Art/Auctions logo

Contemporary Art

Christie's

7 PM, Nov. 16, 2000

Sale 9256

Lot 11, Maurizio Cattelan, "Untitled," taxidermied ostrich, 20 1/4 by 33 1/2 by 13 inches, 1997

By Carter B. Horsley

Much of "Contemporary Art," as it is presented in the major art auction houses these days, is pretty much a joke waiting for a laugh, but it certainly has an audience and a pretty well-heeled one at that.

The joke often tends to be on the tawdry side and even a "happy" artist like Jeff Koons (b. 1945), known for his amusing puppies and Pink Panther, has a prurient side.

The general notion is to push the envelope a bit farther. Lot 42, for example, "Red Butt (Distance)," is a quite elegant and dazzling silkscreen inks on canvas by Koons of himself having anal sex with a woman with long platinum hair wearing very high bright red boots, long bright red gloves, a bright red corset and a tingling tiara of butterflies with a fiery red and black and yellow background. The woman, who is fondling herself, has an expression of ecstasy and the man one of focus. The extremely explicit work measures 90 by 60 inches and is unique and was executed in 1991. It has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.

At the exhibition, it was shown behind a panel warning that the image contains "graphic sexual content" and next to a Jeff Koons sculpture of two terriers. In the catalogue, the lot is preceded by a bright red page and the reproduction is hidden behind a fold-outpage, whose bright red cover states: "Warning: The Following Image Contains Graphic Sexual Content." Whereas the auction houses have often used fold-out pages to show bigger pictures, this lot fits nicely and is contained on one page inside the fold-out.

The image is better than that found in most pornographic publications, but it is pornographic. Conceivably, Christie's specialists in the department gave some thought as how to best present this lot and the suspense of the auction will be how it will be presented/shown at the auction itself.

Auction room scene for bidding on "Red Butt (Distance)" by Jeff Koons, center

Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, opens bidding on Lot 42, "Red Butt (Distance)," by Jeff Koons. The slide screen at the left showed a red page similar to one in the catalogue that indicated that the work contained a graphic sexual image. Charles Ray's "Male Mannequin," Lot 4, is to the left of the Koons and was on display throughout the auction.

When it came time for the lot to be bid on, the rotating easel began to turn and came to rest with the large work in place, but the large screen to its right and the audience's left did not display the picture but had a red background with wording in the center similar to that in the catalogue that warned that the image contained a graphic sexual image. There were a few titters in the audience but Mr. Burge conducted the bidding normally and the audience was extremely blasť about it. It sold for $336,000, including the buyer's premium as do all results in this story, well over its pre-sale high estimate, to a private European individual.

At the post-auction press conference, Mr. Burge said that while he occasionally has "fun" with the auction-goers he does not do it with the art. He admitted that he was a little "nervous" that some auction-goers might laugh, or get up and leave, but added that since virtually all of them would have already seen the work in the catalogue or the exhibition such reactions were unlikely at the auction. Indeed, there did not appear to be many ostriches in the audience although one auction-goer quite seriously commented after the sale that "taxidermy offends me."

Erotic art, of course, is nothing new, and it is not new to the auction houses who have sold Greek Vases and Roman bronzes and Japanese prints with clear erotic content for many years. This lot, however, is most likely the largest and most blatant example yet and one presumably assumes that the contemporary art auction-going public is sophisticated, through probably not entirely made up of swingers.

One gets the sense from this and other recent Contemporary Art auctions that this sector of the art market takes itself very seriously but is not entirely mirthless. Indeed, the nuances of much conceptual art are not very subtle, though often obscure, and usually do not amount to much more than a slightly amusing one-liner. Vaudeville at least had a certain rhythm and sense of timing, whereas much of contemporary art appears to some simply as shlock shock/statement. Contemporary art, of course, need not be complex and simple messages can be very provocative, intellectual and important especially when they make the viewer begin to view things differently. A sliced cow by Damien Hirst may make some people vegetarians. A Cindy Sherman with fake breasts may make some people believe that fake breasts are wonderful, or terrible. A Chris Ofili painting with elephant dung may make some people more conscious of cultural differences.

On the other hand, a Cindy Sherman photograph of vomit may make people vomit and this Jeff Koons work of art may offend some people as much as some of Robert Mapplethorpe's more erotic photographs did a few years ago.

The point here is not about censorship of such works, but the practicality of including such works in an auction in which most other lots are not prurient.

Would it not be better for the auction houses simply to hold an occasional Erotica Auction?

To its credit, Christie's did not use the Koons for its cover, or backcover, catalogue illustration. The cover is a 73 1/3-inch high, naked mannequin of a man by Charles Ray (b. 1953) and the catalogue notes that the fiberglass mannequin's very realistic genitalia are based on the artist's own genitalia and close-up details of the genitalia are provided inside the catalogue. The 1990 piece, "Male Mannequin," has an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000 and is described by the auction house as "a brilliant example of the artist's celebrated sculptures based on store mannequins. "A novel clash of the artificial and the natural, this work disrupts the normative conventions regarding representation and portraiture. The tension caused by the juxtaposition of idealized and naturalistic elements is surprising and alarming, in a manner reminiscent of the great masterpieces of Dadaism and Surrealism," its press release continued. At least, Christie's did not liken it to Michelangelo's David! The lot, which is one of an edition of three, sold for $2,206,000, breaking the world auction record for the artist of $886,000 set at Christies, last May 16, which brought forth a round of applause from the audience.

The back-cover illustration is a detail of Lot 24, "Untitled," Blood, a 1992 installation by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) of red and clear plastic beads that has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $1,656,000, a world record for the artist of $456,750 set at Sotheby's Nov. 14 this year. The press release has the following glowing description: "...a radiantly beautiful and deeply moving 1992 installation..., evokes fundamental metaphors of human existence. This curtain of red and clear beads gleams with light and is drenched with a seductive yet palpable red that invokes feelings of both hope and fear, just as blood functions both as a life line and a symbol of morbidity. 'Untitled' Blood, like other Gonzalez-Torres works from this period, is also an elegiac memorial to love and loss. Completed just one year after the AIDS-related death of his lover, Ross Laycock, this work is profoundly intimate and relays Gonzalez-Torres' magical ability to sustain absolute hope while at the same time truly acknowledging fear and death." For those not alert to his lover's death, this might merely be a lovely curtain to enter a room to view the Koons lot with which it is color-coordinated. All that's missing is Marlene Dietrich and a lot of smoke. While it is not nice to belittle personal transcendancies and the like, it is not necessarily correct to term all such expressions great art. It is, however, quite pretty.

Two prominent contemporary artists whose work has created substantial controversies in recent years are included in this auction, Andres Serrano (b. 1950) and Chris Ofili (b. 1958), but unfortunately the works are not the artist's best and they are actually much better. Lot 26, "Red Pope I-III," is a triptych of 60-by-40-inch Cibachrome prints executed in 1990 and is number one of an edition of four. It has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000, but is not particularly shocking nor as beautiful as some of his other works. It sold for $82,500. The Ofili, Lot 58, "Popcorn," is a 1995 work of oil, acrylic, offset lithography on paper, polyester resin, map pins and elephant dung on linen. It has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $121,500. There are many fine passages in this 77-by-48-by-5 3/4-inch work but the overall composition is asymmetrical and not terribly interesting whereas some of his other work has a much richer design sensibility.

One of the highlights among the non-controversial works include Lot 2, "Silence," by Mona Hatoum (b. 1952) is a 1994 work of glass tubes that resembles a floating crib and has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It is from an edition of five and is 49 7/8 inches high. It sold for $149,000, breaking the world auction record for the artist of $101,257 at Christie's in London last June 27.

Another highlight, illustrated at the top of this article, is Lot 11, "Untitled," by Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960), a taxidermied ostrich, 30 3/4-by-33 1/2-by-13-inch work that is unique and has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $270,000, breaking the world auction record for the artist of $159,750 set at Sotheby's Nov. 14 of this year. This lot perhaps should have been considered for the cover illustration of the catalogue. Ostriches, of course, are wonderful.

Lot 38, "Winter (Rose Garden that Jaqueline Built When She was a Little Girl," is a diptych in oil, plates, antlers wood and bondo on wood that was executed in 1982 by Julian Schnabel (b. 1951) and has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000 and is one of his better works. It was passed at $130,000.

"Phase Plane Portrait" by Terry Winters

Lot 47, "Phase Plane Portrait," a 108-by-144-inch oil on canvas by Terry Winters, 1994

 

Lot 47, "Phase Plane Portrait," a 108-by-144-inch oil on canvas by Terry Winters (b. 1949) almost seems out of place in this auction because it is a quite stunning and lovely abstraction. Painted in 1994, it has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It was passed at $80,000.

"Prada II" by Andreas Gursky

Lot 18, "Prada II," by Andreas Gursky, color coupler print, 65 by 124 1/4 inches, number three from an edition of six, 1997

Lot 18, "Prada II," by Andreas Gursky (b. 1955), color coupler print, 65 by 124 1/4 inches, number three from an edition of six, 1997, is one the photgrapher's most beautiful studies of shop interiors. It has an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. It sold for $270,000 breaking the world auction record for the artist of $181,750, set at Sotheby's Nov. 14 of this year. Grusky is one of several contemporary photographers who have made names for themselves by taking good architectural and interior pictures and blowing them up to very large sizes. Thomas Struth, for example, specializes in museum and church interiors.

Lot 50, "The Start of a Fairy Tale" is a good, large four-panel work by Eric Fischl (b. 1948) that has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It was passed at $240,000.

"Coloured Loves" by Gilbert & George

Lot 60, "Coloured Loves," a 20-panel work of prints by Gilbert & George

Lot 60, "Coloured Loves," is a 20-panel work of hand dyed gelatin silver prints by Gilbert & George (b. 1943 & 1942), that is delightful decorative and has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $149,000.

Lot 36, "Conversazione," sold for $149,000 breaking the world auction record for the artist of $101,257 set at Christie's in London last June 27. Lot 14, "Untitled (Wursterie) (Sausages), by Peter Fischli & David Weiss, sold for $94,000, breaking the world auction record for the artists of $73,976 set at Christie's in London last June 27. Lot 32, "Untitled," by Albert Oehlen, sold for $64,625 breaking the world auction record for the artist of $32,118 set September 26, 1995 at Wiener Auktionem in Vienna.

The sale was quite successful with 85 percent of the 62 offered lots selling for a total $12,789.200, nicely over the pre-sale high estimate of $11,825,000. After the auction, Mr. Burge described it as "another triumphant sale," adding that 58 percent of the buyers were European and 39.6 percent American. Of the 62 lots, 26 sold for more than their high estimates, 22 sold within the estimates and 14 sold below the low estimates, which is a good showing.

A fine article by Alexandra Peers in the Wall Street Journal Nov. 17, 2000 noted that the Contemporary Auctions were considerably more successful this season than the Impressionist and Modern Art auctions that traditionally lead off the season and garner the highest prices and set the tone to a large extent for the remainder of the season.

See The City Review article on Post War Art evening auction at Christie's, Nov. 15, 2000

See The City Review article on the Contemporary Art evening auction at Sotheby's, Nov. 14, 2000

See The City Review article on the Contemporary Art evening auction at Phillips, Nov. 13, 2000

See The City Review article on Contemporary Art Part II auction at Phillips, Nov. 14, 2000

See The City Review Article on the May 18-9 Contemporary Art auctions at Phillips

See The City Review article on the May 16, 2000 evening auction of Contemporary Art at Christie's

See The City Review article on the May 17, 2000 Contemporary Art evening auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall, 1999 auction of Contemporary Art at Christie's

See The City Review article on the Sotheby's Nov. 17, 1999 auction of Contemporary Art

See The City Review article on the auctions of Contemporary Art from a European Private Collection and Contemporary Art, Part 2, at Sotheby's Nov. 18, 1999

See The City Review article on the May 18, 1999 Contemporary Art Auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on Contemporary Art Part 2 auction at Sotheby's May 19, 1999

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 19, 1999 Contemporary Art auction

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 20, 1999 Contemporary Art Part 2 auction

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 

 

Home Page of The City Review