Abstract sales stay surprisingly strong: bucking a longtime trend, collectors show continued attraction to complex abstracts in spite of tough economic conditions

Abstract sales stay surprisingly strong: bucking a longtime trend, collectors show continued attraction to complex abstracts in spite of tough economic conditions – news

Debbie Hagan

Big shapes, bold colors and intriguing textural surfaces–these are just some of the characteristics of abstract art. But nowadays, there is an uncharacteristic trend in abstract art sales. In years past, skittish collectors have shied away from abstracts during economic slumps.

“That’s not true right now,” said Cynthia Shinn, vice president of Atlantic Arts. “When the market is tough, representational work usually sells well. Considering the tough times, the demand [for abstracts] has been steady.” Amy Wesson of Bruce McGaw Graphics agreed, as do several other publishers, dealers and artists around the country. Changes in home decor and an increased public understanding and acceptance of abstracts have made this art genre a stable seller, they said.

“We carry other works, but abstracts are up, especially with the corporate market,” said Terry Sproull, co-owner of Contemporary West Fine Art, “though we see some [abstracts] going into homes” Sproull reported this on a day when he had sold two 4- by 6-foot abstracts to J. Lowak Fine Art, an Austin Gallery. Owner Janie Lowak purchased the art to go into a client’s home in southern Texas.

Abstract artist Simone DeSousa reported “phenomenal” sales this last year. Even though a friend told her that her big, bold architectural-influenced abstracts were more fitting for corporate than residential settings, “every single sale has been private,” said DeSousa about sales this past year. “They were all at least 4 by 4 feet or bigger.”

Abstracts for Everyone

Abstraction began in the latter part of the 19th century as artists ventured further away from straight representation. Artists stylized their figures and landscapes, provoking thought through line, form and color. By the mid-20th century, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, among others, left representation behind, expressing their ideas completely through shape, texture and color.

Some people applauded their efforts and found the work intriguing. Others found it pompous and ludicrous, creating a rift between those following contemporary art and home styles and those who continued to cling to more traditional art and home environments. One can’t make such generalizations today. Thumbing through any recent issue of Architectural Digest, one sees abstracts going into traditional homes and vice versa. “Abstracts can go in traditional or contemporary homes,” said Peter Clough of Arts Alive! “Actually, they can fit in just about anywhere.”

Current trends in home environments make it easier for art buyers to mix and match styles. “At High Point, some of the most popular furniture was big, dark brown leather couches,” said Joanne Chappell of Drybrush Graphics, a division of Editions Limited. Big abstracts go perfectly over them, she added. When you buy a big simple piece, you can complement it with an abstract. Abstracts are easy to use in the home environment–they’re dean, and they’re colorful.”

Exactly who buys abstracts? “Obviously, corporate [clients]” said Chappell, “but I’m seeing them sold across the board.” Many dealers describe abstract buyers as young, affluent, upwardly-mobile business executives, but Chappell said that’s not necessarily so. She sold one recently to a second grade teacher in Sacramento.

“They’re very big in corporate sales,” said Clough. “In doctor’s and lawyer’s offices, you don’t find a lot other than abstracts, particularly in hallways and public areas. For decorative purposes, it’s what architects and designers pick.”

What’s Selling

In buying abstracts today, collectors want images that reflect what’s “new and different in technique and style,” said Shinn. “The same old, same old doesn’t do it anymore: For instance, one of Shinn’s best-selling artists, Anke Schofield, uses wax, collage, paint and varnish to create surface texture.

As well, Chappell said her best-selling images are either very bold abstracts or abstracts with rich edges and rich texture. “Either way, I see very soft, textural collage elements. Artists are creating a feeling of depth of layers, as if you’re looking into something,” she said. For instance, Scott Sandell uses Japanese and European papers and chine colle and collage monotypes, and Joan Schulze creates quilt-like Haikus out of paper and silk.

“The biggest trend in abstracts is for vibrant colors, particularly red” added Clough. A lot of dealers agreed, saying that sales of red abstracts continue to be strong.

DeSousa hears the same thing from Millie Webster, director of the Ann Arbor Center in Michigan one of several dealers who sell her work. The last time DeSousa came into the gallery, Webster told her to “bring in new work–big and re& Those are the ones that sell” DeSousa laughed, “This isn’t what artists want to hear–as if there’s a formula to this.”

However, she added, “It’s the color that naturally comes out. I’m Brazilian? She believes her cultural heritage and her interest in architecture attracts buyers as much as anything else. She said, “When people look at my work, they look for a reference to another culture. My experience has been that Americans are trying to understand [other cultures].”

In this tight economy, the public scrutinizes art purchases more closely than ever. Abstract buyers “are careful in not buying garbage that’s being called art. They want to know it’s connected to, and what it means,” said De Sousa. “I see people more interested in art and becoming educated [about it].”

Shinn agreed and said, “People have more discriminating taste now. They want to know who the artists are–what education they have, what galleries represent them and what moves them” An abstract that’s big with bright colors isn’t enough to sell the work. An education and an artist’s statement must back up the purchase.

Because homes and office buildings are larger than ever, large abstracts are in demand. “What we used to refer to as our large size is now our middle size,” said Sproull.

While traditional art can be small and intimate, California artist Mark G. Picascio believes that “modern abstracts are impressive on a large scale. It makes a statement. It’s the scale that excites the viewer.”

Buyers working within small budgets tend to go for work on paper, be it prints or originals. To counteract glare problem created by large-window spaces, particularly in lobbies, foyers and atriums, buyers prefer works on canvas. As for best-selling prices, on average, dealers said abstract prints sell for less than $1,000, and canvases go from $800 to $4,000. Works more than $5,000 are harder to sell, they said.

Educating Customers

While educating buyers is an important part of any art sale, it’s especially important with abstracts. Wesson described this as “more difficult art;’ more complex and challenging. This aspect causes some customers to immediately dismiss abstracts without ever stopping and trying to figure them out.

Thus, Picascio creates biography sheets and fliers that explain a little about himself and his art. His fliers give customers an overview of his background and his vision, so they can begin their own journey of understanding.

Empowering customers to look at abstracts, to analyze them and to question what they see builds long-term collectors, suggested Peter Alpers, owner of Alpers Fine Art. He tells the story about a new client who entered his gallery two years ago searching for a painting for his new condominium. Right away, the client insisted, “Just don’t show me any abstracts. I don’t understand them.”

Thus, Alpers showed him representational works. However, the customer wandered away to look at an abstract in big, bold colors. After a while, the customer concluded, “You know, it’s ambiguous. It doesn’t tell you exactly what it’s about. It uses question marks rather than periods.”

This discovery so delighted the customer that he left the gallery with two abstracts and one representational work. Since then, he’s been back and bought 31 more art pieces–most of them abstracts. The customer now tells Alpers, “I have gotten the fever.”

Alpers said, “There’s a place for representational art. It’s comforting. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that homey pieces outsell challenging pieces.”

However, Alpers sees a steady demand for abstracts, even among his conservative New England clients. About this, he compares representational art to TV. “You sit and let it happen to you,” he said. “On the other hand, an abstract is like reading a difficult book.”

He added, “There’s something to be said for wrestling with something.” Many art buyers today have to agree.


* Alpers Fine Art,(978) 470-0013

* Ann Arbor Art Center, (734) 994-8004

* Atlantic Arts, (410) 263-2554

* Arts Alive!, (480) 998-9790

* Bruce McGaw Graphics, 800-221-4813

* Contemporary West Fine Art, (623) 582-4408

* Drybrush Graphics, 800-228-0928

* J. Lowak Fine Art, (512) 345-2067

* Mark G. Picasdo,(310) 285-3510

* Simone DeSousa, (734) 417-3633

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