Why everyone wants a piece of Hans Hartung

Courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary, photo Tom Powel imaging

Sometimes the stars align and an artist who has languished in obscurity for years can suddenly rise to the top of an art advisor’s wish list. And how does this magic transformation occur you ask? Why, with just a sprinkling of fairy dust from some of the most influential galleries in the world.

T1982-E15 1982 by Hans Hartung 1904-1989Hans Hartung, ‘T1982-E15’, 1982, Tate, London

Hans Hartung might be one of the most important lyrical abstract artists that emerged from the ruins of Europe after the Second World War, but he is hardly a household name. In fact, you wouldn’t be blamed for finding the name entirely obscure.

Celebrated for his warm and poetic form of abstraction defined by heavy mists and expressive clouds of paint; Harting joined the ranks of de Staël, Dubuffet, Soulages, Riopelle and Poliakoff in the École de Paris when he settled in France during the 1930s. This group of artists provided an emotional response to the austerity of Mondrian’s grids and Malevich’s black square, and rejected the well trodden path of Abstract Expressionism in America. Hartung’s practice became even more evocative as his body deteriorated and he was forced to work from a wheelchair. Employing a host of new tactics for painting including whipping the canvas with olive branches from the trees beside his house in Antibes and the heavy handed tools of house painters, Hartung’s work took on a new fierce and visceral energy.

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Of course museums have long known about Hartung’s impressive oeuvre, examples of which can now be tracked down lining the walls of Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Kunstmuseum, Basel; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Tate, London to name a few. But when it comes to the art market, sometimes it takes an army to get collectors to believe.

Timothy Taylor should perhaps be credited with starting the stampede in London with their show in 2011, which highlighted Hartung’s enigmatic late paintings for the first time in the UK since Tate’s display of drawings back in 1996 (when the power plant on South Bank was just a power plant). In the press release for this show, Timothy Taylor calls the early 2000s a  revolutionary moment, as Hartung’s work enjoyed ‘a revival of critical and curatorial interest’ in seminal group shows at Fondation Beyeler, Basel and Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris.

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Galerie Perrotin, A Constant Storm. Works from 1922 – 1989, New York, 2018

But if Timothy Taylor was the spark, it seems the taste for Hartung is raging now like a full-blown forest fire. This fresh furore is down to the helping hand of Galerie Perrotin, who took control of the Hartung estate back in 2013 and have since made it their mission to catapult Hartung into the big leagues. This year Perrotin joined forces with the Nahmad family’s contemporary outpost in New York (his first show in the city since 1975) and Simon Lee in London to host three simultaneous exhibitions that have kickstarted 2018 with a bang for Hartung. From these shows Hartung’s prices have settled into the six figure range, with a good-sized late painting setting you back around €350,000.

The question is whether it will stick and if the Hartung market can really sustain all this commotion. Last year a poetic work from the 1950s in heady slashes of black managed to tip the £1,000,000 finish line at Sotheby’s in Paris, setting the tone for Hartung as a collector’s item. But compared to a more settled artist at auction like Pierre Soulages, whose prices have rested steadily in the millions since 2014, it feels like those galleries betting it all on red with Hartung have some ground to break yet.

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Hans Hartung, ‘T1986-H34’, Simon Lee Gallery, London, 2018