This evening auction of Contemporary
Art at Christies November 10, 2004 is highlighted by two
humorous and fine works by Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960), a major
work by Andy Warhol (1928-1987), two excellent works by Richard
Diebenkorn (1922-1993), an important work by John Currin (b. 1962),
an impressive "Elegy" painting by Robert Motherwell
(1915-1991), and good works by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997).
oeuvre is full of surprise, irony and great theatricality.
Lot 34, Not Afraid of Love, depicts an elephant draped
in a white sheet with holes punched out for the eyes. It
is number two from an edition of two plus 1 artists proof
that was executed in 2000. Made of polyester, styrene, resin,
paint and fabric, it measures 81 by 123 by 54 inches. It has an
modest estimate of $600,000 to $900,000. It sold for $2,751,50
including the buyer's premium as do all articles mentioned in
this article. The previous Cattelan record was $2,080,000 set
at Sotheby's May 12, 2004.
The catalogue entry provides
the following insightful commentary:
Maurizio Cattelan has
a reputation in the art world of playing the clown, a trickster
of sorts, juggling shamelessly with the traditions of art, literature
and popular culture. It is true that much of his humor is
reminiscent of the age old Italian tradition of comedy.
Actors such as Toto and Alberto Sordi come to mind, figures who
encapsulate the notion of Italian parody. In many ways,
Cattelan himself uses similar techniques as his art embraces the
absurd, using ironic wit to make critical commentary on the state
of art and modern life. In the early 1990s, the artist began
employing various taxidermied animals to represent a transformed
sense of reality. Cattelan carefully manipulated the poses
and environments in which these animals were situated, in so doing,
projecting new meanings on to the works themselves. In one
case, the viewer might find a miniature squirrel seemingly asleep
on a kitchen table, but upon closer observatrion one sees a gun
lying at the feet of the animal. One might come across three
mice sitting in a single toy deckchair near a beach umbrella,
or life-size ostrich with its head buried in the floor.
At times these tableaus suggest a narrative, and other times there
is no context to the situation at all, instead the animal is in
complete isolation. Yet all of these animals appear like
Surrealist constructs, odd and alienated, yet delightfully persuasive.
They remind the viewer of the communion between life and death,
the existence of multiple layers of reality. There is a
very theatrical element in all of Cattelans work, and Not
Afraid of Love, 2000 is no exception. The viewer is
confronted by this huge creature, whose eyes, trunk and legs stick
out from under an enormous white sheet. There is something
at once frightening and funny about this elephant. The beast
tries to hide its size, weight and presence and in so doing, renders
himself completely absurd. Elephants by nature are adaptable
creatures, animals that are at home in many different types of
landscapes. The elephant is a powerful animal, but Cattelan
has transformed this strength into vulnerability. The artist
has subverted the generally acknowledged authority of the elephant
as rule of its environment, as here it literally tries to hide
itself from view. Not Afraid of Love plays
with the popular expression of an elephant being in the room,
in other words, a situation gone awry and yet on everyones
mind, but nobody dares to speak about it. The situation
though is impossible to ignore, very much like an elephant in
the room. Furthermore, a white elephant implies that something
is more trouble than it is worth. His use of a white sheet
also brings to mind the Klu Klux Klan, who very well may be considered
one of the nations first terrorist groups. Whether
the white sheet refers to the official regalia of this group or
to a ghostly Halloween costume is not clear, but Cattelan does
toy with the inherent meanings of these various associations.
Cattelans work is then a catalyst for opposing forces and
The second Cattelan work
in the auction, Lot 6, Untitled, is not as cuddly,
but no less adorable. In it, a good, painted wax, hair and
fabric figure of the artist peers from a hole in the floor at
paintings on a wall. Is this the start of a 1960s
movie caper, or a revolutionarys lament at finding a room
empty of would-be victims and filled only with art.
Executed in 2001, this work
is an edition of three plus one artists roof. It measures
59 inches and the hole from which he emerges is 23 5/8 by 15 ¾
This lot has an estimate
of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $2,023,500.
The catalogue offers the
In service to the ever-changing
concepts of the self, Cattelan seems to enjoy the challenge of
capturing his own image over and over again in the most unlikely
manifestations. Will he appear doll-like, many multiples
smaller than life size on a bookshelf in the form of a Mimi-me?
Or as a rubber mask repeated many times over, as if to negate
his uniqueness in his Spermini works? Or might he appear decades
younger, riding a tricycle down a city street? In Untited,
Cattelan is at his best and most subversive. Out of a hole
in the floor, the artist appears peeking his head up like an interloper
in the viewers space. It appears as if he has tunneled
himself in, like a gopher that rears his head, nearly always uninvited.
The first installation of this work in 2001 at the Museum Boijmans
Van Beuningen in Holland was wildly memorable as the artist forced
an entry into a Nineteenth Century Dutch painting show by appearing
up through the museums floor. There was the self-portrait
of the artist, looking innocent enough, trying to find out where
he was within this context of art history. While all of
the elegant paintings behaved as they always had, Cattelans
self portrait couldnt contain itself literally.
Ideally, some enlightened,
and bemused, collector will buy both Cattelan lots and exhibit
them in the same space. Who would be more frightened/startled,
the artist or the elephant?
The sale was extremely
successful with 94 percent of the 63 offered lots selling for
a total of $92,484,000 and almost half selling above their high
estimates, a considerably stronger showing that Sotheby's the
night before which realized just over $93 million but only sold
a little over 80 percent of its lots. Individual auction records
were set for 9 artists in addition to Cattelan.
Lot 12, Mustard Race
Riot, is a large painting by Andy Warhol that was executed
in May and June, 1963. An acrylic, silkscreen ink and graphite
on canvas, it consists of two panels, one with images, on the
left, that measures 113 1/4 by 82 inches, and the other, on the
right, that is monochrome and measures 113 7/8 by 82 inches.
If good-natured humor permeates
Cattelans work, it is largely absent from Warhols
except in the reverse/perverse way.
Warhol, of course, most likely
found much of his success hilarious but the content and intent
of much of his oeuvre tends to be on the darker rather than lighter
This work is the largest
of a series of four race riot works by Warhol.
It consists of the repetitive use by Warhol of three photographs
by Charles Moore that appeared in the May 17, 1963 issue of Life
magazine in an article about the use of police dogs by Sheriff
Bull OConnor during a civil rights protest in
The long catalogue entry
argues that Warhols interest in the civil rights pictures
was not primarily political:
It was just something
that caught my eye, Warhol responded somewhat typically
when asked about the seemingly contentious political subject matter
of his Race Riot paintings. Of all of the subjects
in Warhols vast and varied catalogue, the so-called Race
Riot paintings with their manifest display of political violence
and racial oppression are seemingly the least ambiguous and most
partisan images in his oeuvre. Repeatedly showing the image
of a black Civil Rights protester being savaged by the dogs of
a group of white uniformed policemen, this memorable and extremely
rare series of paintings seems to demonstrate the famously apolitical
Warhol actively engaging in contemporary
politics and making a rare, if not indeed unique, liberal
statement with his art. But, as Warhol himself was
at pains to point out, engaging with 1960s politics was not really
his intention. As he told fellow Pop artist
Claes Oldenburg it was, largely indifference that
had characterized and determined his choice of this graphic and
provocative subject matter. First executed in the spring
of 1963, Warhols Race Riot paintings were created
as part of a series of works based on the theme of Death in
America that he was prepared for an exhibition to be hold
under the same title at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in 1964.
Consisting of what is now known more accurately as his Death
and Disaster series of paintings, the Death in America
exhibition was to consist of a number of large-scale works on
the theme of various typically American ways to die. Foremost
among these images were of course, Warhols graphic and shocking
images of car crashes. These were accompanied by a select
group of paintings of suicides, gangster funerals and electric
chairs. The image of the Race Riot was, while not
an image of death per se, a provocative and powerful image of
a peculiarly American form of violence, segregation and political
oppression. It fitted well into the context of an exhibition
in which Warhol deliberately intended to present a grittier film-noir-like
portrait of America. Anxious about the reception of his
art in Paris for what would prove to be his first ever European
one-man-show, Warhol feared an overly critical reaction to the
seemingly overt celebration of mass-consumerism in his soup cans,
coca-cola bottles, star-portraits and dollar-bills. In choosing
a series of works on the subject of Death in America he
hoped to court a favorable reaction from a French audience by
presenting a series of works outlining the traumatic flip-side
of the American Dream. Warhols choice of subject matter
also a continuation of a theme that had first surfaced while he
was painting the Marilyns. It was around this time that
he first recognized how the constant repetition of imagery ultimately
seems to mollify the shocking effect of even the most horrific
of images. This was an element that Warhol was keen to both
expose and explore. When you see a gruesome picture
over and over again it doesnt really have any effect,
he observed, constant repetition deconstructs the meaning of an
image and reveals it true artificial nature as merely a banal
abstract surface. The exploration and the desensitizing
of the audience and the nullification of meaning through repeated
imagery is what distinguishes Warhols Death and Disaster
series most. It also primarily this feature of these still
disturbing and justly famous works that lends them their troubling
A double canvas image, blank mustard color on
one side and fully-saturated mustard-backed imagery on the other,
it relates closely to Warhols other double-canvas paintings
that incorporate a monochrome canvas alongside a silk-screened
one. David Bourdon has pointed out that these diptychs
were first created at Warhols Firehouse studio after Warhol
had asked his friends, Wouldnt it be a good idea to
add a blank panel? adding, It would make the painting
twice as big and twice as expensive.
Apart from any
pleasure Warhol may have gained from being able to sell abstract
monochrome canvases, it is clear from these works that the blank
canvas also performs an added and important function. Contrasting
the emptiness of one canvas with the fullness of the provocative
and disturbing imagery on the other underscores Warhols
intention of exposing the artifice of even the most horrific images
and lends these diptychs a powerful existential gravitas
that is less evident in his single-canvas images. As both
a design feature and as a reinforcement of Warhols conceptual
concerns, the play between empty space and dense repetitive silk-screened
imagery in these works, visually reiterates the sense of shallowness
and artifice that underlies all Warhols work.
These arguments are a bit
disingenuous as Warhol was astute and sophisticated, perhaps as
much as any New Yorker of his generation after he gained fame.
Provocation was his sincerest form of flattery.
Repetition breeds boredom?
Perhaps. But it does not follow necessarily that horrific
images lose their impact in repetition and deconstructivist theory
does not make multiple horrific images necessarily banal
abstract surface. Clearly, Warhol did not choose his
images randomly especially for the 1964 exhibit.
The double canvases may appear
to some as existential gravitas, but to others they
are not imbued with any deep aesthetic. The blanks do distract
from the horrific images, but they do not add much
besides imbalance, which is not to say that there is not historical
interest in a Pop artist dealing with serious issues.
The lot has an estimate
on request that was $12,000,000 to $15,000,000. It sold
for $15,127,500, a bit short of the artist's auction record of
The auction has two excellent
works by Richard Diebenkorn (see The City
Review article on the artist), Lots 25 and 28. The former
is a lovely untitled oil, gouache and crayon on paper from his
famous Ocean Park series. It measures 25 by
38 inches and was executed in 1981. It has a modest estimate
$700,000 to $1,000,000. It sold for $1,407,500.
The latter is an oil on canvas
entitled Marin Landscape. It measures 51 ½
by 70 inches and was painted in 1961-2. It has an ambitious
estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $3,367,500.
"Evidence of his passion for landscape, as well as Matisse,
it is one of the few major early Diebenkorns that remain in a
private collection," the catalogue noted, adding that "Diebenkorn
uses triangular shapes and diagonals to organize a myriad of details
into a unified whole....Inspired by West Coast landscape, as opposed
to the flat grid of New York, Marin Landscape's sweeping
Baroque diagonals lead the eye from the edges into the heart of
the painting. Diebenkorn's career simultantiously invstitaged
figuration and abstraction....Marin Landscape...is a compositional
tour de force, whose structures points the way to his Ocean Park
series which he would realize six years later. These works were
his first mature works....Its daring vantage point, looking down
a valley bordered with low lying houses, opening up to a lush
expanse of blue water, is an evocative and suprisingly acurate
depiction of Marin County."
John Currin, the subject
of a recent retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of
American Art, is one of the more controversial contemporary artists
as much of his oeuvre consists of rather unattractive portraits
that appear clumsy and banal. Lot 31, however, is one of his finest
works and is very painterly. Entitled "Homemade Pasta,"
it is an oil on canvas that measures 50 by 42 inches and was executed
The catalogue provides the
"Controversial and driven
by his own unique vision, Currin is heralded as one of the most
important artists of his generation and more specifically in the
powerful position of re-directing art history back to discussions
of painting's relevance and closing the gap in the disjointed
lineage of genre painting. Homemade Pasta is a major work
by the artist, complete with present-day complexities and multiple
art historical precedents, and his most important work to come
to auction....Norman Rockwell's obvious and pleasing narratives,
as well as Maxfield Parish's glibly stylized works can be seen
as precursors to Currin, particularly in their desire to tell
a simple and innocent story. In effectively the same format as
Rockwell and Parrish, Currin seeks to bring a truly contemporary
message to his works and interweaves the social, the political
and the humorous, at times with impunity....In Currin's matter-of-fact
rendering, the couple of today is a gay male couple. They are
exquisitely realized in perfect detail and Currin's painterly
virtuosity is flexed. But contrary to historical imagery of gay
male couples (if there is such a thing), they are the antithesis
of sexual beings. Currin has been able to demonstrate that the
two men share affection for another without actually showing it.
...The image is so powerful, not because a happy male couple is
a politically correct emblem, but because in Currin's words, 'It
is interesting to me that people feel automatically guilty, kind
of uncomfortable, when they look at that painting. An image of
two men has a strange authority, an ability to make liberal people
cringe and get nervous about what they are going to say....'"
The lot has an estimate of
$700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $847,500, almost doubling
the artist's auction record.
Lot 59, "Untitled," is a bright acrylic and
oilstrick on canvas with wood supports by Jean-Michel Basquiat
that was executed in 1982. It measures 60 inches square and has
an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,799,500.
Stating that this work "presents a cross-section
of Basquiat's raw urban savvy," the catalogue provides the
"One of a series of paintings that Basquiat made
for what turned out to be a sell-out show at the Gagosian Gallery,
Untitled is a flamboyant pictorial road-map of the soul
outlining the earthly and spiritual dangers and pitfalls of the
modern city. His friend the artist, Shenge Ka Pharoah, made his
uniquely open-cornered stretchers on which Basquiat juxtaposed
his imagery and words with a painterly style that mixed abstraction
and air-can-sprayed graffiti. Littered with coded warnings, direction
signs, and a wealth of information as well as advice, it advertises
itself like some nightmarish surreal sign-post of the modern urban
jungle....With its arrows, ladders and drips depicting a series
of convoluted possible routes around and over the picture surface,
the painting outlines a world of mobility and flux as well as
the difficulties and intricacies of successfully navigating a
path through an urban jungle fraught with danger."
Another excellent work by
Basquiat is Lot 48 "Untitled (Head)," a 1981 acrylic
on canvas that measures 50 by 119 inches. It has an estimate of
$1,800,000 to $2,400,000. It sold for $1,463,500.
"During the 1970s, Basquiat
gained notoriety under the graffiti tag SAMO....In some of his
earlier canvases, SAMO haunts the artist not only in the graffiti-like
assortment of figures, but also specifically in the house symbols
with an 'S' in the square. This 'S' is often cited by critics
as an abbreviated reference to SAMO, therefore appearing on the
wall of the diagram houses in the left and the right and the painting,
hinting at some nostalgia, the artist casting his mind back to
his days as a street artist. The life of the street, and also
the influence of the street itself on the artist, is reflected
in the grid-like pattern in the lower right of Untitled (Head).
This formal formation is a 'skelly court,' chalked or inscribed
in pavements for use in a game played by children. (The idea of
play may also be evident in the house sign, reminiscent of the
home base in baseball). The skelly court is the sign and the evidence
of a street in everyday use, as an inhabited, community area with
its own readymade images and iconography. This element...is therefore
an icon of play and of oneness. It was a seminal element in his
art of the period, an adopted form like an iconography trouvé,
a graffiti from outside the world of graffiti, a sign that kids,
not just artists, occupied these streets. By taking this skelly
court, Basquiat has appropriated the sign for his own use, but
has also enshrined it in oil, celebrating this facet of life in
the street. Basquiat does not merely celebrate this sign, but
also imbues it with a mystique aura. Now, it mixes with his own
personal, private iconography, developing its own opaque implications
within his visual lexicon. In part it appears to recall the games
of Basquiat's own youth, while in its pattern it resembles crossroads,
central to the voodoo mysticism and imagery that so intrigued
with two good works in the auction is Roy Lichtenstein.
Lot 50, "Brushstroke Group," is a huge painted aluminum
sculpture that was executed in 1987. It measures 32 1/2 by 17
by 7 3/4 feet. It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000
and it sold for $3,367,500, an auction record for a sculpture
by the artist.
Group," the catalogue noted, "is a New York landmark.
Executed in 1987 for the Monte-Carlo Sculpture 87 exhibition,
it has subsequently become a fixture of New York's landscape.
First installed at the entrance of Central Park in the Doris C.
Freedman Plaza, the work has also been installed outside the Guggenheim
Museum and most recently at City Hall where it was the centerpiece
of Lichtenstein sculpture exhibition. Soaring into the area and
realized in bold colors, Brushstroke Group is arguably
one of the grandest sculptures ever completed by Lichtenstein
bringing one of his defining themes to life in a monumental scale."
Lot 30, "The
White Tree," is a 1980 oil on canvas by Lichtenstein that
measures 105 by 210 inches. It has an estimate of $2,000,000 to
"The White Tree
brilliantly demonstrates Roy Lichtenstein's long ongoing and ironic
aesthetic of appropriating and reinventing art history that most
closely anticipated, influenced and informed much of the new direction
of Postmodernist painting. Part of a rare and iportant series
of paintings which Lichtenstein made on the theme of German Expressionism,
The White Tree is a large, panoramic landscape painting
that in its vista-like presentation of a pastoral idyll gently
mocks both the style and inherent Romanticism of this early Twentieth
Century art movement....Responding to a world where the great
masterpieces of the past were now mass-printed regularly on calendars,
posters and postcards, Lichtenstein highlighted the reproducible
nature of the artwork though his reduction of these celebrated
images to the codified and mass-producable pictorial language
of the popular cartoon. This subsuming of a vital part of the
work's uniqueness and originality to the generic bland stylelessness
of the stripe, the benday dot and the black outlines both ironized
the status of these works as 'masterpieces' and emphasized their
existence as marketable commodities and traditional styles."
Lot 24 is
a very strong work by Robert Motherwell, entitled "Elegy
to the Spanish Republic, No. 71." An oil on canvas that measures
71 by 133 inches, it was executed in 1961 and has been consigned
to the auction by the Yale University Art Gallery, which had received
it as a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Miller of New York. It
has a modest estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
Matisse," the catalogue noted, "Motherwell's work always
has an underlying elegance and a delicate balance, no matter how
raw and powerful the gesture. Like Franz Kline, Motherwell's signature
works are large-scale black and white paintings, in which the
artist will often paint the white passages last. Although seemingly
spontaneous, Motherwell labored over the forms in Elegy to
the Spanish Republic No. 71 looking for just the proportions
and color saturations, as can be most clearly seen in the heavily
worked black ovoids. In extant photos of the work prior to completion,
the ovoid at the right was more open and contained a hollow white
component and throughout the painting were expressive black splatters.
In the final state, Motherwell created a much more resolved composition,
focusing more on the tension between the forms and less on painterliness."
for $2,919,500, shattering the artist's previous auction record
of $1,100,000 set for another work from the series at Sotheby's
November 8, 1989.
Lot 22 is
an large untitled "cross-hatch" oil on canvas by Jasper
Johns (b. 1930) that was executed in 1981-2. It measures 30 by
90 inches and has an estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000. It
sold for $3,367,500.
Jasper Johns began painting the cross-hatch works," the catalogue
observed, "critics and fans were confused by what they perceived
as a change of tack. Before then, he had usually focused on a
what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to art, whereas the vast
expanse of Untitled appears abstract, even geometrical.
This abstraction was all the more unexpected in the art of a man
considered to have shown painting the way after the hegemony of
the Abstract Expressionists. However, the subject matter in these
paintings was far from abstract, whatever the impression....Johns's
initial exposure to this pattern was itself impressively random:
'I was driving on Long Island when a car came toward me painted
in this way. I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately
that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest
me - literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order
with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning.'"
Lot 19, "Untitled
(Rome)," is a large scribble or "blackboard" painting
by Cy Twombly (b. 1928) that was executed in 1971. An oil, wax
crayon and graphite on canvas, it measures 63 1/4 by 76 3/4 inches.
It has an estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It sold for
the graphic process of writing and translating its continuous
flow of a single line into a painterly language," the catalogue
entry maintained, "Twombly adopted a strict formulaic procedure
in his looped-line paintings. It is a process that echoes the
Palmer technique taught to children when they are first learning
to write. Working the opposite manner to the children who learn
to impose a rigid order and a rational discipline on their hand,
Twombly adopts the technique of a perpetual repetition of a looped
line as a means of increasing the fluid and graphic energy of
his line while maintaining a contiuum throughout. In this work
especially with its sequential magnifying of the height and scale
of the loops as the horizontal progression of the line develops
from the top to the bottom of the picture, the strength, innovation
and power of Twombly's line seems to build like that of an oncoming
"Julie-die Vrou," a large and very dramatic portrait
of a woman's head by Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) set an auction record
for the artist of $1,239,500.
"Untitled ('monument for V. Tatlin')," set a world auction
record for Dan Flavin (1933-1996) of $735,500.
"Steel-Magnesium Plain," set a world auction record
of $903,500 for Carl Andre (b. 1935).
"Untitled," set a world auction record of $847,500 for
Lee Bontecou (b. 1931), who was the subject of a recent major
museum retrospective. The fabric, copper wire and welded steel
work, which was executed in 1960, was being sold to benefit the
New School University Art Collection Acquisition Fund. It had
been given to the university by Vera List.
"A Line to You," set a world auction record of $276,300
for Jim Hodges (b. 1957).
"One and Eight - A Description (Violet)," set an auction
record for Joseph Kossuth (b. 1945).