When Marlene Dumas received the prestigious Johannes Vermeer Award from the Dutch state this past October, the notoriously polemical painter—and one of the most successful female artists of all time—took the opportunity to touch on a range of hot-button issues in her brief acceptance speech. The South African–born, Amsterdam-based artist highlighted the urgent need to buttress support for the arts amid budget cuts in the Netherlands, and she backed up her words by donating the €100,000 in prize money to De Ateliers, the art institute where she teaches. She also called for immigration reform. And tucked into her speech was an unexpected appeal to the art world. “I plead that art evaluation will not drown in market fundamentalism,” she said. “Sometimes I think...blessed are they who have been spared the frenzy of the auction houses.”
In fact, few artists have had as complex a relationship with the art market as Dumas, 59. Over the years, she has built a deeply devoted fan base for her painterly, vaguely expressionistic renditions touching on some of the darker aspects of existence, from birth, death, and desire to the human body, race, and war. But her seemingly meteoric rise to market stardom in the middle of the last decade—when several of her works shot past low to mid six-figure estimates to sell for more than $1 million—exposed her to the kind of criticism that often orbits celebrity.
Dumas is credited, in part, with making figurative painting relevant again in the 1990s, using bodies and faces to untangle the subjects of representation and identity at a time when other media were considered better tools for that task. Through the use of ghostly passages and dark outlines, she transformed images collected from newspapers, magazines, her own photographs, and other media. Often rendering faces masklike and flesh corpselike, she developed her own immediately recognizable brand of appropriation.
“It could be seen in dialogue with photography, with other kinds of painting, even with certain kinds of conceptual art that had a political or social subtext to it,” says Cornelia Butler, curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, who organized the Dumas survey “Measuring Your Own Grave” that toured MOCA in Los Angeles, and the Menil Collection as well as MOMA in 2007 and 2008. “I would argue that’s why it gained currency at that particular time.”
While detractors link Dumas’s success to the public’s appetite for the taboo subjects she frequently presents, from pornography to Abu Ghraib, a strong contingent of collectors and curators has embraced her work for its no-holds-barred approach to difficult subject matter. “She articulates the human condition as few others can do, and we can all relate to the failures, torments, insecurities she expresses,” says Mera Rubell, who with her husband, Donald, was among the earliest American collectors of her work. The Rubell Family Collection, in Miami, has 11 Dumas paintings and watercolors dating from 1984 to 2005.
According to Gabriela Palmieri, senior specialist in the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s, the intense draw of the work is what keeps much of it off the market. “There is a real emotional component to collecting Dumas,” says Palmieri. “You bring offers to collectors, but to pry one away is nearly impossible.”
Dumas is highly prolific when it comes to paper, and her watercolors can fetch anywhere from $15,000 for a cursory image to more than $150,000 for one of her haunting female nudes. The Morning Light, 1997, a nude figure that hovers somewhere between swamp creature and sex goddess, brought £205,000 ($322,500) at Christie’s London in February 2012.
Her canvases are another story. They appear at auction with far less frequency and seem even harder to come by through private sales, often going straight to institutions or private collectors who place them in foundations or promise them to museums. Her better earlier canvases, when they surface, tend to hover just above the $1 million mark; her record at auction, £3.18 million ($6.3 million), set in 2008, was something of a fluke. Dumas’s recent canvases never come to auction, and the fact that her 2010 painting My Mother Before She Became My Mother brought $2 million at Artists for Haiti, a benefit auction held at Christie’s New York in September 2011, attests to the hunger for her new work. “Yes, everyone wanted to help Haiti,” says Palmieri. “But the fact that a painting with an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000, which represents a primary price, goes for $2 million says to me that those bidders vying for it have basically been waiting for a new painting to be produced out of the studio.”
According to Arno Verkade, head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s Amsterdam, there has never been much work by Dumas on the open market. “For a long time, Paul Andriesse [in Amsterdam] was her only dealer, and he was in a strong position to sell most of her work to institutions,” Verkade says. The Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam are among the European institutions that have significant holdings of her work. “I think she and her galleries are quite strict. They can be very critical about who they sell to.” None of the artist’s various dealers would discuss historical or current primary market prices. In what is perhaps a sign of how carefully the galleries place work, selecting buyers by reputation rather than by high bid, Dumas’s portrait of the late Amy Winehouse, Amy-Blue, 2011, albeit small, was acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery for just £95,000 ($150,000) last November.
Dumas, who grew up on her family’s vineyard outside of Cape Town, studied painting at the University of Cape Town before leaving in 1976 to work at Ateliers ’63 in Haarlem, the Netherlands. In 1977 she met Andriesse, who continues to represent her in Amsterdam. After producing text-based conceptual work in the 1970s, Dumas “made a decision to concentrate on the human figure and face,” says Andriesse. She showed at cutting-edge art institutions around Europe for years before her first show in New York, in 1994 at Jack Tilton, where MOMA’s Butler, among many other young curators and critics, first saw her work. “It hit on so many points,” recalls Butler. “It could be seen in the context of the discussion on apartheid, but also aids in the way it addressed the body.”
Dumas represented the Netherlands in the Dutch pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale, and she continued to show in European institutions as well as a few American ones, from Boston’s ICA to the Art Institute of Chicago. She also produced new work for solo shows at Zeno X, in Antwerp, London’s Frith Street, and Tokyo’s Koyanagi Gallery, all of which continue to represent her. “She really came to the international market step-by-step,” says Verkade. “It wasn’t overnight.”
To some, however, it appeared that way. In 2003 and 2004, with the contemporary art market rapidly gaining ground and Dumas’s star rising, more of her works surfaced on the block. Her market took off like a shot, with prices at auction doubling, sometimes tripling estimates. A broader public began to take note when her extraordinary blood-red portrait Jule, die Vrou (“Jule, the Woman”), 1985, quadrupled its high estimate at Christie’s New York in November 2004 to bring $1.24 million. The buyer presumably was Charles Saatchi, as in January 2005 the work appeared in the exhibition “The Triumph of Painting” at the collector’s London gallery, hanging with works by Peter Doig, Jorg Immendorf, Martin Kippenberger, and Luc Tuymans.
The following month, her first solo show with David Zwirner opened in New York, and at Christie’s London her large canvas The Teacher (Sub a), 1987, brought a record £1.8 million ($3.35 million) against an estimate of £350,000 to £450,000 ($651–837,000), earning her the honor of highest-selling female artist at auction (until Louise Bourgeois took the title not long afterward). The buyer was the New York dealer William Acquavella, purportedly securing it for his family’s extensive private collection.
By 2006, Saatchi was off-loading his works by Dumas. It was a testament to her strength that their resale did nothing to negatively affect her prices. On the contrary, works like Feathered stola, 2000, in which an economy of brushy black paint and washes of dark pink depict a stripper mid- performance, brought $1.19 million at Christie’s New York in May 2006, four times its sale price of $306,293 at Christie’s London in June 2003. Back in Europe, meanwhile, for her show “Man Kind” at Paul Andriesse, she created a series of curiously contemplative portraits of Arab and Israeli-looking men that seemed a kind of antithesis to the erotic female nudes and babies that were getting so much attention at auction.
In 2008, The Visitor, 1995, which depicts five prostitutes standing on display waiting for clients, more than doubled its £800,000-to-£1.2 million ($1.6–2.4 million) estimate to bring £3.18 million ($6.3 million), Dumas’s auction record to date. It was a fast and furious few years for the painter’s public identity, fueled in part by her 2008 traveling survey exhibition at MOCA, MOMA, and the Menil. “She was crucified for prices going crazy by people who should have known better,” says Mera Rubell. “And why? Nobody crucifies Jeff Koons for selling a $30 million work.”
In 2010, Dumas was back in the spotlight when Craig Robins, a Miami real estate developer and avid Dumas collector, brought an $8 million lawsuit against David Zwirner, who continues to represent the artist. He alleged that Zwirner had broken a confidentiality agreement by revealing to Dumas that Robins had sold one of her works, a 1994 painting of a dead-looking baby titled Reinhardt’s Daughter. Robins claimed that Dumas, upon hearing of the sale, had added his name to a “blacklist” of people who would not be allowed to purchase her work. The lawsuit was thrown out of court, but the proceedings revealed that her studio assistant did in fact have such a list—a practice that is not unusual, it turns out, among top contemporary artists.
Dumas is currently making new work for a joint show with Tuymans this November at Zeno X’s new space in Antwerp, while the Stedelijk, the Tate Modern, and the Beyeler Foundation are organizing a major retrospective of her work, from the 1970s to the present (including new work), set to debut in Amsterdam in September 2014. Reinhardt’s Daughter, meanwhile, the painting that opened the blacklisting can of worms, was back on the block in the Christie’s New York sale of postwar and contemporary art on May 15, with an estimate of $1.5 million to $2 million (the result was not available at the time of this article's print publication, but was later sold for $1.3 million). “Ultimately, I don’t think the lawsuit will affect the price,” said Koji Inouhe, a contemporary art specialist at Christie’s, before the sale. “A great Dumas is very hard to find.”
This story was published in the June 2013 issue of Art+Auction.