By Michele Leight
It a relief to see Contemporary Art at almost
affordable prices at Phillips de Pury New York in a season of
dizzily high price tags. In the last few years the price for Contemporary
art has escalated 250%, with stratospheric amounts achieved at
auction for works by many artists, but Phillips de Pury have charted
a steady course alongside Sotheby's and Christie's, staying in
the game by tempting buyers with unusual works by up and coming
artists, as well as pricier offerings by more established ones.
Anselm Kiefer's "Die Hausritt die Finstere
Welle," or "Your house rode the dark waves" was
inspired by and gets its title from a poem by Paul Celan, "The
Only Light." The more hopeful part of the sentence,"
but it sheltered a line of roses," is excluded by the artist.
Kiefer is not known for happy endings. Lot 42 has an estimate
$1,200,000 to $1,600,000.
In her November 13, 2008 article in The
New York Times, Carol Vogel observed that "It was perhaps
a bad omen that before the auction of contemporary art even began
at Phillips de Pury & Company on Thursday night, five works
were withdrawn, including examples by such popular artists as
John Currin, Richard Prince and Anselm Kiefer.
Of the remaining lots in the auction, about
40 percent did not sell and many went for less than their low
estimates with a sales total of about $9,600,000 compared to a
pre-sale low estimate of about $23,000,000.
Anselm Kiefer was heavily influenced by Joseph
Beuys, an artist who said "Art is a genuinely human medium
for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation
from a sick world to a healthy one." (Beuys quoted in Quartetto,
exhibition catalog, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984, Milano, p.
Phillips de Pury's catalogue for the sale describes
the connection between the poem and the compelling artwork:
"The poem references three historical
periods: Genesis 7-8 - the Biblical story of the Flood, the departure
to Palestine of the Jews who evaded the Nazi concentration camps
on overcrowded boats, and third, a reference of the series Gegenlight
- "Our talk of justice is empty until the largest battleship
has foundered on the forehead of a drowned man."
Kiefer portrays the moral failings and detritus
of our civilization as if it has already ended, torched in a nuclear
holocaust, as utterly destroyed as the battleship in this powerful
work of art. His post-mortems are unsettling because he does not
let the viewer off the hook: his imagery forces a critical dialogue,
ultimately the only hope for change.
The strangely lyrical silkscreen painting by
Warhol illustrated here, Lot 36, "Details of Renaissance
Painting (Paolo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon, 1460), has
an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000, reminiscent of happier days
when owning a painting by a great contemporary artist seemed possible.
Amazingly, brushwork is visible in this atypical Warhol, lifted
and cropped from a painting by the Renaissance master Paolo Uccello,
best known for his depiction of soldiers on horseback with lances
symmetrically lined up at The National Gallery in London. It
sold for $542,500 including the buyer's premium as do all results
mentioned in this article. The sale total was $9,608,700.
Elimination of the hand of the artist was the
mantra of Pop Artists like Warhol, as was the "commodification"
of art - although none of the Pop artists could ever have imagined
the price tags their work would command some day. They wanted
to make art cheaper so more people could afford it, instead of
art for the select few! Unlike the painting "Details of Renaissance
Paintings (Paolo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon, 1460), Pop
Artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein churned out images that mirrored
their values and their own times.
In this unusually tender depiction of the classical
damsel in distress, Warhol acknowledges the art of the past, specifically
the Renaissance masters who produced art in workshops - as did
Warhol, but his was more of a factory - and whose paintings are
possibly without equal in terms of beauty, technique and longevity
today. Perhaps pumping out all those multiples of the same image
made Warhol yearn for the unique qualities of the artist's brush.
This painting makes one think about what Warhol might have moved
on to next if he had lived longer.
There are few paintings by Damien Hirst that
expose his preoccupation with death - and human existence - more
than Lot 17, "Beautiful Artemis Thor Neptune Odin Delusional
Sapphic Inspirational Hypnosis Painting," Lot 17, has an
estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It failed to sell.
Here, the vibrancy and pulsating life of his instantly recognizable
"spin" painting technique is contradicted by the brooding,
macabre skulls of Germanic, Norse, Hellenic and Roman gods of
Hirst is influenced by Hieronymous Bosch and
sixteenth and seventeenth century still life paintings, or vanitas
that often incorporated skulls. Death is inevitable, but so is
life, and artists and writers throughout history have been fascinated
by it. Shakespeare reputedly had a skull on his desk:
"Vanity of vanities, says the teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all
the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes and
a generation comes, but the earth remains forever." (Ecclesiastes
1:2-4, New Revised Standard Version). Strict adherence to Gods
laws was commonly exercised in the accompanying era, serving as
a prime factor of variation between the fifteenth century work
and that of Damien Hirst." (From Phillips de Pury's catalog
for this sale).
Lot 18, "Happy Head No 7," by Damien
Hirst, is as extreme an example of Spin painting/death as is possible.
It has an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. It sold for $116,500.
Gary Hume's "Into the Dangerous World,"
illustrated near the top of the story, Lot 40, has an estimate
of $300,000 to $400,000. It failed to sell. Donald Judd's
"Untitled (77/23 Berstein)," Lot 15, has an estimate
$4,000,000 to $5,000,000. It sold for $3,218,500. Anish
Kapoor's "Untitled (Mirror)," Lot 14, has an estimate
of $500,000 to $700,000 and all these works share dazzling technical
virtuosity with slick, beautiful surfaces, and conceptual purity.
It sold for $782,500.
Lot 26, "Untitled (Roses)," Kikki
Smith's extraordinarily beautiful, spiritual flower child is a
contemporary depiction of the Virgin Mary, created in 1993-94,
far removed from her grotesque earlier sculptures that left no
body part or body function to the imagination. This body does
not leak and dissolve; she is still introspective, however, while
"holding her own." Smith hasfinally liberated her mythical
heroine "from the patriarchal grasp held by previous handlers
of her form." (Phillips de Pury catalog for this sale). It
has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $254,500.
Richard Prince's "Untitled (Protest Painting),"
Lot 8, harks back to a time before his masked nurses in Everglades
- 60s counterculture - and specifically to its defining event,
Woodstock, which he attended. The canvas is shaped like a protest
placard. It has an estimater of $180,000 to $220,000. It sold
Robert Indiana is forever linked to the 1960s
Peace Movement through his "Love Motif," and New Yorkers
especially remember when the bold canvases of his "Peace
Paintings" lit up Park Avenue in New York in 2004 - paintings
which reference the politics of the past but which resonate in
the present, like Lot 13, "Four Diamond Peace (Blue),"
painted in 2003. It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It
failed to sell.
Terence Koh's "The Road to the Winterland
of My Discontent, I Know Not Where I Lead," Lot 2, is a central
piece from his 2007 "GOD" Series. Exquisitely sculpted
bronze forearms and hands - his own - reminiscent of Rodin sprout
eerily from the wall, each in the position of the twelve disciples
of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." The influence
of architecture manifests in the precise spacing of the arms,
perhaps because Koh was a former employee of the architect Zaha
Hadid. The estimate for this work is $80,000 $120,000. It sold