By Carter B. Horsley
With the fall auction season off to a fairly
shaky start with the Impressionist & Modern Art sales last
week that set a few records but had a very-high rate of buy-ins,
this auction should prove to be a real bell-weather of the strength
of the markets in the face of a less than booming stock market
and the continued uncertainty over the Presidential election.
The sale has many important works from the
Lannan Foundation and very good examples of the more famous Post-War
artists. Highlights include major works by Mark Rothko (1903-1970),
Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Kenneth
Noland (b. 1924), Morris Louis (1812-1962), Alexander Calder (1898-1976),
Joan Mitchell (1926-1992), Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), Philip Guston
(1913-1980), Frank Stella (b. 1936), Brice Marden (b. 1938), Anselm
Kiefer (b. 1945), Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Donald Judd (1928-1994)
and Andy Warhol (1928-1987).
Many of the auctioneers this season have attributed
the spotty performance so far this season to "competitive
pressures" and high estimates, presumably generated by consignors
high expectations based on strong prices over the past two seasons.
Furthermore, they have argued, the marketplace is increasingly
sophisticated and focused primarily on the finest pieces and not
merely pleasant, "decorative" examples of an artists
work. Nonetheless, the auction houses have traditionally in recent
years kept their estimates low and most of the more prominent
buy-ins recently have had relatively reasonable estimates.
A high percentage of buy-ins usually indicates
a collapsing market, but some of the new records have been so
robust as to indicate that money is still very much available.
Perhaps part of the explanation of the markets vagaries
may be attributed to the general collapse of the dot.com sector
of the financial markets that may have curbed the enthusiasm of
some "new" buyers.
While the Impressionist and Modern Art auctions
this season did not have a slew of masterworks to offer, the Contemporary
and Post-War auctions are flush with very fine works. Based on
the fall catalogues, it does not appear that the continuing legal
problems of Sothebys and Christies have deterred too
many consignors, nor resulted in a rush to Phillips, which continues
its major campaign, launched last Spring, to become a serious
challenger to Sothebys and Christies in New York.
This was a strong and successful sale in
which 13 auction records were set for individual artists. The
sale realized $43,140,900. The pre-sale low estimate was $40,695,000
and the high pre-sale estimate was $56,575,000.
The star of this auction is Lot 31, "No.
2 (Blue, Red and Green," an 81-by-67 1/8-inch oil on canvas,
shown at the top of this article, by Mark Rothko that was executed
in 1953 and has an estimate of $8,000,000 to $10,000. It sold
for $11,005,750 including the buyer's premium as do all prices
in this article.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"Rothkos skill in layering his viels
of varied color achieved an alchemy of optical mystery, with the
vaporous colors evoking a myriad of contradictory responses. Within
a sense of illuminating light, Rothko achieved obscurity; within
apparently monolithic voids, a sense of organic presence
beauty of the oscillating color forms in Rothkos work, as
witnessed in No. 2 (Blue, Red and Green), has always been
its most accessible and seductive element. The impact of brilliant
color is immediate, striking and almost physical, yet Rothko objected
to a simplistic view of vibrant color. In the early 1950s, Rothkos
oeuvre was dominated by pulsating reds, yellows, oranges,
pinks colors that seem to throb with life and joy, but
with which he claimed he wanted to express tragedy
As in No. 2 (Blue, Red and Green), Rothkos bright
colors, and the chromatic contrasts that merge yellow and blue
into green, are sufficiently dissonant as to be disquieting and
This is a fine, totemic work of great solemnity
and sobriety by Rothko.
Lot 32, "Khorkom," a 40-by-52-inch
oil on canvas by Arshile Gorky is a dramatic contrast with the
Rothko. This is no amorphous, infinite or indefinite space, but
a bold and precise space. This museum-quality work, painted circa
1938, resonates with luminosity and Gorkys surrealistic
forms. It was at one time in the collection of the Museum of Modern
Art and has a quite conservative estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,500,000.
It sold for $2,205,750.
The catalogue provides the following excellent
"In his tragically brief, but potent career,
Gorky assimilated the pictorial innovations of Cézanne,
Kandinsky, Miro and the Surrealists. His synthesis of Modern arts
many inventions, combined with his passionate embrace of nature,
created a new vision of painting that would inform the work of
his fellow artists of the 1940s and 1950s, from de Kooning to
Still. The late 1930s were a painful period of assimilation and
discovery, through which Gorky found his complex formal vocabulary
that serves as a crucial link from European Surrealism to the
burgeoning Abstract Expressionism of the following decades. Khorkom,
and related works on the same theme, stand at this crossroads
in the fertile years when Gorky felt his art should ocnvery his
living dreams of childhood memories and his ancient
homeland. Arshile Gorky reinvented and rechristened himself in
America, choosing the role of artist, and demonstrating the truth
that a strong creative impulse can result from the trauma of dislocation.
Immigrants, such as Gorky and his friend Willem de Kooning, bring
a special skill for forging syntheses, whether of ones past
and present or of artistic traditions and innovations. Unlike
de Kooning, Gorky had no formal art training, and largely taught
himself by copying masters such as Cezanne and Picasso. Traces
of Cubist still life can be glimpsed in Gorkys paintings
of the 1930s, including the present work, Khorkom, where
certain forms, such as a slice of apple, a palette, and the profile
of a bird are vaguely identifiable amid the composition. But by
the late 1930s, Gorky was in the midst of a wrenching struggle
to identify his own mature style of painting
was the catalyst that fired Gorky toward a new level of experimentation
and the culmination of his personal artistic style. Armenia, his
hometown of Khorkom, and his childhood garden were all the well-spring
of Gorkys imagination the forms, rhythms, lines,
colors and creatures of his vision that are woven throughout the
pictorial and stylistic vocabulary of the paintings of 1938 to
1948, his last and most important decade
.In Khorkom and
the Garden of Sochi series of the early 1940s, a related
series of images predominates. Influenced by Joan Miro, Gorky
integrates figure and ground, expressing his sense of fantasy
in abstracted forms that exist as a cosmos amid a vast expanse.
Unlike Miro, Gorkys shapes remain relatively flat without
modeling and spatial illusionism. In Khorkom, the moon-shaped
yellow, soft gray and pink palette, the red and green wedges that
anchor the swirling green center, the black eye in profile
all are suspended in a thickly painted and flat white space, linked
by an alternatingly looping or insistent black line which threads
from form to form."
Gorkys biomorphic forms would find resonance
in the later work of Francis Bacon, whose disturbing portrait
distortions morph his subjects into often weird and terrifying
transformations. Lot 43, "Study for a Portrait of Clive Barker,
two 14-by-12-inch oils on canvas, is a good example of Bacons
morphic style. Bacon, of course, has a much more painterly style
and a softer palette than Gorky, but his works are equally bold
and fascinating. This lot, executed in 1978, has an estimate of
$800,000 to $1,200,000. It failed to sell. Barker was a
sculptor friend of Bacon and in 1978 exhibited twelve studies
of Bacon in a London show that included three studies of Barker
The catalogue notes that Bacon boldly confronts
his subjects and that Barker here is "presently almost filmically,
in two fleeting moments," adding that "He appears to
fidget across the canvases, each subtle movement intensified by
Bacons exceptional motion of his loaded brush." It
adds that "this terse, deeply-felt combat is counterbalanced
by the softness of Bacons palette."
This auction has a very impressive selection
of works from the collection of J. Patrick Lannan, a Chicago and
New York industrialist who for a while was president of the Modern
Poetry Association and developed a close relationship with noted
art critic Clement Greenberg.
Lot 16, "Heat," is a intense ring
of colored circles by Kenneth Noland, a 63-by-65 acrylic on canvas,
which was executed in 1858 and has an estimate of $250,000 to
$350,000. It sold for $797,750. It is one of several works
consigned by the Lannan Foundation.
Perhaps the most spectacular work consigned
by the foundation is Lot 18, "Atomic Crest," by Morris
Louis, a 105 ½-by-78-inch acrylic resin on canvas, dated
54. It has a conservative estimate of $300,000 to $400,000 and
unlike many of his works in which poured paint occupies only a
portion of the canvas this painting is fully covered in a fan
pattern with a very soft and lovely palette. It sold for $335,750.
Lot 19, "The Snowflake Tree," is
a very delicate and fine mobile by Alexander Calder (18981976),
that measures 96 by 106 by 52 inches. The painted steel and wire
mobile with an electric motor was also consigned by the foundation
and has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It passed at
Lot 20, "Monongehla" is a very vibrant
1955 oil on canvas, 72 by 78 inches, by Joan Mitchell (1926-1992)
that has been consigned by the foundation and has an estimate
of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $830,750, breaking the
previous world auction record for the artist of $552,500.
Lots 21, 22 and 23 are three interesting sculptures
by Noguchi that also have been consigned by the foundation. They
carry estimates of $350,000 to $450,000, $600,000 to $800,000
and $400,000 to $600,000 respectively. They sold, respectively,
for $390,750, $643,750 and $489,750. Lot 22 broke the previous
world auction record for Noguchi of $632,500.
Another Lannan consignment is Lot 24, "Nunca
Pasa Nada," a large striped work by Frank Stella (b. 1936)
that measures 110 by 220 ½ inches and is metallic powder
in polymer emulsion on canvas. The 1964 work has an estimate of
$1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,435,750. The catalogue
notes that and six other of his paintings in this series alter
"the shape of the canvas, and reiterates that lengthened,
zigzagged shape with the use of pencil-thin lines throughout."
"The spontaneity of Nunca Pasa Nada
belies its awesome power and almost overwhelming scale: it is
as vulnerable, clipped and seemingly precarious as it is monumental,
definite and finite. Ever ambiguous, even at its most explicit,
Stellas art renders spectacular the crisis of easel painting
in the twentieth century," it added.
Yet another Lannan painting is Lot 25, "For
Pearl," a 96-by-98 5/8-inch oil and wax on canvas by Brice
Marden that was executed in 1970 and has an ambitious estimate
of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $1,875,750, breaking
the previous world auction record for the artist of $1,545,750.
The three-panel work is dedicated to Janis Joplin, the singer
who was a native of Port Arthur, Texas, as was Robert Rauschenberg
for whom Marden worked as an assistant in 1966. "For Pearl
stands as a monument to the simple purity of the monochromatic
panels of the early 1970s, which was soon t be followed by a growing
complexity in Mardens aesthetic," the catalogue observed.
Lot 35, "Disappearance I," is a 40-inch
square encaustic and canvas collage on canvas, dated 1960, by
Jasper Johns. The gray and white work has an ambitious estimate
of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000 and its title refers to the fact that
the canvas is doubled over the back to make the painting more
of an object. It passed at $3,400,000.
Lot 45, "Portrait of Nelson A. Rockefeller
# 3," is one panel of a four-section work by Andy Warhol
depicting the former Governor of New York and scion of one of
the countrys wealthiest families and one of the nations
foremost art collectors. It is one of the best of Warhols
famous portraits and catches the intensity and focus of its subject,
shown at a press conference, very well. The 75-by-65-inch synthetic
polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas was painted in 1967 and has
a modest estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $401,750.
Another fine Warhol is Lot 48, "Mao,"
a 36-by-56-inch synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas
that was painted in 1972-4. The double portrait is very colorful
and strong and has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It
sold for $687,750.
Lot 50, "Maverick Sun" is a very
good Philip Guston oil on canvas, 50 ½ by 91 inches that
was painted in 1972 and has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.
It sold for $489,750.
Donald Judd has two excellent works in the
auction, Lots 53 and 46. The former consists of six brushed aluminum
hollow rectangles set at 14-inch intervals. Executed in 1978-9,
this is one of the artists handsomest works and has an estimate
of $550,000 to $750,000. It passed at $420,000. The latter
is a more conventional Judd, a stack of 10 stainless steel and
red fluorescent Plexiglass units stacked against a wall vertically
with 9-inch intervals. It has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.
It sold for $819,750, a world auction record for the artist.
New auction records were also set for Cecily
Brown, whose "Twenty Million Sweethearts," Lot 1, sold
for $87,000; Gary Hume, whose "Pauline," Lot 2, sold
for $159,750; Robert Gober, whose "Deep Basin Sink,"
Lot 5, sold for $830,750, and whose simple drawing for the sink,
Lot 6, sold for $55,959, a record for a work on paper by the artist;
Maurizio Cattelan, whose "Spermini," Lot 10, sold for
$159,750; Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose "Untitled (Lover Boys),"
Lot 13, sold for $456,750; Cy Twombly's "Silex Scintillans,"
Lot 38, which sold for $885,750, a record for a work on paper
by the artist; Alexander Calder, whose huge sculpture, "Stegosaurus,"
Lot 39, sold for $4,185,750; and Dan Flavin, whose "Alternate
Diagonals of March 2, 1964," Lot 52, sold for $335,750.
Two works by minor works by Jasper Johns
failed to sell as did a small double portrait by Francis Bacon,
a painting by Anselm Kiefer, a good Sam Francis, a complex Jean-Michel
Basquiat and a nice mobile by Alexander Calder.