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Contemporary Art, Part 1


7 PM, November 17, 1999

"Ode on a Urinal"

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp


Lot 19, "Fountain," by Marcel Duchamp, 1964, one of an edition of 8 that recreated the artist's famous 1917 work, glazed cast ceramic with black paint, 14 by 19 5/16 by 24 5/8 inches


By Carter B. Horsley

Most auctions are a mixed bag with some gems, some gloss and some proverbial, albeit perhaps impressively attributed, trash.

The Nov. 17, 1999 Contemporary Art auction at Sotheby's is an exception for it is chock full of very fine works.

Its catalogue is one of the most lavish ever, and, indeed, is an excellent textbook about conceptual art. (It even includes a full page picture of the members of the auction house's Contemporary Art department in part of the new and impressive expanded quarters on York Avenue at 72nd Street, part of an apparently new and not unreasonable marketing ploy to make its experts more visible.)

Over the last season or two, the major auction houses have begun to re-categorize some of their departments and this practice will no doubt be further confused a bit by the inclusion of Lot 19, "Fountain," shown above, the famous urinal by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). In a preface to the catalogue, Tobias Meyer and Laura Paulson, both members of the Contemporary Art department, remarked that "As this is the last sale of this century, we want to emphasize the extraordinary importance of Marcel Duchamp by showing "Fountain," on the cover of our catalogue." "'Fountain' remains as provocative as it was in 1917; it stands alone as a timeless icon for artists in both the beginning and the end of this century," it continued.

The lot, however, falls quite legitimately into the Contemporary Art category as it is not the original 1917 work, which has been "lost," but one of an edition of 8 produced by the artist in 1964.

The catalogue provides the following extended and fascinating commentary of this infamous icon of 20th Century on this lot by Frances M. Naumann:

"A readymade is defined as a commonplace prefabricated object which - with or without alteration - is isolated from its functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist's selection. Duchamp, who introduced the concept in 1915, appropriated the term from its use in the clothing industry (readymade garments were those that could be puchased off the rack, as opposed to those that were custom made). His first readymade, The Bicycle Wheel (1913), consisted of nothing more than the rim of a bicycle wheel mounted on to the seat of an ordinary kitchen stool. This was followed a year later by his Bottle Rack (1914), a metal stand with projecting prongs commonly used in France for the drying of wine bottles.

"Whereas these items generally went unnoticed in Duchamp's studio (indeed, at first, by all accounts, he dismissed their significance as works of art), his most controversial readymade, Fountain (1917) - a simple white porcelain urinal - seems to have been selected with the intention of provoking a great deal of public attention. Duchamp purchased the prized artifact from a plumbing supply store in Manhattan (the J. L. Mott Iron Works Company..., signed it with a false name ('R. Mutt,' clearing punning on the famous cartoon characters, Mutt & Jeff) and, in an effort to further protect his identity, asked a female friend of his (probably Louise Norton, then married to the vanguard poet Allan Norton) to submit it for display in the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists (a newly established organization that was devoted to the open and free display of art). Years later, Duchamp explained that he did not sign the sculpture with his own name because, to some, it might appear to be a conflict of interest, for he was one of the founding members of the independents and, at the time of the exhibition, served on its board of directors.

"What followed is a story that has been told by several eye-witnesses to the event, but their respective accounts vary significantly in detail, contributing to the shroud of mystery that continues to affect any effort to reconstruct the history of this controversial artifact. It seems that the urinal was never shown, its display refused by an emergency meeting of the society's board of directors. Duchamp immediately tendered his resignation, as did Walter Arensberg, the great collector of modern art who, along with his wife, Louise, were Duchamp's most dedicated and loyal patrons in America. But since the urinal disappeared from sight shortly after the exhibition closed, its subsequent fate is unknown. Apparently, rather than reject the entry outright, the board decided to place the urinal behind a partition, where it remained for a few days until found by one of Duchamp's friends, who bought it to his studio (where it was recorded in at least one photograph, shown hanging from the lintel of a doorway)....We know that a week after the opening, the urinal was available for view at the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, who prepared a photograph of the object on its back, positioned against the surface of a painting by Marsden Hartley depicting soliders climbing a hill....The selection of this particular painting must have seemed appropriate, for not only did the shape of the mountain match the outer profile of the urinal almost exactly, but the theme of combatant soldiers clearly echoed the democratic goals of the Independents (ironically, the Societ of Independent Artists opened its first exhibition just six days after the United States declared war on Germany....Over the years, even though he had abandoned an active artistic life in favor of playing chess, Duchamp became increasingly well known for his past accomplishments in the world of art. The general public remembered him best as painter of the Nude Descending a Staircase, the cause célèbre of the Armory Show in 1913, while more discerning critics and vanguard artists never forgot the controversy that had been generated by the 'rejection' of his urinal from the Independents Exhibition in 1917. Some thirty years later, for example, when the New York art dealer Sidney Janis began to assemble works for an exhibition..., he immediately thought of Duchamp's urinal. Since the original artifact no longer existed, Janis asked Duchamp if he would authorize him to create a replica of Fountain. After having secured the artist's approval, Janis searched through flea markets and junk shops until he discovered a urinal that took on the general appearance of the original, with flanking handles and central drain holes, but it was more streamlined and, some might argue, lacked the more refined features of the original....Janis showed this new version of Fountain in his exhibition, not on a pedestral or in a vitrine, but rather mounted on the wall and exceptionally close to the floor, which, Duchamp later observed, was perfectly positioned for use by 'little boys.'

"In 1963, for an exhibition he was planning at a gallery in Stockholm, the Swedish art critic Ulf Linde requested Duchamp's permission to replicate his most important early readymades....The entire group of readymades were sent from Stockholm to Milan in 1964, whee they were shown in an exhibition at the gallery of Arthuro Schwarz, Duchamp's principle European dealer at the time....It was while attending this show that Duchamp saw all of the Linde replicas for the first time, and he indicated his approval by signing them. He also seized the opportunity to make some minor alterations to the Fountain. Linde had applied the name 'R. Mutt' and the date '1917' with block letters glued to the side of the urinal; Duchamp carefully removed these letters and numbers and replaced them with a hand-painted inscription in black enamel paint, more closely simulating the appearance of the original....It may have been on this occasion...that Duchamp came up with the idea of issuing his most important early readymades in a limited edition, authorizing Schwarz to undertake their production....In every case, a detailed drawing was prepared by a professional drafstman, and before the actual execution of the work began, it was arranged for Duchamp to 'sign off' on the drawing, indicating his approval of the design....

"When the Schwarz edition of the readymades was announced, Duchamp was assailed by critics and fellow artists for having 'sold out,' for having betrayed the revolutionary concept that caused the readymades to come into existence in the first place. But Duchamp was well aware of the fact that the production of this edition was a revolutionary concept in its own right: just as the readymade forced us to alter previous definitions of art, the edition would automatically force us to reconsider our altered definition. If a readymade was an object removed from its functional context and elevated to the status of art, then the Schwarz edition represents an inversion of this process: like traditional sculpture, each readymade is individually hand-crafted ( particularly evident with the urinal, where modulations on its surface reveal traces of the modeling process) and, again, as with traditional sculpture, these objects are painstakingly accurate simulations, visual analogues that represent a supreme achievement in the history of trompe l'oeil illusionism."

The essay concludes by noting that Duchamp anticipated the repercussions of his actions, "not only as they related to his own artistic development, but as they related to larger aesthetic concerns affecting the very nature of art." "It is, of course, in this capacity that Duchamp's legacy lives on, through the work of young artists today who are also devoted to investigating the conceptual strategies inherent in replication and appropriation, increasingly recurrent themes in contemporary art that - like so many others - Duchamp ingeniously pioneered," it concluded.

If Duchamp is not the "Big Daddy" of conceptual aesthetics, which The City Review is tempted to distinguish from, or at least not always equate with, art per se, he is certainly its heroic mentor. The Naumann essay makes good use of the word "artifact" and that is particularly appropriate to many of the objects that are promoted in the marketplace as contemporary conceptual art. Conceptual art, of course, can convey very powerful and interesting statements about the world and humanity's place in it and art's place in it, but its examples in and of themselves are often not really art but argumentative devices to illustrate an intellectual position.

In any event, the replicated Duchamp urinal, which is the cover illustration of the auction catalogue, is more geniunely "art" than the original. It has a high and probably conservative estimate of $1,500,000. It sold to Dimitri Daskalopolos of Athens, Greece, for $1,762,500, including the buyer's premium as do all sales prices mentioned in this article, greatly exceeding the artist's previous auction record of $607,500. The whereabouts of one of the edition of 8 urinals is unknown. The other six are in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Art Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Toyoma and Kyoto Museums in Japan, the Foundation Dina Vierny in Paris and the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington. In addition, two "artist's proofs" are known, one owned by Arturo Schwarz and one in the Musée d'art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

The illustration of the catalogue's back cover is Lot 4, "Drain," by Robert Gober (b. 1954), a cast pewter object, 4 1/4 inches in diameter and 3 inches deep, of a sink drain that is dated 1988 and is one of an edition of 8. The object is handmade by the artist and not an industrial "readymade." It has an ambitious high estimate of $200,000. It sold for $167,500.

"Cold Mountain Addendum" by Brice Marden

Lot 16, "Cold Mountain Addendum," by Brice Marden,

ink and gouache on Archs Satine paper, 25 7/8 by 34 3/8 inches, dated 91-2

Lot 16, "Cold Mountain Addendum," by Brice Marden (b. 1938), shown above, is a pleasant ink and gouache on Archs Satine paper, 25 7/8 by 34 3/8 inches, dated 91-2. This could well be titled "Eat Your Heart Out, Pollock!" for its calligraphic vibrancy is quite strong. The catalogue has a photograph of the artist in his studio using a long stick to apply his brushwork on such works as this from a distance of several feet. This work has a high estimate of $200,000. It sold for $629,500!

One of the auction's major items is Lot 24, entitled "No. 15, shown below, a good, large 1952 oil on canvas, 91 1/2 by 79 inches, by Mark Rothko (1903-1970).

"No. 15" by Mark Rothko

Lot 24, "No. 15," by Mark Rothko, oil on canvas,

91 1/2 by 79 inches, 1952

This is a strong example of Rothko's work and his emphasis on the potential "intimacy" of large paintings. The painterliness and the composition are especially good in this work that has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $11,002,500, an auction record for Rothko.

As lush and luminous as the Rothko work is, it is placid compared to a great painting by Franz Kline (1910-1962), Lot 27, "Abstraction Nov. 1," a 37 1/4-by-24 5/8-inch oil on canvas executed in 1951. The catalogue notes of the work, shown below, that "The passages of dripping paint, which run counter to the painting's vertical format, embolden the architectonic composition, creating the dynamic tension of opposites that is the hallmark of Kline's abstractions." The "drips" do add a quixotic complexity to the work, but it the composition is already remarkably strong and the painting's almost fleeting glimpse of color other than white and black is actually more exciting. Kline is consistent and consistently undervalued and the high estimate here is only $300,000, an absolute bargain compared to the rather gargantuan Rothko, at least for people who live in apartments. It sold for $310,500.

"Abstraction No. 1" by Franz Kline

Lot 27, "Abstraction No. 1," by Franz Kline,

a 37 1/4 by 24 5/8 inch oil on canvas executed in 1951

Among other now classic modern masters in this auction is Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), whose "Untitled XXIV" is Lot 31. This 70-by-80-inch oil on canvas, shown below, was painted in 1983 and compares very favorably with many of the works included in the de Kooning exhibition in 1998 at the Museum of Modern Art (see The City Review article). It is balletic and lyrical and has a high estimate of only $700,000. It sold for $574,500.

"Untitled XXIV" by Willem de Kooning

Lot 31, "Untitled XXIV," by Willem de Kooning,

oil on canvas, 70 by 80 inches, 1983

One of the knockouts in this auction is Lot 59, "Baptismal," by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), shown below, an acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas, 96 by 96 1/8 inches, dated 1982.


Lot 59, "Baptismal," by Jean-Michel Basquiat, acrylic,

oilstick and paper collage on canvas, 96 by 96 1/8 inches, dated 1982

In this superb Basquiat, which has a conservative high estimate of $900,000, the skeletal figure with a halo at the left rises above a supplicant being baptized. It sold for $1,432,500.

"In this Christian iconography, the erect figure is remote and ceremonial, while the more animated figure appears to be a self-portrait," adding that "apparently in the process of being annointed as a member of the art world elite, this self-referential figure raises his arms with hands open upwards. As it dominates the canvas, this gesture can be interpreted as both celebratory and questioning, indicative of Basquiat who, even in the moment of success, searches for answers about his art and his life," the catalogue states.

Lot 48, "Inverted Q A.P. I/II," is a marvelous six-foot-high sculpture in cast resin painted with glossy black urethane enamel by Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) that is very beautiful and impressive and has a conservative high estimate of $300,000. A sensual, upside-down explosion of the notion/character of "Q," this is a bowler's fantasy and as spectacular as many works by Isamu Noguchi, who is not represented in this auction. It sold for $332,500.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) has numerous works coming up for auction this season and this auction has three of his large animal paintings of the early 1980's, the best of which is Lot 67, "Orangutan," shown below, a 60-inch-square synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas. These are some of Warhol's best work and this has a conservative high estimate of $300,000. It was passed at $170,000, one of only five lots in the 68-lot auction that failed to sell.

"Orangutan" by Andy Warhol

Lot 67, "Orangutan," by Andy Warhol, 60 inches square

Other highlights of this auction include Lot 20, "Duridium," a 26-by-36 inch magna on canvas, dated 1964, by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), estimated at $600,000 to $800,000, which sold for $607,500; Lot 21, "Ileana Sonnabend," a 1963 metallic paint on canvas, 77 3/4-by-128-inch work by Frank Stella (b. 1936) that has a high estimate of $600,000, and which sold for $684,500; Lot 29, " Evening in the Studio," a monumental painting that out-Rubens Rubens by Lucian Freud and has an ambitious high estimate of $3,500,000, and which sold for only $2,422,500; Lot 30, "Lying Figure," a large, interesting composition by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) that has an ambitious high estimate of $2,500,000 and is starker than his more painterly small works, and which was passed at $1,600,000; Lot 35, "Bedouin (Personage Gris et Rougeatre)," a great Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) painting that is conservatively estimated at $700,000 to $900,000 and which sold for $992,500; and Lot 46, "Aux Bons Principes," a more colorful but not as strong Dubuffet that has an ambitious high estimate of $3,000,000, and which sold for $2,202,500; and Lot 63, an untitled, large painting by Sigmar Polke (b. 1941) that has a mysterious, luminous and mystical sense of a great mountainscape by the Sung Dynasty masters of China and has a conservative high estimate of $300,000, and which was passed at $150,000.

Auctions records were set for 12 artists, as compared to 18 the night before at the Contemporary Art auction at Christie's (see The City Review article).

Among the records were $3,907,500, Lot 26, a good large oil by Sam Francis (1923-94); $783,500 for an interesting Eric Fischl (b. 1948) painting, Lot 57; $321,500 for a large, strong and dramatic work by Julian Schnabel (b. 1951), Lot 56; $134,500 for a work by Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945), Lot 12; $277,500 for a work by Christopher Wool (b. 1955), Lot 7; $288,500 for a photo by Charles Ray (b. 1953), Lot 11; $1,762,500 for a work on paper by Jasper Johns (b. 1930), a rather dark American flag, Lot 17; $90,500 for a work on paper by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), Lot 64; and $3,907,500 for an Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Lot 36, "Brazilian Fish," which almost doubled his previous record.

Overall, the quality of work being offered in this auction is of a very high standard.

Lot 32, a large, sprawling, mostly whitish painting with a few large dabs of impasto by Cy Twomby (b. 1928) for for $4,072,500, almost double its high estimate.

Lot 47, a pleasant "Still Life with Sculpture," by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) sold for $2,752,500, almost four times its high estimate.

In post-sale comments, Diana D. Brooks, the president and CEO of Sotheby's, said the auction house was "delighted" with the results and Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer, said that the auction was "very solid." Ms. Brooks noted that the sale's total of $56 million was way above the pre-sale high estimate of $40 million.

Mr. Meyer conducted the auction with considerable aplomb. On one lot by Damien Hirst, he queried the auction house staff person on a phone with a bidder, "Does he want to bid or not?" On a lot by Charles Ray, he firmly turned down a $215,000 bid when it was out $220,000, and the lot eventually went for more. On the very prolonged bidding on Lot 34, "Brazilian Fish" by Alexander Calder, Mr. Meyer rapped his gavel finally at $3,550,000 just as one of the telephone bidders was about to give yet another raise. "No, sorry," Mr. Meyer said. Clearly Mr. Meyer is getting more comfortable on his podium. At one long pause at $3,350,000 in the bidding on the Calder lot, Mr. Meyer said patiently, "We already have a very happy fish."

Ms. Brooks also made some comments, in answer to no questions, that took the press to task for suggesting that the art market was perhaps faltering, or not exciting. With a somewhat exasperated tone, she argued that the combined sales of Sotheby's and Christie's last week of more of about $400 million was impressive and that the press should take what it writes "seriously." People don't jump and shout and yell when they buy works for $10 million or $48 million, she added, suggesting that some reports that the recent sales might have lacked excitement were misleading.

Perhaps unrelated to her comments, the bar at the press reception after the auction ran out of wine very quickly.

In any event, clearly the evening Contemporary Art auctions of both Sotheby's and Christie's this week were remarkably strong, expecially since many of the works were not truly exceptional. The marketplace appears to be flush with money, even if it is not throwing it about with great abandon. One might quibble that some of the strong prices for relatively "new" artists might seem to indicate that money is being tossed without too much discretion, but, on the other hand, interest appears to be vibrant and that is healthy even if inflated values sometimes seem close to bursting.

See The City Review article on the May 18, 1999 Contemporary Art Auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on Contemporary Art Part 2 auction at Sotheby's May 19, 1999

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 19, 1999 Contemporary Art auction

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 20, 1999 Contemporary Art Part 2 auction


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