By Carter B. Horsley
In recent years, contemporary art auctions
have increasingly devoted a lot of attention to photography that
is not necessarily cutting-edge work, but work that is merely
provocative, often by its lack of artistry. At the same time,
however, these auctions have also included examples of contemporary
art that is quite serious and interesting.
This auction, which was very successful,
slightly exceeding its pre-sale high-estimate total of $10,400,000
and selling 45 of the 47 offered works, is no exception to
the rule with a few very fine works of art and some that may not
stand the test of time.
In the first category are Lot 29, "Johannis
Nacht," an oil, straw and epoxy on photographic paper, 23
¾-by-32 ½-inch work executed in 1978 by Anselm Kiefer
(b. 1945) that is very striking.
The catalogue remarks that it is "among
Kiefers most dramatic and powerful subjects," adding
that "in this case the artists efforts result in a
rare and rich nocturnal palette accompanied by the iconic presence
of the applied straw. The straw is a reference to another of Kiefers
prominent subjects, Margarete. This theme of Margarete is consistently
revisited in he artists works from the early 1980s. It is
based on Paul Celans severe and melancholic poem from 1945,
Death Fugue. The piece was written in a concentration
camp. The poet was the only member of his family survive, but
later committee suicide in 1970 at the age of forty-nine
straw represents the golden hair of the character Margarte in
the poem, a reference to the Aryan race. The significance of Johannis
Nacht (or Midsummer Night) lives in its reference to June 24th,
the birthday of Saint John the Baptist which coincides
with the summer solstice. In Germany, this day is celebrated,
combining pagan and Christian rites. Traditional, wheels of fire
were placed at the top of hills. On one such occasion, in 1941,
Hilter chose this day to invade Russia
of a material such as highly flammable straw as the central vehicle
of these events suggest a kind of suicidal impulse at the core
of German culture. The straw works are among the most beautifully
poignant and magically represent pieces in Kiefers art.
Both the beauty and horror of German life are combined in a dreamy
night scene of rich, yet portentous blackness.
The lot, which is shown at the top of this
article, has a conservative estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It
sold for $34,500, including the buyer's premium as do all results
in this article.
Lot 30, "Baume," is a very fine example
of the "blurred" landscape paintings of Gerhard Richter
(b. 1932). The 20 ½-by-28 ¼-inch oil on canvas was
painted in 1987 and has an estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. It
sold for $475,500.
The catalogue notes that the artist has maintained
that his painted landscapes are "deceptive" and "refer
to the way we view nature transfigured."
"Nature, which in all its forms is constantly
against us, because it has no meaning no mercy, no sympathy, because
it knows nothing
because it is the absolute opposite
absolutely inhuman," the artist is quoted in the catalogue,
which adds that "it is the haunting melancholy of Baume
the paucity of meaning, mercy or sympathy, as
the artist says that makes it so very unlike Lorraines
or Corots, yet so uniquely a part of Richters singular
vision. Explains Richter, each aspect of beauty we see in
nature, every enchanting colour, the peacefulness or energy of
mood, gentle lineation, lofty space
is our own projection."
Lot 25 is an very fine untitled work by Richter
that is dramatic departure from his "blurry" pictures:
it is an extremely detailed, very colorful large work of microscopic
intensity. The 28 ½-by-40-inch oil on canvas was painted
in 1989 and has a conservative estimate of $120,000 to $160,000.
It sold for $255,500. It is a quite magnificent work that
is more contemporary than just about everything else in the catalogue
becomes it conjures the technology of computer expansion boards
with its seeming three-dimensional scrapes of strong red, yellow
and blocks against a white and gray background. The painting also
conjures an historical sense of the various blobs of color also
seem to have been parts of posters ripped off over the years revealing
mysterious underpainting, but the overall effect is not haphazard
but tightly organized.
It is a far cry, indeed, from another, earlier
Richter work, Lot 33, shown above, "Schwiezer Alpen,"
a 28-inch square oil on canvas executed in 1969. "Unlike
other monochromatic paintings that were being execute by other
artists of this time period, Richters work possesses an
entirely different driving force motivating its inception and
creation," the catalogue remarks and quotes the artist as
stating that the work should be "understood as achromatic
rather than monochromatic."
The catalogue reproduces nine photographs of
snowy mountains from the artists Atlas, and the strong,
but simple work has a powerful, almost chiseled impact of great
scale in part because of its lack of detail.
It has an estimate of $180,000 to $250,000,
which apparently puts a higher value on its earlier date and style
than the much more complex and alluring Lot 25. Nonetheless, its
dull color may not suit all tastes or decors. It sold for $200,500.
An interesting companion piece to Lot 33 could
be Lot 46, a fine untitled work by Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967), that
is a 22-by-30-inch ink, oil watercolor and gouache on paper, executed
in 1949. The first third or so of the work is a vertical strip
of white with some black and blue and red squibbles and the remainder
of the work uses a much darker palette of blacks, blues and greens
to contain similar squibbles. The work is abstract, but highly
detailed and very dense, sort of a horizontal Rothko done by Baziotes
or Stamos, an altogether engaging and fine work that has a conservative
estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $36,800. It
and the Richter are muted and almost minimal, but full of character.
The most surprising work in the auction is
Lot 47, an untitled oil and gesso on masonite, 40 by 30 inches,
by Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1935). Executed in 1949, it is a muted,
gray palette study in fluid Cubism and quite different from the
bulk of his oeuvre. The catalogue notes that his was the
second painting the artist completed in 1949 and is a "precursor
to those White Paintings with respect to the way the pigment is
applied to the panel," adding that "Rauschenberg painted
the board in such light hues that the surface of Unitled is render
with a translucent glow." Rauschenberg launched his "seminal"
series of White Paintings in 1951, "the surfaces of those
canvases serving as a neutral backdrop (or stage setting) for
the orchestral play of random shadows and colors that were present
in the environments in which they were installed," the catalogue
This quite lyrical and simple Rauschenberg
has a very conservative estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 and harkens
to the geometric abstraction of Ben Nicolson. It sold for $63,000.
Lot 45, an untitled work by Willem de Kooning
(1904-1997) is another monochromatic study that makes a strong
statement. Painting in 1950, this 18-by-24-inch Sapolin enamel
on paper reflects the artists decision in the late 1940s
to eliminate "color from his palette in order to focus on
line, form and imagery" resulting in "the birth of a
confident and energetic synthesis of abstraction, biomorphic forms
and gestural action painting
The black and white
abstractions also demonstrate the crucial relationship between
drawing and painting in de Koonings oeuvre. Thomas
Hess wrote the moving pencil, charcoal brush or knife is
the way de Kooning thinks
Usually the drawing is a search
for shapes or lines or divisions or connections or a sense of
light that will be used in painting. De Kooning was a skilled
draughtsman with a graceful touch that resulted in sinuous lines
suggestive of volume as well as shape. The looseness afforded
by the materials and techniques of the black and white abstractions
encourages the artist to expand his strokes to the outer edges
of the paper in all-over compositions. Untitled,
1950 shares characteristics with the works of de Koonings
contemporaries such as Pollock,, Kline and Motherwell, soon to
be group as as the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.
.Untitled, 1950, the drawing displays associate images that
recall an actors dressing room.
The work has a slightly ambitious estimate
of $500,000 to $700,000, especially since Lot 43 is a colorful
de Kooning painted in 1964. It failed to sell.
Entitled "Grumman," Lot 43 is a 45
½-by-29 5/8-inch-oil on newspaper. As a leading member
of the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning startled much of the
art world with the introduction in 1953 of his Women paintings,
that "bore clearly recognizable images of females figures,
and thus rejected the commitment to non-objectivity that previously
characterized his own work and Abstract Expressionism more generally.
The artist explained later that it while it was "absurd"
to do such images, it was for him even more "absurd"
"not to follow my desires."
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"By following his desires, and resuscitating
the human figure in he midst of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning
ultimately produced some of the most potent, iconic images of
post-war American art, among which the present work may certainly
.Despite this immediate recognition of a figure,
one also notices the obvious physical distortions that throw de
Koonings formal concerns and technical mastery into extremely
high relief. A confident, fluid handing of paint is perhaps most
apparent in the present work. Board sweeping brushstrokes quickly
adumbrate the figures cross arms and her thick head of hair.
And yet this same description marks remain undeniable strokes
of pure pigment to effectively make three-dimensional form to
a flat surface. The work also reveals the artists masterful
of collage. He has painted this image on a support of newspapers,
one of which lends the painting its title. He could thus reconfigure
this image with ease and toy with planar relationships. This is
most apparent in the center or the canvas where two sheets of
newspaper bisect the torso horizontally. By disrupting he flow
of paint at her midsection, de Kooning creates the subtle illusion
that the figure is reclining, her upper body receding just slightly
behind her projecting legs." "In works such as Grumman,
the catalogue continued, "the palette softened to
a range of pale pinks, roses and yellows. The figures often seemed
to stretch, flatten and recede as their more generous forms merged
with indications of a background landscape, which is here suggested
by patches of mint green pigment."
The catalogue entry also quotes the following
interesting observations by Diane Waldman of de Koonings
early 1960s pictures of women:
de Koonings women appear
far more tranquil and are integrated into their surroundings;
Severe frontality, the direct confrontation of figures and
spectator, gives way at they women recline, complacent and at
ease in the countryside. The mood is pastoral. Ultimately the
figures become so distorted that it is virtually impossible to
disentangle torsos and limbs from the background
figure, although still the theme of the painting, no longer dominates
its composition. By the 1960s, landscape assumes a new and more
prominent role: de Kooning makes Woman a landscape."
This lot has a conservative estimate of $800,000
to $1,000,000 and de Koonings "Women" paintings
are clear precursors to the ever-increasing contortions, distortions
and maledictions that would be become prevalent in much of "contemporary"
art subsequently. This de Kooning, which sold for $772,500,
bears a strong painterly kinship with Richters Lot 25
and to a lesser extent with the untitled painting by Jean-Michel
Basquiat (1960-1988), Lot 24, a 1982 work of acrylic, spraypaint
and oil-sticks on canvas that is 72 by 48 inches and is highlighted
by a horned skull with floating arrows above an undefined surge
of black and pink. The Basquiat, shown below, has a conservative
estimate of $300,000 to $400,000 and is a good example of his
vibrancy and strong design. It sold for $255,500.
De Koonings visceral influence would
survive the onslaught of minimalism and Pop Art in the 1960s to
emerge in much of the work of the 1980s and 1990s.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), of course, has survived
his critics and become perhaps the greatest icon of his age and
Lot 39, one of his self-portraits, is a splendid example that
happens to owe an idealistic debt to de Kooning for its image
overflows with orange-reds that seem to consume the image of his
quizzical, cool, but enigmatic look. Executed in 1966-7, this
22-inch square synthetic polymer and silkscreen on canvas, shown
below, has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for
The catalogue provides the following interesting
"Like his contemporaneous paintings of
Coca-Cola bottles, Campbells Soup cans, and other consumer
products, these early portraits were derived from images found
in the mass media. By recycling such pre-existing images, Warhol
disrupted the conventional notion that a subject may be accurately
understood through his or her portrait. He instead revealed how
identity is commodified within a media-saturated culture, packaged
and promoted like a soup can or a soda bottle, and scarcely recognizable
as an authentic expression of the interior self
work illustrates how Warhol began most of his portraits by shooting
photographs of himself and his sitters, a tactic that suppressed
a subjective interpretation of outward appearances. This objective
approach was then enhanced by translating the photograph into
a silkscreen image. A mechanical process the reduced the artists
touch even further, the silkscreen generation exceedingly flat
paintings comprising a few, unmodulated areas of vivid color.
Significantly, this process also allowed for nearly endless repetition
of a particular image. While the essential likeness of a given
sitter almost remained intact, deliberate variations of color
and accidental slippages of the silkscreen layers insured that
each painting was ultimately unique. These variations, however,
always occurred on a strictly superficial level and thus point
to Warhols decidedly contemporary concept of selfhood. As
the present work demonstrates, one is include to read this photographic
image as an accurate, literal likeness of Warhol. The flat layers
of pigment holds one eyes on the canvas surface and frustrate
a desire to know the subject as anything more than mask. This
painting ultimate illustrates of Warhols most famous, enigmatic
statements, "If you want know all about Andy Warhol, just
look at the surface of my paintings, my films, and me, and there
I am, There is nothing behind it
Lot 38, "This Side Up," is an earlier
Warhol that is an important transitional work in his early career.
In the 1950s, Warhol had displayed some "comic-strip"-type
paintings in the storefront windows of the Bonwit Teller Store
that was demolished for Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. A few weeks
later, the catalogue remarked, Warhol saw some "comic-strip"
paintings by Roy Lictenstein at the Leo Castelli Gallery and "disappointed
by this strange coincidence, and hoping to avoid further conflicts
of interest, Warhol abandoned the comic strip altogether and sought
out alternative subjects for his paintings."
"For a brief period in 1962," the
catalogue entry continued, "Warhol created several paintings
that reproduced various packing labels, stamps and dollar bills
in grid formation. The present work belongs to this discrete body
of transitional work, and represents a significant turning point
in Warhols artistic development
.This Side Up
a valuable example of Warhols early interest in
.While the repetition of This Side Up generates
a rather bland impression of redundancy, the same tactic would
later function as a profound indictment on American consumer culture
simply printing these words on a blank canvas, Warhol has cleverly
and efficiently endowed this banal object with the inexplicable
value assigned to all art."
Warhols repetitiveness and often banal
subjects were only part of his immense and significant impact
on contemporary art. Lot 38 has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.
It sold for $200,500.
Lot 7, "Dead Ends Died Out, Examined,"
is 18-layer wooden and glass vitrine of used cigarette butts put
together in 1993 by Damien Hirst (b. 1965). While this large vitrine
with its small objects conjures the macrocosmic small worlds of
Joseph Cornell, it also pays great homage to Warhols re-emphasizing
of his imagery. Hirst, one of the more interesting and controversial
of contemporary artists, has introduced considerable variation
to this grid-theme as the butts vary in length and crushedness
and angles. This is a very impressive work and has an estimate
of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $508,500.
The catalogue provides the following quotation
"The smoking thing is like a mini life
cycle. For me the cigarette can stand for life. The packet with
its possible cigareets stands for birth. The lighter can signify
God, which gives life to the whole situation. The ashtray represents
death, but as soon as you it like that you feel ridiculous. Because
being metaphorical is ridiculous, but its unavoidable."
"Dead Ends Died Out, Examined does
not function to lecture at the viewer, but merely provides the
issues of mortality with a great sense of wit and irony. By enshrining
stubbed-out cigarette butts on eighteen shelves encased in a glass
vitrine, Hirst essentially gives the cigarettes a heroic and simultaneously
comedic status leading the viewer to think about the large issues
related to smoking and cigarettes," the catalogue continued.
Lot 9, "In Love-Out of Love," is
another Hirst of a much different nature, but similar temperament
or philosophy. It is a diptypch of gloss household paint and butterflies
on canvas, one part painting with pink background and the other
with a blue background, which illustrates the catalogues
cover. The work was executed in 1998 and has an estimate of $400,000
to $600,000. It sold for $750,500. Much of Hirsts
oeuvre consists of rather shocking and bold images such as shark
in formaldehyde, cows cut in half, and medicine cabinets and the
like. This work stems from his 1991 installation in London that
simulated a Malaysian tropical forest in which butterflies were
hatched and then attached to white canvases. This work manifests
a poetic side to Hirst and is notable for the spacious freedom
of the placement of the butterflies in contrast with some crowded
Renaissance paintings of various insects and bugs.
The auction has an interesting work by Chris
Ofili, whose use of elephant dung led to a great controversy recently
at the Brooklyn Museum over one of his paintings of a Madonna.
Lot 3 is a rather dazzling, almost psychedelic rendering of "Cupids
Wings," which also happens to have some large lumps of elephant
dung among the glitter. Executed in 1994, the work has a conservative
estimate of $45,000 to $65,000. It sold for $88,300.
Ofilis painting has celestial pathways,
but Lot 41, "Freeway 280," shown above, focuses on more
mundane routes. Executed in 1977 by Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920),
it is a very bold 20-by-24-inch oil on canvas that is very luminous
and a richly complex composition that bears comparison with some
of the work of Richard Diebenkorn. "Wayne Thiebauds
cityscape paintings depicting the California that exists in the
artists mind utilize realistic subject matter transformed
and brought to a level of almost pure abstraction; forms are simplified
to their most basic level and perspective is collapsed creating
compositions extremely rich in depth of color and emotion. Greatly
influenced by Richard Diebenkorn and his own cityscape works (i.e.
Cityscape I, 1963), Thiebauds painting has a more
crystalline structure with color solidity," the catalogue
This quite painterly work has a conservative
estimate of $120,000 to $160,000. It sold for $277,500.
Lot 13 is a very fine photograph entitled "Rapture"
by Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), an Iranian-born woman who won the
Golden Lion Award at the 1999 Venice Biennale for her 11-minute
video installation. Her work explores the social, cultural and
religious codes of Muslim societies, especially those about women,
but her photographs have great moment and poetry. The lot has
a conservative estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for
Among the works that are unlikely to stand
the test of time are works in this auction by Rineke Dijkstra,
Lot 1, Jack Pierson, Lot 2, Nan Goldin, Lots 10 and 15, William
Kentridge, Lot 12, Cindy Sherman (Lot 19 and 22), Cy Twombly (Lot
31), Blinky Palermo (Lot 36), and Matthew Barney (b. 1967), whose
"Cremaster 1 Ms. Goodyear," Lot 8, is illustrated above.
In the back of the catalogue, Phillips acknowledges
that it has "a financial interest, which may be an advance,
a price guarantee and/or an ownership interest in the following
lots: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20,
21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 37, 38, 39, 41, 45,