By Carter B. Horsley
Christie's this season has created a new auction
category for Post-War art and this inaugural auction features
major works by Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol,
Roy Lichtenstein and Gerhard Richter.
Lot 10, "Untitled (White, Yellow, Red
on Yellow)," shown above, is a 91-by-71-inch oil on canvas
by Rothko (1903-1970), has an ambitious estimate of $15,000,000
to $20,000,000. Brett Gorvy, international specialist head of
Christie's Post-War Art Sales, said it "is the most important
work by Rothko to come to market in recent years," adding
that "painted in 1953, the zenith of his creativity, this
work epitomizes the best of Rothko both in terms of monumental
scale and subtlety of coloration,"
Christie's noted that in many of his mature
works such as this, Rothko "did not begin with a traditional
white ground, but rather an aqueous solution of warm rabbit-glue
on a stretched canvas." "To this," it continued,
"he added dried pigments, whose colors influenced the perception
of successive layers and created juxtaposed passages of translucent
and matte finish, enlivened the surface with both luminosity and
This work was once in the collection of Donald
Marron and was auctioned at Sotheby's, Nov. 10, 1988 when it sold
for about $3-million. Two years ago, the auction record for Rothko
was only $6,000,000, then it jumped to $11,000,000 and then to
This Rothko passed at $9,000,000 even though
it was definitely more appealing and luminous than the Rothko
that sold the night before at Sotheby's sale for $11-million,
but which had a lower estimate. At a press conference after the
auction, Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, said that the Rothko
was "one case where the lot was frankly overestimated."
Despite the failure of its star lot to sell,
the auction set six auction records and Christopher Burge, the
auctioneer, said he was "thrilled" with six the results
as more than 85 percent of the 54 offered lots sold for $59,757,000,
a bit over the auction's pre-sale low estimate of $58,320,000.
The pre-sale high estimate for the auction was $79,750,000.
Another Rothko, Lot 36, "Black in Deep
Red," a 69 3/8-by-53 3/4-inch oil on canvas, has a more modest
estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000, probably reflecting its
darker and more somber palette as opposed to the "happy"
colors of the other Rothko lot and its somewhat smaller size.
It sold for $3,306,000.
A third Rothko painting, shown above, is Lot
44, "Composition," a 28 1/2-by-21 7/8-inch oil on paper
laid down on panel. The 1959 work has a conservative estimate
of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,106,000, breaking
the world auction record for a work on paper by the artist of
$770,000 set at Sotheby's May 9, 1990. The catalogue provides
the following quotation by Bonnie Clearwater about the artist's
works on paper:
"Thus, with their symmetry, tidy execution
and minimal gesture the small works on paper often seem to be
more quintessential Rothko than many of his canvases. However,
by supplying us with all the information we need instead of giving
just a suggestion of intent, Rothko consequently reduced and limited
the viewer's role. The papers with their studied perfection often
lack the vitality of the large paintings, and their diminutive
scale places these works outside the viewer's experience; without
the shimmering motion of multiple veils of color, these small
works remain earthbound. It would be unfair to judge the works
on paper with the same criteria used for the paintings. They should
be appreciated for their subtlety, their directness, and what
they disclose about the artist's aesthetics. Indeed, the small
works on paper are not dramas; they are beautiful spun tales."
While Rothko's ambitious, huge works sought
to immerse and overwhelm the viewer with its fields of floating,
rich and mysterious color, their scale demands huge spaces in
which to be viewed, something not always available to all potential
collectors. While Clearwater makes interesting observations about
the "small" works, this lot is really not all that small
and it certainly carries with it the same basic Rothko aesthetic,
Lot 38, "Black Sienna," is a strong
oil on canvas, 92 1/8 by 67 3/4 inches, by Franz Kline (1910-1962).
Executed in 1960, it has a conservative estimate of $1,500,000
to $2,000,000. It sold for $2,536,000.
Lot 52, "Paravent," a four-panel
screen on wood, painted on both sides, by Gerhard Richter (b.
1932), is the auction's most striking work and an extremely vivid
work to compare with the Rothkos. Rothko's classic compositions
are controlled explosions of color with quite simple compositions.
This Richter is also "explosive" in its fabulous dynamics,
very rich colors, and varied brushwork. Its visual effectiveness
is enhanced significantly by the division into a four-panel screen
that affords some containment to the riotous composition but also
depth because the screen must stand with its panels at angles.
The work was part of a series commissioned by Galerie Jule Kewenig
that had 19 participating artists. The work measures 68 1/8-by-110-inches
and was executed in 1984. It has a very modest estimate of $350,000
to $450,000. It sold for $336,000.
Several years ago, the National Gallery of
Art in Washington, D.C., had a delightful exhibit of screens painted
by famous artists and this would have been a highlight had it
Another Richter work is Lot 32, "Der Kongress
(Professor Zander)," a 59-by-55 1/8-inch oil on canvas that
was painted in 1965 and has an ambitious estimate of $3,000,000
to $4,000,000. It for $4,956,000, breaking the artist's world
auction record of $3,696,000 that had been set at Sotheby's in
London Dec. 9, 1998.
The catalogue provides the following commentary
about this gray monochromatic work:
"Meticulously painted in subtle gradations
of deliberately blurred gray tones, this powerful depiction of
a room packed with human intellectual activity both explores and
exploits the ambiguity that exists between the supposed truthful
objectivity of a photograph and the inevitable artifice of the
painted image. In the foreground of the painting sit Professor
Joseph Zander and his wife Charlotte. Professor Zander was a well-known
gynecologist and this large and nearly square painting depicts
him seated at the heart of a packed medical convention that was
held in Marseille in 1964. The Zanders were keen collectors of
avant-garde art in the early 1960s and one of Richter's first
supporters during this important early stage in his artistic career
particularly amateur photography with its lack of aesthetic, of
composition and often focus, offered Richter an uncertain and
indifferent objectivity within which he could work as a painter."
Lot 48, "Ausschnitt (Karmin)," is
another Richter work that is concerned with photography, in this
case, a close-up of a multi-colored brushstroke. The 79-inch square
oil on canvas was one of a series of nine works that the artist
did between 1970 and 1971. It had an estimate of $600,000 to
$800,000 and sold for $721,000. The series is known as "Details"
and, according to the catalogue, "mark the culmination of
the artist's photorealist painting of the 1960s, as well as strongly
anticipating the development of his colourful abstract paintings
of the late 1980s."
"In his Detail paintings Richter seems
to be simultaneously revelling in notions of painterliness, at
the very same time that he is subverting them by reproducing in
minute and exquisite detail a photographic reproduction of the
fluid and very material qualities of paint. In this respect Ausschnitt
(Karmin) can also clearly be seen as a development in the
Pop Art tradition of subversion established by such works as [Roy]
Lichtenstein's cartoon Brushstroke
subverts notions of painting by placing the very material of his
medium under the microscope of his own indifferent and objective
eye," the catalogue continued.
It is interesting to note that in both this
and the "blurred" lot, Richter is producing effects
that can be easily achieved in digital imaging on personal computers
today, but which were not really available when these works were
produced. It is also interesting to compare this lot, "Ausschnitt
(Karmin)" with the classic Rothko compositions. The Rothkos
stand as complete and contained compositions and this Richter
has relatively violent motion that makes its rich colors almost
seem ready to slip off the canvas and continue into a larger,
Lot 29, "Portrait of George Dyer Talking,"
a 78-by-58-inch oil on canvas by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is
perhaps the auction's most painterly work.
Painted in 1966, it has an estimate of $3,500,000
to $4,500,000 and is a classic Bacon, eerie and terrifying and
fascinating. It sold for $6,606,000 breaking the artist's world
auction record of $6,270,000 that had been set May 2, 1989 at
Sotheby's. Dyer, according to the catalogue, met Bacon in
a public house in the SoHo district of London in 1963 and they
became "intimate companions for the rest of the decade
died in 1971, committing suicide in a Paris Hotel on the occasion
of Bacon's first major retrospective in France."
"While the present work clearly positions
its sitter at the center of a brightly-colored and oddly-shaped
room, it also generates multiple ambiguities as the violent distortions
and displacements in the human figure are echoed in the symmetrical,
though seemingly precarious, curvatures of both floor and walls
ominous lightbulb suspended above Dyer's head heightens the pervasive
feeling of instability in this interior
.The present painting
indicates motion more conceptually and confines any activity to
the figure's violated anatomy; the only other movement rests in
the pile of papers, scattered perhaps by the revolution of Dyer's
stool," the catalogue continued, adding that Dwyer's twisted
form "recalls the restrained torsion of Michelangelo's slaves."
This is a striking and unusual composition
and the relatively realistic treatment of everything but Dyer's
figure is brilliant and forces the viewer to concentrate on the
figure, which is painted in a way that emphasizes muscularity
and motion. In forcing concentration on the horrific figure, Bacon
combines the centrifugal energy of Munch with the devilishness
Lot 16, "Reflection on Thud!" is
a 55-by-96-inch oil and magna on canvas painted in 1990 by Roy
Lichtenstein (1923-1997). It has an estimate of $1,000,000 to
$1,500,000 and is a good, typical example of the artist's style.
It was passed at $800,000.
More unusual and interesting, as well as less
expensive, are two Lichtenstein sculptures, Lots 25 and 22.
Lot 25, "Brushstroke Chair and Ottoman,"
is an amusing and impressive chair and ottoman in painted and
laminated wood by Lichtenstein that is one of three artist proofs
outside of an edition of thirteen executed 1986-8. It has an estimate
of $150,000 to $200,000 and is one of several works consigned
by the Sydney and Frances Lewis Art Trust Collection. It sold
While the chair and ottoman have an almost
Art Nouveau fluidity, Lot 20 is a painted bronze sculpture by
Lichtenstein of a goldfish bowl that is boldly colored in yellow,
white, black and blue and is very striking. The 77 1/2-inch high
sculpture was executed in 1977 and is one of an edition of three
and has an estimate of $350,000 to$450,000. It sold for $611,000.
Another attractive lot from the Lewis consignment
is Lot 22, "Still Life # 58," a 1972 work by Tom Wesselmann
(b. 1931) that depicts a lit cigarette in an ashtray, a cologne
bottle and two roses. The 78-by-98-inch oil on shaped canvas was
painted 1969-1972 and has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.
It sold for $149,000.
The catalogue's cover illustration is Lot 12,
"Liz," a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol
(1928-1987). The work measures 43 by 40 inches and was painted
in 1963. It is one of about a dozen similar paintings by Warhol,
of which only two have blue backgrounds and this has the darker
blue background. It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000.
It sold for $4,406,000.
A far more interesting Warhol is Lot 33, "Lenin,"
a very strong portrait of the famous leader that is highlighted
in yellow against a black background. It has a conservative estimate
of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $314,000. It was executed
Lot 14, "Woman (Blue Eyes)," is a
28-by-20-inch oil on canvas by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997).
Executed in 1953, it has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000
and was once in the collection of Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo.
It sold for $4,516,000. It is one of the stronger examples
in de Kooning's series of paintings of women. Another, slightly
smaller and much sketchier "Woman" by de Kooning is
Lot 37, which has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold
for $534,000. Lot 9, "Monumental Woman," sold for $2,646,000,
breaking the world's auction record for the artist for a work
on paper of $1,047,500 set at Sotheby's May 8, 1996. It had been
estimated at $1,500,000 to $2,000,000 and had been knocked down
by Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, to a bidder for $1,500,000
and Mr. Burge then prepared to auction the evening's star lot,
the "yellow" Rothko that was the next lot. Before he
could start, however, a member of the audience walked up to Mr.
Burge's podium and asked that Lot 9 be reopened for bidding because
his bid had not been recognized as he was sitting "in a line"
behind the other bidder. Mr. Burge agreed and explained to the
audience and eventually knocked down the lot to the bidder who
had "won" it initially, but for another $900,000, which
brought a round of applause from the packed auction room. This
season, Christie's changed the seating arrangement of the main
auction room from parallel rows to a slight curve towards the
auctioneer's podium, which Mr. Burge said makes it easier for
him to see bidders and for more of the audience to see the displayed
art. He said the altered plan did not significantly change the
number of people the room can accommodate, which is about 1,000.
Lot 40, "RE 1," by Yves Klein (1928-1962)
is a 78 3/4-by-65-inch deep blue pigment, synthetic resin and
sponges on canvas that was executed in 1958 and has a very ambitious
estimate of $4,000,000 to $5,000,000. It is the back-cover illustration
of the catalogue. It sold for $6,716,000, breaking the world
auction record for the artist of $2,095,750 set at Sotheby's May
In discussing Klein's use of sponges, the catalogue
notes that "in their very conscious materiality and three-dimensionality,
represent the dramatic expansion of Klein's monochrome
paintings into the real space of the viewer." Christie's
press release for the auction added that the painting "is
arguably the best work by the artist ever to come to market,"
adding that "Neither asymmetrically balanced nor randomly
scattered, RE 1 presents an alternative but completely natural
monochrome world that resonates with the force of color blue -
the perfect color according to Klein because, as the color of
the infinite sea and sky, it was 'beyond dimensions.'"
Lot 45, "Falcon," by Ellsworth Kelly,
a 1959 work, sold for $1,078,500, breaking the world auction record
for the artist of $805,500 set at Sotheby's Nov. 1, 1994.
Mr. Burge said that about 72 percent of
the buyers at this auction were American and 22 percent European,
4 percent Asian and 2 percent Latin American, but added that many
more of the underbidders were European, emphasizing that Post-War
Art is"fully international."