Carter B. Horsley
Latin American art prices have
but steadily climbing but prices for the masters still remain
quite undervalued in terms of their quality.
This auction, for example,
offers some particularly
fine works by Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) and David Alfaro Siqueiros
Incredibly, only 43
percent of the lots
in the evening auction sold, including many of the best works
by the most famous artists with the highest estimates. Although
the auction was well-attended, there was very little bidding,
either in the room or on the telephone. At a press conference
after the auction, Ana Sokoloff, the head of Christie's Latin
American Art Department, suggested that the very poor results
of the evening auction, which totalled $4,387,050, were not
to the quality or the level of estimates, but to "external
forces," such as economic conditions and instability in numerous
Latin American countries and continuing uncertainty over the American
Presidential election. The majority of buyers, she said, were
private Latin American collectors. Nonetheless, it was quite
for so many lots to fail to sell at an important evening auction
and the lack of bidding on some of the finest works was particularly
puzzling as the estimates were by and large not unreasonable.
Lot 11, "Pájaro agresivo,"
by Tamayo is a 30 1/8-by-40 1/8-inch oil on canvas executed in
1948 that is an excellent example of the artist's refined style
The catalogue offers the
"Throughout his lengthy career,
reworked and revisited persistent themes: flight, mechanization,
fire, the moon, music, and lovers. Though his extremely personal
language evolved over the decades to reflect his current sentiments
about the changing world around him these themes persisted. It
is difficult to escape the consistent beauty of his paintings
yet at a removed distance, viewed successively, they are illustrative
of the vicissitudes o the human experience in the twentieth-century.
His paintings transcend the boundaries of his nationality and
achieve the pan-national. Within an oeuvre that has become recognized
to the point of name brand recognition, it is his work from the
late 40s and early 50s that stands out even more - in the epoch
there is a solid consolidation of concept, style, technique and
meaning. His works around this time are the essential Tamayo.
In the late 40's and 50s the human figure, from which he infrequently
deviated, was conceived in an expressively abstracted mechanical
manner. Paintings from these years are characterized by the angular
shapes that make up the figure; attenuated and pulled into movement,
echoing the unease of a world still reeling from the tragedies
of war and the uncertainties of life within the truly mechanized
age. World War II left a residue on Tamayo's consciousness; one
of the lasting effects of the event that scarred his generation
was an obsession with flight. The mass bombings characteristic
of the war were presented in many canvases of the following years….
In Pájaro agresivo from 1948 two figures
flee a flying bird and though the bird itself is not particularly
menacing, there is an obvious sense of panic imparted by the upturned
arms of the two jaunty figures. The impression of urgency is heightened
by the principal figure's proximity to the edge of the canvas;
seeming to flee the canvas itself, seeking refuge outside the
frame. Though the coloration is subtle, a palpable sense of hysteria
is invoked by the acidic pinks and yellows that seep through the
subdued gray tones."
It has an estimate of $900,000
It was passed at $650,000.
Lot 12 is another fine Tamayo,
Amantes contemplando la luna," a 31 7/8-by-39 1/3-inch oil
on canvas. Executed in 1950, it has a slightly lower estimate
of $800,000 to $1,000,000. It sold on the telephone for
including the buyer's premium as do all results in this article.
The catalogue's commentary notes that while this and Lot 11
share "an unusually subdued" palette, "fear has
been replaced by a magnetic mysticism," adding that the figures
have a fuller quality and the "lovers are voluptuous, sculptural
with rounded, weighty bases that firmly anchor them to earth while
their arms reach up to embrace the hangnail moon, a sliver of
desirable light hovering above." The painting "reveals
the quiet joy of sharing" and "resonates with intimacy
and a serene delicacy," it continued.
In vivid contrast is Lot 36,
entitled "Dos personages," a 38 3/8-by-51 1/8-inch oil
on canvas painted in 1968. With its strong yellow background and
intense palette, this is a very strong work and was exhibited
at the Phillips Collection retrospective exhibition on the artist
in 1978 and was once in the collection of Harry Abrams. It has
a very conservative estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold
to an American dealer for $336,000.
One of the star lots at the
American sale the evening before this sale was a large "watermelon"
painting by Tamayo. It, in fact, was the cover illustration of
that auction's catalogue. Lot 20, "Sandias II, is a 32-by-39
1/2-inch oil and sand on canvas by the artist that was executed
in 1963. It has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It was
passed at $380,000. Like the lot at Sotheby's, (see The City
Review article for an illustration," Tamayo has abstracted
the watermelons and has them float in space. In this smaller work,
there are fewer melons and they are more fully depicted than in
the work at Sotheby's, but the overall effect remains of sumptuous,
all-enveloping, juicy color.
Tamayo works well on smaller
scales as evidended
by Lot 48, "Imagen en un espejo," a 31 5/8-by-23 3/4-inch
oil and sand on canvas that was executed in 1973. A seeming simple
abstract portrait within a window with a slingshot-looking object
in the foreground, it is an absorbing study of a quixotic expression
gazing directly at the viewer through a window in a highly-textured
and colorful wall. It has a conservative estimate of $120,000
to $160,000 and has much of the charm of a good Paul Klee and
the mysterious power of a good, small Picasso portrait. It
sold for $154,500.
Lot 28, "Monumento a el héroe
is a 80-inch high sculpture of steel with a unique patina, that
was executed in 1989 as one of eight commissioned by GVG Editions
of Monterrey, Mexico. The sculptures were published in editions
of three, each with different patinas. The catalogue quotes a
1990 article by Edward Sullivan that notes that "as is often
the case in his paintings, Tamayo uses crushed marble in conjunction
with other properties to form the richness of the surface,"
adding that this work was "one of the most haunting"
of the series and that "Essentially done in the form of a
funerary memorial, this work features an abstracted head set upon
a base of repeated geometric shapes."
Tamayo's sculptures have not
fared as well
as they should in recent actions and this strong lot has an estimate
of $125,000 to $175,000. It was passed at $95,000.
Lot 29, "La Danza," is a 74
pyroxilin on masonite by Siqueiros, shown at the top of this article,
that was painted in 1973 and has a modest estimate of $140,000
to $180,000. It was passed at $95,000. This is a
work that conjures Joseph Stella's great abstractions of the Brooklyn
Bridge. Siqueiros is an uneven artist but at his best he is extremely
painterly and capable of very tight and impressive compositions.
Energy bursts from his canvases and the market has not yet properly
evaluated him. Another work in the day part of this auction, Lot
111, "El Volcán," is even more explosive, appropriately
for its subject matter of a volcano, and has a modest estimate
of only $40,000 to $60,000. The better works of Siqueiros have
the emotional impact of the German Expressionists and the wildness
of the Fauves and the abstract expressionism of good Hans Hofmanns
and are among the most powerful of modern paintings.
Matta (b. 1911) is the third
American artist whose oeuvre transcends mere geographic locations.
Although he has been very prolific and an ceaseless experimenter,
his best works, many of which date to the late 1930s, combine
Surrealism with High-Tech in his visionary environments of glaring
color and strange forms. He was psychedelic long before the wild
60's and even when he misses somewhat his compositions are startling
and memorable, despite some garish, neon-like work. Lot 37, "Let
any Flowers bloom," a 78 3/8-by-118-inch oil on canvas, painted
in 1952, might well be a DNA study of chlorophyll fending off
pesky, bloodthirsty insects. The right half of the picture is
painted in mostly greens and whites and has a ghostly, underwater
appearance with fine luminosity while the left side of the large
work is somewhat of an energized Wilfredo Lam abstraction with
many "light" pipes in geometric dances. The past few
seasons have seen a lot of Mattas appear on the market with mixed
results and this has a very conservative estimate of $120,000
to $160,000. It sold for $215,000. This work would
to be most fitting for the grand lobby of a nuclear power plant.
Lot 23, an untitled work of
circa 1965, is
even bigger, 78 3/4 by 150 inches, and is not quite as successful
a composition despite its higher estimate of $200,000 to $250,000
as it seems to depict a vignette of some sci-fi war in a narrative
fashion that is not as abstract as Lot 137, albeit just as dramatic.
Lot 23 was passed at $170,000.
Yet another Matta, Lot 30,
a 45 1/4-by-57 1/8-nch oil on canvas is a quieter work depicting
some "Cosmic City," but it seems to lack some of this
master's incredible energy and wild colors. It was painted in
1960 and has a slightly ambitious estimate of $150,000 to $180,000.
It was passed at $110,000.
Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) is
another giant of
Latin American Art whose biomorphic abstractions are lovely and
intriguing. Lot 24 is an untitled oil on canvas, 49 7/8 by 43
1/2 inches and was painted in 1960. It has an estimate of $200,000
to $220,000 and is part of the artist's "Femme Cheval"
series in which a mulatta woman is seen as a "monster"
that, according to the catalogue, "combines the sensuality
of the mixed races with the African magic of spirit possession,
an integral part of the Santeira rituals." "The possessed
during these dance rituals," the catalogue continued, "are
usually referred to as 'horses' that carry the particular deity
that manifests itself through the temporary possession of their
human body." It was passed at $190,000.
Lot 32, "Nina comiendo cana,"
a 29 7/8-by -23 3/4-inch oil on canvas painted by Diego Rivera
(1886-1957) in 1945. It has a somewhat ambitious estimate of $600,000
to $800,000. It was passed at $380,000.
Lot 17, "Girl combing her
by Candido Portinari (1903-1962) is the catalogue's cover illustration
and a very beautiful painting of which Picasso might be proud.
The 28 5/8-by-23 1/2-inch oil on canvas has an estimate of $800,000
to $1,000,000. It was passed at $600,000. It was
in 1941 and was formerly in the collection of Helena Rubinstein,
the cosmetics entrepreneur who was also a very important art collector
and would own nine paintings by the artist.
The catalogue notes that
Portinari was the
son of humble Italian immigrants to Brazil "who slept in
the bathtub of a rooming huse in order to attend the National
School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janiero from which he eventually
won the European study prize and spent a few years in Paris in
Europe, returning to Brazil in 1932. The catalogue continues with
the following commentary:
"In Portinari's work of the 30s
the common man takes center stage. In his paintings hands and
feet are disproportionately large, emphasizing the role of the
laborer. Girl coming her hair is an exemplative painting from
the period, as well as the large hand, color and form are simple
and strong. The volume of her form has an impressive magnitude,
a grounding in the base of the canvas, and there is a true dignity
in the girl's gesture. The mulata, emblematic of the mixture of
races that is so integral to Brazil, has clothing simplified to
a patternless drape of grey, her flesh gives the painting its
warmth; it is a pink darkened both by shadow and mixed race, her
curly hair gives movement and life, and the sharp angles and bright
color of the comb a firm line. She is young and somehow lovely,
yet her face is marked by a resigned sadness and questioning quality….Girl
combing her hair embodies what is best about Portinari's work
in this, his most important period of production; a remarkably
simple composition, yet emotive and powerful, his economy has
spoken volumes about his subject, about Brazil. Works such as
Girl combing her hair would influence generations
artists that continued to look at their lives and realities."
There are several works by
(b. 1932), the best of which is Lot 21, a very lovely bronze sculpture
of a saddled horse with a lustrous dark patina, which was executed
in 1985 in an edition of six. The lot has an estimate of $250,000
to $350,000. It sold for $259,000.
One of the most beautiful
paintings in the
evening auction is Lot 44, "Ventana V," a 48-by-70 7/8-inch
oil and acrylic on canvas by Guillermo Munoz Vera (b. 1956). The
work, which was painted in 1999, has the bright clarity of the
work of Claudio Bravo but here the influence is more from Vermeer
as the painting has an open, shuttered window on the left that
illuminates a blue room and casts the shadows of outdoor foliage
through the window onto the center wall. This is a very strong
and evocative and beautiful work and has a somewhat conservative
estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $70,500.
A marvelous geometric
abstraction by Gunther
Gerzso (1915-2000) is offered as Lot 27. The 21 1/4-by-28 1/2-inch
oil on masonite was executed in 1973 and has a modest estimate
of $60,000 to $80,000. It was passed at $55,000.
Surrealism is a significant
component of much
Latin American Art and Remedios Varo (1900-1963) is one of its
best practitioners and Lot 31 is one of the artist's more charming
works. Painted in 1962, the 48 1/8-by-23 5/8-inch oil on masonite
is entitled "La expedicion de Aqua Aurea" and has an
ambitious estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It was passed at
Lot 26, "Mulher
deitada com peixes
e fruias," a 43 1/4 by 76 3/4 inch oil on canvas by Emiliano
di Cavalcanti (1897-1976), was executed in 1956. It is estimated
at $800,000 to $1,000,000. It sold for $886,000, breaking the
artist's world auction record of $138,000 set at Christie's last
Lot 35, "Plano de
a large oil on canvas by Francisco Toledo, executed circa 1961,
has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $446,000,
breaking the world auction record for the artist of $387,500 set
at Sotheby's Nov. 15, 1994.
Lot 4, "En el
camerin," by Valentin
Thibon de Libian established a world auction record for the artist
Lot 33, "Extasis," by
Diago, sold for $94,000, breaking the artist's world auction record
of $20,700 set in January, 1999.