For the last 20 years, the optically-challenging, spinning and pulsating paintings by the Hungarian-born artist Victor Vasarely have been deeply unfashionable, their geometric abstractions synonymous with boardroom art or computer screensavers.
And yet it was not always thus. In the 1970s, Vasarely was virtually France’s official artist. He was the father of the Op-art movement and his influence extended to Bridget Riley and the 1960s school of Kinetic and to artists such as Soto, Agam and Tomasello. In his heyday Vasarely’s prices were among the highest for any contemporary artist, and he travelled the world with a doting entourage, preaching his theories of how to integrate art and architecture. Three museums opened to display his work, and Vasarely prints were sent into orbit on the Soyuz 7 spacecraft.
Now his day seems to be dawning again. In the last year, Vasarelys have been spotted at art fairs, and his work is reappearing at dealers as well. This month Robert Sandelson in London’s Cork Street is showing 28 works, dating from the early 1950s to 1979. It is the first selling show for 15 years: prices range from $25,000 to $250,000.
The highest prices at auction were all made in 1990. For example, Alom 2 sold for $245,581 (£146,043) at Christie’s New York. Only about five paintings have made over $100,000 in the saleroom, and prices at auction today are still far from those levels, even in the current robust market for contemporary art.
Most sought-after are paintings from the 1950s, in particular the black-and-white series from the early 1950s. Robert Sandelson is offering one, Yapoura, at $225,000, and a 1956 Zèbres at $125,000, Smaller works from the same period are priced from $35,000.
Later works, colourful geometric paintings which rely on a distorsion of line to bamboozle the eye, start in the thousands but recently some have sold above estimate. In February this year “Gordos”, 1975, made £19,200 (est. £7/9,000) at Sotheby’s in London, while “Obor”, estimated at £6/8,000 made £17,625 in March at Christie’s South Kensington.
Francis Outred of Sotheby’s says, “I do not think Vasarely’s market is rising yet, but interest is there. The prices we made in February must be seen in the context of a very successful sale overall. Robert Sandelson’s show is welcome because he has put together a good group of works that is reminding people of why Vasarely was so successful in the first place. The “‘Zèbres’, for instance, is an excellent piece. I think that the Riley retrospective at the Tate Modern this month will also stimulate interest in Op art.”
By no means everything is desirable, though. In order to finance the Aix-en-Provence foundation, Vasarely and his assistants churned out work pretty indiscriminately towards the end of his life, and much was repetitive and of poor quality. Prints were so widely produced that Christie’s specialist Kelly Troester does not even accept them for sale. There were also “remakes”, copies of earlier works, for example “Obor”, 1970, remade in 1988, which sold for £15,000 at Christie’s South Kensington earlier this year. “These remakes tend to depress the market,” says Robert Sandelson.
An important factor in the market is none other than Vasarely’s daughter-in-law Michèle, a fluffy kitten of a woman (“they called me the Barbie doll,” she says) who is actually the toughest of tigers at heart. She has spent years battling with the previous president of the Vasarely Foundation, Charles Debbasch, who was recently sentenced to three years in prison for embezzlement and theft (see The Art Newspaper, No.136, May 2003, p.4). While she was embroiled in the endless lawsuits, Michèle had little time to promote her father-in-law’s work. Now she has told her side of the story, (L’Affaire Vasarely, 2002, Les Vents Contraires), she has taken over as president of the Foundation, and she is attempting to bring more order into the Vasarely market. She is trying to get the artist’s work more widely exhibited; she has destroyed some of the worst works produced by the artist in the later years, and has now taken on the Aix-en-Provence town council in order to get them to finance essential repairs to the Foundation building.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Is the pendulum swinging back for the godfather of Op art?'