Portrait Of The Artists

How age, output, and price interact

Although art critics and scholars are generally scornful of the marketplace as a guide to artistic merit, economist David W. Galenson of the University of Chicago believes their scorn is misplaced. In a new National Bureau of Economic Research study, he offers evidence that price data from the art market not only tend to concur with the judgments of specialists but also can illuminate the evolution of modern art.

Galenson argues that modern art--in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in the U.S. in the post-World War II period--has been characterized by two modes of innovation. The first gradually rejects past traditions and moves incrementally toward the expression of new visual perceptions and sensations. The second tends to occur more suddenly and spontaneously as the result of a radical conceptual breakthrough.

Galenson also claims that the second, more conceptually based mode of innovation is typically the product of artists who do their most valuable and important work when they are young, whereas the former is more the product of more mature years. His proof is an analysis of auction house records of the prices received for works by some 42 well-known French (or French resident) painters who were born between 1799 and 1900, and 31 American artists who were born between 1880 and 1937.

Both groups of artists show similar patterns. In France, those born before 1850--Impressionists such as Manet, Cezanne, and Degas--typically produced their most valuable work as measured by the market late in their careers (in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s), after long experimentation. But those born after 1850--including Picasso, Braque, and Leger--were more likely to have done so with sudden breakthroughs when they were relatively young. Indeed, Picasso's most important work, the revolutionary Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, was painted when he was only 26.

Similarly, in the U.S., the market prices commanded by the artists born before 1920--Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, and Robert Motherwell--tend to peak for those works produced when they were relatively mature. By contrast, the next generation (conceptually radical artists like Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Larry Poons) tended to produce their most valuable works when they were quite young.

But do market prices reflect the true quality of an artist's work? To find out, Galenson compares his data with the judgments implicit in museum exhibitions and art history textbooks. His analysis indicates that they are in general agreement--that is, the works that are singled out for attention in art histories and major exhibitions were produced at close to the same ages as the works commanding the highest prices at auction.

Although the experts may be skeptical, says Galenson, "the data demonstrate that their own judgments of artistic worth and the market's valuations are remarkably similar--a fact that should not be so surprising in light of the sophistication of most wealthy art collectors."

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