Would you buy this painting by Hans Hofmann at Art Basel or a drawing by his pupil, Lee Krasner? We asked an expert to choose

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Should a single Damien Hirst painting cost more than an entire sale of Old Masters? Should Adrian Ghenie’s auction record be higher than Frida Kahlo’s? The weird, fickle, and primarily subjective nature of art valuation is one of the industry’s most enduring puzzles (and sources of complaint). To analyze what is behind some of the confusing prices in the art market, we ask the experts in our “This or That” series to compare two very different works of art offered at comparable prices.

In the late 1930s, Lee Krasner, in his twenties, began taking art classes at the Manhattan school of painter Hans Hofmann, who encouraged her to pursue abstraction (and said one day about her job: “It’s so good, you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman”).

Hofmann’s program for his students included making charcoal drawings in the morning, followed by colorful still lifes in the afternoon. Now, a variety of these Krasner charcoal drawings, all made between 1937 and 1940, are on offer at the Kasmin Gallery booth at Art Basel, for prices ranging from $ 100,000 to $ 200,000. Meanwhile, through the fair at the Richard Gray Gallery, a Hofmann landscape painting from the same period is on sale for $ 300,000.

We asked Nina Del Rio, Vice President and Director of Sotheby’s Advisory, to choose the work that she thinks is the best buy and why.

Lee Krasner, Untitled (1939). © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Kasmin, New York.

This or that: They are both very popular artists. I am a big fan of Hans Hofmann and a big fan of Lee Krasner. A bit of time passed for the two artists, both works were done in a similar amount of time (interestingly, a few years before Pollock was in the picture). But I would say the Krasner is more visually interesting – you can read very clearly how it plays out in its paint, and I think there’s a price path that makes it a better choice than the Hofmann.

On market considerations: Lee Krasner is now one of the top 10 female artists to have taken on the air and the wind in her market. If I look at his work and how much recognition of his importance has changed over the past five years, there is a tremendous amount of momentum. I immediately feel like she has a long way to go both in terms of how people see her as an artist and her market potential. The number of women artists recognized for the quality of their work will continue to evolve and grow, and she is in the middle of it all.

The prices of the designs seem a bit full at the moment. But if I spoke to a client, I would say A) it’s because they are rare and we don’t have much to say, and B) her market is up and the trajectory will continue to be steep , so I feel safe.

On the other hand, if we feel like there’s a lot of air in Lee Krasner’s market, Hofmann feels like he’s settled in a certain place both historically and from the point of view of the market. I think the market is quite mature for the artist. And while Hofmann is incredibly influential in Abstract Expressionism and as a teacher, I don’t think there is as much continuous discovery in how it unfolds for Krasner yet.

On aesthetic considerations: I look at the Hans Hofmann and think, okay, I know works from that period; he works on his abstraction and develops his landscape. He currently teaches in the United States and his landscapes are transformed into his abstract style. This one seems to be a good example, but not a good example, and it weighs me down when I look at it.

I see a real influence of Cézanne, obviously, in the work of Hofmann. I just find it a bit muddy. There is greater bone structure in the earlier work, and I see the bone structure in Krasner’s drawings. She makes these drawings when she destroys her paintings, it is clearly a time when she works on her figure. He captures this moment between figuration and abstraction. They show the genesis of his work.

Plus, if I think with an institutional hat, Krasner is at the center of the most recognized, watched, and influential female artists, and we’re going to develop the historical art storytelling around her. She has already taken a significant place in Abstract Expressionism and it is a woman artist, and from an institutional point of view that makes these drawings a better choice.

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