Carter B. Horsley
This evening auction of Contemporary Art November 12, 2003 at
Sotheby's is highlighted by an amusing porcelain by Jeff Koons,
two nice paintings by Mark Rothko, and strong works by Willem
de Kooning and Bruce Newman.
There are two good paintings
by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Lots 14 and 56. The former is entitled
"No. 8 (White Stripe)," and is an oil on canvas that
measures 81 ½ by 91 ½ inches. Executed in 1958,
it has an estimate of $8,000,000 to $10,000,000. It sold for
$8,856,000 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned
in this article. It is a classic work and the catalogue entry
for it waxes fairly poetic: "The present work is an astonishing
example of both Rothko's theory and praxis. The emphasis on rich
color heightens our senses, yet this joyous chromatic celebration
is underpinned by his ability to create a temporal and spatial
vacuum which draws the viewer in, forcing them to contemplate
the work and themselves in quasi-spiritual manner. We are not
presented with an empty pattern, merely to satiate the eye, but
rather with a portal into another dimension into which each individual
viewer can project their own feelings and emotions."
The other Rothko, Lot 56, is a 40-by-25 ½-inch acrylic
on paper mounted on canvas. The untitled work was executed in
1968 and its vertical format and much brighter palette are very
appealing. It has a modest estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It
sold for $736,000.
A nice companion for the
large Rothko is Lot 20, "White Fire I," a simple light
blue field with two narrow vertical stripes painted in 1954 by
Barnett Newman (1905-1970). The 47 7/8-by 59 ¾-inch oil
on canvas has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold
for $3,704,000. It sold November 13, 2002 at Christie's for
$3,859,500 when it then surpassed the world auction record for
the artist of $3,027,500.
The catalogue entry for this lot notes that there is no pure white
in the painting and that the luminous acqua field is punctuated
by a wide pale beige "zip" on the left and a soft blue
"zip" on the right. "In White Fire I Newman
manages to attain a translucent sense of brightness. The pale
field off color is made bright almost a radiant white by the effects
of the two `zips,' which also, through their contrasting colors
suggest a constantly shifting sense of space against the seemingly
infinite expanse of brightness. The overall effect is one of a
mystical light, a light that inspired the work's distinctly mystical
The auction total was $75,564,000,
nicely above its pre-sale low estimate of about $66,000,000. Almost
81 percent of the 68 offered lots sold. Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer,
described the auction at a news conference as a "fantastic
success with a lot of activity," adding that it was one of
Sotheby's "most profitable sales," and he suggested
that the Contemporary Art market was "stronger than ever."
Seven world auction records for artists were set.
A far more vigorous work
is Lot 18, "Portrait of Y.D.," by Arshile Gorky (1904-1948).
Then 32-by-25-inch oil on canvas was executed in 1945 and has
an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It failed to sell
and was passed at $2,700,000. Much of Gorky's work in 1945
was lost in a fire in 1946.
Lot 15, "Spike's Folly I," is a large
oil on canvas by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) that was executed
in 1959. It measures 79 by 68 1/2 inches and was at one time in
the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull of New York. It
has an ambitious estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000. It
sold for $11,208,000, the highest price in the auction.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"As both artist and personality, he bridged
the gap between the Apollonian reserve of Arshile Gorky, the naturalist
grandeur of Franz Kline and the Dionysian abandon of Jackson Pollock.
As such de Kooning was seen to spearhead the germinating sensibilities
of 'Action Painting,' and history now records him as that School's
chief architect and most important protagonist....Spike's Folly
I...perches at a pivotal moment in the development of de Kooning's
art and of his reputation as a significant contributor to the
dynamic of twentieth-century painitng. The product of a wholly
abstract vocabulary, the work embraces the lessons of history
painting's multi-figure compositions; the tradition of the pastoral
landscape and a newer, edgier artistic dialect of urbanism. Spike's
Folly I is a painting rich with incident and joyous color.
It summarizes past achievements, hints at traces of the figure
and yet is prescient of future abstractions. This work stands
as one of de Kooning's great paintings from the late 1950s...The
frenetic sprays of blue paint, differing direction of the muscular
brushwork and liberal dripping...suggests that the artist perhaps
approached the canvas from different sides with the artist turning
the canvas at some point...."
Another de Kooning is Lot 23, "Untitled
XLVIII," a 88-by-77-inch oil on canvas from 1983. One of
his late elegant abstractions against a white background, it has
an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $960,000.
Lot 22, "10 (Dialog 2)," by Brice
Marden (b. 1938), is one of 12 paintings that, according to the
catalogue, "mark a significant threshold between his more
monochromatic wax panel paintings of the 1960s and a re-introduction
of the painterly gesture that lead to the Cold Mountain paintings
of 1988-91." "Marden's trajectory as an artist,"
the entry continued, "encompasses a dramatic re-definition
of his painterly vocabulary in which he was uniquely successful
in seemingly contradictory styles. Marden's ability to master
both the opaque and the transparent, the monochromatic and the
multi-hued, the non-gestural and the gestural marks him as an
artist of true gifts and innate talent." It has an estimate
of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $2,472,000, considerably
above the artist's previous auction of $1,875,750.
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), the Hieronymous
Bosch of 20th Century portraiture, is represented by Lot 13, "Three
Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud." The lot consists of
three 14-by-12-inch studies, oil on canvas, and was executed in
1965. It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold
for $3,816,000. The artist, the catalogue notes, "first
met Lucian Freud in 1945 when both artists were invited to stay
for the weekend with fellow artist, Graham Sutherland." "They
quickly became close friends and a provocative and stimulating
social and artistic synergy between the two ensured....From the
1950's until the 1970's Freud was a common subject in Bacon's
oeuvre, a member of a private community that included other artists,
friends and lovers; familiar arenas in which Bacon experimented
physically, with paint, and psychologically, with emotion, creating
a stunning series of fragile selves that fully arrests our sensibilities
through its extraordinary artistry, yet still clearly describes
what the sitter looks like, thinks of and feels." The catalogue
estimates that Bacon did about 15 portraits of Freud.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
was the subject of a small exhibition in the summer of 2003 on
the sculpture garden roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lot
21, "Woman, Sunlight, Moonlight," is a 1996 painted
and patinated bronze sculpture, 39 1/2 inches high, that was not
included in that exhibition and is far better than most of the
works that were. Indeed, one might argue that his best sculptures,
such as this, are much better than his paintings. The famous benday
dots are red on one side and blue on the other. The catalogue
notes that this work is "one of the most significant three-dimensional
works the artist ever made to have come to auction." It has
an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $2,136,000,
breaking the artist's previous auction record for a sculpture
Lot 32, "Popples,"
is a 29 ½-inch-high porcelain by Jeff Koons (b. 1955).
Created in 1988 as number one in an edition of three plus one
artist's proof, the sculpture was part of the artist's "Banality"
series that was exhibited simultaneously at Sonnabend Gallery
in New York, the Max Hetzier Gallery in Cologne and the Donald
Young Gallery in Chicago. The series included a variety of "pop"
culture icons such as "The Pink Panther" and "Michael
Jackson." Popples is based on a stuffed toy that was marketed
by a cartoon show. The lot has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000.
It failed to sell and was passed at $1,200,000.
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) is one of the most
interesting and important contemporary artists. Lot 64, "Dat
Rosa Mel Apibus (The Rose Gives Honey For The Bees)," is
a fine example of his quite extraordinarily textural concoctions.
An emulsion, acrylic, shellac, chalk, honeycomb and sunflower
seeds on canvas, it measures 110 1/4 by 149 1/2 inches. Executed
in 1996, it has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It failed
to sell and was passed at $280,000. "The Latin title
of the painting," the catalogue entry for this lot notes,
"is taken from an original motto used by the Rosacrucians,
and alludes to the path and pilgrimage of a particular lifetime.
The journey can be thorny, but the destination is sweet, like
honey to the bees....Kiefer does not paint a literal representation
of the title, but creates a freely evocative composition, focusing
on the figure of a man, probably asleep, placed the center of
a concentric labyrinth. Released from subjects related to the
German recent past, Kiefer is free to dedicate his attention to
the surface and the visual complexity of the canvas, injecting
the painting with unrivalled power and expression, and creating
a forceful vision. The viwer is ushered into a landscape of primal,
intuitive energy, where his earthly palette and his use of dark,
heavy, composite pigment oscillates between light and dark, performing
a drama of organic colors and shapes."
Despite a recent controversy based on an article
in the November 2003 issue of Vanity Fair involving The
Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.'s handling of
authentications of works by Andy Warhol, his works continue to
pop up all the time in contemporary art auctions. Lot 37, "Details
of the Last Supper," is numbered PA822.017 by the foundation.
A silkscreen on canvas, it measures 113 by 228 inches and was
executed in 1986. Because of its scale and bold image, it should
be interesting to see how it fares. It has an estimate of $1,000,000
to $2,000,000 and is one of the artist's strongest works. It
sold for $2,248,000. Aby Rosen, the New York City real estate
entrepreneur was the underbidder on this lot and two other Warhol
"Walking Dida," is a rather simple but very elegant
1959 bronze sculpture by David Smith (1906-1965). The 28 1/4-inch-high
work has an estimate of $450,000 to $650,000. It sold for $1,464,000.
"Titled after the artist's young daughter, Candida, the verticality
and central geometric 'torso' of Walking Dida retain vestiges
of the more overt figural and landscape references from Smith's
earlier works of the 1930s and 1940s. Yet as a work of Smith's
mature period of the 1950s and early 1960s, Walking Dida is more
abstract than literal, and successfully exploits the three-dimensionality
of Cubist space with an alternation of solid and negative space
and subtly shifting planes of depth....Composed around the central
'torso' of the rectangle, the off-center circular 'head' and the
kick of the diagonal 'leg' both convey a sense of the walking
figure, leaning forward and moving to the viewer's right. Smith's
well-placed incursions of arcs give a similar sweep toward the
right that further implies motion. Both the diagonals and the
arcs also contribute to the sense of volume in Walking Dida
as they add depth behind the central rectangle as a counter-balance
to the circle and diagonal that adds texture to the front of the
rectangle. Richly suggestive, yet wholly abstract, these subtle
incursions and disruptions around the central vertical motif create
a sense of volume and motion...."
Lot 4 is a fine small work by Agnes Martin
that is considerably darker, and more attractive, than much of
her oeuvre and has a tapestry sensibility. The 12-inch-square
oil, ink and wash on canvas was created circa 1961. It has an
estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $433,600. Lot
7, "Leaves," sold for $2,584,000 breaking the previous
auction record for a painting by Agnes Martin of $1,432,500. A
record was also set for a work on paper by Agnes Martin when Lot
2, "Untitled," sold for $299,200.
Lee Bontecou (b. 1931) is one of the strongest
post-World War II sculptors whose brooding, dark works are mysterious
and intriguing and predate the Bladerunner aesthetic. Lot 1, an
untitled work from 1959 to 1960, was consigned by the estate of
Vera G. List, who with her husband Albert A. List built art centers
at Brown University, M.I.T., and Swarthmore and endowed the List
Art Poster program at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
to which they also donated numerous major works of art.
A welded steel, canvas, fabric and copper wire
work, it measures 38 1/2 by 30 1/2 by 10 inches. The catalogue
notes that Bontecou "is one of the most enigmatic American
artists of the 1960s, who created a strikingly original body of
work that won critical acclaim, only to disappear from view in
the midst of a recognized career." "The only female
artist to be part of Leo Castelli's gallery," it continued,
adding that "she voluntarily withdrew from the New York art
scene in the early 1970s." "Admired by her peers, Bontecou
was profoundly influential and inspirational for other female
artists such as Eva Hesse...and later Kiki Smith....The importance
of Bontecou's wall reliefs cannot be overemphasized. While challenging
the conventions of both materials and presentation in their industrial
material like screens, pipe and burlap, they bring sculpture and
painting together. Bontecou creates an original formal vocabulary
of interconnection and mutability between abstract shapes and
forms found in nature." It has a very conservative estimate
of $50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $456,000, surpassing the
auction record for the artist set the previous nite at Christie's
Lot 33, "Nega Mushroom," is an amusing,
busy work by Takashi Murakami (b. 1962). An acrylic on canvas
that measures 70 1/4 by 55 inches, it was executed in 200 and
has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $500,800.
The catalogue describes Murakami as "the most important
contemporary Japanese artist working today and his extraordinary
body of work, a meeting of Pop Art and anime cartoons, has been
celebrated in prestigious museums all over the world," adding
that "the work remains consistently amusing and accessible."
Yes, but a bit more expensive than comic books.
Other good works in the auction include Lot
5, "Fenetre sur le Ciel," by Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985),
an attractive oil on canvas that measures 29 by 36 inches and
is dated 1955 and has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and
sold for $500,800; Lot 10, "Not Only Securing The Last
Letter But Damaging It As Well (Boss)," by Edward Ruscha
(b. 1947), an amusing oil on canvas that measures 59 by 55 inches,
is dated 1964, and has an estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,200,000
and sold for $1,912,000; Lot 43, "Zwei Kerzen (Two
Candles)," by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), a 49 1/4-by-39 1/2-inch
oil on canvas, dated 1983, which has an estimate of $2,500,000
to $3,500,000 and sold for $3,816,000.
Lot 38 may appeal to the anatomically obsessed.
Entitled "Bartholomew (The Twelve Disciples), it is a bull's
head stripped of its flesh in formaldehyde in a glass enclosure,
created by Damien Hirst (b. 1965). Executed in 1964, the 18-by-36-by-18-inch
work has an ambitious estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It
failed to sell and was passed at $420,000. The catalogue offers
the following commentary: "It is at once shocking, yet compelling
- the power of the Image is soon overwhelmed by the content of
the Index. Indeed, the blatant material juxtaposition of glass
and steel with flesh and bone, sets up a penetrating dialogue
between solidity and fragility, be this distinction physical,
metaphysical, psychological or aesthetic." This observer
prefers the bloody hand of the surgeon in Thomas Eakin's "The
Lot 15, "In Upper Regions," sold
for $1,105,600 setting a new world auction record for Hans Hofmann
and Lot 25, "Layering," sold for $1,016,000 setting
a new auction record for Susan Rothenberg.