by Carter B. Horsley
In 1988, Jeff Koons had an exhibition entitled
"Banality," at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. The
highlight of the show was his "Pink Panther," shown
Banality, of course, is the hallmark of much
of the art world over the past decade or so as conceptual theory
has made a mockery of most traditional notions of art involving
composition, style, originality and perhaps even beauty.
"Pink Panther," however, is a great
and legitimate icon, on a par with the previous generations
Warhols Campbell soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles.
While much of recent contemporary art has focused
on the prosaic, the dull, the ugly and the obscene, or at least
prurient, "Pink Panther" is a magnificently executed
work of great irony. The happy-go-lucky panther that grew to fame
in Peter Sellers movies of the inept Inspector Cloiseau
has achieved success and is wrapping his cute paw around the very
voluptuous torso of a long-haired blonde who seems to be in ecstasy.
The Pink Panther, however, appears forlorn and a little befuddled.
Perhaps he hears Peggy Lee in the background singing "Is
That All There Is
The catalogue describes the woman as "slightly
larger than life" and notes that she is naked from the waist
up and her "pneumatic breasts characterize here as an embodiment
of the standard male fantasy."
Koons is quoted in the catalogue as remarking
that "Pink Panther is about masturbation. I dont
know what she would be doing with the Pink Panther other than
taking it home to masturbate with." The catalogue goes on
to note that "Pornography, like art, is designed for contemplation,"
which is an acceptable notion, "and is intended to alter
the emotions of, and inspire action by, the viewer," which
is debatable, or perhaps forced.
In any event, this 41-inch-high porcelain statue,
numbered three from an edition of three and one artists
proof is a marvelous spoof and indictment of artificiality. It
has a conservative high estimate of $800,000. It is much more
than mere kitsch for it is just too well done: the glaze of the
womans scant dress is fabulously elegant and when combined
with the finely tactile treatment of the dolls "fur"
out-dazzle the well-done "softness" of the womens
much-exposed "skin" and her stylized large mop of hair.
She is not as desirable as her plaything and her clothes. Her
Jayne Mansfield/Marilyn Monroe/Cicciolina persona suffers in comparison
and in her stardom. With her right hand, she demurely covers one
breast while the panther seems at a loss as to where to put his
paws. The garish colors are the bloom of adolescence and the entrance
into the agonies of adulthood and freedom.
In Blake Edwards movies, the Pink Panther
merely romped through the credits as the epitome of a cool/hat/hep
cat of the swinging 60s, and was never a fully developed cartoon
character and his fame rested more on Sellers lunacy and
the bouncy theme music.
The Pink Panther never had the feistiness and
personality of Tweety, or the flusteredness of Donald Duck, and
the like. From the start, he was a one-purr kitty, never likely
to be named Person of the Year by Time Magazine, but he was not
banal, indeed not even cuddly, merely sexist and absurd, qualities
little appreciated at the political correct end of the century.
While this sculpture may not be a Botticelliesque
"Birth of Venus," it does say a lot about the inflated
hype of the ephemeral aesthetic of American culture and it works
very well as a sculpture because a view from only one side would
It has a conservative high estimate of $800,000.
It sold for $1,817,500, including the buyer's premium as do
all sales prices in this article. The packed room, shown below,
burst into applause at the result. The cover illustration of the
catalogue, it was the highlight of the auction, easily exceeding
Koons' previous auction record of $409,500.
The auction was extremely successful setting
auction records for 18 artists and nicely exceeding its pre-sale
high estimate of $12.9 million.
Another work by Koons is Lot 51, "Winter
Bears," which is cute but kitsch and has an ambitious high
estimate of $600,000. It sold for $486,500.
References to the Renaissance are not inappropriate
at this auction as Lot 7 is an arresting cast silicon bronze and
forged steel sculpture by Kiki Smith (b. 1954) of a naked and
very hairy Mary Magdalene that has a rather clear precedent of
Donatellos wooden "Penitent Magdalene" that was
encrusted with mud during the 1966 flood in Florence where it
was removed to the third floor of the Palazzo Davanzatti for extensive
restoration. Less powerful and not as gaunt as Donatellos
figure, Smiths 60-inch-high statue has a very interesting
and evocative pose with her head bent back and her arms at her
side as she strides forward with a chain around her right foot.
Smith is one of the most controversial young artists and the current
exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "The American
Century, Part 2," features a sculpture by her of a naked
woman crawling with a very, very long excrement. The catalogue
notes that the artist, the daughter of sculpture Tony Smith, has
said that "our bodies are basically stolen from us, and my
work is about trying to reclaim ones own turf, or one's
own vehicle of being here, to own it and to use it to look at
how we are here." Has the woman here broken free of her shackles?
Or is she still in torment? It is hard to tell from her pose,
though she certainly does not seem to be in ecstasy.
This lot has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.
It sold for $178,500.
Another work by Smith, Lot 53, is very different.
Entitled "Untitled (Cane)," it consists of 41 red and
clear glass pieces of varying lengths, all of which look somewhat
like broken pieces of cane candy, but are very, very elegant because
they have clear glass instead of white glass stripes and the red
colors are not stripes. They were created in 1994 and the lot
has a somewhat ambitious estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It
sold for $43,700.
Smith is certainly not the only controversial
artist in this auction. Andres Serrano (b. 1950) is best known
for his quite beautiful and infamous "Piss Christ" photograph
of 1987, which is also in the Whitney exhibition (and not the
more infamous "Sensations" show at the Brooklyn Museum
of Art). Lot 6 is his impressive triptych, "Red Pope I-III,"
three 40 by 27 ½-inch Cibachrome prints all mounted on
Plexiglas. The work was executed in 1990 and this is number three
from an edition of ten. It has a conservative high estimate of
$30,000. It sold for $70,700, surpassing the artist's previous
auction record of $43,700. In this work, the catalogue notes
that a plastic statue of the Pope has been submerged in blood,"
adding that "the traditional pure white robes here become
stained, suggesting the Churchs culpability for the death
of innocents over the centuries." "In the shadow of
the AIDS crisis, blood has come to be perceived as especially
dangerous. Blood has come to symbolize death and defilement while
it symbolized redemption," it continued. While
Serranos work is unquestionably polemic and not inoffensive
to many, his images do have a beauty apart from his intended image
and indeed are mild compared to more blatant works on display
both in the auction houses and galleries including some photographs
by Cindy Sherman of large dolls with genitalia in provocative
Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) has several lots in
the auction but is best featured in a large portrait of her by
Chuck Close (b. 1940), Lot 10, "Cindy II," a 72 by 60-inch
oil on canvas, executed in 1988, that has an ambitious high estimate
of $800,000. It sold for $1,212,500. Close's previous auction
record was only $431,500. The painting uses a radial pattern
similar to that easily achieved now in computer programs such
as Photoshop. The major lot by Sherman in the auction is Lot 47,
"Untitled #225," a color coupler print mounted on foamcore,
48 by 33 inches, that depicts Sherman as a demure, not particularly
beautiful, Botticelliesque woman bearing a breast spurting milk."
It has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It is number three
of an edition of six. It sold for $167,500.
Lot 14, "Spiritual America," is a
color coupler print, 24 by 20 inches, by Richard Prince, executed
in 1983 that includes a "re-photographed picture of Brooke
Shields nude as a child." When it was exhibited in a temporary
gallery on the Lower East Side called "Spiritual America,"
the "public uproar was substantial," the catalogue noted,
"not only due to the illicit subject matter but also because
Prince chose to exhibit the photograph while Shields mother-manager
Terri and the original photographer (Garry Gross) were in court
over the pictures ownership rights. This lot is number ten
from an edition of ten and has a high estimate of $40,000.
It sold for $151,000, greatly eclipsing the artist's previous
auction record of $28,750.
Damien Hirst (b. 1965) has several lots, of
which Lot 55, "With Dead Head," is particularly striking/gruesome/fascinating/repugnant.
It shows the young artist smiling with his head next to the apparently
decapitated head of an older and much larger man. The 22 ½-by-30-inch
black and white photograph on aluminum is from an edition of 15
and has a high estimate of $35,000. It sold for $74,000. There
were four other Hirsts in the auction and all sold and one, Lot
59, set a new auction rcord of $354,500 for the artist.
Not all the works are controversial.
Lot 26, "Untitled IV (Prada 1),"
is a 55-by-87.34-inch Chromogenic color print by Andreas Gursky
(b. 1955). This large photograph of two rows of shoes, arranged
with probably more artistry than Imelda Marcos closet, is
majestic and very elegant. It is number two of an edition of six.
It has an ambitious high estimate of $60,000. It sold for $173,000.
Gursky's previous auction record was $90,500.
Lot 32, "Grab des unbekannten Malers,"
is a 51-by-66 7/8-inch oil and shellac on canvas by Anselm Kiefer
(b. 1945). Quite dramatic and painterly, this 1982 homage to the
"unknown painter" that the catalogue maintains "casts
the concept of genius in an ironic light." It has an estimate
of $350,000 to $450,000. It sold for $320,000.
Lot 37 is a happy bronze sculpture, 64 inches
high, by Joel Shapiro (b. 1941) that has an estimate of $200,000
to $300,000. It sold for $200,500.
One of the more important works in the auction
is Lot 39, "Pier In/Out," by Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978),
This 90-inch-high work is an early "extraction"
by Matta-Clark who sought out abandoned structures and carved
them up. The catalogue notes that the artist studied architecture
at Cornell University but abandoned it and chose "destructuring"
and developed the notion of "anarchitecture" and studied
neglected structures that he described as "non-u-mental."
Matta-Clark was very influential with many avant-garde architects
and artists and the catalogue maintained that such works as this
were meant to "call attention to the ruins of urban society
in the name of modernization and capitalism," choosing to
"present rather than preserve" the non-u-mentals. The
lot, which was completed in 1973, has an estimate of $300,000
to $400,000. It was passed at $240,000, one of only four lots
that went unsold in this exceeding strong auction that had 60
Auction records were also set for Thomas
Struth, Luc Tuymans, Jac Leirner, Gertrudis Goldschmidt-Gego,
Maina Abramovic, Rosemarie Trockel, Martin Kippenberger, Carl
Andre, Mike Kelly, and Peter Halley.
While the Pink Panther was obviously the
star lot, the surprise lot was Kippenberger's lage painting that
had been estimate at $40,000 to $60,000 and sold for $717,500,
His previous auction record was only $19,090. At one point, auctioneer
Christoper Burge turned to one of the auction house staff manning
the phones and said "Surprise me," suggesting that the
bidding had finally stopped at the $560,000 level. A few seconds
later, the staffer raised his hand upping the bid to $570,000.
"You surprised me," laughed Burge and the auction room
Burge, who is also Christie's North America
chairman, said after the sale that the auction had included for
the first time some contemporary Latin American artists as an
experiment and they did well. Contemporary art is very international
now and future such auctions may well include artists from other
regions, he said. In response to a question from Carol Vogel of
The New York Times that suggested that the auction house's
estimates were quite low, Mr. Burge responded that many of the
artists have had little or no auction price history and that estimates
were higher and based largely on gallery pricing.
Bidding was very lively and Burge estimated
that about the successful bidders were split about evenly between
Americans and Europeans with a very small percentage of successful
Asian bidders. About half of the successful bids came from within
the room, a very healthy percentage given the fantastic increase
in recent years in telephone bidding. In response to a question
after the auction, Burge and his staff estimated that perhaps
a third of the telephone bidding came from people on the Christie's
Burge said that the buyers of the top four
lots were anonymous, adding that the sale was "triumphant,"
a not unreasonable statement. "It really was a breeze for
me and I was falling out of the box on several occasions,"