Undervalued: 8 Artists You Should Know

Launch Slideshow

For collectors with an eye for discovery, nothing quite matches the thrill of finding artists ripe for a revival. Our Contemporary Art Online auction presents an intriguing array of exceptional works by artists who were very much at the centres of their generations’ aesthetic movements, but who have previously been less recognised by the auction market, such as self-taught African-American artist Thornton Dial whose work is the collections of such venerable institutions as MoMA and the Met and John Stephan, whose work has only come to auction once, despite being in the permanent collection of museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Click ahead to learn more about eight artists we think you should know.  

Contemporary Art Online
16–29 September

Undervalued: 8 Artists You Should Know

  • Angelo Savelli, Impertinent Bird, 1962. Estimate $15,000–20,000.
    Savelli, a native of Italy, began using a monochromatic palette in 1957, a few years after he moved to New York where he was inspired by the work of Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and other artists of the Abstract Expressionist generation. In 1958, Leo Castelli held an exhibition of Savelli’s work at his legendary gallery. Like renowned Castelli artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Savelli began to incorporate found objects into his work, specifically rope, which referenced the fishing industry of his seaside hometown Pizzo Calabro. Impertinent Bird was created two years before the 1964 Venice Biennale where Savelli presented other monochromatic works. Reminiscent of artists such as Lucio Fontana and Enrico Castellani, who explored the sculptural qualities of painting, Savelli’s work embodies the transatlantic aesthetic conversation that took place in the mid-20th century. 

  • Stephen Pace, 55-07, 1955. Estimate $15,000–20,000.
    Following World War II, Stephen Pace moved to Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende where he planned to study on the G.I. Bill. There he met the well-established painter Milton Avery, who was vacationing in the colonial city. Avery urged Pace to move to New York to dedicate himself fully to his art. Pace heeded Avery’s advice and in 1947 he enrolled in Hans Hofmann’s courses at the Art Students League, a magnet for young talents such as Jackson Pollock, Louise Nevelson and Robert Rauschenberg. Pace found early success, showing in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annuals throughout the 1950s. ArtNews editor Thomas B Hess deemed him a “brilliant member of the second generation of New York School painters that burst on the scene, in the early 1950s, fully made, as if from the forehead of the Statue of Liberty.”*


    *Martica Sawin, Stephen Pace, 2004.


  • Thornton Dial, i. The Strange Cat Making Friends, 1992; ii. Faces of the Earth, 1993. Estimate $4,000–6,000.
    An African-American artist from Bessemer, Alabama, with no formal artistic training, Dial began painting at age 52 after the Pullman Standard Plant where he worked shut down. Dial used any materials he had on hand to create his works, which often commented on African-American history and current events. Recurring images of animals including tigers, dogs and cats symbolised characteristics that Dial felt epitomised the struggles and successes of African Americans across the centuries. Dial’s works are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, and the High Museum of Art. In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired ten works by the artist.  

  • Les Levine, Colored Disposables, 1967. Estimate $7,000–9,000.
    Les Levine’s early life was marked by migration. Born in Dublin, he moved to London to attend the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and in the late 1950s, relocated to Toronto to continue his studies at the New School of Art, finally settling in New York in 1964, where he continues to live and work today. One of Levine’s first major innovations were his Colored Disposables – vacuum-formed plastic reliefs of everyday items such as furniture and paint bottles that he sold for very little money like mass produced items and which could be hung in an endless variety of configurations. At the same time, the artist was experimenting with large-scale installations, such as Star Garden (A Place), which was installed at the Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center the same year that the present lot was created. Levine’s work has been exhibited internationally at such institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centraal Museum, Utecht, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the first example of a work from the Colored Disposables series to come to auction.

  • Fred Troller, Untitled, 1962. Estimate $5,000–7,000.
    Fred Troller is best known as the designer who helped to popularise the minimalist typographic style known as Swiss New Typography in the 1960s. Influenced by the Bauhaus aesthetic of bold fonts and primary colours, Troller’s logical and streamlined typography attracted the attention of multinational corporations including Exxon, General Electric, IBM, Westinghouse and Doubleday, who wanted uniform graphic identities that were easily identifiable to their clients. In the 1970s, American Airlines commissioned Troller to design a series of eye-catching destination posters, which pushed beyond traditional scenic landscape tableaus. Aside from his successful career as a designer, Troller was a talented painter, who developed a number of distinct styles throughout his lifetime. The auction presents the rare opportunity to acquire his work; only one other work by the artist has ever come to market. 

  • Roberto Crippa, Micene, 1960-61. Estimate $18,000–25,000.
    Painter and sculptor Roberto Crippa experimented with myriad styles throughout his career. In the late 1940s, he pioneered action painting in Italy with his calligraphic spiral paintings, influencing many fellow artists to pursue a similar style. From gestural abstraction, Crippa became interested in Lucio Fontana’s concept of Spatialism. Fontana posited that the illusory depth created with paint on canvas was not suited to the scientifically advanced post-war era and should be replaced by art that embraced technology as a means of blurring the line between traditional painting and perceptible space. In the late 1950s, in part due to his contact with Surrealist artists including Wilfredo Lam and Roberto Matta, Crippa began painting totemic figures, later creating cast-iron sculptures based on these paintings. In 1958 he began to make collage-reliefs, including Micene, which evoke imaginary landscapes or figures. Only two works by the artist have ever been offered at Sotheby’s.

  • John Stephan, Disc #9, 1970. Estimate $15,000–20,000.
    John Stephan was an early member of the New York School. As an important figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism, Stephan showed at the Betty Parsons Gallery alongside Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Stephan devoted much of his artistic career to his disc paintings, finding infinite potential for visual poetry in the juxtaposition of his subtly mixed colours fixed within the parameters of the geometric form. These nearly square compositions consist of monochrome circles, or discs, at their centre, defined by several bands of contrasting colour. The central orb floats or recedes, depending on Stephan’s placement of colours, and creates the illusion of pulsing energy and light. His notable disc works are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cincinnati Art Museum, Loyola University in Chicago, among others. Only one of the artist’s works has ever come to auction.

  • John Little, Untitled, 1962. Estimate $10,000–15,000.
    After moving to New York in 1933 John Little studied painting with German Expressionist painter George Grosz. Little turned to abstraction soon after and began working with Hans Hofmann, through whom he met many important young artists. In 1942, after his wartime service as a navy aerial photographer, he moved into Hofmann’s 8th Street studio, neighbouring Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock’s apartment. Little’s friendship with Pollock deepened when both artists moved to East Hampton. There, a joint exhibition of their works was held at Guild Hall in 1955. Little’s work is part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guild Hall Museum and Fondation Beyeler, among others.


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