NEW YORK — Latvian American artist Raimonds Staprans (b. 1926-) pushes abstraction to the point of realism and then back again. While his paintings often depict subject matter that is clearly identifiable, such as his signature oranges and his boats, the artworks are usually constructed in ways that make the objects abstract.
Emigrating to the United States in 1947 from his native Latvia, the San Francisco-based artist studied under Hans Hofmann and Karl Karsten early on. He quickly became a key figure in the Bay Area painting movement as well as a playwright.
According to the Crocker Art Museum, which mounted a 2017 exhibition of the artist’s work, Full Spectrum: Paintings by Raimonds Staprans, many of his pieces take their inspiration from California’s architecture and landscape. His landscapes and even his still lifes are noteworthy for his mastery of color and light. “Taut contours and bold hues define fields, marinas, isolated trees, and architecture, all devoid of people, while scorching sunlight descends from skies of the deepest blue,” according to the museum.
Erin Cabral, a senior specialist in fine art at Clars Auction Gallery Inc., in Oakland, California, said the market for Staprans’ paintings seemed to experience an uptick around 2018, primarily but not exclusively in California galleries. A likely driver for the renewed interest was that 60-year museum retrospective, which toured to several institutions. “The market is still strong for Staprans, with the record price at auction achieved just this summer,” she said. “Collectors are attracted to the vibrancy of Staprans’ work as well as its minimalist design — minimalism in general has been on trend for the past decade or so in architecture, interior design, and contemporary art.”
The auction record for Staprans was broken at another auction house, not surprisingly also in California. In August 2023, John Moran Auctioneers sold A Study of Down-Rolling Oranges with a Staid Neon Apple, a 1995 oil on canvas, for $237,500 plus the buyer’s premium.
“A Study of Down-Rolling Oranges with a Staid Neon Apple exemplifies Staprans’ mastery of the still life genre,” according to Moran’s catalog description of this painting, noting that this work features one of his signature motifs. “The humble orange appears frequently enough in the artist’s work that it could accurately be described as one of the artist’s more recurring subjects.”
Holding the previous auction record for the artist, for slightly more than a year, was Blue Boats, a painting sold at Clars that made $150,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. The 1990 oil on canvas was the top lot in that auction and Rick Unruh, chief executive officer of Clars, noted at the time in a media statement, “Staprans has incredible upward momentum at auction at the moment. There is a scarcity issue with his exceptional works currently. Blue Boats was one of those exceptional works.”
While there doesn’t seem to be specific time periods within Staprans’ oeuvre that are most appealing to collectors, his “still lifes and boat scenes, both of which he did throughout his career, seem to fetch the higher hammer prices when compared to his portraits or cityscapes,” Cabral said. “The simplicity and minimalism could be factors – these paintings are accessible and easy to incorporate into one’s personal interior design scheme. More brightly colored pieces, as opposed to darker or muted paintings, draw more attention and often see much higher selling prices.”
Among his most sought-after still lifes was Still Life with Red Piano Stool, a 1987 oil on canvas that earned $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Clars in September 2020.
Living in San Francisco, it’s easy to see why Staprans has long been compelled to paint marine scenes, such as Gray Boats, a 1973 oil on canvas dominated by the large plane of mocha color that evinces form and light. The work realized $75,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Fine Estate, Inc.
Museum-quality paintings by Staprans seldom come to auction, thus driving up prices when they do. Most of the ones that sold in the last few years for six-figure sums seem to date from the 1980s and 1990s. A fine painting dating to his mid-career era, when he was in his late thirties, was Triple Boats, which realized $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium against a modest estimate of $100-$150 at Antique Arena Inc. in March 2023. The highly geometric painting was well executed and retained the original paper labels of Maxwell Galleries, which was a fixture of the California art scene in San Francisco until it closed in 1998. By 1984, the gallery had devoted at least 11 exhibitions to Staprans.
Still lifes have traditionally showcased flowers and fruit, but Staprans takes this form to new heights in creating still lifes that enhance the minimalistic aspects, as he did in a 1991 painting titled An Almost Oriental / Still Life. It brought $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in November 2022.
Raimonds Staprans’ star is still on the rise. He continues to attract new collectors, and the market suggests he is likely to continue to do so.