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,"
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.