The Most In-Demand Artists at Art Fairs in the First Half of 2019
Jeff Koons and KAWS dominated the conversation during this year’s spring auctions, but Artsy data shows that Yayoi Kusama was the artist most sought-after by collectors at art fairs in the first half of 2019.
Demand for the nonagenarian Japanese artist known for her dazzling mirror chambers, disorienting canvases covered in spots, and large, dotted pumpkin sculptures not only outpaced young market stars like KAWS, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, and Derrick Adams, but also eclipsed blue-chip stalwarts like Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.
The data analyzed comprises 45 art fairs featured on Artsy that opened between January 1st and June 30th. Over 35,000 artworks were uploaded to more than 2,300 virtual fair booths by more than 1,800 galleries participating in these fairs. Demand was judged based on an artist’s share of inquiries placed on all artworks within the set.
Roughly half of all visitors to fair pages in the first half of 2019 originated in the U.S., potentially skewing results of the analysis based on the preferences of American collectors (a full note on methodology is available at the end of this article). However, just over a third of the galleries that participated in the online fair presentations are American galleries, and the fairs analyzed reflect the global nature of the art market, spanning from ZONAMACO and SP-Arte to Art Basel in Hong Kong and Masterpiece London.
Artworks by Yayoi Kusama were far and away the most in-demand at fairs in the first six months of 2019, and accounted for 1.29% of all inquiries. One-and-a-half times more inquiries were placed on her works compared to works by Andy Warhol, even though only 23% more work by Kusama was offered for sale. Aside from her, however, the 30 most inquired-upon artists are male.
The divisive art-market darling KAWS generated the second-most demand, but was trailed by just 0.03% by a less-expected artist: Nathaniel Mary Quinn. Chicago-born Quinn’s collage-like works in paint, charcoal, and pastel likely became much hotter commodities when shown by Half Gallery at the Dallas Art Fair in April, less than two weeks after he signed up with Gagosian. Artists drafted onto team Gagosian—like Jennifer Guidi and Katharina Grosse—have experienced similar spikes in collector demand and prices in the years since signing on.
Another fast-rising market star, Derrick Adams, was the ninth-most inquired-upon artist at art fairs in the first half of 2019. Adams was ubiquitous during that period—over the same six months, he had solo exhibitions at Luxembourg & Dayan in New York, Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, and one of the final shows at Mary Boone’s gallery before she closed up shop and began her prison sentence.
A more established but no less unexpectedly in-demand artist so far this year is Mel Bochner, the seventh-most inquired-upon artist in Artsy’s fair data. Bochner had four solo shows in the first half of 2019—including exhibitions at Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Los Angeles, the Metropol Kunstraum in Munich, and his London gallery Simon Lee. He also notched one of Art Basel in Basel’s most popular artworks with the Instagram set. Everybody is Full of Shit (2018), shown in the Two Palms booth, featured a mirror with what looked like steam, into which someone appeared to have scrawled the work’s titular phrase.
Among emerging artists, the most enticing to collectors by far was Alex Gardner, the painter in his early thirties known for his exquisitely rendered images of black figures within surreal, monochromatic spaces. His work drove 2.94% of all inquiries on pieces by emerging artists featured on Artsy fair pages in the first half of 2019. Gardner’s dominance in the emerging artist category was driven by his solo booth with New York gallery The Hole at The Armory Show in March. Gallery owner Kathy Grayson reported selling out the entire booth, with works priced between $15,000 and $28,000.
The widespread popularity of Gardner’s works is consistent with the market’s current appetite for figurative paintings. Buzzy painters such as Grace Weaver and Louis Fratino (who opened his first solo show with Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in April) were also among the most sought-after emerging artists of the spring fair season. Artsy data shows especially strong interest in figurative painting by African artists: The top 30 emerging artists include the Cameroonian painter Ajarb Bernard Ategwa, the Johannesburg-based painter Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, and the Nigerian painter Ndidi Emefiele.
Street artists were also prevalent among the emerging artists that collectors were vying for at art fairs in the first half of this year; several artists known for their murals and outdoor interventions figure prominently in the top 30. The Los Angeles–based graffiti artist Revok was the fourth-most inquired-upon artist; his high-profile copyright dispute last year with fast-fashion giant H&M raised awareness of his work beyond the art world. The Portuguese street artist Vhils, known for making monumental portraits by chiseling away at the surfaces of walls, landed at the eleventh spot; market interest in his work may have gotten a major boost at the end of 2018, when he unveiled a large-scale mural in Wynwood concurrent with Art Basel in Miami Beach.
Street artists also figured prominently among the most in-demand established artists who showed at art fairs in the first half of 2019. In addition to KAWS—who, early on, made subversive interventions on posters and billboards in New York City—the French mosaic artist Invader and the Los Angeles–based artist Retna (known for his quasi-hieroglyphic graffiti) each drove a significant share of inquiries from interested collectors.
Another relatively well-represented discipline among the sought-after established artists is photography, at least compared to the emerging and blue-chip categories, which feature a single photographer between their respective top 30s. The late greats André Kertész, Vivian Maier, and Gordon Parks all figure among the top 30 established artists in Artsy’s data. Interest in Kertész’s work may have been boosted by a major solo show this spring at Bruce Silverstein in New York; the gallery also brought his work to both at The Armory Show and AIPAD. Maier’s work has been the subject of sustained interest since the 2013 release of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, with museum and gallery shows the world over.
Parks has been a towering figure in the photography world for a half-century, but a number of factors have raised his profile even further recently. The Gordon Parks Foundation has taken an increasingly active role in promoting his work and that of like-minded photographers; last year, along with publisher Steidl and the National Gallery of Art, the foundation released a major book of Parks’s photos from the 1940s. Parks has also garnered attention well beyond the art world recently thanks to Kendrick Lamar, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and Alicia Keys. Lamar drew heavily on Parks’s work for his “Element” music video last summer; Dean and Keys have amassed the largest private collection of Parks’s work, which is currently the focus of an exhibition at Harvard University.
The “established” category prominently features a number of artists who might have been deemed “emerging” just a few years ago, but have lately become fixtures of art fairs and auctions. These artists include KAWS, but also Jonas Wood—who officially graduated to the seven-figure club during the May auctions in New York, and currently has a solo show of enormous still-life paintings at Gagosian’s West 24th Street space in Chelsea—and the science-fiction sculptor Daniel Arsham, whose influence has extended beyond the art world through collaborations with Pharrell Williams and Adidas, and the design firm he co-founded, Snarkitecture.
Among the most in-demand blue-chip artists—those considered to be household names—the biggest surprises include Mel Bochner, as previously mentioned, and Peter Halley, whose popping, textural takes on Josef Albers–esque abstraction are newly ubiquitous. Inquiries on Halley’s work accounted for 1.85% of all inquiries on blue-chip artists’ artworks, landing him at twelfth place among this cohort. Demand for his paintings was likely stoked by two major solo shows that ran concurrently in New York in late 2018—one at Lever House and the other at Sperone Westwater—as well as a major exhibition that opened at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia at the same time as the 2019 Venice Biennale.
A few blue-chip artists’ surprisingly high rankings may be partly explained by recent moments of widespread attention beyond the art world. Banksy’s viral shredding stunt at Sotheby’s last October undoubtedly gave his market a boost, landing him at ninth place in Artsy’s data. The expressionistic painter Larry Poons, who had long toiled in relative obscurity, has been having a market moment since his star turn in the documentary The Price of Everything, which premiered on HBO last fall. He is the 19th-most in-demand blue-chip artist, by Artsy’s metrics. The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has come to the attention of a much wider public through his campaigning against Brexit. A profile in The New Yorker last September didn’t hurt, either.
It’s worth noting that, for all the talk of the art market embracing more women artists, both the blue-chip and established categories are overwhelmingly male-dominated. Beyond Kusama’s top place finish, the only other women among the 30 most in-demand blue-chip artists are Tracey Emin (at 14th) and Jenny Holzer (at 26th). Among established artists, only one woman, Vivian Maier, ranked in the top 30. And while the emerging category is still far from gender parity, it’s slightly closer with nine women artists among the 30 most in-demand.
Looking at demand more broadly, Artsy’s data shows that 33% of all artists with works uploaded to a fair in the first half of 2019 received one or more inquiries. Among the artists whose work received at least one inquiry, the top 20% (a total of 552 artists) accounted for just under two-thirds of all inquiries, or 66.3%. The other 80% of inquired-upon artists garnered just over a third of all inquiries (33.7%) on Artsy. That distribution represents a somewhat more even concentration of demand compared with the 80/20 power-law distribution expected in sectors like the art market.
Broken down by career stage, Artsy data shows collector interest concentrated on established artists. Inquiries on works by established artists accounted for just under 60% of all inquiries, while blue-chip artists drove 29% of inquiries, and emerging artists received a little over 11%.
Amid increasingly frank conversations and proactive measures to correct the gender imbalance in the art world—both in terms of the artists who are shown and collected and the arts professionals who are promoted and empowered—art by male artists continued to outpace work by female artists at art fairs in the first half of 2019. The gender disparity was pronounced on the supply side: Work by male artists accounted for nearly 63% of all art uploaded to fair pages on Artsy. But the imbalance was even more acute with respect to demand: A full 74% of all inquiries made were on works by male artists. That said, some fairs bucked the trend. For instance, 55% of inquiries on works featured at Liste—the Art Basel in Basel satellite fair devoted to younger galleries—were on art by women.
Among the artworks uploaded to Artsy fair pages in the first half of 2019, one-fifth (20.1%) were by U.S.–born artists, far more than artists of any other nationality. British artists, at 6.1%, made up the next-largest national cohort, followed by French and German artists at 4.1% and 3.9%, respectively. Brazilian artists were the best represented, in terms of supply, among artists from outside Europe and North America, accounting for 2.9% of all works uploaded to Artsy fair booths during the same period.
If the supply of art featured at fairs was U.S.–centric, demand was even more so. More than a third (33.9%) of all inquiries on art featured at fairs in the first half of 2019 was on work by American artists. (As noted earlier, this may be partly explained by the fact that almost half of visitors to Artsy fair pages originated in the U.S.) Demand for works by British, German, Spanish, and Japanese artists also outpaced supply.
Anyone still intoning the old refrain about painting being dead should visit an art fair. According to Artsy data, painting was the preferred medium at fairs in the first half of 2019, accounting for nearly one-third of all artworks uploaded (31.3%) and an even larger share of demand—43.6% of all inquiries made through Artsy on works featured at fairs were on paintings.
Photography was the second-most prevalent medium in terms of supply, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all available artworks uploaded for fairs (19.2%). This may have been due to the prevalence of photography fairs in the data set, including The Photography Show in New York, Photo London, Photo L.A., and Photo Basel. Demand for the medium did not keep pace, however—only 11.1% of all inquiries in the same period were on photographs. The most in-demand medium after painting was sculpture, which drove one-eighth of all inquiries (12.6%). Demand for three-dimensional works slightly surpassed that for works on paper (12% of all inquiries) and prints (9.9%), complicating the commonly held belief that collectors overwhelmingly prefer wall-based works.
More challenging-to-collect formats like video art and installation were seldom shown or inquired upon at fairs in the first half of 2019. Despite having become commonplace in institutions and on the global biennial circuit, moving-image works and installations represented less than 2% of works offered and just over 1% of inquiries among the data set.
Sales at art fairs accounted for 46% of galleries’ sales by value last year, just 2% less than the sales they made through their brick-and-mortar spaces, according to Art Basel and UBS’s report The Art Market 2019. And while that same report found that galleries were participating in slightly fewer fairs—they averaged four fairs in 2018, down from five in 2016 and 2017—Artsy data shows that some dealers have kept up an astonishing pace of fair participation. The 20 most active galleries on the fair circuit are on pace to participate in an average of 14 fairs in 2019. Leading the pack is Galerie Lelong & Co., which operates spaces in New York and Paris, and which participated in 11 fairs on Artsy in the first half of 2019. If Lelong maintains that pace, it will show at 22 fairs this year, or nearly two per month.
The list of frequent art-fair participants includes many mega-galleries like Hauser & Wirth, Perrotin, David Zwirner, and Pace Gallery, which have sufficiently ample budgets and staff to offset some of the stresses of the relentless global fair circuit. But the list also includes smaller outfits like London’s Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery; Galerie Nathalie Obadia, which operates spaces in Paris and Brussels; and New York’s P.P.O.W. London’s Vigo Gallery lists a staff of just four on its website, but they managed to show in nine art fairs on Artsy in the first half of 2019. For galleries big and small, fairs remain an essential part of the business model.
A note on data sources and methodology: All data for this analysis is from internal Artsy sources. Only artworks and artists that were uploaded to virtual fair booths for the 45 full-feature art fairs that Artsy partnered with and opened between January 1 and June 30, 2019 were analyzed. This included more than 2,300 booths from more than 1,800 individual galleries, and over 35,000 artworks by more than 8,000 artists. An average of 74% of galleries eligible to participate in the Artsy preview of each fair uploaded at least one work to their virtual booth; for 18 of the 45 fairs included, only Artsy partner galleries were eligible. Demand was judged based on an artist’s share of inquiries placed on all artworks within the set. Roughly half of visitors to fair pages in the first half of 2019 and 40% of galleries that uploaded booths originated in the U.S., potentially skewing results of the analysis based on the preferences of American collectors and dealers.
Images pictured in the thumbnail and header (if not captioned in the article body): Yayoi Kusama, Self Portrait (TWAY), 2010; courtesy of Gagosian. Kaws, HALF FULL, 2012. Derrick Adams, Figure in the Urban Landscape 34, 2019; courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.