Then a young graduate, Buren had only just adopted the 8.7cm-wide stripes that were to become his trademark. They crop up here in an enamel-on-canvas piece painted at the Grapetree Bay Hotel on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix, which had commissioned frescos from the artist.
9. Françoise Gilot
Françoise Gilot is better-known as Picasso’s long-time muse and partner, and the mother of their children Claude and Paloma. But she is also an artist, whose commitment to art predates her encounter with the modern giant, and has continued since she left him in 1953. The top price for her work was achieved with Les Peintres (1952), which sold for $509,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2013, hot on the heels of the “Picasso and Françoise Gilot” exhibition held at Gagosian on Madison Avenue the previous year.
10. Huang Yong Ping
Huang Yong Ping, who represented France at the 1999 Venice Biennale, is by far the youngest on the list. Born in 1954 in Xiamen, China, he went to Paris in 1989 for the now-legendary exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre,” curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, and has lived in France since. Among the best-known conceptual artists hailing from China, Huang Yong Ping’s influences range from John Cage and Arte Povera to Chinese philosophy. The record for his work was set in 2009 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, with the 1999 Sixty-year cycle chariot, which sold for $436,129.
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