Is figuration the future of contemporary art?

Since the early 2000's, figurative painting has gradually returned to the front of the scene, after years of dominance by conceptual and abstract art. This renewal was driven by a handful of painters such as George Condo and Alex Katez, who paved the way for a new generation of commercially successful figurative artists in the last few years.

The 1980’s contemporary art boom fueled a paradigm shift within the art world, as new forms of artistic expression rose to critical acclaim and commercial success. A new generation of artists such as Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger and Peter Halley, soon followed by the Young British Artists in the 1990’s, redefined the boundaries of art through the use of commercial imagery, installation and conceptual abstraction.

Damien Hirst's spot paintings are one of the Young British Artists' most iconic series.

But the rise of these new artists caused a significant collateral damage, as contemporary figurative painters gradually fell out of fashion throughout the late 20th century. The situation started to change from the mid-2000’s, where the revenue generated by figurative artworks increased five-fold between 2005 and 2007, according to a study conducted on a representative sample of sales by Art Analytics.


At the same time, the number of figurative lots presented at auction skyrocketed between the early 2000’s and 2010, as it also multiplied by a factor of 5 in less than a decade. However, big-ticket paintings above the $1 million mark accounted for half of these impressive results, thus showing that this segment of the market presents a winner-takes-all structure dominated by a few stars.


According to Artsy, which analyzed the data provided by Art Analytics, the figurative painting boom that took place between 2000 and 2015 was mostly due to 5 big names: Alex Katz, George Condo, Peter Doig, Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin. Together, they brought $399 million worth of sales during these 15 years.

John Currin's masterpiece "Nice N' Easy" sold for a staggering $12 million in 2012 at Christie's New York

It is also important to note that Jean-Michel Basquiat was excluded from this study, although he remains the undisputed leader of the contemporary art market, and therefore the most successful contemporary figurative painter of our time, with more than $258 million worth of cumulative sales in 2018 alone. It is no coincidence that Basquiat’s prices have soared since the early 2000’s, as he was one of the main contributors to the dramatic return of figurative painting.


The other most notable absentee from this study is David Hockney, who became the most expensive living artist last year with the sale of his iconic 1969 painting « Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) » for $90.3 million. Although he lost his title a few months later to Jeff Koons, Hockney remains one of the most prestigious figures of contemporary figurative painting.


And yet, the prices of the stars who contributed to the movement, such as George Condo or Elizabeth Peyton, have been stagnating recently. Surprisingly, this first group is now losing ground to a new generation of young and talented figurative artists, who are performing really well at auction.

Jeff Sonhouse's "Papa Shampoo" sold for $106,000, thus multiplying its low estimate by a factor 10 at Phillips New York last May

According to a recent article published by Art News about New York auction week last May, half of the artists who recorded the largest increase above low estimate, such as Amy Sherald, Nicolas Party or Jeff Sonhouse, belong to this category. Interestingly enough, their style is more coherent than the last generation, which makes them part of a new artistic scene on its own.


Indeed, most of these new artists present common characteristics: they’re often in their 30’s or 40’s, belong to minorities –female or colored artists– and share a few æsthetical qualities such as a taste for colorful pop-inspired universes.


The first category of artists who belong to minorities are represented by young painters such as Tschabalala Self –a 29-year-old African American artist– who’s had a terrific year so far with a much talked-about $163,000 painting sold at Phillips in February for her auction debut, and another work acquired for a staggering $382,000 in June at Christie’s London, almost 8 times above its low estimate.

Tschabalala Self's painting "Out of Body" sold for an impressive $382,000 At Christie's London last June

Themes such as black identity and racism are also very common among these new emerging artists, who are now using their rising popularity as a platform to talk about these once taboo issues in the art world. Christina Quarles, another young female African American artist who just turned 34, also performed very well at auction this year with 2 works acquired for $225,000 and $275,000 at Phillips in February and June, whose main subjects are gender fluidity and multiple ethnic identities.


Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas, Jordan Casteel, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Toyin Ojih Odutola are other examples of colored female artists who belong to this new generation (check out our last article about the rise of African-American artists to learn more about them). They have all realized high auction results since last year, with prices ranging from $200,000 to more than a million dollar for Boakye’s painting « Leave a Brick under the Maple », which was sold last June at Phillips London.


Last but not least, artists such as Nicolas Party, Dana Schutz, and Nina Chanel Abney also embody a deep-rooted trend within the new figurative movement, as they share the same taste for colorful universes often inspired by pop culture and art history. They have all seen their prices soar in the last few months: a Magritte-like landscape painting by Party reached $608,000 last May at Phillips New York, while Nina Chanel Abney and Dana Schutz both broke their auction record recently with 2 colorful works which respectively sold for $285,243 and $2,4 million.


Nina Chanel Abney's "Paradise Found" was acquired for a remarkable $285,243 last June at Sotheby's

Only the future will tell if this new scene will confirm its commercial success during the next auction sales. But one thing is for sure: we are now living in a very interesting new era where the rules of the art world are changing in favor of a young and talented generation of figurative painters.

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