But when one sees two abstract works side-by-side, regardless of the artist’s identity, how to determine which is better? How does one judge the quality of two similar works by Rothko, for instance? Part of the answer is time. “If you’re looking at a painting by Rothko, you need to give it time, so that you can almost lose yourself within that canvas,” said Chanzit. “You can’t walk by a Rothko and get very much out of it. But if you spend the time to immerse yourself within it, that’s when there’s a reward.”
There is, of course, also the historical significance of Rothko’s work. While his style may seem predictable now, at the time no one else was painting such rich, immersive fields of pure color that engulf one’s eyes.
Looking beyond the individual experience, I wondered how the market determines the quality of an AbEx painting—that is, how dollar and cent values are ascribed to paintings. Michael Macaulay, Senior Vice President and Head of Evening Sales Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s, is quick to note that the wide breadth of AbEx art means the label can lose some of its usefulness.
The result is that market evaluation is “artist-specific and then focused painting-by-painting,” he said. “We are of course bearing in mind its historical significance. We are evaluating a number of more quantifiable factors, like scale, palette, mode of execution, condition. And then there are a lot of softer factors to consider, like aesthetic appeal, which of course is very subjective.” Collectors have different tastes independent of the art-historical canon, too, perhaps valuing a Rothko over a Pollock, for whatever reason. And just as the general canon values women and AbEx artists of color less than their male counterparts, so too does the market.