By Michele Leight
Highlights of Sotheby's November 11, 2008 Post
War and Contemporary Art evening sale in New York include an example
of Yves Klein's Relief Eponge series, "Archisponge RE 11,"
(estimated in the region of $25 million), Lucian Freud's "Naked
Portrait Standing" (estimated $9,000,000 to $12,000,000),
Roy Lichtenstein's "Half Face with Collar" (estimated
$15,000,000 to $20,000,000), and an important abstract painting
by Philip Guston, "Beggars' Joys." (estimated in the
region of $15 million).
All the estimates, of course, reflect sunnier
economic times back in the spring and summer. It remains to be
seen whether buyers will meet prices that sellers - the owners
of the artworks - have become accustomed to receiving in the recent
art market. Last season's prices are a tough act to follow, when
a triptych by Francis Bacon sold at Sotheby's for $86,281,000,
at the best sale in Sotheby's 264-year history (see The
City Review article), a sale that totalled $362,037,000 including
buyer's premiums. That said, however, last week a Russian Suprematist
painting by Kasimir Malevich sold for $60,002,400 at Sotheby's,
at the auction's high pre-sale estimate.
This auction's "big ticket" painting,
"Archisponge (RE11), Lot 12, by Yves Klein (1928-1962), was
once owned by Francis de Menil of NewYork. It has an estimate
of around $25 million. It sold for $21,362,500 including the
buyer's premium. The sale sold 43 of the offered 63 lots for $125,131,500.
Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's,
said after the auction that"Tonight we saw a seasoned, smart
collecting community responding to great material at levels that
were achievable. The American collecting community bought works
of quality with intelligence, for the right price." Alex
Rotter, the head of the Contemporary Art Department in New York
added that "the market has gone up more than 250 percent
in the past two yeas, and the global financial turmoil obviously
has brought a correction. Tonight's sale...brings us back to the
levels of the autumn of 2006, when the evening sale also brought
Klein was influenced
by Japanese stone gardening and the Zen philosophy of physical
and spiritual harmony, which shows in his mysterious, otherworldly
"Archisponge (RE11)," executed in his patented IKI (International
Klein Immaterial) blue. The granular additive in Klein's paint
mixture adds to the planetary, cosmic feel of the artwork with
its pigment encrusted sponges jutting out from the pitted surface
of the canvas. The color blue is quite amazing. Sotheby's catalogue
describes other influences for Klein's extraordinary vision: "Growing
up on the Mediterranean Coast, Klein was deeply affected by the
void of sea and sky as uninterrupted spatial fields. Underlying
his boundless creativity was an innate desire to venture beyond
that which was concrete."
Phillip Guston's "Beggar's Joys,"
painted a few years before Klein's "Archisponge (RE11),"
is an important work representing the artist's transition from
the figurative painting of Social Realism in the 1930s towards
abstraction. Guston (1913-1980) was a "painter's painter,"
who pursued his own individualistic style, epitomized in this
calmly beautiful painting that paradoxically possesses a compelling
internalized energy the more one looks at it. It has an estimate
of about $15 million. It sold for $10,162,500 far above the
artist's previous world auction record of $7,296,000. Artist's
records were also set for John Currin, whose "Nice 'N Easy"
sold for $5,458,500, way above his previous record of $847,500,
and for Richard Serra whose "12-4-8" sold for $1,650,500,
just over his previous record of $1,497,000.
Landscape has been a strong influence on many
of the artists whose works feature prominently in this sale, including
Cy Twombly (b. 1928), who said it was one of his favorite things
in the world. In "Untitled (A Painting in Two Parts) (Bassano
in Teverina)," Lot 11, Twombly's visceral approach, smearing,
dripping, punctuated by globs of three dimensional pigment in
rosy pinks, orange and blood reds, evokes fertility, life and
pulsating energy. This is an extraordinary work of art when viewed
in person that will be included in the supplement to the catalogue
raisonne of the paintings of Cy Twombly edited by Heiner Bastian.
It has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000 and would hang
nicely next to the Guston. The lot sold for $4,786,500.
Ed Ruscha's "Desire," Lot 21, a 1969
oil on canvas entitled "Desire" that measures 60 by
55 inches, is illustrated above. It is by Ed Rusha (b. 1937) and
has an estimate of $4-6 million. It sold for $2,434,500.
On the left is Lot 20, "Set of Four Boxes:
Brillo Soap Pads; Campbell's Tomato Juice; Del Monte Peach Halves;
Heinz Tomato Ketchup" by Andy Warhol, (1928-1987), one of
several works by him on offer at this sale. It has an estimate
of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 15, also shown above, is a mobile by Alexander
Calder (1898-1976) entitled "Deux Dates." It measures
43 by 109 by 55 inches and was executed in 1964-9. It has an estimate
of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $2,490,500.
Lot 17, Roy Lichtenstein's iconic Pop Art graphic
cropped from a comic book "Half Face with Collar," is
one of three paintings by the artist on offer at this sale, illustrated
at the top of this story. It has an estimate of $15,000,000 to
$20,000,000. It failed to sell.
Sotheby's catalog offers insight into his creative
process from an interview with John Coplans in a 1967 exhibition
catalogue at the Pasadena Art Museum:
"As in 'Half Face with Collar," Lichtenstein
magnified and transferred his images to canvas by hand - and later
by stencil as in the present work - in a painstaking process that
distanced him from both the expressionistic details of brushwork
and the naturalistic representation by heightening the heavy stylization
of the comic book source. 'I want my painting to look as if it
has been programmed. I want to hide the record of my hand.'"
Lot 9 is a very fine and impressive work by
Lichtenstein. Entitled "Study for New York State Mural (Town
and Country)," it is oil and magna on canvas and measures
82 1/2 by 58 1/2 inches. It was painted in 1968 and has an estimate
of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $3,489,500.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"Known for his comic strip-sourced canvases,
primary colors and Benday dots, Lichtenstein worked from a pictorial
vocabulary wedded to modes of mechanical reproduction. Although
it was executed with the same simpified color scheme and graphic
formalities, Study for a New York State Mural (Town and Country)
demonstrates a break from Licthenstein's trademark comic-book
iconography of early 1960s. The work, originally designed for
a proposed large-scale mural for the Empire State Plaza Art Commission,
exemplifies a transition in Lichtenstein's style, a shift in focus
from the world of comics to that of geometry and architecture.
1967 and a new series entitled Modern Paintings marked
the beginning of this new phase, characterized by a strong Art
Deco influence and geometric division of space."
A third Lichtenstein, "Interior with Red
Wall," Lot 47, is an oil and magna on canvas. Created in
1991, it measures 118 by 134 inches and has an estimate of $8,000,000
to $10,000,000. It sold for $7,026,500.
Sotheby's will offer another Pop Art "threesome,"
one from each of Tom Wesselmann's three hallmark series from the
1960s and early 1970s. Lot 19 is "Great American Nude #21,"
from 1961, formerly from the Abrams Family Collection, and it
is a hallmark of Wesselmann's signature series. This painting
was censored from an exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern
Art in 1963 because the image of a president was presented alongside
a nude - soon after Marilyn Monroe died - which may or may not
have been intentional. The grandiose title is deliberately ironic,
and references the Great American Novel, and the American Dream.
It has an estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000. It sold for
$4,114,500. An oil and collage on board, it measures 60 by
A stunning, monochromatic Stella in gray, black
and white, Lot 14, "Untitled," with an estimate of $2,000,000
to $3,000,000 is shown here with Lot 8, Donald Judd's richly textured
brass "Untitled," with an estimate of $900,000-1,200,000.
Anish Kapoor's organic alabaster "Untitled," Lot 13,
which is not illustrated here, is a masterful counterpoint to
both these works of art, with an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000.
Lot 14 did not sell. Lot 8 sold for $746,500. Lot 13 did not
Powerful, sinuous "Untitled VI,"
Lot 35, by Willem de Kooning 1904-1997) was created towards the
end of his sixty-year career. It was exhibited in the memorable
show "Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s"
at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, October 1995-April 1997
(see The City Review article). "Untitled
VI" has the rhythms of Matisse's floating dancers, anchored
by exquisite control of color and line. In the closing chapter
in his prolific and brilliant artistic career, this supremely
painterly artist said: "I feel that I have found myself more,
the sense that I have all my strength at my command. I think you
can do miracles with what you have if you can accept it....I am
more certain the way I use paint and the brush." It has an
estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It sold for $4,562,500.
Lot 28, "Ocean Park No. 44," by Richard
Diebenkorn (1922-1993), is an atmospheric, earth-toned gem - also
inspired by nature - that is to be included in the forthcoming
catalog raisonne of the artist. An oil on canvas, it measuires
100 by 81 inches and was painted in 1971. It has an estimate of
$6,000,000 to $8,000,000. It sold for $5,234,500.
Robert Rauschenberg's small-scaled "Bantam,"
Lot 39, has a surprisingly hushed palette. The "combine"
consists of oil, paper, printed reproductions, cardboard, fabric
and pencil on canvas. It measures 11 5/8 by 14 5/8 inches and
it was created in 1955. It has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000.
It sold for $2,602,500.
Lot 33 is a small but powerful composition
by Mark Rothko (1903-1970). An oil on paper mounted on canvas,
it measures 29 by 22 inches and was painted in 1958. It is entitled
"Untitled (Red/Black)." Despite its relatively diminutive
size, it has real wall-power. The price tag is hefty of course,
$4,000,000 to $6,000,000, for this incomparable master of Abstract
Expressionism, but that goes with the territory. It sold for
High estimates are on everyone's mind, but
the first few auctions of this season has indicated that the auction
houses have been fairly successful in convincing some consignors
to significantly reassess their estimates. Of course, such estimates
should never be misinterpreted as a reflection of their true artistic
Lot 32 is a painting by Lucian Freud (b.1922)
of a standing naked woman. An oil on canvas, it measures 43 by
30 1/2 inches and was executed 1999-2000. It failed to sell.
People either don't have the confidence to
spend big money now, or feel it is a little unseemly to spend
at this level when many are facing hard times. Big sums have been
spent however - almost half a billion dollars on Impressionist
and Modern Art at both Sotheby's and Christie's last week alone
- demonstrating more confidence in the art market than Wall Street.
Great art, however, is not a commodity, or a stock, or bond. It
can be lived with, enjoyed - and shared with others. It will be
interesting to see what happens this week, in a city that has
always been the pre-eminent showcase for the greatest Post War
and Contemporary Art in the world. Many of the works represented
here were created by artists in New York City studios - not far
from the auction houses that now command such jaw-dropping prices
for their work.