auction of Contemporary Art November 11, 2003 at Christie's is
highlighted by two rare works by Clyfford Still, two excellent
paintings by Franz Kline, a beautiful late work by Willem de Kooning,
two Mark Rothkos, a good Lee Bontecou, an amusing Roy Lichtenstein,
an excellent Joan Mitchell, an impressive Lee Krasner, and two
"numbers" paintings by Jasper Johns.
Still (1904-1980) is regarded as a seminal and very important
Abstract Expressionist painter and his works seldom appear at
auction. There are two in this auction, both from the estate of
John Stephan, who had been an artist, a poet and the editor of
The Tiger's Eye, an avant-garde art journal.
"1945-R," is a 34 1/2-by-31 1/2-inch oil on canvas that
Still painted in 1945. Still was introduced to Mark Rothko in
1943 and in 1945 Rothko introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim who
gave him an exhibition at her Art of This Century Gallery. "1945-R
is one of Still's first fully realized and individual works. Like
Rothko, once Still came up with the essential ingredients of his
mature style, he would mine its possibilities, with little deviation,
for the rest of his life....1945-R is unrivaled in its
expressive power and movement. Its cutting, flame-like forms swirl
around the left edge of the canvas threatening to envelop the
smaller white form that floats at the right. Still's paintings
are abstract dramas, invested with incantory power," the
catalogue entry maintains. It has an estimate of $1,200,000 to
$1,600,000. It sold for $1,911,500 including the buyer's premium
as do all results mentioned in this article. The sales price set
a world auction record for the artist, one of 11 set in a very
successful auction. The previous auction record for Still was
$1,710,750 set at Sotheby's May 17, 2000.
"1950-T," is a 55-by-44-inch oil on canvas that Still
painted in 1950. "1950-T shows the artist's signature
painterly facility, with its characteristic facture that is applied
with a scrapping and cutting palette knife rather than laid down
with a brush. His technique worked at perfect sync with his subject
matter that intimates rock faces, flames and rugged natural forms.
Despite the obvious references, Still resisted having his paintings
seen in the context of nature....What truly sets Still apat from
his contemporaries and indeed from most artists is his awe-inspiring
spatial relationships," the catalogue noted. It has an estimate
of $1,200,000 to $1,600,000. It sold for $1,183,500, and some
art experts at the auction attributed the relatively low price
to the fact that it was a dark, esoteric work that had been on
the market over the past six months.
Burge, the honorary chairman of Christie's and the evening's auctioneer,
described the auction as a "rip-roaring evening." "There
was so much furious bidding left and right, it was really amazing,"
he said, adding that it indicated "an incredibly strong market."
The auction total of $62,007,700 was at the high end of the pre-sale
estimates that ranged from a low of $50,320,000 to a high of $63,550,000.
84 percent of the 68 offered lots were sold and more than half
of the offered lots sold above their high estimates, a remarkably
Exhibited at The Museum
of Modern Art in 1997 (see The City Review
article), Lot 32, "Untitled XVII," is a very beautiful
and lyrical late work by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). An oil
on canvas that measures 80 by 70 inches, it was painted in 1984.
It has a modest estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold
The catalogue provides the
"In the early 1980's,
Willem de Kooning embarked on a last body of work that forms an
outstanding coda to one of the most respected painting oeuvres
of the 20th Century. One of de Kooning's most impressive achievements
was his ability to continually develop, refine and advance his
work over a period of 60 years, yet maintain an unmistakable touch
that is instantly recognizable as his own....Like Claude Monet's
late Water Lilies or Henri Matisse's cut-outs, de Kooning
embarked on a late flowering of astonishing beauty, brilliant
in its simplicity and grace....The origins of these later paintings
can be found in works from the mid-late 1970's when he began a
process of pictorial and coloristic simplification. From 1977-1982,
the forms became larger, with less color variation and the surface
became less scumbled and tortured. The palette becomes more retricted
and less visceral."
The auction has three fine
works by Franz Kline (1910-1962). Lot 20, "Four Square,"
is perhaps the most impressive. It is a 78-by-48-inch oil on canvas
that was executed in 1953. It has a very modest estimate of $1,500,000
to $2,000,000. It sold for $1,911,500. It was part of the
collection of Dorothy C. Miller, who was for many years a curator
at the Museum of Modern Art. Another Kline black-and-white painting
with the same title is in the collection of the National Gallery
of Art in Washington.
"Rue," is a less powerful but still impressive Kline.
An oil on canvas that measures 102 by 79 inches, it was painted
in 1959. It was once in the collection of Steve Martin, the actor,
and the catalogue reproduces a delightful photograph by Annie
Leibowitz of Mr. Martin standing in front of the painting dressed
in a white suit appropriately splattered with Klinesque black
strokes of paint. Perhaps because of its larger size, this lot
has a much higher estimate than Lot 20. It has an estimate of
$3,500,000 to $4,500,000. It sold for $2,247,500.
The third Kline is Lot 21,
"Study for White Forms," a 10 1/8-by-7-inch brush and
ink on paper. It is a very lovely calligraphic work that was executed
in 1955 and was also in the Dorothy C. Miller collection. It has
a very conservative estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold
for $153,100, a world auction record for a work on paper by the
artist. The previous record was $110,500, set at Christie's
May 9, 2000. It is a study for a work in the permanent collection
of the Museum of Modern Art.
Lot 28 is an untitled oil
on canvas by Mark Rothko (1903-1970) that measures 69 by 64 inches.
A classic Rothko composition, it was executed in 1963 and has
an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $7,175,500,
the highest price of the auction. "Almost autumnal in
its coloring," the catalogue entry for this lot observes,
"the bold harmony of Untitled seems infused with tremendous
power. This radiating sense of primal energy pulsating through
the deep tones of color has been carefully achieved by Rothko
layering his brushstrokes one upon the other until precisely the
right balance and intensity has been achieved. Seemingly simple
in its conception, this work has been built up over a period of
time until the apparent calm of the gentle red/brown background
seems impregnated with the fiery energy of the three colors it
Another Rothko, Lot 61,
"Red, Dark Red on Red," is a very strong acrylic on
paper laid down on paper. The 1967 work measures 24 by 18 inches
and has an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It failed to sell
and was passed at $500,000.
Joan Mitchell (1926-1992)
was the subject of a major exhibition in 2003 at the Whitney Museum
of American Art. Lot 25, "No. 3," a 69 1/4-by-65 3/8-inch
oil on canvas was not included and in fact is better than most
of the works in that exhibition. Executed in 1953-4, it has a
modest estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $903,500,
a world record for the artist. The previous auction record of
$830,750 was set at Sotheby's November 14, 2000. "As
a second-generation Abstract Expressionist," the catalogue
notes, "Mitchell took on the bold brushwork of de Kooning
and Kline, whom she greatly admired, and yet remained wholly unique
to her style."
Another fine work by Mitchell
is Lot 31, "Plowed Field," a triptych oil on canvas
that measures 112 by 213 inches. Painted in 1973, it is intensely
colorful, and of a different style than Lot 25. Here Mitchell
employs large rectangular patches of rich colors in marked contrast
to the "whip-like" brushstrokes and dynamic composition
of Lot 25. This lot, which also was not included in the 2002 Mitchell
show at the Whitney but was included in a 1974 Whitney exhibition
on Mitchell, has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold
Jasper Johns (b. 1930) has
three works in this auction, Lots 44, 14 and 15.
Lot 44 is entitled "Figure
3" and is a sculptmetal and collage on canvas that measures
26 by 20 inches. Executed in 1961, it has a estimate of $1,200,000
to $1,600,000. It sold for $1,2339,500. "As the crucial
hinge between Post-War World II American Art and all that came
after, Johns is arguably as important as any artist of the twentieth-century,"
gushed the catalogue entry in a fit of hyperbole that this viewer
finds ridiculous as nothing in the Post-World War II era can equal
the revolutionary and sensational achievements of the first 20
years of the 20th Century highlighted of course by Fauvism, Cubism,
Futurism and Constructivism. Nevertheless, this is a rarely beautiful
work by Johns. The catalogue entry, calmer, continued: "He
transformed the extravagant approach to abstraction by the earlier
generation into a highly controlled, meticulous, even calculating
handling of medium. But he did all this while rendering motifs
found in everyday life, thereby setting the stage for Pop Art.
And because he often selected geometric patterns such as targets,
flags and numbers, and approached art in such a celebral fashion,
Johns is usually given credit for being the progenitor of Mimimal
and Conceptual Art, too."
There are two Johns works
from the Dorothy C. Miller Collection, Lots 14 and 15. Lot 14,
"Litanies of the Chariot," is a pencil and graphite
wash on paper that measures 5 1/8 by 3 5/8 inches. Executed in
1961, it has an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. It sold for
$298,700. It was given to Ms. Miller by Robert Scull, a collector.
Lot 15, "Gray Numbers," is a 28-by-22-inch encaustic
on canvas. Painted in 1957, this work by Johns has an estimate
of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It sold for $5,271,500. It
is the first of the artist's "gray numbers" paintings
and was acquired by Ms. Miller at the 1958 one-man exhibition
at the Leo Castelli Gallery, a show that Mr. Castelli has been
quoted as saying was "the crucial event in my career as an
"It is a testament
to Dorothy Miller," the catalogue entry observed, "that
she should have bought for herself not only one of the most challenging
and conceptual works in the show, but also the one that most refuted
the tenets of Abstract Expressionism - the movement which she
herself had helped to champion. Heralding the direction that Johns'
art would later take Gray Numbers pointed towards a new
objetive art that refuted the heavy subjectivity of the then dominant
'action painting' of the New York School. Seeming like a new form
of Realist painting, the cold impersonality of Johns' numbers,
the self-evident logic of their systematic progression and the
negation of any color through the artist's use of gray all appeared
to deny the presence of the individual and seemed to present a
new and wholly objective view of reality. This is to a degree
thwarted by the sensual painterly application of the thick encaustic
that Johns uses, a feature of the work that gives the impression
that the artist's painterly ejoyment of making it played a strong
role in the creation of the work." The catalogue entry also
notes that this work is the only one in the series in which Johns
did not use a stencil.
It is historically perhaps
an important work, but aesthetically it is not particularly beautiful,
especially in comparison with Lot 44.
Lot 41, "Woman with
Peanuts," is a typical early work by Roy Lichtenstein. An
oil and graphite on canvas, it measures 69 by 45 3/4 inches. Executed
in 1962, it has an ambitious estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000.
It failed to sell.
Lot 35, "Gamma Kappa"
is a classic and superb acrylic on canvas by Morris Louis (1910-1962).
Created in 1960, it measures 102 7/8 by 157 inches. It has an
estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It failed to sell and was
passed at $180,000.
Lot 16 is a fine untitled
wall relief by Lee Bontecou (b. 1931). A welded steel, canvas
and copper wire construction, it measures 23 by 24 by 7 inches,
it was created in 1960. It has a conservative estimate of $50,000
to $70,000. It sold for $298,700, breaking the previous world
auction record for the artist of $46,000 set at Sotheby's in 1993.
Lot 59 is an impressive
Cor-ten steel, 108-inch cube sculpture by Bruce Nauman (b. 1941).
Executed in 1978, it is number two of an edition of three. It
has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It sold for $959,500.
Lot 19 is a very good oil
on canvas by Bradley Tomlin Walker (1899-1953). It measures 20
1/8 by 18 inches and was executed in 1949. It has a conservative
estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. It sold for $242,700.
Lot 46, "Lifeboat,"
is a bronze sculpture by Jeff Koons (b. 1945). It is an artist's
proof from an edition of three and an artist's proof. It was executed
in 1985. It has an estimate of $1,600,000 to $1,900,000. It
sold for $2,023,500.
Lot 58, a large untitled
1968 sculpture by Alexander Calder sold for $5,831,750, breaking
the previous world auction record for the artist of $4,185,750
set at Sotheby's November 14, 2000. It had been estimated at $4,000,000
Lot 27, "Celebration"
a large painting by Lee Krasner, sold to the Cleveland Museum
of Art for $1,911,500, which smashed the artist's previous auction
record of $198,400 set at Sotheby's May 14, 2003.
A world record for a
drawing by Philip Guston was set when Lot 12 sold for $242,700,
far above the previous record of $79,571.
A world auction record
was set for Takashi Murakami for Lot 7, "Untitled (Gold),"
a 1999 painting. It sold for $623,500. The previous record was
A world auction record
for Nara Yoshitomo was set when Lot 1, "The Little Pilgrims,"
sold for $130,700, breaking the previous record of $101,575 set
at Christie's New York May 15, 2003.
Lot 6, "Fireman
and Drunk," a painting by Richard Prince sold for $365,900
setting a new world auction record for the artist. The previous
record was $269,750 set at Sotheby's May 17, 2000.
A world auction record
was set for Marlene Dumas whose "Wet Dreams" sold for
$332,300, a bit over the previous record of $308,445 set at Christie's
in London in June, 2003.