Louise Nevelson Was Once as Famous as Andy Warhol. Here’s Why Her Market Has Lagged So Far Behind Her Peers
A collision of factors wreaked havoc on the market for the installation art pioneer.
Louise Nevelson, best known for her monochromatic painted wood sculptures, is considered one of the most important postwar artists—but her market has only recently begun to catch up.
During her lifetime, Nevelson—a woman with an incredible sense of personal style, which was also a part of her work—was as famous as Andy Warhol. In the 1960s and ‘70s, she couldn’t walk down the street without being mobbed for an autograph. An Abstract Expressionist and contemporary of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Nevelson’s crucial role in the history of 20th-century art includes being an unsung pioneer of installation art, who began creating environments and walls as early as the 1940s. She also worked in collage, and made assemblages from found objects chosen for pure form, whose original identities she would obliterate with paint.
But Nevelson’s $1.4 million record, achieved just last year, lags far behind her male contemporaries. Rothko and Newman’s records stand at $86.9 million and $84.2 million, respectively (not to mention Warhol’s $195 million high-water mark). It is also far outstripped by even female contemporary Louise Bourgeois’s $32 million record.
Now, a renewed awareness of Nevelson’s legacy is beginning to have a ripple effect on her market. She is included in Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition “The Milk of Dreams” at the Venice Biennale (where, 60 years ago, she represented the U.S.), and is also the subject of an official collateral exhibition at the Procuratie Vecchie. Her market is beginning to heat up, so we dug into its history and drew from Artnet’s price database to find out what else could be driving the spike in interest.
Auction Record: $1.4 million, achieved at Christie’s New York in May 2021
Nevelson’s Performance in 2021
Lots sold: 130
Bought in: 23
Sell-through rate: 85 percent
Average sale price: $57,604
Mean estimate: $40,139
Total sales: $7.5 million
Top painting price: $86,775
Lowest painting price: $8,125
Lowest overall price: $453, for a signed 1974 screen print from an edition of 90.
- Chokehold on supply. From the 1960s until her death, in 1988, Nevelson’s market was skyrocketing, and her fame repeatedly led to sold-out shows. But after she died, there was a choke on the supply of her work. According to a biography on the artist, Nevelson’s son, Mike Nevelson—who inherited most of the work—took everything off the market for more than a decade, and restricted her gallery, Pace, from showing her sculptures.
- Turnaround. With nothing flowing to the market, Nevelson’s 1989 auction record ($253,000) was dormant for nearly two decades. When her son eventually released inventory in the early 2000s, Pace acquired some of it to add to its small collection of important works that it had held back from the market since before her death. In 2007, the artist’s record was finally broken, and since then her work has sold for higher prices 41 other times. To date, her top 15 auction prices are all in excess of $500,000.
- Watershed moment. While the market has been on the rise over the past five years, 2021 was the best year for Nevelson’s market to date, with $7.5 million in total sales and a new record of $1.4 million, achieved by a white painted wood construction at Christie’s New York in May. Her outings in Venice have only served to ramp up interest from museums and collectors, and some 2,632 users have searched artnet’s price database for Louise Nevelson in the past 12 months.
- Size matters. Nevelson’s most sought-after works tend to be those that are more domestically scaled. Her totem-like “columns” are easier to collect than one of her enormous sculptures, which requires an entire wall. Columns are hard to come by on the primary market and could set you back as much as $750,000. Other smaller wall-mounted sculptures that hang like a painting are also in demand (Pace sold a Floating Cloud, Cryptic VII (1977) for $125,000 at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019). A slightly lesser-known but highly sought-after body of work are welded together scrap metal pieces from the “Seventh Decade Garden” series Nevelson created in her 70s, which are selling on the primary market for more than $1 million.
- Museum interest. While her work is in the collection of most major museums, her inclusion in the Venice Biennale seemed to remind some of what they were missing. Important works from the 1960s and ‘80s that had been held back from the market for generations were acquired by museums from that exhibition (reportedly priced between $2 million and $3 million). Her most sought-after museum pieces include her largest complex walls or environments she called “sky cathedrals,” such as the one owned by MoMA.
While Nevelson holds an undeniably important place in art history, a seesaw of events stymied her market growth. Amid her son’s clampdown on supply to the market, there was also a shift in taste away from Nevelson’s formalist aesthetic, with interest flocking (mostly posthumously) to the more overtly feminist work of Louise Bourgeois.
Now, different currents are coming together to force a reevaluation of Nevelson’s oeuvre. There’s a renewed interest in excavating overlooked figures in art history, particularly women, and amid ballooning prices for her male Ab-Ex contemporaries, there seems to be ample opportunity in her undervalued market. One place where there is room to grow is her spectacular collages, which were shown in two galleries in the Venice show, many of which can still be acquired for under $100,000.
Prices achieved for her more domestically scaled works at the auctions in May evince the heat funneling into her secondary market. One of her columns, Rain Forest Column XXI, sold for $630,000 at Phillips’s 20th century and contemporary day sale, more than four times its upper estimate. Another column, Dream House XIV, sold at Christie’s online for $214,200, more than twice its high estimate. Other series have also been outperforming expectations: a black wall-mounted sculpture, Moon Zag X, sold at Sotheby’s contemporary day sale for $201,600, double its low estimate. At Christie’s postwar and contemporary day sale, another black sculpture, Tropical Tree X, sold for $239,400, thrice its low estimate.
All this is to say, Nevelson’s market is certainly one to watch.
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