General Question

troubleinharlem's avatar

Why are there some pieces of art that are completely... plain (one or two colors) but are worth millions of dollars?

Asked by troubleinharlem (7991points) December 21st, 2010

I mean, like Ellsworth’s Green, or Voice of Fire, or Bush Oil. I’m not getting it – how is this art when its just straight colors and all? It isn’t like it takes a considerable amount of talent to paint them… thoughts?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

34 Answers

FutureMemory's avatar

I don’t know anything about art, but I would guess it’s the prestige of the artist. If there existed a canvas that Picasso spilled paint on it would be worth bucks.

troubleinharlem's avatar

@FutureMemory : Yeah, I figured that much. But when they start off with just paintings of straight colors, how is that even art? I could do that.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I never got this and it always pissed me off. You see shit like this selling for millions and then you see some totally awesome artwork thats all intricate and detailed thats worth nothing. Its just like brand names. It doesnt matter wtf it is, some rich asshole will buy it just because the name it carries along with it.

TexasDude's avatar

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain; is what immediately comes to mind for me.

Jeruba's avatar

Back when I was a high school student, I worked part time in the library of the college where my parents taught. My job was to letter the call numbers on the back of rebound books and put titles on the spines of bound journal volumes. We had a bottle of acetone and a rag for removing wrong numbers and correcting mistakes in lettering. Over time the rag accumulated many blurry overlapping layers of color blobs from the bindings of volumes on which corrections were made. One year the library staff framed the rag and entered it in a college-wide art contest, in which it won an honorable mention.

Blueroses's avatar

One of my favorite movies, Interstate 60 has a segment dealing with how pretentious and fatuous art critics can be in their interpretations.
Art is a matter of interpretation Only he would think to put those 3 colors together in that way and it speaks of man’s inhumanity to man…(everything does)
I think that in everything in life, there have to be radical extremes of thought so that the majority can look at both ends while finding themselves in the middle.

everephebe's avatar

Well, @troubleinharlem, if you can do it, then go do it. Stretch your own canvas, mix the colors paint in straight lines. It’s harder then you think, trust me. Of course it’s easier to paint one of these than a landscape or still life, but my point is there is more to these paintings than what meants the eye. Good art takes both talent and exploration. Sometimes art isn’t about who could do it, but who did it first, before anyone else thought of it.

That said none of them are my cup of tea.

BarnacleBill's avatar

Robert Hughes wrote a book called “Shock of the New” that explains modern art. The book was made into a PBS series, and some of the episodes are on YouTube:
Surrealism Part 1
Surrealism Part 2

The book is quite good.

I strugggle with modern art after impressionism.

absalom's avatar


You could do it, but you wouldn’t be the first. These people (viz. the abstract expressionists or color field painters) were the first.

Part of the reason these pieces are valuable is that they redefined what art was and what it meant for something to be art.

There’s also a lot of thought behind the simplest looking paintings. Thought which I’m not even going to presume to understand or explain. Theory, movements, et cetera. You say you can do what Ellsworth does with Green. Very well, but could you defend it? Could you explain why it’s significant or relevant? And would you be painting it just for the hell of it or because you’d found something beautiful in the color, in the expression? I suppose to many of us it appears arbitrary and meaningless. And really the art is acknowledging that – that it’s all subjective and to some extent bullshit. (That’s partly why it’s important.) But it’s also attempting to express something in a purer and unmediated form. It seems to me.


The value of art isn’t measured by how much detail it contains or by how difficult it is to produce. I’m not entirely sure how the value of art is measured, as I’m not an historian or a critic, but I know that if the same criteria were to be applied throughout history then there wouldn’t be much change.

A lot of Mark Rothko‘s stuff is beautiful to me. The same with Jackson Pollock. The same with Jasper Johns especially.


Excellent story. I wish I could see it. Reminds me of the Sokal affair, that hoax on postmodernism.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@absalom I understand that, but painting a canvas green isnt exactly impressive in my book. Thats really what I was getting at. those detailed works just convey a much fuller and deeper meaning than a green fucking square or a couple of lines on a canvas. To me, that is what art is about, leaving an impression on the viewer. Those do nothing.

Jackson Pollock is pretty awesome. The other two look pretty cool too, but these artists at least did something with the colors instead of a boring green canvas…

anartist's avatar

It’s not about the materials, it’s about the eye of the artist.

laureth's avatar

“Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.”
– Publilius Syrus

Kardamom's avatar

Art is always in the eye of the beholder. And sometimes art is raised to a high status when it is hyped by an agent, or gallery or some person of fame that starts saying how great a particular artist or piece of art is.

When some muckity muck in the art world says something or someone is “important” then it becomes so, just because that dude said so. The art-speak comes later. Example: The juxtoposition of the competing maxims give rise to the textural manifestations of the human condition. THAT is the kind of talk that makes a plain old lines and squares have “value.”

It doesn’t matter whether or not you or your child could easily reproduce a silly or simple piece of art, but it would help if you were the first person to do it and then have some muckity muck standing by to help you describe it in flowery, over the top, non-sense language. Then you’d have it made.

gailcalled's avatar

Ellsworth Kelly has both his home and studio about a mile from my house. There is an apocryphal story going around.

When he had his studio enlarged, the workmen were cleaning up after they finished the construction work. They went to Ellsworth and asked him whether he would like them to cart off the large piles of rusted metal that were piled up on the lawn and ruining the view.

bccreative's avatar

I think its all about the context. If you painted a green square and tried to charge big bucks for it, you’d get no respect and hence no sale. I don’t know the whole story surrounding Kelly’s Green, but I’ll bet it’s rather important to connoisseurs of the work of Kelly, of Kelly’s contemporaries, his predecessors and those whom he later influenced.

Some art is more of a logical and/or emotional construct than it is about aesthetics. A construct can include a momentous pivot point in the history of expression or of perception or a complex commentary or reflection on a culture, etc,. etc. The possibilities for the context really are endless.

A lot of art surely is not meant for “everyone,” and I surely don’t pretend to understand or even like much of it. But my gut and a little inquiry tells me if I should bother to respect it, which I feel is a different matter than judging only its aesthetic.

But Art (with a capital A) certainly can be like a wacky religion that makes perfect sense to those on the inside and appear to be utter nonsense (or heresy, or pornography or garbage) to those on the outside. I’m sure too that Art has its charlatans as much as it has its crowd-pleasing heroes, and its naive one-hit wonders as much as it has its hard working auteurs.

I’m a graphic designer, but no expert on these matters. Your excellent question, one that my wife frequently voices, prompted me to take a stab at it.

Blueroses's avatar

@gailcalled I love that story.

gailcalled's avatar

Here are some rave reviews of the fabulous best-seller, “Why Cats Paint.”

A money maker according to one member of The League of Feline Art.

anartist's avatar

@gailcalled thank you and Ellsworth too

anartist's avatar

It seems to me that the fluther majority is democratic, secular, and artistically unenlightened.
Where is @dpworkin when we need him?

Jeruba's avatar

@anartist, you may be right. If you can offer a good answer to the original question, why don’t you let us know your thoughts?

absalom's avatar


I’ll be the first to admit, albeit shamefully (for my father is a painter and photographer), that I know next to nothing about art. If you’re going to enter this thread with a username like yours, though, I’ll have to agree with @Jeruba and suggest you bring something less cryptic too it than your original post. (I really do wanna know what makes great art great.)

anartist's avatar

@absalom @Jeruba the internet is a cruel venue for such discussions as the artist’s work will never be what he/she produced. “Green” looks like it may be rich with lovely textures that are the beauty combined with the connotations of the color green [cool, growing, rich, life]. “Fire” may have such a hot color between muted, dullish blue on the sides that it seems afire, BUT YOU CANNOT TELL FROM AN ONLINE IMAGE.
Gene Davis’s stripes almost play music
The internet could never do justice to the subtlety of Ad Reinhardt
or Mark Rothko
The artworks have been transformed to print, to rgb for web, made small and appear differently on every monitor.
To judge a work of art, see it in person, in its setting to experience the true color, texture, and scale.
Even the Rothko room at the Phillips Gallery in DC suffered when one was damaged by an umbrella and repaired and the repair included an overglaze and the room was relit.
Artists like Dan Flavin also have to be experienced in situ before judging

btw my name was come by honorably, in quote from a dialogue with Marcel Duchamp in which he was described an “anartist”

BTW Picasso did pay some vendor with a check upon which he drew a doodle and told his contractor that that check would be worth much, much more if he did not cash it. He didn’t, and it was.
this link may be it

bob_'s avatar

Because some pretentious people have a lot of money.

Also, modern art sucks.

everephebe's avatar

Yes and art is so different in person, until you see paintings in person you really don’t get a true feel. Van Gogh’s work is vastly different when you can look at it from angles and truly see all of the texture. But this is true of Dali too whose work is quite flat (not raised), but seeing it is mind-blowingly different then a picture of the same piece. And context changes everything.

anartist's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard Marcel Duchamp was on the selection committee of the so-called “non-juried show.” in which “Fountain” appeared. “Fountain” submitted by “R Mutt” was his test of their interpretation of “non-juried” and it was half hidden behind a door when reluctantly exhibited.

The interview with Marcel Duchamp mentioned in my above answer was conducted by curator/museum director Walter Hopps during Duchamp’s first major retrospective exhibit.

absalom's avatar


I saw something of Dan Flavin’s at the museum in town. Very nice, very calming. You’re right of course that jpegs can’t do justice.

What’s your opinion on modern (or contemporary) art? Do you have any favorites? Lately I’ve been interested in Kara Walker after being introduced to her in school.

anartist's avatar

To me Kara Walker is an illustrator, more specifically, a fairy tale illustrator, continuing along the lines of Victorian fairy tale illustrator Arthur Rackham [when he is using silhouette illustrations]
Arthur Rackham, Illustration for fairytales by Hans Andersen
to present day illustrator Jan Pieńkowski
Jan Pieńkowski, Sleeping Beauty, 2005, illustration from The Fairy Tales, National Children’s Collection

filmfann's avatar

The values placed on some art does confuse me. I sometimes wonder if Pollack ever sold a drop cloth by accident.

anartist's avatar

Several artists who shared a studio with Sam Gilliam [one was Rockne Krebs] exhibited his drop cloth about the same time he was exhibiting his draped canvases.
see Sam Gilliam work in Corcoran press relief
Dropcloth image is harder to find.

Nullo's avatar

If you ask me, art ought to involve some skill.

Stuff like Green sells so well because, as has been said, people are willing to pay well for it.

meiosis's avatar

The art world is largely about fashion. If you’re lucky and your art strikes a chord with the movers and shakers then your work will retrospectively be accorded importance, and, by extension, value. Of course having original ideas and skill are also important, but they’re not enough in isolation.

lilalila's avatar

I don’t think it can be argued that the layman’s claim that “abstract art is crap” is never taken seriously in the art world; therefore it must be that the value attributed to pieces of abstract art is decided by a small committee of experts, connoisseurs, and art patrons. The value is not intrinsic.

However, one could also argue that the value of NOTHING is intrinsic. Everything has value applied to it based on what the consumer would pay, and the art world should not be demonized for doing this considering the fact that everyone does it.

Aaaand basically ditto exactly what @meiosis said.

anartist's avatar

A tale told by a former flutherite:
“heard a story that Jasper Johns rented his loft to some rich people, and when he got back he found that they had used chalk to write telephone numbers all over his Ad Reinhardt.”

@Jeruba that rag was probably a very beautiful thing, and some artistic eye saw that.

I noticed the beauty of the overlapping colors in the spray booth at the museum where I worked. The way they built up randomly over time with different shapes and densities of color caused by whatever they happened to be spraying that day was beautiful. I asked a friend in the cabinet shop to leave my toolbox in the room and mostly ignore it, maybe moving it every couple of months.
He did not see the art of the indirect exposure to color or understand what I was talking about and instead immediately sprayed and splattered directly on the object making something that was disappointingly pedestrian. I thanked him profusely anyway.

Answer this question




to answer.

This question is in the General Section. Responses must be helpful and on-topic.

Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther