Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on December 24, 1997 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.


Painting With and Without Gravity

By Roger Dunbier, PhD


As stated on a previous communication, the word "important" when used by an art dealer or critic should be viewed with extreme suspicion or better yet dismissed as self serving blather. Nevertheless, some attention it seems must be paid to a synonym of this word, i.e. "gravity" as in "the gravity of the situation was immediately recognized."

What follows is an examination of the current price structure in the art market and how the force of gravity both linguistic and actual come into play.

With the latter, gravity as a physical reality, one must begin with Jackson Pollock. The art historian and critic, Matthew Baigell, calls him "probably the premier American painter of the century. . . (his) paintings can be called the first American works of major consequence in the history of Western art. And ninety-percent of this preeminence results from his famous "drip" paintings, all accomplished in a brief six years centering on 1949. He was dead in 1954.

Your correspondent, having spent the first third of my life witnessing my father apply paint to canvas by brush and palette knife, it remains curious to me what the basis in reality is for this celebrity.

The fact is that inch for inch Pollock's thrown-paint works sell for more on average than those of any other American painter. These "drip" paintings fetch more in the art market than those he produced with a brush both before and after his gravity assisted efforts. This splatter is some of the most valuable paint ever to reach canvas. Yet nobody of any consequence followed in his footsteps. As mentioned above, he stands alone--a giant of invention with no followers--a Daimler cum Benz with no Ford or Chrysler. He invents, the multitudes are amazed and stand in awe. He then saddled up "old dobbin" and rejoins the horse drawn parade of those painters less inventive still using a brush. Nobody gets behind the wheel of his invention. Very strange indeed!

It seems that how Pollock did it was much more important than what he did. In this sense he probably also stands alone among famous painters.

If the resulting picture produced by gravity-aided methods was equally as good and interesting as the revolutionary methods employed, there would, I think, be numerous immediate followers taking advantage of the stir created by this breakthrough. It didn't happen. The critics raved; the museums shilled out and continue to, but the artists did not follow. Pollock "mannerists" failed to emerge. All those actually engaged in producing pictures who saw his work must have felt as one did--that "it looked like the crust of his mother's casserole left too long in the oven."

Now from this one might assume that your correspondent in his biannual assessment of values in American painting might downgrade this individual in some way. This could not be more mistaken because we rank him right at the top of our directory of 20,000 artists.

In the computer rankings of our Top 10,000 artists, Pollock has the following ranks among American painters:



Literature Momentum-10


These rankings mean that In each of these categories, our computer places him higher than Church, Chase, Copley and Cole, just to name a few of the approximate 9,990 painters we rank below Pollock in our list of most collectible artists. Returning, however, to the question of methods and results with Jackson Pollock, eliminated as a lone exception any thoughtful analysis must consider both methods and results.

We at ENCompass Fine Art live up to the first part of our name by including all those American artists from the earliest days down to the present who have used and used the tools of the painter. These include the brush, palette knife, crayon, pencil, pen, charcoal and chalk, etc. It matters not one iota if the result is a portrait, ship or wildlife painting, illustration or cartoon. As long as the artist is using these tools and producing a work which is two-dimensional and reasonably portable, we are interested. Mural-only artists, should there be any, must be in evaluation left to the realm of real estate.

From our point of view, distinctions drawn between illustrators and "fine artist," so called do not exist. This is because traditionally all the methods employed by one are the same as those used by the other. Why objectively should a painter who starts a career as an illustrator and remains one be valued any less than the equally talented and equipped individual who switches to portraiture or cartoons. Good prices are paid for all three. Charles Schulz and Walt Disney attest to what an artist can make in a lifetime following the cartoonist route.

So if the public in different ways directly or indirectly is willing to compensate a painter equally for work produced in exactly the same way for work of the same intensity, why should any fair minded system of evaluation include some and exclude others. We don't.

To help illustrate this, the following six groups of artist, each containing six painters is included. A day spent observing any one of the thirty six in their studios, I would not hesitate to guess, would produce very similar observations despite the two-hundred years separating the work of the earliest from the most recent. The greatest similarity would center on the medium, its application, the "tools" used and time spent, etc.

These similarities hold true despite the fact that the 1998 art market places a great variation of name value on the artists included from group to group. The artists in each group are equivalent in value. Several of the artists listed as cartoonists began in that field but became much better known as easel painters.



Charles W. Peale traditional

Clyfford Still abstract

Charles Russell western

John J Audubon wildlife

Norman Rockwell illustrator

Lyonel Feininger cartoonist



George W. Allston traditional

Joseph Stella abstract

George Catlin western

Ogden Pleissner wildlife

Ben Shahn illustrator

George Luks cartoonist



Percy Gray traditional

Jack Tworkov abstract

Ed Borein western

Carl Rungius wildlife

Rockwell Kent illustrator

George Grosz cartoonist



Ben Champney traditional

Emil Bisttram abstract

Gordon Snidow western

Arthur Burdett Frost wildlife

Charles Dana Gibson illustrator

Thomas Nast cartoonist



Julian Rix traditional

Irene.R. Pereira abstract

Lon Megargee western

Ken Carlson wildlife

Montgomery Flagg illustrator

Charles Addams cartoonist



Charles Jarvis traditional

Lee Gatch abstract

John Moyers western

Stanley Galli wildlife

John LaGatta illustrator

Charles Kelly cartoonist


Area for area and proceeding from bottom to top, the value of the artists in each group is approximately double that of the group above it, even though within each category, the artists share subject matter and styles. The result is that area for area all six artists in Group A are valued at an average 32 times higher than the six in Group F. Actual prices within each group are equal if medium, size and the other price determinative elements are taken into consideration. In price it makes no difference at all that the finished art-products are so dissimilar. This means that all two-dimensional work created by traditional means can be evaluated by the same calculation. Stated another way, portraitists, illustrators, cartoonists, plein air, easel, and wildlife artists, not to mention artificial ethnic and stylistic categories of painters must be treated the same way in establishing price.

This takes us back to Pollock's unique methodology of gravity assisted painting which appears through our computerized calculations to be worth at least twice as much as his other work and twice as much as the applied brush work of all but a handful of other American painters. As eluded to above, the reasons for this continue to puzzle me.

It might have something to do with the parabolic trajectories of thrown material as it is influenced by gravity. Perhaps some future student of fine art evaluation will add another element into the mix which will answer the question. After all it took more than two-hundred years for Newton's theory of gravitation to be significantly enhanced by Einstein. For the present it must remain a mystery why every artist since 1950 either lacks the skill or the wit to emulate this pioneer and in doing it, double the value of their efforts.

© 1997 Roger Dunbier



About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

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