Juan Gris is cubism’s third pillar. Born in Madrid in 1887, Gris, who began his career as a caricaturist, arrived in Paris in 1906 in time to witness the Cubist revolution, marked by the austere, hermetic, ochre canvases of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. By 1912, Gris had made this pictorial language his own, flooding the closed room of high Cubism with color and light and developing an individual approach to spatial analysis. Over the next five years, he created several of the movement’s most distinctive works. "There is no question that Picasso and Braque invented Cubism," says Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "but Gris got [involved] soon after, and in an exquisite way." In his paintings, she notes, he "has a palette that is more exuberant and multifaceted than Picasso’s or Braque’s."
Last November, at Christie’s otherwise disappointing evening Impressionist and modern sale in New York, a 1915 still life by Gris, Livre, pipe et verres, set a record for the artist, overshooting its estimate of $12.5 million to $18.5 million to fetch the Picasso-level price of $20.8 million. "It was an interesting moment," says Guy Bennett, the senior vice president and head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s. "There had been a lot of turmoil in the markets leading up to this sale." The painting — marked by an elegant use of wood-grained angular planes, with dashes of purple and green — had "a sort of dazzling visual effect as it hung on the wall," he recalls. When the bidding ended, the room broke into applause.
Although Bennett claims that the huge sum fetched "really speaks for the work," others find it grossly inflated. Among them is Isabel Fernández-Montesinos, a director at Madrid’s Galería Elvira González, which handles pieces by modern and contemporary Spanish artists, including Gris. Fernández-Montesinos believes that despite being "very beautiful, very complex," the record-setting painting is not the artist’s best. She terms the vast gap between its price and the £3.9 million ($8 million) paid in February 2008 at Christie’s London for the superior 1917 Violon et journal (est. £3.5-£4.5 million; $7-9 million) outrageous. The latter work is characterized by Gris’s mature, almost architectural approach to deriving complexity from still lifes.
In fact, the most recent auction results for Gris’s work suggest that the November figure is an aberration rather than a trend indicator. In February’s celebrated sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé at Christie’s Paris, the artist’s mid-1914 collage Tasse et pipe (est. €1-1.5 million; $1.3-1.9 million) made €1.1 million ($1.4 million), barely surpassing its low estimate. And his beautifully executed 1913 Le violon, a field of intersecting planes painted in a spectrum of pinks, blues and browns, actually missed its low estimate of €4 million ($5.1 million), going for €3.9 million ($5 million).
Whatever debate there is over the price tag to affix to Gris’s works, there is deep consensus about one aspect of his market: Only seven or eight of the artist’s 17 creative years before his death, in 1927, at age 40 of kidney failure, produced works worth serious consideration. Gris’s 1977 catalogue raisonné, the life’s work of collector and critic Douglas Cooper, lists 621 painted works. The most highly valued of these, as measured by auction performance, are the ones done between 1911, when Gris began dabbling in Cubism, and 1919, when he, along with the rest of the French avant-garde, were turning from formal experimentation to harmonious composition. Paintings completed after 1919 fetch much less than earlier ones. At a day sale at Christie’s London in June 2007, for instance, the sentimental 1924 oil Arlequin et Pierrot (est. £200-300,000; $396-594,000) went for £240,000 ($476,000).
On occasion, Gris’s painted collages from around 1913, typically incorporating paper and mounted on canvas, can rival his best paintings in price. Such was the case for Guitare, a major collage from late 1913 (est. $6-8 million), which brought $6.5 million at Sotheby’s New York in November 2008. As for his drawings, moma’s Temkin believes they have not gotten the critical recognition they deserve. These pieces, which generally stand alone rather than serve as studies for paintings, include both still lifes and portraits often rendered with lines reminiscent of Ingres’s works on paper. "His evocation of character is an underrecognized part of his ability," says Temkin. This lack of appreciation is reflected in the prices, which though generally low, according to Fernández-Montesinos, vary widely. On the one hand, the 1918 Nature morte à la théière (recto); tude de bouteille (verso), still lifes executed in pencil on the two sides of a piece of paper, went for €169,000 ($218,000) against an estimate of €80,000 to €120,000 ($102-153,000) at the Saint Laurent sale. Meanwhile, in April, Fernández-Montesinos’s gallery had the superb pencil portrait Tête de femme on offer for around $60,000.
Michael Findlay, the director of New York’s Acquavella Gallery, says the fluctuation in Gris prices demonstrates that "Cubism continues to be somewhat challenging for the collecting world." Alexander Platon, a director of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s London, estimates that about one-third of Gris’s principal paintings and collages are in the hands of private collectors. Among these lucky few is Leonard Lauder, the chairman of Estée Lauder Companies. The British art historian John Richardson credits Lauder with purchasing "the cream" of Douglas Cooper’s important Cubist collection when it was sold by Cooper’s heir in the period after his death in 1984. Fernández-Montesinos points to Lauder as a possible winner of the record-breaking Livre, pipe et verres.
On the institutional side, the museum world is rediscovering Gris. In 2005, Madrid’s Reina Sofia held a retrospective that placed his works on paper and his later paintings alongside the better-known paintings and collages of the 1910s. At MoMA, Temkin has redone the Cubist galleries with the aim, in part, of making "more of a splash for Gris." Featured are two of his paintings — including Still Life with Flowers, 1912, which turns objects on a table into a view as multifaceted as a diamond. "It’s the first time," says Temkin, "that Gris has had his own wall since we opened."