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Is Jasper Johns New Van Gogh of the Art Market?

February 19, 1988|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Is Jasper Johns destined to become the Vincent Van Gogh of the contemporary art market?

He already holds the record for contemporary art sold at auction. Now, a seminal Johns painting--billed as "the most expensive and important painting by a living artist ever to be offered at auction"--is expected to smash that record in a May 3 sale at Christie's in New York.

"Diver," a 7 1/2x14-foot painting completed in 1962, is expected to fetch between $3.5 million and $4.5 million (plus the 10% commission paid by the buyer), the auction house said this week.

"I think it's a fair estimate," said Martha Baer, Christie's director of 20th-Century fine arts, in a telephone interview. Conceding that the price could go much higher, she said, "It's very hard to estimate works like this and we don't want to scare people away."

If "Diver" fulfills Christie's expectations, Johns will become the unofficial Van Gogh of the contemporary art market with a string of record-setting prices for his works.

Paintings by Van Gogh sent art prices into the stratosphere last year. His "Irises" sold for $53.9 million in November, "Sunflowers" fetched $39.9 million in March and "Bridge at Trinquetaille" brought $20.2 million in June.

Johns' prices are considerably lower--as is usual for living artists--but they indicate rapidly escalating prices of contemporary art and what appears to be an increased confidence in the art market.

The record for a contemporary work sold at auction is held by Johns' 1959 painting "Out the Window," which brought $3.6 million (including the 10% commission) at Sotheby's 1986 auction of the Robert and Edith Scull collection. Johns' former record was $687,500, paid in 1985 for "Painting With Ruler and Gray," a 1960 work also sold at Sotheby's.

Johns' works bring high prices in private sales too. The Whitney Museum of American Art in 1980 paid $1 million--a stunning price at the time--for his "Three Flags" painting in a private transaction.

After the stock market plunged last October, some observers feared the contemporary art market would plummet. But prices remained strong in November auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's. A small Willem de Kooning canvas brought $2 million, and a Japanese private collector paid $1.2 million for a work by Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock.

According to Johns' 1977-1978 retrospective exhibition catalogue, "Diver" belongs to the Albert A. List Family Collection, but Christie's has granted the consignor anonymity, identifying the owner only as "a private Connecticut collection."

The huge, five-panel work is considered important because "there are a lot of firsts in it," Baer said. Painted in oil on canvas and incorporating such found objects as a stretcher bar, tape measure, chain and cutlery, it is Johns' first large-scale painting.

Named for the diver's hands that shoot up and plunge down in the splashy center panel, the painting includes a half-circle "device" of concentric rings, a value scale and the words red, yellow and blue stenciled in contradicting colors.

The found materials are also standard components of Johns' work. During the '50s and '60s, he frequently reinterpreted ordinary objects. Johns became identified with painted images of flags and targets, but he also worked real brooms, cups, yardsticks and eating utensils into his paintings, usually insisting that he was only interested in their formal properties and not their meanings.

"Diver" has been a prominent fixture in major exhibitions of Johns' work. It was in his 1977-1978 traveling retrospective, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in a 1965 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) and at the 1964 Venice Biennale. The painting's most recent appearance was last month at the Leo Castelli Gallery's 30th anniversary show in New York.

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