By Michele Leight
The Post-War & Contemporary Art evening
sale on November 12, 2008 at Christie's includes two important
self-portraits, one by Francis Bacon, and the other by Jean-Michel
Basquiat, who committed suicide, (from the collection of Lars
Ulrich) and an outstanding group of drawings by Post War artists
Barnett Newman, Ashille Gorky and Willem de Kooning, from the
collection of Kathy and Richard Fuld Jr.
Other artists whose work is well represented
include Lucio Fontana, Gerhard Richter, Joan Mitchell, Louise
Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami,
Subodh Gupta, and many others. The sale is expected to achieve
between $227,000,000 to $321,000,000. Including the buyers'
premium, the 51 of the 75 offered lots totaled $113,627,500.
A triptych by Francis Bacon set a world auction
record last year, but a more intimate and unflinchingly introspective
"Study for Self Portrait," Lot 27, a full-length, 1964
self-portrait, is bound to generate enormous interest despite
its hefty price tag of $40,000,000. It was passed at $27,500,000.
The portrait is a beautifully executed, typically distorted
and troubled composition of the artist seated vulnerably on his
bed. Like Rembrandt and Van Gogh whom he greatly admired, Bacon's
most incisive portraits are of himself. The exquisite brushwork
and the signature "twisted" torso express Bacon's inner
tension. The "distortions" also nod to Picasso, who
was an enormous influence on the artist.
It is impossible to look at a painting by Jean-Michel
Basquiat without thinking of Downtown Manhattan; not the new "downtown"
of slick glass towers and ultra-modern dining parlors, wonderful
as they are, but the grimy, wind blown, graffiti encrusted expanses
of Houston and Delancey streets in the '80s, when artists exiting
their drafty studios had to pass winos and drug addicts huddled
in the doorways of dilapidated buildings, and the only place to
get a good sandwich was Katz's Deli.
Lot 19, "Untitled (Boxer)" with an
estimate of $12,000,000 to $15,000,000, is one of the most powerful
Basquiats to come to auction, created at the height of his fame
- at the ripe old age of 22 - which he described as his best painting
ever. It is the cover illustration of the auction catalogue. It
sold for $15,522,500. This powerful portrait is one of the
most exuberant images in his repertoire, depicting a victorious
heavyweight boxer, and is thought to be a self-portrait. Its primitivism
blends with classical portraiture, offering an icon for Black
America that was both hero and victim to Basquiat. After Barak
Obama's ascendance to the American Presidency, the balance has
hopefully shifted to that of the hero. The 1982 work is an acrylic
and oil paint stick on linen that measures 79 by 94 inches.
Three exquisitely joyful paintings offer instant
mood elevation in these troubled economic times. Mark Rothko's
"Composition," Lot 3, a 1958 oil on paper laid down on board, 29 3/4 by 22 1/2 inches,
has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000.
It sold for $3.666,500. Gerhard Richter's shimmering "Ozu,"
Lot 35, which has an estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000, and
a very bold and dazzling Joan Mitchell evoke nature's seasonal
beauty and quality of light. Lot 35 was passed at $6,200,000.
Lot 34, "La Grande Vallee," by Joan
Mitchell, with its exuberant swirls, cross hatching, and luscious
palette-knifed pigmentation recall Van Gogh and Monet - through
a magnifying glass, however. A photograph in Christie's catalog
shows Joan Mitchell waist deep in yellow wildflowers, literally
engulfed in nature that was such an inspiration to her, although
as nueoted in the catalogue Mitchell's "allusions to landscape
arise from feeling and personal remembrance rather than actual
visual cues." Lot 34 has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000.
It is a diptych whose overall dimensions are 102 inches square
it was created in 1983. It was passed at $2,200,000.
Lot 9, "Abstrakts Bild (710)" by
Richter is more somber in tone than "Ozu," (not illustrated),
but no less lush and visually uplifting. Richter describes the
process involved in his "Abstracts" which he has returns
to repeatedly despite forays into other, "un-painterly"
The catalogue quotes Richter as stating that
"Letting a thing come, rather than creating it - no assertions,
constructions, formulations, inventions, ideologies - in order
to gain access to all that is genuine, richer, more alive: to
what is beyond my understanding."
Lot 9, "Abstraktes Bild (710)" by
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) has an estimate upon request. It
sold for $14,866,500. Like many other great paintings offered
this season, it was priced earlier this year, when the market
for Post War and Contemporary artworks was at its peak and the
stock market was buoyant. It is a 1989 oil on canvas that measures
102 1/2 by 78 3/4 inches.
Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) has two amusing
works. Lot 67 is entitled "Jellyfish Eyes" and the five-part,
winsome 2001 work has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $2,000,000.
It was passed at $750,000. It and the marvelously garish
"DOB in the Strange Forest (Red DOB)," Lot 7, are strangely
compelling, the latter causing people to stop in Christie's lobby
to gaze joyfully despite themselves at an impossibly cute pink
"hello kitty" character surrounded by a ring of psychedelic
mushrooms with bizarre eyes. Lot 7, which measures 60 by 120 by
120 inches, has an estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It
sold for $3,000,000. It is one from an edition of threee plus
two artist's proofs. The fiber-reinforced plastic, resin, fiberglass,
acrylic and iron work was executed in 1999.
Lot 14 is an extremely lyrical
and colorful abstraction by Brice Marden. An oil on linen, it
measures 82 by 57 inches and was executed in 1996-9. It is entitled
"Attendant 5" and the catalogue illustrates five related
works by Marden. It has an estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000.
It was passed at $7,500,000.
In "Cheap Rice," Lot 5, by Subodh
Gupta (b. 1964), brass and metal lotas used to carry holy water
for the wealthy and not so wealthy respectively weigh down the
humblest form of transport in India - the rickshaw - "pedaled"
by the rickshaw rider, who earns a bowl of cheap rice for his
hard labor. At its best, Gupta's work becomes a vehicle for powerful
social commentary for issues as diverse as caste and religious
tensions, exploitation and discrimination, the effects of globalization
and industrialization, and rampant consumerism that is now impacting
in India as it is in China. He explores the conflicted crossroads
of an awesomely ascendant India that promises a new lease on the
future for many, while others are still left in the gutter. The
lot, which is from an edition of three created in 2006, has an
estimate of $900,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $842,500.
Lot 40, "Circles
and Angles," by David Smith, stainless steel, 26 by 41 by
8 3/4 inches, 1959
David Smith's beautiful, richly textured, stainless
steel "Circles and Angles," Lot 40, estimate $6,000,000
to $8,000,000 - a miniature version of his epically scaled 1959
sculpture - is shown here with Agnes Martin's minimalist horizontal
grids, It was passed at $4,600,000. "Untitled #6,"
in the background. Both artworks draw their inspiration from nature,
yet are expressed so differently. The Martin painting, Lot 61,
has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,500,000. It sold for $1,202,500.
Lot 4, Roy Lichtenstein's masterful Pop Art
"Self-Portrait" kicks things up a notch with contemporary
flair, keeping pace with the heavyweight self-portraits on offer
this season. The 1976 oil and magna on canvas measures 52 by 36
inches. It has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It
sold for $2,658,500.
The crisp Pop Art outlines of Roy Lichtenstein's
"Two Nude," Lot 30, estimate $3,500,000 to $4,500,000
is shown here with an idealized painting of a house in a wilderness
setting by the contemporary artist Peter Doig, "Pine House
(Rooms for Rent)," which was included in a show at Tate Britain
earlier this year, estimate $4,500,000 to $6,500,000, Richard
Prince's eerie, pulp fiction inspired "Lake Resort Nurse,"
Lot 10, $5,000,000 to $7,000,000, and "Ostrich," a fine
spindly, immobile sculpture by Alexander Calder executed in 1941,
Lot 22, estimate $600,000 to $800,000. Lot 30 was passed at
$2,700,000. Lot 28 was passed at $2,700,000. Lot 10 sold for $3,330,500.
Lot 22 sold for $1,500,000.
Lot 1 is an excellent "Study for Great
American Nude #20" by Tom Wesselman (1931-2004). A pastel
and charcoal on paper, it measures 60 by 47 1/2 inches and was
executed in 1961. It is property from the collection of Robert
and Jean Shoenberg. It has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
It sold for $986,500.
There are several paintings by Andy Warhol
at his sale, including a scaled down, punchy "Mao,"
Lot 33, who was recently the subject of a major show at The Asia
Society in New York. It is interesting how Warhol's bright, populist
iconography creates instant nostalgia for those halcyon days when
the world seemed a far less complicated place - this spring, last
year, the '60s and '70s - but Warhol would be the first to suggest
we are deluding ourselves. Lot 33, which is a synthetic polymer,
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, measures 26 1/4 by 22 1/8
inches. Executed in 1973, it has an estimate of $4,500,000 to
$6,500,000. It was passed at $3,200,000.
Two monochromatic, "vertical," masterpieces
are illustrated. Lot 51, "Untitled," is a stellar, small-scaled
drawing in ink on paper by Barnett Newman, estimate $2,000,000
to $3,000,000, from the collection of Kathy and Richard Fuld Jr.,
while Franz Kline's "Mars Black and White," Lot 37,
estimate $4,000,000 to $6,000,000, is powerful enough to dominate
any space. Lot 51 sold for $2,994,500. Lot 37 sold for $5,122,500.
Grabbing the viewer's attention evolved from Kline's early
ambitions to become an illustrator, and his love of comic book
imagery, which cut across all divides. The epic quality of this
painting is inspired by the gritty, teeming metropolis that surrounded
him - New York - its nightlife, speed, bars, and the music he
loved, Jazz. In the lead article November 2, 2008 of the Arts
& Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times, Carol Vogel
wrote that Mrs. Fuld, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, and
Mr. Fuld, the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers, are selling
16 works on paper in this auction and indicated that the auction
house may have given them a guarantee for all the works of about
$20 million. In the same article, Ms. Vogel noted that Jennifer
Stockman, the president of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
was the consignor for Peter Doig's "Pine House (Rooms for
Rent" and Richard Prince's "Last Resort Nurse."
The article quoted Ms. Stockman as stating that the consignment
of the Doig got a guarantee from the auction house: "it became
almost impossible not to take advantage of the sale."
All eyes are on the auction houses this season
after the downturn on Wall Street and the global financial markets.
While some buyers may have decided that the best place to stash
their money is under the mattress, it is to be hoped that real
collectors will not let the best works of art pass them by. Sadly,
some extraordinary works of art may be endangered by high price
tags assigned at the peak of the art market in the summer.
It remains to be seen whether buyers will meet
prices that sellers have grown accustomed to receiving for top
quality works based on past season's unprecedented results. Perhaps
the time has come to restore perspective and re-calibrate the
monetary value of high-end works of art - their estimates - that
will not compromise their artistic value and worth. Art, after
all, is not a commodity like any other.
It is only in New York that a sale may be considered
to be less than stellar - some even calling it a flop - when it
generates around $200 million dollars, as was the case last week
with both Sotheby's and Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art
evening sales. Almost half a billion dollars of art was sold in
one week at both auction houses, enough to feed a sizeable segment
of the population of some nations for a while - a remarkable achievement
considering Wall Street's performance the same week.
A French journalist was understandably confused
by the chorus of negative comments in the New York press about
the results of Sotheby's and Christie's Impressionist and Modern
"We are happy in Paris if a sale achieves
$70 million, so what is the problem?"
Amy Cappellazo did not let
a very special accolade go unrecognized in the quagmire of lots
sold and dollars achieved for the evening's sale;
"It is wonderful to be standing in front of a painting that
is a world auction record for a living woman artist; that
is really something," she said, all smiles.
Yayoi Kusama's "No.2" oil on canvas is behind Amy and
Too elated to eat or drink at the press preview, Miki Shoji, an
art dealer from Tokyo Japan said:
"Kusama is a very active lady, very well known and highly
regarded in Japan. She has been painting for many years."
I asked how old she was.
"Seventy eight," he replied.