By Carter B. Horsley
In its first major day Impressionist &
Modern auction last spring, Phillips had quite a remarkable group
of works by Russian Neo-Primitivist, Suprematist and Constructivist
painters and this fall it does too.
Indeed, the overall quality of this auction
is better, aesthetically, than the Part I evening sale. It is
larger as well with 83 lots as compared to just 29 in the Part
I evening sale. One is tempted to wonder if Phillips would be
better off combining these two auctions into one evening auction,
although the major auction houses have recently been limited their
evening auctions to about 70 works so that those who attend can
dash off to swank restaurants and parties without too much delay.
Whereas last Spring, the Part II sale did
quite well (see The City Review article),
this auction was very unsuccessful, despite the fact that it had
a great many excellent early 20th Century abstract works with
pretty reasonable estimates. Christopher Thomson, the chief executive
officer of Phillips, remarked after the sale that many of the
quite remarkable Russian early abstracts came from one collection
and that Phillips believes it can create a niche for itself in
this area. Only 49 percent of the lots sold for a total of $1,054,030.
The pre-sale low estimate was $3,842,000 and the pre-sale high-estimate
for the sale was $5,186,000.
The cover illustration, Lot 125, is a wonderful
and memorable portrait of a woman smoker by Georg Tappert (1880-1957)
who was associated with the German Expressionists. The 26 7/8-by-24
1/4-inch oil on canvas was executed circa 1923-1933 and has an
estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It failed to sell. Tappert's
work is not too well-known in this country, but this is a very
striking and impressive painting. Another work by the artist,
a nude, Lot 128, is a 36 1/4-by-49-inch oil on canvas that was
painted in 1913 and has an estimate of $180,000 to $220,000. It
failed to sell.
Last spring, the star of Part I's evening sale
was a major oil by Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), who was known
as a Suprematist painter, that sold for a record of more than
$17 million. Lot 142 in this sale is a somewhat similar composition
by Malevich that has a very conservative estimate of only $100,000
to $150,000. The lower estimate reflects the work's much smaller
size, 12 1/2 by 9 7/8 inches, and the fact that it is a gouache
on buff paper. It failed to sell.
One of the auction most beautiful lots
is 143, "Suprematist Arkhitkton in Red, Vitebsk," a
7 ¼-by-6 ¼-inch watercolor, pencil and black ink
on paper, executed in 1922 by Ilya Chashnik (1902-1929). It has
an estimate of $18,000 to $20,000. It failed to sell. The
artist studied art under Malevich at the Vitebsk Institute of
Applied Arts and "applied Suprematist aesthetics to industrial
subjects, following the dictums imposed by Communism," the
"In many of Chashniks works, warm-toned
reds, oranges and yellows collide with cooler-toned blues, purples
and greens. He scattered these colors across his surfaces as elongated
rectangles and arranged them horizontally and vertically in the
forms of crosses. These abstract pictorial compositions, based
on geometric figures, were dynamic diagrams organized as rhythmic
and sequential arrangements," the catalogue continued.
This is a very jazzy and superb abstraction.
A similar work by Chashnik but one with a horizontal
theme is Lot 147, "Suprematist Composition." The 4 ¼-by-7
¾-inch watercolor and pencil on paper was executed circa
1922 and has an estimate of $12,000 to $16,000. It failed to
Another "Suprematist Composition"
is Lot 145, a 32-by-19 3/8-inch oil on canvas by Anna Aleksandrovna
Kogan (1902-1974). Anna Kogan was a pupil of Malevich from 1919
to 1922 in Vitebsk and she continued to produce her abstract works
into the 1930s despite the emergence of social realist works that
were more popular politically. This work was executed circa 1924
and has an estimate of $70,000 to $80,000. Its muted palette of
orange, greens and browns make it rather somber and makes it pale
in comparison with Lot 143 by Chashnik, but it has a totemic quality
that harkens to Neo-Primitivism. It failed to sell.
In the Russian Constructivist group, the stand-out
work is Lot 141, "Proun AII," by El Lissitzky (1890-1941),
a black ink, gouache, watercolor and graphite on tan cardboard,
22 by 17 3/4 inches, that has a conservative estimate of $250,000
to $350,000. It failed to sell.
A label on the back of the work indicates it
was executed in 1920. The work bears the following inscription
on its reverse: "AII To understand the infinity of the world
which surrounds us, we enclose it in the space of the circle,
in which all the elements are in a state of balanced rotating
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"As a colleague of Malevich at the Vitebsk
Practical Art Institute, El Lissitzky experimented with the geometric
possibilities of Suprematism. He became more interested in utilitarian
design and concentrated his creative energies in that direction.
Feeling that traditional media had become redundant Lissitzky
set up a graphic workshop at the Popular School and created his
first Proun in 1919.
The catalogue provides the following excerpt
from a lecture by Lissitzky at Inkhuk in Moscow on October 23,
"Proun is the name we have given to the
station on the road towards constructing a new form. It grows
on earth fertilized by the corpses of the painting and its artist
we saw that the content of our canvas was no longer a pictorial
one, that it had now begun to rotate
we decided to give it
an appropriate name. We called it PROUN
.The forms with which
the Proun makes its assault on space are constructed not from
aesthetics, but from material. In the initial stations of the
Prouns this material is colour. It is taken as the purest aspect
of the energetic state of matter in its material embodiement
Proun advances towards the creation of a new space, and, by dividing
it into the elements of its first, second and third dimensions
passing through time, it (the Proun) constructs a polyhedral,
but uniform image of nature."
Lot 132 is another Lissitzky, "Proun with
cut 4-sided pyramid," a 9 3/4-by-9-inch watercolor over pencil
on paper, executed circa 1920, which has a conservative estimate
of $18,000 to $20,000. It failed to sell. The catalogue
notes that the artist created Prouns as "the interchange
station between painting and architecture."
Lot 139 is the design by Lissitzky for the
cover of a Proun exhibition catalogue in Hanover, executed in
1923. The 11 3/8-by-9-inch gouache, black ink, pencil and collage
on thin gray cardboard, has a conservative estimate of $25,000
to $30,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 134 is a work by Gustav Klucis (1895-1944)
in a style not dissimilar to Lissitzky's. Entitled "Dynamic
City," it is a 14 3/4-by-20 7/8-inch gouache, watercolor
and pencil on paper laid down on board and was executed in 1920.
"Klucis," the catalogue notes, "studied art at
the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts in Petrograd before
moving to Moscow where he joined the Ninth Latvian Infantry in
1918. Following his military service he joined Konstantin Korovin
and Anton Pevsner at Vkhutemas and came into contact with Malevich;
it was at this time that Klucis began to work on architectural
and typographical designs. In 1920
, the artist studied under
El Lissitzky who influenced Klucis to look to a new medium to
accompany the revolutionary society: typography. Klucis' works
from the this period show a close affinity with Suprematism, where
three-dimensional geometric figures float in the absolute space
of the Suprematist picture plane."
This very lovely work has an estimate of $30,000
to $40,000. It failed to sell.
Another strong Klucis in the auction is Lot
148, an 11 1/2-by-9 1/8-inch watercolor and ink on paper that
has an estimate of $8,000 to $10,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 133, "Mother and Child," is an
impressive study by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953). Executed circa
1912-3, it is a 13 1/2-by-11 7/8-inch oil on canvas and has an
estimate of $225,000 to $300,000. It failed to sell.
Tatlin was a Neo-Primitivist in the early years
of the century and became one of the founders of Constructivism
"Tatlin's paintings of this period combined
an awareness of Western avant-garde developments with a strong
interest in native Russian traditions. He sought to place his
work in the context of Russian, not Western, art and did so by
integrating native sources of inspiration such as the lubok, the
Russian woodcut, and the icon into his paintings. In the present
work the image is characteristic of a devotional subject, The
Virgin and child. Tatlin has treated the figures in Mother and
Child as curvilinear masses, pressed closely to the picture plane
clearly reminiscent of icon paintings. His choice of palette also
connects him to the spiritual imagery with the subtle gradations
of primary colors heightened by white and black, which give the
.Tatlin completed this work prior to his
first visit to Paris in either late 1913 or early 1914 where he
was introduced to Picasso and Cubism. His work from that point
forward evolved into a Constructivist style and he moved away
from easel painting choosing instead to construct three-dimensional
Lot 129 is an untitled watercolor on paper,
12 1/8 by 8 5/8 inches, executed circa 1920, by Samil Yakovlevich
Adlivankin (1897-1966), a student of Tatlins.
The catalogue notes the following:
"He briefly adopted a non-objective approach
in his own work following the examples of Rodchenko and Popova,
but by the 1920s he was fully integrating the neo-primitive style
into his creative output which included paintings and graphic
designs. His paintings became as known for their crudeness of
handling as they did for their directness in message."
The lot has an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000.
It sold for $13,800, which includes the buyers premium
as do all sales results mentioned in this article.
Lot 136 is a work from the same period as the
Tatlin, "Forest, Rayonist Composition," a 23 3/8-by-19
3/4-inch oil on canvas by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962). The
quite vigorous composition, which is the back cover illustration
of the catalogue, has a conservative estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.
It failed to sell.
"Goncharova was heavily influenced by
the writings of Mikhail Larionov. The two together were strong
proponents of Neo-primitivism and stressed the importance of denouncing
Western art traditions in favor of embracing their Russian national
heritage. They sought a more expressive and genuine artistic sensibility.
Larionov developed an abstract style of painting that synthesized
rhythm, motion and light with Primitivist tendencies and called
it Rayism, referring to the result of intersecting light rays
that formed when they were independently reflected from the surface
of an object. The rays created a powerfully expressive force that
shattered the picture plane. An offshoot of Cubism, Futurism and
Orphism, Rayism was one of the first non-objective styles of painting
in Russia and Goncharova quickly adopted the style. In a speech
that she gave in 1913 the artist spoke of her new path: 'To set
myself no confines or limitations in the sense of artistic achievements
fight against the debased and decomposing doctrine of individualism
draw my artistic inspiration from my country and from the East,
so lose to us
.' The present work is a fine and rare example
of Goncharova's Rayist style. The brilliant colors explode off
of the canvas and the barrier between the picture's surface and
nature has been eradicated."
An ideal companion piece for the Goncharova
painting is Lot 116, "Les Danseurs de Corde," (tightrope
walkers), by Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), shown at the top of this
article. This is a stunning and very fine gouache, pen and ink
on paper laid down on board, 25 ¼ by 19 ¼ inches.
Executed in 1922, it has an ambitious but deserved estimate of
$200,000 to $300,000 and the great curved lines of the tightrope
walkers umbrellas create a very dynamic composition that
will come as a great surprise to aficionados of Dufy. It failed
Another fine surprise is Lot 119, "Children
at Play," a 17 ¾-by-24 3/8-inch watercolor and black
chalk on paper by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). The work has been
exhibited widely in major museums in a 1957-8 traveling exhibition.
An asymmetrical composition, its subject matter is much more low-keyed
than the artists normal dramatic works, but this work has
a delightful fluidity and a modest estimate of $100,000 to $150,000
given the artists stature and importance. It failed to
This auction is also highlighted by a lovely
group of small sculptures by Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964).
Lot 131, for example, is a fine 13 ½-inch high bronze sculpture
with green patina of a woman combing her hair, done in the artists
fine, soft Cubist style. The catalogue states that the work was
"conceived in 1914." It has an estimate of $20,000 to
$30,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 135 is a lyrical chromium-plated bronze,
20 inches long, signed and dated "Archipenko 1935, and it
has an estimate of only $40,000 to $50,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 140 is a similar, but vertical piece, 14 ¼ inches high,
signed and dated "Archipenko 1914" and it has an estimate
of $30,000 to $40,000. It failed to sell. Lot 151, "Egyptian
Motif," is a 13 ¼-inch high bronze with dark green
patina that is signed and dated "Archipenko 1917 and has
an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It failed to sell. Lot
171, "Geometric Statuette," is a 26 ¾-inch high
bronze statue, signed and dated "Archipenko Paris 1914"
and has an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. It failed to sell.
This cluster of five luscious and quite fine
statuettes by Archipenko look fabulous as a group. Archipenko
did many larger works, but they have seldom appeared on the auction
block in recent years.
Another major artist who has a delightful group
of four small works in this auction is Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956),
a superbly consistent and fine artist. The works are Lots 163-6
and they all have modest estimates and have been consigned by
Erica Feininger. Lot 164, "Ghosties," shown above, has
an estimate of only $5,000 to $7,000. It sold for $4,600.
The catalogue notes at its back that the auction
house has "a financial interest, which may be an advance,
a price guarantee and/or ownership interest in the following lots:
127, 11, 35, 140, 151, 168, 171, 173, 174, 175 and 176. Some press
reports have noted that Christies and Sothebys indicate
similar interests with a symbol on the same page as the lot, rather
than a short paragraph in the back. The short paragraph in the
back is of more use as the symbols used by the other auction houses
are too discrete and they do not have an overall list as Phillips
does of such lots.