The Abstractionists Lead the oil Painting Market, What Makes the Unreadable Paintings Sell so Well?

Among the most expensive paintings at auction in the world, abstract art is a common sight. When this unintelligible painting sells for hundreds of millions of dollars, one wonders: how can a work that looks like anyone can paint be so valuable? Today, let’s enter the world of abstract painting and understand the mystery!

Abstraction fever in the auction market

In today’s auction market, abstract miracles are not uncommon, and various auction data show that abstract works have become a trend to sell. On the evening of May 15, Christie’s New York 20th Century Art Week “Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale” was held. Among them, Kazimir Malevich’s abstract painting “suprematist composition” in the form of consultation price auction, $60 million starting, $76 million hammer, plus commission finally sold for $85.81 million, about 537 million yuan, a world auction record for his works, but also the most expensive Russian art.

Kazimir Malevich “Suprematist Composition

Just a few days ago, on the evening of May 9, the second evening auction of the Century Sale – “The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller” – went under the hammer, with 41 lots covering Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Willem de Kooning, among other outstanding American artists of the 20th century. The second sale of the “Rockefellers’ Collection” was completed with 41 lots. Among them, de Kooning’s late abstract work Untitled XIX sold for $14,262,500, making it the highest priced work in the auction.

De Kooning’s Untitled XIX

Zao Wou-ki’s paintings sold in Paris galleries 20 years ago for no more than $50,000, but nowadays, whenever they appear on the auction block, they generate records in the tens of millions of dollars. On the evening of May 27, 2017, the sale of 29.09.64 at Christie’s Hong Kong ended up at HK$152.86 million, putting Zao’s works in the “Billion Dollar Club”. Zao Wou-ki’s “fever” was particularly intense, not only witnessing the vibrancy of the Asian modern art market, but also highlighting Zao Wou-ki’s charm as a reigning figure in both the Eastern and Western art worlds. A few months later at Christie’s Hong Kong Autumn Auction “Evening Sale of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Art”, Zao Wou-ki’s “29.01.64” sold for HK$202.6 million after 13 minutes of bidding, setting a new personal record for the second time in 2017. The last time this record was rewritten was only six months ago. Successive auction records were set, and each time the improvement was more than 35%. This is, as Christie’s Asia’s International Director of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Art Zhang Ding Yuan said, “In the art trading market, Zao Wou-ki’s best era has clearly come.” And it also represents, to some extent, the onset of the abstract painting boom!

Zao Wou-ki, 29.09.64

Unreadable = expensive?

The explosion of abstract art is most strongly evidenced in the auction market. Data from major auction houses show that abstract works have always been at the top of the “pyramid”. In the world’s most expensive works at auction, abstract art has the highest price, ranking first. But at the same time, abstract art is very contradictory, many people feel that it is not beautiful and unintelligible, but many others feel that abstract art is one of the greatest achievements of human art.

What is the rationale for abstract painting being so expensive? The reason lies in the logic of art history, and the logic of capital is to follow the logic of art history. Indeed, abstract painting no theme, no characters, no narrative, no plot, only color combinations plus dotted lines, the godfather of American abstract expressionist art, Greenberg once said, is because of abstract art, the concept, theme, characters, narrative from art completely removed, art has become pure and clean, art is the real art, art is no longer reduced to a political tool, bending to what the main theme and the pursuit of positive Only then will art become pure and clean. Abstract art is the “flat revolution” of painting, the sum of formalist painting, and the highest achievement of modernist art.

The earliest abstract art works were painted by Kandinsky around 1910, which is only a little over a hundred years ago. Since China’s modern art is dominated by realism, most people can’t understand abstract art, because of the lack of abstract aesthetic awareness training.

Abstract art was the ultimate goal of Western modernist art pioneered by Cézanne, and the greatest achievement in the history of Western modernist art. However, abstract painting is not so easy to understand in the West, even for the ordinary viewers living in the same cultural soil, but it is an artistic and cultural progress. In the twentieth century, Western artists who cherished freedom began to explore breakthroughs, trying to get rid of the traditional concept that painting must imitate nature, thus gradually formed abstract oil painting. As Arsene Polibny added, “Although the value of abstract painting cannot be underestimated, it has still not become an integral part of popular culture”. For the Chinese audience, Western modern abstract art is more of a heavenly book that is difficult to decipher. For the Western audience, the main reason for not understanding abstract art is the professional barrier; for the Chinese audience, besides the professional barrier, there is a more important reason for the difference in worldview and way of thinking.

From the above analysis, we can see that it is not because we can’t understand the abstract oil painting that its value becomes high, the reason for the high price of the painting and the meaning of the painting itself is inseparable. We often say we can’t understand abstract oil painting, but if we quietly appreciate it, we believe we can always understand its essence!

The development of abstractionism

Abstraction is the relative concept of figuration. It is the concept of extracting the common denominator of many things and synthesizing them into a new concept, which is called abstraction. Abstract painting is a general term for the 20th century painting style that wanted to move away from imitating nature. In the 1930s and after World War II, various forms derived from the concept of abstraction became the most popular and characteristic art styles of the twentieth century. The development of contemporary Chinese modern abstract art and contemporary Chinese abstract Chinese painting is mainly in two situations. One is the exogenous “East-meets-West” contemporary abstract art, which is mainly the Chinese modern art and contemporary art with reference to the Western contemporary art system.

Palisade” by Willem de Kooning

Abstract painting is based on intuition and imagination, and rejects any symbolic, literary or illustrative expressions, and only synthesizes and organizes shapes and colors on the screen. Therefore, the pure form and color presented in abstract painting is similar to music. The development trend of abstract painting can be roughly divided into: geometric abstraction (or cold abstraction), which is based on Cézanne’s theory and developed through Cubism, Constructivism and Neo-Formism. It is characterized by a geometric tendency. This school of painting can be represented by Mondrian; the other is lyrical abstraction (or hot abstraction). This school is based on the artistic concept of Gauguin, developed by Fauvism and Expressionism, and has a romantic tendency. This school can be represented by Kandinsky.

Kandinsky’s “White Line Composition

In fact, since the 1980s, the development of Chinese abstract painting has always had a reference system of Western abstract art. The internal reason is that, after the end of the “Chinese Cultural Revolution” in 1976, the art world began to emerge from the “Cultural Revolution art”, to get rid of the cultural function of art serving politics and mainstream ideology, and to gradually restore artists’ creative freedom and rebuild art The external reason is that, since 1978, the art world has been in a state of flux. The external reason is that since 1978, the Chinese government has implemented the economic development strategy of “reform and opening up”, and the economic reform that came along with the “emancipation of the mind” inevitably faced the challenge of learning from the West in the field of culture and art. It is in this context that the emergence of abstract painting in China has at least a double significance: one is to restore the creative freedom of artists and reshape the ontological value of art. The other is that, due to the elitism, individualism and cultural rebellion spirit of Western abstract art, the emergence of abstract painting in China also had the cultural enlightenment color of rebellion against autocracy, desire for liberation and call for freedom from the very beginning.

Zao Wou-ki, 24.12.2002-Diptych

Some people regard Western modern abstract art as the opposite of traditional realistic art, and think that abstract art is a betrayal of realistic art. We should know that, although abstract art and realistic art are so different, but the two have a lineage of inherent connection. In essence, Western realistic art and abstract art are the products of rationalism, the difference between the two is only the difference between Newton’s classical physics and Einstein’s modern physics. Abstract art represents the new achievements of Westerners in the age of industrial civilization in exploring the universe and its mysteries by means of modern science. In a strict sense, abstract art, like realistic art, is not a subjective fabrication of the artist; it is a true representation of the objective world.

Mondrian’s work “Composition A

Future value trend prediction

If abstract art has its special characteristics, then it lies in its more open scope. In terms of a narrow “abstraction”, we can’t seem to find the beginning and the end of its history, and it’s hard to cover the motives and purposes of artists with one or two ideas. It seems that there is always something called abstraction, and under the same name there are many different artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Koonin, Pollock, Miro, Malevich, Fontana and so on. From this level, the evaluation of the value of abstract art works, the creation of the motive, the purpose of the grasp is more important, which is also the difficulty of the evaluation of abstract art.

Jackson Pollock, No. 5, 1948

As a style of art that has always been mind-boggling, abstract painting has been unprecedentedly hot in the foreign auction market, while in China has been a cold door. With the rebound of the domestic auction market, as well as the continuous drive of the foreign abstract market, before in the domestic attention less abstract painting category has been the attention of funds, including Zao Wou-ki, Zhu Dequn and other abstract painting master’s works in the domestic and foreign auction market repeatedly shot sky-high prices. Obviously, in the international art investment market occupies an important seat of abstract art, is hot in the Chinese auction market!

Jackson Pollock “14 in Grey

As for the current market trend of abstract style, curator Li Xu believes that the current urban construction mode is becoming more internationalized, and the design tendency of various public and private spaces is becoming more and more concise, the trend of abstract artworks occupying an important visual position under such a status quo is irreversible, which is an objective visual demand triggered by the overall living environment of the urbanization era. In addition, the continued development of the art market needs a new economic growth point, in a type of work sales rise and gradually become weak, as soon as possible to seek new profit points and value-added space will be the common direction of the entire market. Analysts said, China’s art market is ushering in the plate rotation era, in this sense, the domestic abstract art by the collection community “lag”, but also because of this “lag”, may be the achievement of abstract art collection opportunities.

If you’ve been paying attention to the abstract painting market, you’ve seen a gallery emerge at this point in time whose two founders are “the most unbeatable” art brokers. About a month or so after the duo was founded, Dominique Lévy, one of the world’s top contemporary art brokers, and Brett Gorvy, former Christie’s executive and chairman and international head of the Post-War and Contemporary Art department, immediately realized their first high-profile exhibition, a two-person solo show of Willem de Kooning and Zao Wou-ki Such a strong combination will be a powerful force in the future of abstract painting and will further enhance the market impact of the abstract school!

Brett Gorvy and Dominique Lévy of Lévy Gorvy Gallery


With the market operation of auction houses and galleries, the aesthetic of abstract art is slowly changing for everyone in China, and the overall acceptance of abstract works in China has been increasing in the past two years. However, because the segment is not fully mature, some of the abstract works with value are complicated and difficult to interpret, which hinders their market recognition. But we believe that in the future development of the market, the abstract painting school will be more understood and accepted!