The international art world, despite being recognised for its innovative character, lags far behind in the field of equality. The representation of women in museums is no more than 5%. In the art market, women account for only 2% of the overall market.
Despite the long road to equality, women are increasingly attracting the attention of collectors, some of them soaring in popularity.
1 Yayoi Kusama: one of the world's most highly rated female artists
This Japanese artist, with her eccentric personality and orange hair, is an emblematic figure of the hippie years. Her abstract and colourful paintings with infinite weights have conquered the international art market. Today she is the female artist who has sold the most works, exceeding one million euros! Her record is 6 million euros at the hammer at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2019. She is to date the most quoted female artist on the art market.
2 Cindy Sherman, American feminist artist
In the early 1970s, the American photographer was one of the first female artists to denounce social inequality. She began with female archetypes as imposed on women by the male gaze. In her self-portraits, also known as "anti-portraits", she stages herself to question identity and its modes of representation. The artist shatters all stereotypes as she panics the market with more than 17 works exceeding one million euros at auction and a record of more than 5 million for Untitled Film Stills in 1977.
3 – Bridget Riley, Op-Art pioneer
The Abstraction Revolution has for too long been seen as a man's business. Yet the British painter Bridget Riley was one of the emblematic figures of Pop-Art in the 1960s, along with Victor Vasarely. Her gigantic abstract paintings with geometric shapes that play on our perceptions still inflame the market with more than 21 works sold for more than a million, with a hammer and a record of 5 million euros (including costs) reached in London in 2016.
4 – Julie Mehretu, the most popular African-born painter of her generation.
Born in Ethiopia, Julie Mehretu studied in Senegal and now lives in New York. Her gigantic and dynamic abstract canvases explore a "psycho-geography" of space and question our social behaviour. Her architectural abstractions have already taken him to the MoMA in New York, the Pinault Foundation in Venice and Documenta Cassel. His work Black Ground (Deep Light) broke the record of 5 million euros (including costs) in Hong Kong in 2019.
5 – Jenny Saville, world record for a living woman artist
The London-based painter is the leader of the Young British Artists and is known for her monumental portraits that challenge all the canons of feminine beauty. In 2018, she broke the record for the world's most expensive sold work by a living female artist. At Sotheby's London, the hammer went up to over 10 million euros for the painting Propped when the collection of David Teiger, patron and historical collector, was dispersed.
In spite of these records being broken at auction, the gap between male and female artists on the market remains huge. By way of comparison, the work that broke the auction record for a living male artist in 2019 was sold for a staggering $91.1 million (Rabbit, 1986, Jeff Koons), which is 10 times more expensive than the female record.
6 – Agnes Martin, a name for art aficionados
Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is one of the divisive names for art aficionados. Martin grew up on a farm, later moving with her family to Vancouver and then to the U.S in 1931 to get her fine art and art education degree at various schools culminating in studying at Teachers College, Columbia University.
New York art dealer, Betty Parsons, proposed the artist a move to New York. Martin remained here until 1967 when she sold all her possessions and travelled across the U.S. and Canada in her camper van. Martin suffered from schizophrenia in her adult life, writing honestly about in "The Untroubled Life.
In 2016 her work Orange Grove sold for $10.7 million at Christie's. One of the highest sold artworks by Martin is Untitled #44 auctioned in November 2021 at $17.7 million during the famed Macklowe Collection sale at the Sotheby's, setting a new record for the artist at an auction.
7 – Natalia Goncharova, a Russian avant-garde artist
Trailblazer of the Russian avant-garde Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is probably the least known to the mass audience, yet, her name is indispensable for understanding of XX century history of theater and painting. Goncharova was painter, sculptor, graphic and performance artist, book illustrator, stage set and costume designer and she has left an indelible mark in all these disciplines. Goncharova's life was split in two when during her trip to France in 1917 the Russian revolution took place, forever preventing the artist's return back to Moscow.
During her first exhibition in 1913 in Moscow Goncharova presented more then 700 works she has completed over ten years of study and immersion in revolutionary and rebellious atmosphere of the time.
In 2007 her Apple Harvest was sold for record-setting £4.9 million at Christie's, in 2008 Les Fleurs (1912) was sold for just over $10.8 million. She has been presented to the world via important exhibitions in Moscow (2013), Tate (2019) and continues to garner global interest as one of the Amazons of the Russian avant-garde.
8 – Louise Bourgeois, art as a 'form of psychoanalysis'
Upon her death on the 31 st of May 2010, Louise Bourgeois was eulogized by the New York Times as an artist whose work "shared a set of repeated themes, centered on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world." Bourgeois as an artist incorporated her life into her work; from a childhood filled with anxieties and tensions to migrating and settling in a new country while trying to succeed as an artist at a time where many believed "women can't paint, women can't write" to quote Virginia Woolf. Bourgeois is therefore an embodiment of tenacity articulated through art that is bold and honest in deconstructing stereotypes about being a female artist and expressing the feminine.
Family and the feminine are two sources of inspiration for the artist which deserves some investigation especially in relation to their figurative and symbolic significance. The eclectic nature of the art itself also contributes in making her ever relevant.
In 2019 Bourgeois' Spider (1996) sold for $32 million at Christie's, thus becoming the most expensive sculpture by a contemporary female artist. The market for her works started to develop after 1982 retrospective at New York Museum of Modern Art, after this exhibition the artist was able to move onto large-scale bronze sculptures. Apparently, Bourgeois collectors hunt most avidly after her spiders.