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Hunters and Gatherers

The Art of Assemblage

A Selling Exhibition


 November 18 to December 16, 2011

"Afor" by El Anatsui

"Afor," by El Anatsui, aluminum liquor bottle caps and copper wire, 111 by 117 inches, 2010

By Carter B. Horsley

The selling exhibition entitled "Hunters and Gatherers" at Sotheby's York Avenue headquarters presents a stunning and magnificent group of works of assemblage in S|2, the newly constructed gallery space  dedicated to private sales its new galleries on the second floor.

The show features many masterworks of American Indian, African & Oceanic art, Modern and Contemporary art, Photography and Design and many of the works in the exhibition range in price from $25,000 to more than $10,000,000.  The exhibition, which runs from November 18 to December 16, 2011, also includes a large group of spectacular African works of art lent by the Alan Stone Gallery.

Lisa Dennison, Chairman of Sotheby's North and South America and one of the organizers of the exhibition, commented: "Until about 10,000 years ago, all human beings were hunters and gatherers. While the invention of agriculture changed this way of life, the impulse to scavenge is embedded in our genes, and has indeed found translation in the world of art. Artists are a particular type of hunter-gatherer. They create works that are assembled from assorted traditional and non-traditional materials, both natural and man-made, in arrangements in which the artistic whole transforms and transcends the sum of its parts."

"From the 17th Century, Native Americans actively traded with Europeans for precious commodities such as metal and glass beadwork, which they ingeiously incorporated into cereomonial items, clothing and weaponry.  These decorations conveyed status and added luster and allure to a wide range of objects including masks, rattles and headdresses.  During the same period, a rich sculpture tradition emerged on the other side of the globe, in the Chiloango River Region in central Africa.  Power figures, carved of wood in human or animal form, were used to harness spiritual forces for protection, healing or revenge.  A ritual expert drove metal objects into the figure to awaken the spirit.  The potent physical presence of these figures, bristling with nails, blades and spikes, still resonates with the power of these awe-inspiring rituals," Ms. Dennison wrote.

"The practice of assemblage has continued into the 21st century, with artists enthusiastically using non-traditional materials in both intimate and  environmentally scaled artworks.  Many of these follow the cooler conceptual strategies of Duchamp, while others mine Africa's heritage, not only in the sense of formal properties, but by tapping into their cultural, soial and historical resonance as well.  Nick Cave, for example, explores issues of ceremony and ritual in his beautifully crafted Soundsuits, referencing both tribal and Indian art in their various guises," she continued.

The exhibition's most colorful and spectacular work is "Afor," a wall hanging of aluminum liquor bottle caps and copper wire, by El Anatsui (b. 1944).  It was created in 2010 and measures 111 by 117 inches.

The exhibition catalogue notes that "Afor is an exemplar of the large-scale sculpture that has garneredGhaaian born artist El Anatsui international acclaim," adding that "made of thousands of vertical and horizontal strips of gleaming silver, red, orange, yuellow and blue, Afor cascades oer the gallery wall like a large bedraggled tapestry, the light dancing across its undulating folds."  The entry also said that the artist's work "alludes to kente cloth, a ceremonial hand woven textile that has been worn on important occasions among the Ashante and Ewe people of West Africa since the twelvth century.

Nail lounge

Detail of "00121-110=106062 (Bench) by Lee Jaehyo, stainless steel nails, bolts, charred wood, 20 by 92 by 40 inches, 2006

One of the exhibition's most beautiful works is "00121-110=106062 (Bench) by Lee Jaehyo (b. 1965).  The artist pounded nails and drove them into the wood and then ground and polished them and then set the whole piece aflame.  "One can feel the sweat of the creator, but marvel at the elegance and wit of the creation.  The artistry of Lee is how seamlessly he blends sculpture and design, and bridges the divide between the country side and the factory, something rarely seen in the work of studio craftsmen.," the catalogue remarked.  

The work is much more than that as it is a swelling high-tech metallic ocean awaiting the chain-mail knights of a new age.  It is also an inviting and friendly "raft of the medusa."


"All The King's Men," by Johnny Swing, 3,867 half dollars and stainless steel, 27 by 96 by 53 inches, 2011, number 4 from an edition of 10

"All the King's Men," is a chaise lounge made up of 3,867 half dollars and stainless steel by Johnny Swing (b. 1961).  It measures 27 by 96 by 53 inches and is number 4 from a 2011 edition of 10.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about this work:

"Biomorphic, flowing waves of money.  The first decade of 21st Century Design was defined by the art market as an era of limited edition sculptural furniture, with galleries funding their designers' increasingly lavish creations in titanium, carbon fibre, marble and thermoplastic.  Prices soared and the gap between creator and finished work widened.  Editions were sold out before they were produced.  Materials were utilized that weren't property tested for stability.  Designers were hyped and then forgotten.  Looking back on the frist decade, who have guessed that behaps the most beloved designs to emerged from the synthetic rubble from produced by a self-styled welder in Vermont who works in the tradiitons of the American studio futureure movement, making his pieces by hand with a small circle of crasftmen.  Johnny Swing's All the King's Men is his organic masterwork, the final resolution of the ideas he first started exploring with his iconic Nickel Couch in 2003.  Built to last. Legal ltender.  And exremely cofortable as well."

Anselm Kiefer

"Untitled," by Anselm Kiefer, mixed media on board, 112 by 55 inches, 2007

An untitled work by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) has a white-painted palm front lying on a a cracked desert "landscape."  The mixed-media work measures 112 by 55 inches and was created in 2007.  The catalogue noteds that "seen through the lens of Kiefer's own history, and that of Germany in the 20th Century, the work became a meditation on the concepts of life, death, and ultimately redemption and resurrection.  By uttilizing assemblage, Kiefer lends a spatial and temporal layer upon an otherwise static medium"

Johns spoon

"Untitled (Gray Painting with Spoon," by Jasper Johns, encaustic on canvas with ruler, magnet and spoon, 26 1/8 by 20 1/4 inches, 1962

The catalogue states that "One of John's most important paintings from the early 1960s, Gray Painting with Spoon shows the artist as the supreme master of gray paint, enriched by his characteristic bravura brushwork.  The impact of Marcel Duchamp is revealed through the juxtaposition of the readymade object, in this case the spoon and the ruler, and the painted canvas.  The spoon refers to Duchamps Locking Spoon of 1957, a readymade of a spoon attached backwards to the lock on the artist's apartment door, which Johns saw when he visited Duchamps shortly after first meeting him.  The ruler evokes the craft of painting and the artist's drafting tools.  It suggests the role of the painter as a mediator between life and art, reality and representation."


"Rigger" by Robert Rauschenberg, oil, metal, rope, wood, fabric, plastic buttons, paper, graphite and sand on canvas, 102 by 60 by 11 1/2 inches, 1961

The catalogue provides the following commentary about "Rigger," a 1961 work by Robert Rauschenberg:

"In 1960 and 1961, Rauschenberg's complexly collaged Combine drawings became more sculptural and painterly.  Rigger, from 1961, is distinct in its gestural and expressive use of pigment.  Rigger, which eschews mass-media sources, confronts the viewer with mysterious sculptural elements projecting off the canvas, a technique Rauschenberg had employed in 1959 with Canyon.  Captivating and enigmatic, Rigger, manipulates the inherent tension between the mediums of painting and sculpture to produce a cohesive whole."


Headdress, Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea, wood, barkcloth, rattan, fibers, pigment, 108 inches high, right; Figural headdress, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 62 inches high, left; both on loan from the Alan Stone Collection

American Indian

Tlingit polychrome wood Shaman's Ceremonial Rattle, Kwakiuti polychromed wood headdress, and Kwakiuti polychromed wood figure, lower tier, all from the Economos Collection; pair of Lakota beaded hide saddle bags, upper

The exhibition includes some superb examples of the art of the Northwest Coast in Canada including a Shaman's Ceremonial oyster-catcher Rattle, a Kwakitui headdress and a Kwakiuti figure.  The headdress, 18 1/2 inches long, depicts a bird.  The figure, 34 1/2 inches high, is shown in Edward Sheriff Curtis' 1914 photograph of a Kwakitui Chief's eldest daughter enthroned during a potlatch.

African works of art

The center of the exhibition presents an array of African power sculptures, many on loan from the Alan Stone Gallery.

The catalogue notes that a "variety of cultures in the Congo River Basin in Central Africa matained power sculptures until the early 20th Cebntury.  "Broadly called minkisi (singular nkisi), these scuptures were carved of wppd om human or animal form, and used to harness spiritual forces for aid, protection, healing, or revenge.  Sacred materials chosen for their mystical or metaphorical significance were appliance or inserted into these figures, which accumulated power through the practice of assemblage.  Apeciric subtgands with magical powers such as shell, horn, teeth, and animal hide; vegetal materials, ashes, evearth and lay, or manufactured elements such as nails, beads, fabric and mirrors were attached to or inserted into cavities of minkisi, instilling in them a spiritiual 'charge.'"

Two-headed nailer

Nail power figure in he form of a Janus-headed dog, 26 inches long, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on loan from the Allan Stone Collecgtion


Horned man


Top, Mali power figure of wood, textile, fibers, mud and feathers, 40 inches high, left;  Community power figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 45 1/2 inches high, right; bottom, Community power figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 31 inches high, bottom, all on loan from the Allan Stone Collection

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, with an essay by Adam Gopnik, who writes about assemblage as a nomadic feature of the human appetite for experience. As he explains, "There are two essential kinds of assemblage: one involves the plain made sacred or potent; the other, the peripheral made poetic, with many vibrations between them."

Assemblage, "which has produced at different moments collage, papier collé, and the Surrealist objet trouvé, is the instant identifying 'look' of Modern art, as much as the perspective checkerboard is of the early Renassaince," Mr.Gopnik observed, adding that "the centrality of assemblage, of scavenging for art in the streets rather than shaping it in a studio, is part of the scholarly picture, not to say the scholarly pieties, of Modernism."  Mr. Gopnik then suggested that perhaps assemblage "isn't peculiar to Modern art or its traditions - what if it isn'tly rightly seen as revolutionary but rather as, in its way, renewing, tied at its core to ancient traditions of folk and 'first nations' and 'tribal' art?  What if collage came first?  That's the inquiry at the heart of this exhibition, suggesting that the practice of assemblage gets some of its power not from its recherhé place in the annals of abstruse Modernist equations, but from its universality - not from the difficult with which it is achieved, but from the ease with which we get it."

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