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
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).
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,
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
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.
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.