It’s hard to find a work that has defined the heights of the art market over the past two decades more dramatically than Jasper Johnss oil False Start, 1959. The canvas, in which splashes of bright colors meet the words representing them — or, more precisely, misrepresenting them, with gray written in red, orange in white and so on — is etched into the memory of anyone who attended the New York evening sale on November 10, 1988. On the 9th, Johns’s encaustic-and-newsprint White Flag had fetched $7 million at Christie’s, making him the most expensive living artist at auction. The next night, Johns surpassed his own record, as False Start earned $17 million at Sotheby’s. (Johns was ultimately surpassed by Damien Hirst, in 2007.)
"It was a watershed moment," says Matthew Marks, who now represents the artist. "You try not to pay attention to these things, but it’s hard."
The record-breaking painting went to Larry Gagosian, bidding for the magazine magnate Si Newhouse. A few years later, Newhouse sold it privately to the entertainment mogul David Geffen. He then unloaded it for $80 million, via Chicago’s Richard Gray Gallery — a secondary-market dealer of Johns’s work — to the Chicago hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin. To say the least, the painting has a high-powered provenance.
But Johns — at age 78, actively working and receiving serious, if not always glowing, reviews — has something more valuable than a record: one of the most powerful and persistent markets of all contemporary artists. The death, in 2008, of his onetime lover and collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg, has only heightened Johns’s own historical, larger-than-life significance and the tremendous interest in his work.
Born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, Johns was primarily raised by relatives after being abandoned by his parents. Art, though, was a constant. "I started drawing when I was three and never stopped," he once said. He decamped for New York as soon as he could, at age 18.
By 1958 he had had his first solo show, with Leo Castelli. It was visited by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which bought four works from the exhibition: Flag, 1954; Green Target, 1955; Target with Four Faces, 1955; and White Numbers, 1957. All are paintings with a sculptural edge, combining such materials as encaustic, newspaper and, in the case of Target with Four Faces, plaster casts in relief.
Johns’s works from the mid to late 1950s, typically viewed as his period of rebellion against Abstract Expressionism, remain his most sought after. In 2007 an encaustic, oil and collage on canvas from 1959, Figure 4, sold at Christie’s for $17.4 million, narrowly edging out False Start for his top price at auction. The work explores the slippery reality of representation: Is the numeral four, painted in the same bright colors as the background, to be read as a number or as the image of a number? "What was extraordinary about this picture," says Laura Paulson, the international director of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, "was that it was owned for a long time by Nina Sundell, the daughter of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, and it’s in fantastic condition."
It was also in 1959 that Johns painted White Numbers, which brought $7.9 million at Christie’s in 1997, and Jubilee, which went for $5 million at Sotheby’s in 1991. "It was an important year for Jasper, and the works he made then, in that middle ground between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, are really coveted," says Anthony Grant, senior international specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby’s, adding that the most valuable works from this time are "monumental paintings for Johns, who is basically an easel-scale painter."
In the 1960s, Johns further developed some of the key themes he established in the ’50s, such as the numerals, flags, alphabets and targets. All of these, says Paulson, "deal with counting, measurement and repetition. He found a way to make that mundaneness very beautiful." And expensive: Three of his top 10 auction records are held by works dealing with flags.
Although Johns’s auction history is illustrious, it consists of remarkably few sales, especially considering the length of his career. Paulson suggests that more material gets traded privately than on the block. Both the artist and Matthew Marks, she points out, "are very careful about how his works go into the world."
Paul Gray, of the Richard Gray Gallery, chalks up Johns’s relatively small number of sales to his limited productivity compared with artists like Rauschenberg. "There just isn’t that much on the market," Gray says. "In the past 10 years, we’ve sold probably half a dozen or 10 works by Johns, ranging from modest works on paper for a few hundred thousand to great sculpture for a few million and False Start for $80 million." (The New York dealers L&M Arts, Gagosian and Greenberg Van Doren also handle occasional sales.)
Matthew Marks has still another theory: "People really treasure their Jasper Johnses. When it comes time to sell, it’s the last thing that they’ll give up."
The rarity of Johns’s work helps explain why demand remains strong for his recent pieces despite the ambivalence of some critics. They have expressed frustration with what they see as the highly coded, veiled or even closeted nature of his work, which the New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman once called a "maze of peekaboo allusions and subterfuges."
Since first including a piece by Johns in a group show in 1991, Marks has given the artist two major exhibitions: a survey of drawings from 1997 to 2007 and, in 2005, a show of his "Catenary" series. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art all made acquisitions of "Catenary" pieces, whose name, derived from the Latin for "chain," refers to the curve of the string hung from two points on the nearly monochromatic, blackboardlike canvases. Demand for these works has been healthy, according to Marks, with drawings going for $400,000 to $700,000 and paintings in the range of $3 million to $6 million. Marks says his function as a dealer is "not so much about generating interest as about finding the right piece for the right person."
What does the economic downturn mean for this bellwether artist? Will more of his material come on the market? Marks hasn’t seen any change on this front to date, but, he says, "I’m waiting for the calls to start coming in."
Paul Gray views the situation differently. "I don’t think we’ll see any real change in the availability of his work," the dealer says. "But the pricing will almost certainly come down, along with nearly everything else."