By Carter B. Horsley
This evening auction of Contemporary
Art at Sotheby's November 9, 2005 is highlighted by three studies
for a self-portrait by Francis Bacon (1909-1992), a fine Franz
Kline (1910-1962), several Andy Warhols, a good Chris Ofili (b.
1968) several good sculptures and a remarkable series of photographs
by Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948).
Lot 16, "Three Studies
for Self-Portrait," is a great work by Francis Bacon. An
oil on canvas in three parts, each 14 by 12 inches, it was painted
in 1976. It has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It
sold for $5,158,000 including the buyer's premium as do all results
mentioned in this article.
The catalogue provides the
"Capturing so concisely
his distinctive lick of hair and moonlike face, Three Studies
for Self-Portrait belies a masochistic pleasure and fascination
with tracing his own features, and cooroborates Bacon's view that,
'one always has a greater involvement with oneself than with anybody
else.'...Throughout his career, Bacon returned to the portrait
format steadfast in his belief that abstraction was merely aesthetic,
and that art devoid of human content lacked emotional resonance.
Along with the meticulously scrutinised faces of a handful of
close friends, lovers and aquaintances during the 1970s, it was
Bacon's own visage that became the arena for his most ferocious
and original investigations into pictorial representation. Combining
the sinuous paint handling, visceral intensity and psychological
depth of his mature oeuvre, the ey-catching immediacy of this
powerful triptych assaults the viewer with mesmerizing force.
Executed at the zenith of Bacon's mature career, Three Studies
for Self-Portrait is arguably one of the most psychologically
compelling and physically engaging works of Bacon's career; an
iconic image of the artist who himself an icon of his age....Bacon's
obsession with portraiture stemmed from his desire to penetrate
the innermost nature of human behaviour, to lay bare the human
psyche and expose our inner core. Resolutely unmoved by the new
forms of abstraction that were emanating from America, it was
paradoxically within the narrowly circumscribed paramenters of
portraiture that Bacon found the most freedom to explore his creative
voice to charter a wholly original direction for painting....Charged
with solitary reflection and existentialist angst following the
demise of his lover and muse George Dyer, the hidden depths of
Bacon's self are exposed. expressed in three brutally human images
through a syntax of violently flayed anatomical forms that leap
from the canvas and assault the spectator the flurry of robust
flesh-tones smeared onto the canvas are more akin to meat in a
butcher's shop than human flesh. Bacon's distorted features here
eschew physiognomic interpretation - not the autobiographical
co-ordinates of an individual's life but the physical sensation
of living that life in all its 'joyous despair.'...The physical
communication of life's flux is dynamically multiplied in the
present work by the triptych format which Bacon liked for its
filmic, sequential quality, and the sense of narrative and movement
it gave his work. As each panel of the present work illustrates,
Bacon's ability to condense multiple viewpoints and expressions
into a single image is an improvised fusion of Futurist and Cubist
dynamism that animates the emotional complexity and inner vitality
of the artist's self. The superimposed layering of distorted images
maps the changing face of the artist, as if captured on a long
The sale was very successful
with 88.9 percent of the 54 offered lots selling for $114,494,400.
The pre-sale estimate was $78,630,000 to $108,350,000. After the
auction, Tobias Meyer, the auctioner, said that it was Sotheby's
most successful contemporary art sale ever.
Lot 25 is a very fine, large
abstraction by Franz Kline. An oil on canvas, it measures 82 by
67 inches and was executed in 1959-1960. It has a conservative
estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $3,488,000.
The catalogue observes that "when they shared a house in
Bridgehampton in 1954, Kline's use of large, broad brushes and
muscular compositions clearly influenced the work of de Kooning
in the late 1950s, when both artists were painting monumental
and colorful abstracted landscapes. The elegant and confident
dynamism of Harley Red was a quality de Kooning greatly
admired in Kline's work, as he unerringly alternated contasting
colors and opposing forms to achieve a taut, unifed composition,
improvised through a strong instinct for equivalent paint areas."
Lot 21, "Untitled (Rome), is an oil paint,
wax crayon and graphite on canvas by Cy Twombly (b. 1928) that
It measures 51 1/4 by 59 1/4 inches and was
executed in 1961. It has a very ambitious estimate of $6,000,000
to $8,000,000. It sold for $7,968,000, eclipsing the artist's
previous auction record of $5,619,500.
The catalogue entry for this lot argues that
"Fluctuating between the corporeal and the ethereal, Twombly's
expressive syntax of broken forms, scraps of words and elusive
metaphorical signs amounts to a semiotic avowal of the soul."
"Nowhere is this better expressed than in the series of Untitled
compositions executed during the summer of 1961 which mark the
creative zenith of Twombly's early career."
And the nadir of art criticism.
"In the present work," the entry
continued, "the ravishing pantheon of erotic rose and carmine
hues stimulated by blazing highlights of maroon, scarlet, blue
and white intimate episodes of violent and tragic love. The immediacy
of the fleshtones smeared into action assails the viewer's creative
unconscious, throbbing with a culminating sensuality as forms
advance and recede into the mythical depths of the composition
like a Dionysian aftermath. As colour and brushstroke become one,
the radical expressiveness of Twombly's fluid gestures liberate
colour from its bondage to form, enriching the entire canvas with
a deep understanding of the physicality of painting. Dense veils
of sumtpuous paint overwhelm shattered graphic shards of elucidatory
script; scant 'architectural' traces fleetingly perceived in a
bounteous exchange of creative impulses."
Maybe this could find a place in a CSI bathroom.
Again, the entry: "The rough scramble of fleshy paint violently
overpowers the canvas with unprecendented fore as the pictorial
space is seized by an orgiastic apotheosis of frenzied passion."
Lest, surfers think this observer is completely
insensitive to the talents of Cy Twombly, Lot 29, "Untitled
(New York City)," is a certainly the best Twombly work to
come up at auction in New York in recent years and is not at all
unpalatable. It, in fact, graces the catalogue's cover. An oil
based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, it measures 68 by
85 inches and was executed in 1968. Its estimate is justifiable
higher than Lot 21's, albeit still pretty damn high - $8,000,000
to $10,000,000. It sold for $8,696,000, eclipsing the record
set by Lot 21.
"Following a brief period of creative
drought in the mid 1960s, 1966 saw Cy Twombly abandon the emotive
use of color to embark upon a cycle of matte grey canvases in
search of a leaner, altogether more expressive clarity,"
the entry for this lot noted. "Extraneous literary and historical
concerns were cast aside as Twombly sought to channel the vitality
of his wrist towards exploring the expressive possiblities of
automonous rhythmic repetitions," it added. Thank goodness.
Lot 28 is an impressive "Spider' bronze
sculpture by Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911). It measures 94 by 96
by 84 inches and is niumber one of an edition of six with one
artist's proof and the catalogue notes that there is also a unique
stainless steel version. The lot has an estimate of $1,500,000
to $2,000,000. It sold for $3,040,000, breaking the artist's
former auction of $1,439,500.
Lot 18 is a very good painted metal hanging
mobile by Alexander Calder (1898-1976). It measures 33 1/2 by
74 by 46 inches and was executed in 1967. It was once in the collection
of Ben Shahn, the artist. It has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000.
It sold for $1,248,000.
Lot 23 is a large stainless steel sculpture
by David Smith (1906-1965) that is entitled "CUBI XXVII."
Executed in 1965, it is 108 by 110 by 45 inches. It has an ambitious
estimate of $8,000,000 to $12,000,000. It sold for $23,816,000,
shattering the artist's previous auction of $4,944,000 and setting
a record for a work of contemporary art.
It was once in the collection of Norton Simon
Inc. Museum of Art, Fullerton and Pasadena. "The Cubi
series," the catalogue notes, "is the culmination of
Smith's sculptural alchemy, in which welded metal becomes a composition
of elegant yet weighty and volumetric presence, created around
open spaces rather than carve from solid form like traditional
stone or wood sculpture. Smith's genius for balancing void and
solid, form and content, crude material and poetic spirit is the
hallmark of his Cubi masterpieces. Created from 1961 until
his untimely death in1965, Smith's Cubi sculptures are
a cohesive group- of which Cubi XXVIII was the last - whose sleek
geometry of boxes and columns allowed Smith to experiment with
real rather than implied volume, exploring all its permutations.
This spectacular group of sculptures is not only the culmination
of Smith's illustrious career; they are acknowledged masterpieces
of American art that constitute one of the most radical developments
in modern sculpture. The importance of the Cubis is confirmed
by the fact that twenty-one of the Cubis have entered museum
collections, many within just a few years of the artist's death.
Lot 31, "Jackie Frieze," is a large
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas in thirteen parts by Andy
Warhol that was executed in 1964. It measures 20 by 208 inches
and has an ambitious estimate of $8,000,000 to $10,000,000. It
sold for $9,200,000. It consists of reproductions of a photograph
of Jaqueline Kennedy at the time of President Kennedy's funeral
in 1963. "The tragic events of 1963 transformed her into
a symbol of national mourning, and the young widow became a subject
in which Warhol's fascination with death and disaster is intermingled
with his fascination for celebrity more proundly than anywhere
else in Warhol's oeuvre," the catalogue entry for this lot
maintained. Another Jackie Frieze, consisting of eight
canvases of gold and silver backgrounds is a promised gift to
the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the catalogue entry
"The thirteen images," the entry
continued, "unspool before us, as if they are frames from
a documentary film, arrayed in a single row as if to imply that
the image will continue into infinity. This open-ended infinity
would seem to be Warhol's ultimate statement that serialized compositions
can de-sensitize the viwer to the innate humanity of the image.
But Warhol took great care that Art, in the end, mutes the vulgar
sensationalism of the source or the numbing quality of multipe
images. Color, placement of the screen on each canvas, and the
degree of registration in the act of screening are conscious choices
by Warhol in Jackie Frieze. Furthermore. Warhol chose to
reverse the image on three of the panels, creating pairs of canvases
in which Jackie and the bystander in the background become mirror
images at intervals throughout the frieze."
Lot 41 is a more painterly
Warhol entitled "Nine Blue Marilyn (Reversal Series)."
An acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas that measures 54 by 41
3/4 inches, it consists of nine images of Marilyn Monroe, the
actress. It was executed in 1979 and has a modest estimate of
$2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $2,480,000. In 1962,
Warhol had painted "Twenty-Five Colored Marilyns," a
work that is now in the Fort Worth Art Museum.
Lot 20, "Flowers,"
is an 82-inch-square acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas by Andy
Warhol. Executed in 1964, it has an estimate of $4,000,000 to
$6,000,000. It sold for $6,736,000. "One of the indelible
images of twentieth-century art, Flowers is one of only
three canvases of this image in the 82-inch format exhbiited at
Andy Warhol's first sell-out show at the Leo Castelli Gallery
in New York in 1964. The image was "appropriated," the
catalogue noted, "from a colour photograph of seven hibiscus
blossoms printed as a fold-out in the June 1964 issue of Modern
Lot 35, "Set of Five
Boxes: Brillo Soap Pads; Campbell's Tomato Juice; Del Monte Peach
Halves; Heinz Tomato Ketchup; Kellogg's Corn Flakes," by
Andy Warhol, sold for $1,248,000, breaking the artist's previous
auction record for a sculpture of $864,818.
Lot 40 is a bronze "Lifeboat" by
Jeff Koons that measures 12 by 80 by 60 inches. Executed in 1985,
it is number 1 of an edition of 3 with one artist's proof. It
has an ambitious estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold
for $3,376,000. It was included in the artist's first solo
show, Equilibrium, at New York's International with Monument Gallery
in November, 1985.
Lot 6 is an appealing work of considerable
charm by Chris Ofili that is entitled "Strange Eyes."
Executed in 2001, it is a 76 3/4-by-48-by-10 1/4-inch composition
of oil paint, polyester resin, elephant dung, map pins and glitter
on canvas. It has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. It
was passed at $650,000. The work, according to the catalogue,
"offers the viewer an exuberant and glorious rendering of
an African woman whose individual beauty resonates beyond the
humorous caricature that lies within most of Ofili's large-scale
painted portraits....Strange Eyes epitomizes Ofili's layered
absorption of cultural and historical influences. The female's
psychedelic backdrop, unassigned 'ethnic' clothing, and mesmerizing
multilayered gaze come together to form a stunning re-mix of the
artist's inspiration that carries a beat of its own. She is a
diva who should be seen, but also heard."
Lot 8 consists of silver-gelatin "portraits"
of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour,
Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr by Hiroshi
Sugimoto. The seven prints are number 5 of an edition of 5 and
each measures 58 3/4 by 47 inches and were created in 1999. The
lot has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It sold for $744,000,
significantly higher than the artist's previous auction record
The photographs are of wax effigies at Madame
Tussaud's was musum in London.
"Ironically," the catalogue entry
for this lot observes, "the elegant black and white images
appear more life-like than the wax effiges themselves, as the
artist uses his dexterity behind the lens to even out any hint
of artifice, playing on the widespread by fallacious perception
that photography is a truthful medium. Sugimoto photographically
resusitates these wax corprses, breathing life into figures from
bygone centuries....Here, Sugimoto adapts his mechanical and technical
processes in order to approximate as closely as posible the painterly
technique of Holbein....For the first time in Sugimoto's oeuvre,
each figure is depicted life-size, enabled by the artists's skilled
technical facility with the enlargement process. Each is dramatically
lit and reproduced in high contrast to emulate the chiaroscuro
of portrait painting in the grand tradition. The relentless sharpness
of focus captures every minutiae of detail in their costumes and
adornments, producing in lyrical tonal contrasts the subtle differentiations
in texture of the fabrics and the glinting lustre of precious
stones and metals." The pictures are remarkably beautiful.
Lot 9 is a 84-inch diameter collection of butterfly
wings by Damien Hirst (b. 1965) entitled "The Most Beautiful
Thing in the World." It was created in 2003 and has an estimate
of $950,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $1,304,000, breaking
the artist's previous auction record for a painting of $854,744.
Lot 1, "El Soplon (The Prompter),"
by Francis Alys sold for $632,000, breaking the artist's previous
auction record of $188,700.
Lot 11, "Pan," by Vija Celmins
sold for $576,000, just over the artist's previous auction record