By Carter B. Horsley
During the exhibition for this evening auction
at Sotheby's of Contemporary Art November 9, 2000, William Ruprecht,
the president and chief executive officer of Sotheby's Holdings,
Inc., was asked while on line at the Dean & Deluca cafe on
the top floor of the auction house on York Avenue at 72nd Street
if batteries were included in the upcoming sale of Lot 20, an
extremely luminous abstraction by Mark Rothko (1903-1970) that
almost appeared to have been backlit.
"Of course," he replied.
"A lifetime supply?" he was asked.
"If the price is right," he said,
The oil on canvas was painted by Rothko in
1954 and measures 94 1/2 by 59 3/4 inches. It has an estimate
of $9,000,000 to $12,000,000. Come the auction, Mr. Ruprecht
had reason to smile for the painting set a new record for the
artist of $17,368,000, and the auction was a considerable success.
More than 80 percent of the 62 offered lots sold for a total of
Other highlights in the auction include a strong
painting by Francis Bacon (1909-1992), some very good works by
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), three works each by Jeff Koons
(b. 1955), a stunning abstraction by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932),
and Jasper Johns (b. 1930), a good painting by Morris Louis (1912-1962),
a good portrait of Lenin by Andy Warhol (1928-1987), and a delightful
large spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911).
The Rothko, which was once in the collection of Baron Leon Lambert
of Brussels, is large and classic. Lot 20, "No. 6 (Yellow,
White, Blue Over Yellow on Gray," it was executed in 1954.
It is an oil on canvas that measures 94 ½ by 59 ½
inches. (See The City Review article on
a Rothko museum retrospective exhibition.)
Lot 32 is a superb work by Francis Bacon, entitled
"Pope and Chimpanzee." An oil on canvas, it measures
64 ¾ by 56 inches and was executed in 1962.
In its painterliness, it could be a fine companion
to the Rothko, especially for schizophrenic collectors.
The catalogue provides the following very incisive
commentary on the Bacon, noting that it "displays a number
of Bacon's celebrated motifs, channeling their concomitant tributaries
of thought onto the same canvas":
"This complex, deeply intellectual canvas
continues Francis Bacon's impassioned and celebrated exploration
of the Pope, and, specifically, his reaction to reproductions
of Diego Velasquez's masterpiece, Portrait of Pope Innocent X
(1650, Rome, Galleria Dora Pamphili). For nearly twenty years,
Bacon filled his canvases with bold, searching swathes of oil
paint in an effort to render, both physically and psychically,
the most senior and powerful figure in the Catholic Church
this papal figure is another of Bacon's familiar motifs: that
of the monkey. Here, a chimpanzee bursts out of the pictorial
space, aggressively confronting both the Pope and the viewer;
its active, almost cruciform pose is in stark contrast to the
more static, regal pose of the Pope...A silhouette of a walking
figure, delineated in lilac paint, is curiously layered over the
.Francis Bacon famously turned down the opportunity
to go and see the Velasquez portrait
,worrying how he might
react to the original
..Bacon's task was not one of representing
the image, but rather re-presenting the Indices of meaning inherent
to the portrait: stature, presence, role, and the very mechanics
of being. In essence, Bacon gets under the skin, goes beyond the
surface of the representation, and engages us with a series of
emotions that lie at the heart of existence
appears as if it is about to pounce on the papal figure; its action
in stark contrast with the more hieratic pose of the Pope. For
Bacon, this animal was the embodiment of chaos. Like many of his
human subjects, Bacon's animals are generally shown in tortured
states, where they shriek and twist in physical contortions. The
chimpanzee is depicted with an almost violent attack of the brush,
causing the blurring of the image, reflecting Bacon's interest
in frozen motion and the effects of photography and film, and
making it difficult to interpret the pose or expression
closed, claustrophobic interior, often delineated as a cage-like
construction within the composition, is crucial to Bacon's art.
They provide theater spaces in which the existential drama takes
place, enacted by his cast of players
The lot has a modest estimate of $3,000,000
to $4,000,000. It failed to sell.
Ideally, the schizophrenic collector might
be blinded into some sort of calm if he were to also purchase
Lot 13 for display in the same huge room/gallery as the Rothko
and Bacon. Lot 13, "Bracelet," is an enormous oil on
canvas by Jeff Koons that was created in 1995-8. It measures 104
3/8 by 139 ¾ inches and has a slightly modest estimate
of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $2,248,000. Its
shocking pinks and deep reds surround a glimmering, silvery bracelet
fit for King Kong's Big Mama. It looks like a huge perfume foldout
from Vanity Fair or Vogue and one suspects Busby Berkley or Florenz
Ziegfield to lift the bracelet up and put it around the colossal
wrist of one of their fabulous showgirls.
The catalogue provides the following commentary
"Monumental in scale and joyously effusive
in spirit, Jeff Koons' Bracelet boldly announces both his
conceptual intent and his obsession with craft and surface as
delineated in his outstanding Celebration series. Koons
began to make this ambitious body of sixteen 'photo-realist' paintings
and twenty stainless steel sculptures in 1994, embracing a litany
of subjects that have preoccupied the artist for over twenty years:
namely, the collision between the paradigms of 'High" and
"Low'; culturally, aesthetically, historically and socially.
The Celebration series draws upon the symbols and objects associated
with the observance of life's rituals, be they birthdays, holidays
and other festive occasions. Indeed, these paintings and sculptures
further Koons' preoccupation with the objects and experiences
of, specifically, childhood in previous works. Another aspect
to this series, which continues his Postmodern 'ironizing' of
the ritual of relationship as seen in his Made in Heaven
works, is its undeniable sexual charge. Koons seems to transform
the everday into something akin to the fetish through this overwhelming
attention to precise detail. This transports the little bracelet
from nonsexual innocence into the realm of sexcual experience,
further amplified by its now gargarntuan proportions....The handling
and precision of the painting is here astonishing, so that the
most banal, ordinary object is executed in baroque detail. Here,
a silver bracelet in tacky metallic wrapping paper becomes this
kaleidoscopic monument ot the possibilities of painting....Between
1994 and 1998, over seventy assistants were employed by Koons
to complete this labor intensive and extremely costly project....The
degree of perfection demanded by Koons for the fabrication of
these enormous paintings was unheard of. Each passage of the Bracelet
has been meticulously, laboriously rendered. No one fragment of
the composition is privileged over another; whether painting a
shadow or a physical object, the execution remains as focused
as possible, and the result is mesmerizing. "
Lot 14, "Mound of Flowers" is a glass
sculpture from Koons' earlier Made in Heaven series that was exhibited
in 1991. It measures 17 1/4 by 41 1/2 by 35 1/2 inches and is
number 3 from an edition of 3 plus one artist's proof. It has
an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $1,128,000.
"It comfortably situates itself, as to be expected from Koons,
on the border between high and low," the catalogue entry
observed, "a tribute at once to kitsch and to Baroque and
Rococo decorative motif. It borrows from the typical kitsch vernacular
of ornamental glass, but heightens and stretches the formto unprecedented
levels....Koons immaculately infuses this work with desire, using
the work's surface, and contrasting ideas about beauty and the
grotesque, as his raw material. Mound of Flowers performs
for its audience like any great spectacle: it evokes both positive
and negative reactions that ultimately add up to a very engaging
event. Its surface glistens and shines, appearing to be wet and
begging to be touched."
In dramatic contrast to the super-realism of
Koons' Bracelet is Lot 16, "Tisch," a large and excellent
abstract painting by Richter (see The City
Review article on a retrospective of the artist.) An oil on
canvas that measures 88 1/2 by 115 3/4 inches, it was executed
in 1982. It has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It
sold for $2,136,000.
Sotheby's missed a rare opportunity to assemble
what could have been an extremely memorable gallery. Imagine,
if you will, its large main exhibition gallery on the 10th floor
of its York Avenue building with the Rothko, the Bacon, the Koons,
the Richter and the de Kooning on the five walls in the gallery.
In such company, the Rothko would have most
likely stood out as the most impressive and the de Kooning as
the least impressive. Such an artistic "chapel," however,
would have probably fascinated Kandinsky, Bosch, and Cézanne
and intimidated Picasso while awing Matisse and Michelangelo and
To Sotheby's, and Christie's, credit, it does
try to exhibit its very major offerings with elegant spacing and
both houses also attempt to exhibit where relevant thematically
related works together.
If you show a great painting surrounded by
mediocre works, will it seem as great? Will it enhance the mediocre
If you show a great painting surrounded by
other great paintings, will it be enhanced by the juxtapositions
or lose importance because of the competition?
Can the whole of a "great" gallery
be better than any of the individual components?
For those who are haunted by imaginary or virtual
museums "without walls" such questions are important
aesthetic exercises that challenge our experiences and our intellectual
In the above described imaginary gallery Jackson
Pollock probably would have despaired and Andy Warhol would probably
have taken a few photographs and Francisco Botero would have rolled
on the floor holding his belly and laughing.
For a change, Warhol was not the auction's
dominant artist although he was represented by one rather classic
image, "Mickey Mouse (Myth Series," Lot 12. An acrylic
and silkscreen ink on canvas that measures 60 inches square, it
was executed in 1981. It has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000.
It sold for $1,912,000. Another Warhol in a similiar and
simple outline style was Lot 53, "Lenin," an acrylic
and silkscreen ink on canvas that measures 72 by 48 inches. It
has an estimtae of $600,000 to $800,000. It was withdrawn.
The dominant artists in the auction were Jasper
Johns and Willem de Kooning.
Johns is represented by a "numeral,"
a "flag" and a "target."
Lot 25 is a large charcoal and pastel on paper
on Jasper Johns entitled "O Through 9." The consignor
was David Geffen. It has an ambitious estimate of $7,000,000 to
$9,000,000. It sold for $10,928,000, an auction record for
a work on paper by the artist. The work has once been in the
collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Scull who had acquired it from
the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1961 for $1,200. That year Johns concentrated
on a series that layered every Arabic numeral on top of each other
and made eight paintings and one drawing, this work. The catalogue
entry declared that "this monumental drawing is one of the
most important works on paper executed by the artist," adding
that "Certainly it is one of the largest has ever made...and
one of the most important drawings of the Twentieth Century."
The catalogue entry quotes David Shapiro as
maintaining that this work displays Johns' desire to transform
"Abstract Expressionism into something solid and monastic
and mencingly flat while retaining the broken space and discontinuous
draftsmanship of Expressionism." The entry goes on to observe
that "Underpinning the pattern achieved is the fact he has
denied the validity of each separate number. They are no longer
'readable' and therefore their 'meaning' or 'value' has been eradicated
and replaced with another set of meanings and values that are
centered on his concern with surface. The objective thus gives
way to the subjective; the rational is abandoned in favor of the
sensational. What is privilieged is the creation of a surface
for mediattion: one that the viewer can feel. Ironcially, this
surface is created from phenomena that do not exist in nature,
nor can they be apprehended by the senses." This work is
the cover illustration of the auction catalogue. The catalogue
devotes several pages to this work and reproduces one of the 1961
paintings that is now in the collection of the Tate Gallery in
London that is infinitely richer than this grisaille drawing as
it abounds in reds, oranges, yellows, blues and grays.
Lot 27 is a "Flag" painting in encaustic
and collage on canvas that Johns executed in 1971, about 17 years
after he first began painting images of the American flag. This
work measures 26 by 17 inches and has an estimtae of $3,000,000
to $4,000,000. It sold for $4,488,000. The catalogue entry
for this work maintains that Johns' "manipulation of the
'form' reaches its apotheosis in this work....Color has now been
replaced with tonal distinctions of gray, the flag is now vertical...and
its further been 'flopped.'...Here, canvas strips, dipped in wax,
become the stripes of the flag; cut out canvas stars, literally,
are the stars....A Johns enthralls because it forces the viewer
to ask questions that challenge our preconceptions about the status
of an aesthetic object; this makes us really look at the subject.
It satisfies, because on that journey, one is dazzzled by the
weight and texture of the encaustic surface and the inflections
of pigment and wax one finds Johns able to make with this medium."
Lot 23, "Green Target," is the most
attractive of the Johns lots. Only 9 1/4 inches square, this 1956
encaustic and newspaper collage on board was included in the artist's
first ever solo exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery. It has an
estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $3,368,000.
Willem de Kooning (see The
City Review article on the artist) is represented by two good
works, Lots 33 and XXX. The former is entitled "Untitled
(Woman)" and is a pencil and crayon on paper that measures
13 1/2 by 13 1/4 inches. Executed circa 1952, it is very beautiful.
It has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $624,000.
The catalogue entry provided the following
"Willem de Kooning's 1953 exhibition at
the Sidney Janis Gallery, Paintings on the Theme of the Woman,
was a milestone in American art, bringing de Kooning unprecedented
celebrity even beyond the art community. The impact of these violently
abstracted, voluptuous women struck a visceral chord with the
public, and their earthiness captured the raw energy of the American
Spirit thta animated the growing reputation and impact of American
Abstract Expressionism. Within the community of artists and critics,
de Kooning's Women of 1950-1953 were profoundly shocking
as they challenged the precepts of the new movement by returning
the artistic discourse to figurative subject matter."
Lot 19 is a larger and "fleshier"
de Kooning. Entitled "Clam Diggers," it is an oil and
graphite on paper mounted on masonite that measures 19 5/8 by
14 3/8 inches and was executed in 1964. It has an estimate of
$3,500,000 to $4,500,000. It sold for $3,928,000.
Lot 36 is one of de Kooning's late abstractions.
Entitled "Untitled XII," it is an oil on canvas that
measures 80 by 70 inches and was executed in 1985. It has an estimate
of $1,400,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $1,408,000.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was represented by two
good works. The larger and better is Lot 15, "Offensive Orange,"
an acrylic and oilstick on wood in two parts with overall dimensions
of 71 7/8 by 96 inches.
The catalogue entry provides the following
"Offensive Orange, from 1982, was
originally conceived by Jean-Michel Basquiat as a diptych. However,
since they were executed, the panels had been separated. One panel,
(the left 'Defensive Orange,') stayed in the United States. The
right-hand panel ('Offensive Orange') traveled to Europe. The
two panels were reunited by the present owner in October 2000
when the right-hand panel was acquired at Sotheby's in London....It
is a quintessential work by the artist; one loaded with a dense
network of ideas, dazzling in both its execution as a painting
and as a vehicle for the many tributaries of thought that inform
Basquiat's process. Offensive Orange stands out as one
of the most energetic of the artist's early works a bravura piece
of painting that leaves the viewer spellbound."
It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000.
It sold for $3,032,000.
The other Basquiat is Lot 57, "Donut Revenge,"
an acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas that measures
95 1/4 by 72 inches. Executed in 1982, it has an estimate of $1,200,000
to $1,800,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 38 is a classic and large work by Morris
Louis that is entitled "Gamma Omnicron." A magna on
canvas, it measures 102 by 155 1/2 inches. Executed in 1960, it
has a modest estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for
Lot 22 is a lovely and large spider sculpture
by Louise Bourgeois. It measures 80 by 71 by 23 inches and was
cast in 1998 as number 3 of an edition of 6 plus one artist's
proof. The edition was cast from a steel sculpture of the same
size executed in 1996. It has an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000.
It sold for $1,128,000.
Lot 10 is a good work by Gilbert & George
(b. 1943 and 1942), entitled "Seed." Composed of 30
hand-colored photographs, it mesures 119 inches square overall
and was executed in 1984. It has an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000.
It sold for $478,400.
Other good works include Lot 43, "King
of Spades," by Joan Mitchell (1926-1992), a quite lyrical
and bright, 91 1/2-by-78 1/2-inch oil on canvas that was executed
in 1956 and has an estimate of $750,000 to $1,000,000, and
sold for $2,696,000; Lot 13, "Number 13," a 46-by-35-inch
oil on canvas by Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899-1953) that was executed
circa 1952 and has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000 and
sold for $2,248,000; and Lot 18, an untitled, colorful acrylic
and crayon on paper by Cy Twombly (b. 1928) that measures 29 3/8
by 22 3/8 inches and has a modest estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.
It sold for $960,000.