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Twentieth Century Art


7 PM, November 9, 1999

"La Chambre Jaune" by Marc Chagall

Lot 520, "La Chambre Jaune," by Marc Chagall, 1911

By Carter B. Horsley

The art market continues to be "selective" as demonstrated by this major auction in which one painting sold for $45 million but some other major paintings encountered some resistance. By any measure, the auction was successful, but the market clearly is mixed.

One of the better paintings to be offered at auction in the fall of 1999 is Lot 520, Marc Chagall's "La Chambre Jaune," shown above, which was executed in 1911 and is a cogent reminder of why this artist's reputation was once so high in sharp contrast to his later works that generally fell into a repetitive rut.

Chagall arrived in Paris in 1910 and was awed by the Fauves and the work of Vincent Van Gogh and the city's "light."

The catalogue essay on this lot quotes the artist's fascination with this "amazing light that signifies liberty, a light I have never seen anywhere else." "And light entered the pictures of the great French masters quite effortlessly and in art was born again. And so the thought forced itself upon my mind: This liberty, more luminous than any artificial source of light, alone can bring forth such dazzling pictures, in which all technical innovations seem as natural as the words, the movements, the works of the people one meets in the street," the quote continued.

The painting is a version in oil of a gouache work, "The Cow in the Room," now in a private collection, but its palette is much different. Whereas the gouache had a reddish floor and green walls, this work is mostly yellow-green. The catalogue quotes a monograph on Chagall by Franz Meyer that observed that "Here, for the first time, the dominant color is a basic element and fills the entire picture space with its own peculiar dynamism of ebb and flood. The washed-out greenish tint on the floor and by the door represents the color of the yellow in the shade; the wine red of the chair and landscape finds its place as contrasting complementary, and the white with traces of blue onthe samaovar shines like a strange, cool shell out of the sea of vivid light. Particularly odd is the relation of cold to warm hues. That the object in the center seems chromatically the coolest and the nocturnal landscape outside seems the warmest, contributes to the curious mood of the work."

Another expert, Aleksander Kamensky, is quoted in the catalogue as noting that the paintings askew geometries "is a continous chain of metaphors, the vision of a world turned upside down, thrown over, seen in a new way." "And the cow? It is as tangible as the figures. The picture is a brilliant return to biblical times when man and beast were equal. Everything is bathed in the yellow light of the dawn of humanity," according to Kamensky.

The lot has an estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It sold for $5,502,500, including the buyer's premium as do all sales prices in this article, to a European private collector.

Another work in the auction with the same estimate is Lot 545, an "Untitled" oil-based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 118 by 184 1/2 inches, by Cy Twombly (b. 1928), which consists of white scribbling on a blue-gray background. If this was diamonds on a gold background, it still would not be great art despite the estimate, though Twombly has a passionate following. The catalogue notes that this belongs to a series of similar works he did from 1966 to 1971 that are considered his most cerebral and most lyrical works and his finest examples of free-form writing with paint. Please! Send him to China to study calligraphy, or at least send him back in time into the New York City subways to study grafitti!

The catalogue does make a good effort to help the layman interpret this work: "The circularity and loopy aimlessness of scrawls in Untitled activate the surface with gestures reminiscent of Jackson Pollock's 'all-over' drip pictures, while the reductive quotient of line against monochrome background underscores the work's affinity with Minimalism."

This lot passed at $4,500,000 in one of the sale's major disappointments. After the auction, auctioneer Christopher Burge noted that it had been sold at Sotheby's in 1990 for $5.5 million.

Mr. Burge, however, was ebullient about the auction in general, especially the 12 lots consigned by the estate of Madeleine Haas Russell. The pre-sale estimates for these lots was $46.5- to $61.1-million and they all sold for $71.3 million.

The star of those lots and the auction was Lot 507, a large, and beautiful painting of a naked woman, executed in 1932, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) that had an "estimate on request". It sold to an anonymous buyer for $45,102,500, the fourth highest auction price realized for a Picasso. It was painted in one day and was the first and largest in a series of Picasso's mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. In 1990, Christie's sold one of the other three paintings in the series, "The Mirror," for $20 million and in 1997 sold the third, "The Dream," for $48.4 million.

Two other Russell lots also did exceeding, indeed, extraordinarily well, Lot 512, "Primavera sulle alpi," a large 1897 oil by Giovanni Segantini. It sold to French & Co., for $9,572,500. This lovely and huge Impressionistic painting by the Swiss artist had had a high estimate of $6 million and his previous auction record was only $$267,446! It had been commssioned by Mrs. Russell's father, Jacob Stern, and hung for many years in the San Francisco Legion of Honor.

The other remarkable Russell piece was a small sculpture by Henri Matisse, Lot 504, that had had a high estimate of $3,000,000 and sold for $9,242,500 to an American dealer. The 19 3/4 inch-long bronze was number 5 of 10 and Mr. Burgee remarked after the sale that the last time Christie's sold another cast of the same piece was in 1987 when it sold for $1.3 million. The sales price at this auction set an auction record for a Matisse sculpture and was close to the record for any 20th Century sculpture.

A large Henry Moore sculpture, "Two Piece Reclining Figure, Points," conceived and cast in 1969, sold for $4,072,500, tying the auction record for the artist and well surpassing its high estimate of $3 million.

Lot 537, "1941 (Painted Relief - Version 1)," by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), though by no means the artist's best work, is a cool abstraction that has an architectural dimensionality that makes it interesting. It is estimated at $600,000 to $800,000, which makes it a great bargain compared to the Twombly, but then Twombly is American and Nicholson English. It passed at $420,000. Another fine Nicholson, painted 15 years later, is Lot 631 in the Nov. 10 1999 auction of Twentieth Century Art at Christie's (see The City Review article on that auction for an illustration and see an illustration of another fine Nicholson work in The City Review article on the Impressionist and Modern Art auction at May 12, 1999 at Sotheby's).

"Paysage a Meudon" by Albert Gleizes

Lot 516, "Paysage à Meudon" by Albert Gleizes, 1911

Nicholson's work continues the Cubist tradition in its Constructivist style. Lot 516, "Paysage à Meudon," a 1911 oil on canvas, 57 5/8 by 45 inches, by Albert Gleizes (1881-1953) is a good Cubist work of great warmth and visual accessibility. The catalogue notes that this work, shown above, is one of the artist's most celebrated and the year after it was painted the artist and Jean Metzinger published an important treatise on Cubism that was the first to propose that it was "based on principles of relativity, simultaneity, and four-dimensionality."

The painting was part of the Alphonse Kann collection and was among about 130 works that were looted by the Germans in 1940. It was recovered by the French Government in 1949 and put in the collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou. In 1997, the Kann heirs, however, were successful in their efforts to get their property back and the present owner of the lot acquired it from the heirs. It has a conservative estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. It sold for $827,500, an auction record for Gleizes.

Other lots from the Russell estate included Lot 505, a very stunning painting of a guitar by Georges Braque (1882-1963) that is appropriately estimated at $1,400,000 to $1,800,000, and sold for $1,432,500; a very fine watercolor by Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), Lot 506, that is conservatively estimated at $120,000 to $160,000, and sold for $123,500; and a dark 1961 painting by Richard Diebenkorn (see The City Review article on the artist), Lot 510 that is a bit ambitiously estimated at $1,200,000 to $1,600,000, and which sold for $1,047,500.

Lot 515 is a medium-size 1905 painting of a naked woman Picasso that was once in the collection of Gertrude Stein which might explain its very ambitious estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It was passed at $4 million.

Sleeping Woman by Picasso

Lot 519, "Nu couché" by Pablo Picasso, 1933

Neither of the above-mentioned Picassos, however, can compare with Lot 519, shown above, a 7 3/4 by 9 1/2 inch oil on canvas painted in 1933 and from the estate of Princess Lucile Sherbatow. It is a jewel and has an estimate of $1,400,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $2,037,500.

Other highlights of this auction include Lot 528, a pleasant oil of a woman with an umbrella by Matisse that was painted in Nice in 1920 and has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000, which was passed at $2,800,000; Lot 539, a quite lyrical and large oil by Fernand Léger (1881-1955) (see The City Review article on the artist), which has a conservative estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and which sold for $1,047,500; and lot 554, a very vibrant and colorful large oil by Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) that has a conservative estimate of $350,000 to $450,000, but which was passed at $260,000.

The New York Times reported that Barney A. Ebsworth, the St. Louis collector, was the buyer of an early, small and fine Robert Rauschenberg at the auction for $1.3 million, way over its estimate of $180,000 to $230,000.

The most unusual item in the auction is Lot 536, a wooden chessboard "signed on paper label" that belonged to Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and has the extremely ambitious high estimate of $800,000. It sold for $497,500. It is, of course, a masterpiece compared to Lot 552, a huge canvas covered fully in black paint executed in 1954 by Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). The Reinhardt has a high estimate of $500,000. It passed at $190,000.

Only 72 percent of the lots sold. Americans constituted 61 percent of the buyers, and Europeans 37 percent. There were no Asian buyers, although Mr. Burge said that several were underbidders. Seventeen lots sold above their high estimates, 9 sold under their low estimates and 12 fell within the estimates, Mr. Burge reported.

The pre-sale estimate for the entire auction ranged from $89 to $111 million and it netted $99,881,500, Mr. Burge, who was in fine form once again, said.

See The City Review article on the Nov. 8, 1999 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist auction at Christie's

See The City Review article on the morning sale of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art Nov. 9, 1999 at Christie's

See The City Review article on the afternoon sale of Impressionist and Twentieth Century Works on Paper Nov. 9, 1999 at Christie's

See The City Review analysis of Part 1 of the Sotheby's auction May 11, 1999 of Impressionist and Modern Art

See The City Review analysis of Part 2 of the Sotheby's May 12, 1999 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art

See The City Review article on the Christie's May 12, 1999 auction of Impressionist Art and 19th Century Art

See The City Review of the Christie's May 13, 1999 auction of 20th Century and Modern Art

Recap of the Spring 1998 Impressionist and Modern Auctions

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