Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” While the quote impliedly pokes fun at the art community, it also brings to light the undeniable truth that art is most often painfully subjective. After all, what one man considers unremarkable or even trashy, someone else could very well consider to be a valuable masterpiece. And we’ve seen this numerous times.
American Artist Jeff Koons, for example, has made an incredible amount of money for reproducing commonplace objects and passing these off as art. Despite the fact that many critics have labeled Koons’s work as “cheap” and “artificial”, on November 12, 2013, he still managed to break the record for the highest auction price for a living artist’s work. He did so with this huge mirror-polished, stainless-steel creation entitled Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold for $58.4 million:
And while Koons’s record-setting piece may seem to be the epitome of banality, it might even be perceived as complex when compared to several artists’ renowned artworks — some of which have managed to sell for even more unbelievable amounts of money.
Here are ten artworks that are worth millions, yet are so simple, you’ll swear you could’ve created them yourself:
10. Spiegel blutrot (Mirror, Blood Red) by Gerhard Richter / $1.3 Million
Germany’s Gerhard Richter (born 1932) has twice broken his own record for the highest auction price for a painting by a living artist. He first set the record in October of 2012 when Abstraktes Bild sold for $34 million. He later broke his own record in May of 2013 when Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral square, Milan) sold for $37.1 million. Then, in February of 2015, the German once again topped himself when Abstraktes Bild sold for $44.5 million. Richter’s glass paintings have not sold too badly either. Two of his Spiegel blutrot (Mirror, Blood Red) paintings each sold for $1.3 million. The one featured above was sold at Sotheby’s New York on May 12, 2009 after a very similar one had been purchased on November 11, 2008.
9. Black Fire 1 by Barnett Newman / $84.2 Million
American artist Barnett Newman (1905-1970) is today considered one of abstract expressionism’s prominent figures, but he actually had quite humble beginnings writing forewords and reviews for art catalogues. Doing so earned him credibility as an arts insider, which allowed him to successfully stage his first solo show in 1948. At that time, Newman was already establishing himself for his use of what he called zips — thin vertical lines of color on plain backgrounds. In fact, his sculptures were also essentially zips portrayed in 3D. However, Newman’s works did not immediately generate good income; his family had to live off his wife’s salary as a teacher until the 1950s. By the 1980s, though, Newmans were among the most expensive of all art pieces. Ulysses (1952), a black-and-blue striped painting, sold for $1.5 million in 1985. Then, in 2013, Onement VI (1953) sold for an eye-popping $43.8 million. This Newman record was nearly doubled on May 13, 2014 when Black Fire 1, pictured above, went for $84.2 million.
8. Rhein II by Andreas Gursky / $4.3 Million
On November 8, 2011, Rhein II became the most expensive photograph ever sold after a collector purchased it for $4.3 million at a Christie’s New York auction. The photographer responsible for the image was a visual artist from Germany, Andreas Gursky, who is best known for his landscape-color and large-format photographs. Quite controversially, he is frank about how he relies on digital manipulation to achieve his beautiful pictures. In fact, Rhein II involved the digital removal of a factory building and people walking their dogs at the River Rhine. Gursky admitted, “Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ; a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river.”
In 2014, Peter Lik’s Phantom, reportedly selling for $6.5 million, may have supplanted Rhein II as the most expensive photograph ever sold.
7. Orange, Red, Yellow by Mark Rothko / $86.9 Million
On May 8, 2012, Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) sold for $86.9 million dollars at a Christie’s auction. That tag price made it the most expensive auction piece in contemporary art, the previous record holder being Francis Bacon’s Triptych, which sold for $86.3 million in 2008. However, those familiar with the earlier sales of Rothko’s pieces were probably not very surprised. In 2007, his White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) sold at Sotheby’s for $72.8 million. In fact, most experts believed that Orange, Red, Yellow‘s steep price was commensurate with the piece’s importance. The New York Times‘s Souren Melikian wrote that it could “convincingly be argued to be the most powerful of all his [Rothko’s] pictures,” while the Wall Street Journal‘s Kelly Crow remarked that “the painting’s trio of orange and yellow rectangles bobbing atop a cherry-red background forms a palette that’s as eye-catching as a sunset or a Popsicle.”
6. Untiled (Stoffbild) (1967-1969) by Blinky Palermo / $1.7 Million
Blinky Palermo (1943-1977), a German abstract painter, may have died due to drug abuse, but his artworks are anything but psychedelic. Instead, he was best known for making use of plain fabrics cut out in rectangles, then stretched and stitched over simple frames. Such is the quality of his Untitled (Stoffbild), which The New York Times‘s Souren Melikian describes as “a large square panel of cotton fabric on burlap . . . painted with two bands of solid color of uneven height, respectively dark blue and turquoise.” In 2010, the piece was purchased by Gerhard and Anna Lenz for $1.7 million during a Sotheby’s London auction.
5. Green White (1968) by Ellsworth Kelly / $3.5 Million
Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923) is one of the few living artists whose works have managed to command millions. However, he didn’t always have it easy in the world of art. Kelly’s style was often described to go against the trends that were dominant in his time, as his work was considered more European than New York art connoisseurs desired. However, in the fall of 1957, he eventually found an appreciative audience at Betty Parsons’s Gallery. That was the beginning of a series of recognitions for the American artist, which culminated in his being awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2013. By that time, his painting Green White (1961) had sold for $1.6 million in 2008, while the triangular Green White (1968) had sold for $3.5 million in 2011.
4. Concetto Spaziale, Attesa by Lucio Fontana / $1.2 Million
It’s called a “slash painting”, a style popularized by Argentine-born artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968). And the method is almost entirely what its name suggests: a single-color painting that is highlighted by a slash or a series of slashes. Fontana dubbed it “an art for the Space Age”, and the public willingly shelled out astronomical amounts for the resulting pieces. In 2015, Sotheby’s sold Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1965) for $12.9 million. Before that, however, the simplest of these slash paintings, Concetto Spaziale, Attesa had sold for $1.2 million at a Christie’s London auction in 2008. The piece was dedicated to Fontana’s wife, Teresita, and featured a single slash on a crimson canvas.
3. Riot (1990) by Christopher Wool / $29.9 Million
Christopher Wool (born 1955), aside from being a psychiatrist and a molecular biologist, is best known for his paintings that feature large, dark letters made from stencils. In February of 2012, his word painting of the word “FOOL” sold for $7.7 million at a Christie’s London auction. Then, in November of 2013, Wool’s Apocalypse Now (1988) sold for $26.4 million at an auction by Christie’s New York. The impressive sales were exceeded in 2015 when Sotheby’s New York sold Riot (1990) for $29.9 million. Sotheby’s described the work as “the very quintessence of his [Wool’s] most immediately recognizable and significant body of work.”
2. Peinture (Le Chien) by Joan Miró / $2.2 Million
Spanish painter, ceramicist, and sculptor Joan Miró (1893-1983) is internationally acclaimed for the childlike quality of most of his works, and Peinture (Le Chien) is an excellent example of this. Sold by Sotheby’s New York for $2.2 million on November 3, 2010, the piece is part of Miró’s series of “dream” pictures, which are described “as being the most radical and visionary in the artist’s oeuvre.” Interestingly, when Miró was making these paintings, he was extremely secretive about them and went to great lengths so that no one would see them before they were formally unveiled. This was because he knew that his works would be perceived to challenge painting conventions, and while he was right, they were very well-received by the art community.
1. Untitled (1970) by Cy Twombly / $69.6 Million
American painter Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr. (1928-2011), more popularly known as “Cy Twombly”, was best known for his scribble-like artwork. But he is by no means belittled for his style. On the contrary, high regard for Twombly resulted in him being commissioned for the ceiling of one of the rooms in Paris’s Musée du Louvre. In fact, an untitled 1970 blackboard painting set a record for him when it sold for $69.6 million during a Christie’s art sale in 2014. The piece was part of a series created between 1967 and 1971, the technique for the works involving Twombly standing on the shoulders of a friend while the assistant walked back and forth. The result was continuous, fluid lines that stood out in sharp contrast to the predominantly grey backgrounds.