When an Artist Calls the Shots: Mark Grotjahn’s Soaring Prices

Mr. Grotjahn is represented by four dealers — including the heavyweight Larry Gagosian — without the promise of exclusivity they would obviously prefer.

He has direct relationships with his collectors and even occasionally sells to them right out of his studio, bypassing his dealers. And his tight control over both the quantity and sale of his paintings means that he can help affect how much of his work is sold at auction, which can lead to higher bidding.

“He’s the most important artist of his generation,” said the media mogul David Geffen, who owns six Grotjahn paintings and recalled recently losing out on one that sold for $22 million.

“I have bought works out of his studio; I’ve also bought works privately,” he added, referring to dealers. “I bought a sculpture of his for the Museum of Modern Art. He tries to sell them to people who are collectors rather than investors.”

Photo

Mr. Grotjahn in his downtown Los Angeles studio in 2014.

Credit
Monica Almeida for The New York Times

When collectors buy his work, Mr. Grotjahn expects them to keep it or to donate it to a museum; he tries not to sell to buyers who are likely to resell works for profit.

Mr. Grotjahn, an abstract artist, had his first solo shows with Blum & Poe, then a young gallery in Santa Monica, in 1998 and 2000. He sold only one painting from the second show, for $1,750, and called that experience “a whipping.”

Today, museums with Mr. Grotjahn’s artworks in their collections include MoMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“There was always a conscious conversation about the importance of placing pictures in museums and in great collections,” said Timothy Blum, a founder of Blum & Poe. “It becomes a pretty…

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