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Twentieth Century Art


7PM, Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Sale: 9356

"Black Pouring Over Color" by Jackson Pollock

Lot 540, "Black Pouring Over Color," by Jackson Pollock, oil on canvas laid down on panel, 20 by 24 inches, circa 1952

By Carter B. Horsley

With some bravura, Christie’s has proclaimed Lot 520 in this auction, "Nature morte aux tulipes," a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso that depicts his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, as "the lot of the season."

It is also introducing this spring live "web-casts" of important auctions. The first took place with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art auction at 7 PM, Monday, May 8. This auction is the second such planned "web-cast" and another will be held for the Contemporary Art auction, 7 PM, May 16.

Its major rival, Sotheby’s this winter introduced its own on-line auction website that has been heavily promoted, but Christie’s has not followed suit as yet with such a venture. The announcement of its "web-casts" also noted that its website,, will feature a tour of major selections from this spring’s sales by Michael Findlay, its international director of fine art, as well as an interview with Jeff Koons, the artist who has several works coming up at Christie’s in its Contemporary Art auction.

While the Picasso painting, one of nine of his works in the auction, is the cover illustration for the catalogue and the only one to have an "estimate on request," there are many other good works in this auction including a very strong, bright and loose Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), two excellent works by Franz Kline (1910-1962), a fine portrait by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), a very handsome still live by Georges Braque (1882-1963) still life, a very good Rene Magritte (1898-1967), a good Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) and important sculptures by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Jean Arp (1887-1966). The quality of the offerings in general is very high.

The Pollock, Lot 540, shown above, is particularly vibrant and a stunning example of fluid style freed from an oversaturation and overindulgence that characterize many of his famous, larger "drip" paintings. Entitled "Black Pouring Over Color," it is an oil on canvas laid down on panel, 20 by 24 inches, and painted circa 1952. It illustrated the cover of the catalogue for the 1989 Pollock exhibition at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London and the unsigned work that comes from the collection of Lee Krasner Pollock has a very conservative estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $666,000 including the buyer's premium as do all sales results in this article.

"Although this work comes late in Pollock’s short and turbulent life, in its zestful modulation of color and bold rhythms, it retains all the immediacy and vigor of his greatest ‘poured’ paintings from the 1940s. Though the black line appears to spring directly from the artist’s subconscious, it is in fact highly choreographed; a perfectly balanced arrangement that spreads out geometrically - like dark blossom - to all four corners of the composition. Equally, the celestial background that suggests a new dawn breaking is a carefully poised construct, with its constituent parts diametrically counterposed along the horizontal band of yellow and red pigment that forms the axis at the center…," the catalogue, which noted the artist’s admiration of Joan Miro, Eastern calligraphy and European Surrealism, observed.

This is unquestionably one of his masterpieces for the black line dances with wonderful energy delineating perhaps two figures in a cosmic environment of luscious color. The line has momentary hesitations but also great dimensionality and direction. Particularly interesting are four groups of much thinner lines that perhaps are meant to serve as footnotes or afterthoughts. In any event, they are details that lend a specificity to this quite grand vision that abounds in liveliness. (See The City Review article on the Pollock exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1999.)

If the Pollock is the auction’s biggest surprise, two large works by Franz Kline, Lots 543 and 543, are the most stunning. Too often overshadowed in recent years in the marketplace by Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg, Kline has a painterly power that is always bold and provocative and very dynamic. These are marvelous examples.

Untitled by Franz Kline

Lot 533, untitled, by Franz Kline, oil on canvas, 52 by 91 inches, 1958

Lot 533, shown above, is an untitled oil on canvas, 52 by 91 inches, that was painted in 1958 and has an estimate of $2,200,000 to $3,200,000. It was passed at $1,600,000. It is a very fine and powerful Kline. The catalogue appropriately includes the following quotation from John Gordon’s 1968 book, "Franz Kline 1910-1962:

"Bold, sooty, black brushstrokes traverse the large white canvases of Franz Kline like steel girders silhouetted against the New York sky. They are among the strongest and most important statements made by an artist during the exciting decade of the 1950s. So insistent is their image that the immediate impact is one of almost brutal spontaneous power. Later on the realization grows that careful structure and loving handling of the paint are paramount elements in their development. Enormous size, sheer inventiveness, paint and the appearance of paint being applied rapidly, almost violently, are important characteristics which contribute to the extraordinary force of these paintings."

In dramatic contrast, Lot 543 is a rather violent abstraction in orange, red, yellow and white by Kline. Also untitled, it is on oil on canvas, 87 ¼ by 67 ¾ inches, circa 1961. While Kline had worked in color early in his career, he is best known for the black and white abstractions of the 1950s as evidenced by Lot 533. In 1956, however, he once again began to experiment with color. "In the present work," the catalogue maintained, "the brushwork and compositional elements of Kline’s earlier years are still evident. Echoing the shape of the canvas, the central rectangle creates the deliberate tension and dynamic equilibrium present in Kline’s most successful compositions. The bold brushwork and spectacular use of color point to a new direction in Kline’s art, while tragically he was to pass away at this moment of change." The lot has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $424,000.

"Portrait de femme au corsage bleu" by Amedeo Modigliani

Lot 510, "Portrait de femme au corsage bleu," by Amedeo Modigliani, oil on canvas, 24 by 18 1/8 inches, circa 1916

The Modigliani, Lot 510, "Portrait de femme au corsage bleu," shown above, is a modest but excellent example of this artist’s style and mournful and caring eye. An oil on canvas, 24 by 18 1/8 inches, it was painted circa 1916 and has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,426,000. This is one of the nicest Modiglianis to appear on the market in recent years. It has a sympathetic softness and tenderness that is not always evident in some of his work that often appears a bit too detached and studied. The painting was once owned by Paul Guillaume, who was, the catalogue noted, "the most significant collector and dealer of Modern and African art in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century, representing artists including André Derain, Francis Picabia and Giorgio de Chirico." Guilliaume rented a studio for Modigliani and would also become the agent for the American collector Dr. Albert Barnes.

Braque’s still lifes are among the greatest of the 20th Century and Lot 511, "Nature morte au pichet," a 19 ¼-by-28 ¾-inch oil on canvas, painted in 1932, is a superb example. It combines what the catalogue describes as "the quasi-naturalistic sense of space and light found in Analytic Cubism and the muted color harmonies and planar qualities of Synthetic Cubism, thus producing a set of complex processes by which contrasts of texture could be rendered - a series of decisions John Russell has called Braque’s ‘distributed sensuality.’" Here composition rhythm and construction are dynamically juggled with a warm, but strong palette of black, brown, red, gray, and green. The work has a conservative estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $996,000.

Another Cubist still life is Lot 502, "La casserole," by Juan Gris (1887-1927), oil on canvas, 25 ½ by 32 inches, painted in October, 1919. While less colorful than the Braque, this is a confident, good Gris "transcends naturalism in favor of the poetic," according to the catalogue. It has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $1,326,000.

Lot 527 is a very good still life by Rene Magritte, entitled "Le bon sens," an oil on canvas, 18 5/8 by 30 ¾ inches, painted in 1945. The title means "Common Sense" and the catalogue suggests that it is meant to lampoon still lifes by Paul Cezanne. The artist altered the work in the 1950s, reducing its height by about five inches and its length by about an inch and reworking its background that had originally been painted in an impressionist style. This work is considerably more precise than many Magrittes. The painting shows a large frame living atop a table with some apples lying on a white canvas within the frame and a bowl of pears placed also atop the canvas. The work has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $534,000.

A somewhat less austere still life is Lot 538, "Round Table," an oil on canvas, 69 7/8 by 63 ½ inches, painted in 1962 by Richard Diebenkorn. The work, which has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000, is interesting because it shows a smoker’s hand with lit cigarette dumping ashes in an ash tray at the side of a pile of papers on a large round table. (See The City Review article on a Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.) It sold for $1,271,000.

Another still life is Lot 525, a bright work by Fernand Léger (1881-1955). The 25 5/8-by-35 7/8-inch oil on canvas was painted in 1948 and has a somewhat ambitious estimate of $450,000 to $650,000. It sold for $501,000. A better Léger is Lot 514, "La femme au triangle," an oil on canvas, 36 ¼ by 25 ½ inches, painted in 1930, that has one of his loveliest female figures against a gray and black background amid a flurry of geometic shapes. It has a conservative estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $886,000. (See The City Review article on a major Léger exhibition at the Museum Modern Art in 1998.)

Lot 523 is a simple but very dramatic still life by Pablo Picasso (1881-1983), entitled "Cafetière et tasse," an oil on canvas, 24 by 15 1/8 inches, painted April 3, 1944. The catalogue noted that the artist executed 10 still life paintings with a cafetière in a seven day period then. The work shows a cup and saucer, a coffeepot and an unlit candle and is drawn in a limited palette of black, white, gray, green and yellow. It has a fine sense of monumentality and élan about it that is marred somewhat by the brushwork of the table’s top which is a bit sloppy. The work has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It was passed at $400,000.

"Nature morte aux tulipes" by Pablo Picasso

Lot 520, "Nature more aux tulipes," by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, 51 1/8 by 38 3/4 inches, 1932

The auction’s major Picasso, "Nature morte aux tulipes," shown above, a 51 1/8-by-38 ¼-inch oil on canvas that was executed March 2, 1932, is the cover illustration of the catalogue and one of the auction house’s press releases for this sale describes it as the "lot of the season" and notes that "other illustrious Picasso canvases" from 1932, "a year of rapturous masterpieces," have recently fetched high prices. "La Reve," for example, was sold for $48,402,500 at Christie’s Nov. 10, 1997 and "Nu au fauteuil noir" sold for $45,102,500 at Christie’s Nov. 9, 1999. The auction house had estimated this lot might fetch about $25 million and it sold for $28,606,000.

While it is nominally a still life with tulips, more importantly it is a portrait of the artist’s mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and hung in the the first major retrospective of the artist at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. The exhibition was curated by the artist and was the first time his portraits of his mistress were publicly shown. His wife, Olga Kohklove accompanied him to the opening and, the catalogue notes, "after viewing numerous ecstatic portraits of the same blond woman, Olga quickly realized that her husband was having an affair and confronted him" and soon left him.

While the basket containing the flowers is rather crudely executed, some elements of the painting are very strong such as the woman’s head, the play of shadows on her face, "a fillet of laurel leaves in the ancient Hellenistic style" around her head, and what appear to be fruits on the table and a rich deep blue tablecloth. "However," the catalogue observes, "careful examination of the painting reveals the black armchair that Marie-Thérèse is so frequently seated upon. Her legs are swathed in a blue cloth and draped over the side of a chair. A basket of tulips rests in her lap and illuminates her figure. A white sculptural pedestal becomes her upper body, and two rotund forms emerge as her breasts."

"Radiating Pablo Picasso’s signature dexterity and deft certainty," the painting, Christie’s press release continued, "is an emblem of a particularly beautiful period in both the artist’s life and his artwork as well as a sign of the direction his art was soon to take."

"Torse des Pyrénées" by Jean Arp

Lot 518, "Torse des Pyrénées," by Jean (Hans) Arp, marble, 41 inches high, 1959

A very fine marble statue by Jean (Hans) Arp (1887-1966), Lot 518, "Torse des Pyrénées," shown above, was made by the artist two years after he had made a bronze cast, in an edition of three, of the composition. This 41-inch-high version is larger. The catalogue provides the following apt quotation from E. Trier's 1968 book, "Jean Arp Sculpture, His Last Ten Years": "Arp's figures are always torsos. The language of his form demands this - it knows no extremities. A display of subtlety, gesticulating forms that express some ingenious idea would certainly have been anathema to him. Arp knows only the torso, but not as a fragment of something originally whole. The torso becomes an independent complete form." The sculpture has an modest estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $776,000.

Lot 529 is a wonderful large bronze statue entitled "Gala à Newton" by Salvador Dalí. The 152 3/8-inch high statue was cast in 1985 and another cast is erected in the Plaza Dalí in Madrid and another in the Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres, Spain. The sculpture, which has a modest estimate of $250,000 to $300,000, is based on the artist's painting, "Phosphène de Laporte" that was executed in 1932. It sold for $776,000.

A fine Dalí painting from the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Collection is being offered as Lot 508. Entitled "Galatée," the 39 5/8-by-39 1/4-inch oil on canbas was painted in 1954-6 and has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,326,000.

Another Surrealist, Max Ernst (1891-1976) is well represented by Lot 509, "Paysage avec lac et chimères." This 20-by-26-inch oil on canvas has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000 and has a very impressive provenance that includes Peggy Guggenheim, Eugene V. Thaw, Leonard C. Yaseen and Gerrit Lansing. It was painted circa 1940. The catalogue notes that "there is an overwhelming sense of terror conveyed by the foreboding landscape in which the rocks bear an uncanny resemblance to human bones." "Furthermore, this landscape is populated by chimeras - the fire-breathing she-monster from Greek mythology that has a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail, surrounding a lake, the depth of which can only be guessed at. This is a land from which escape is a futile concept," it continued. It sold for $1,051,000.

Other highlights of the auction include a very fine and colorful watercolor by Paul Klee (1879-1940), Lot 504, that has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and sold for $666,000.

Major disappointments at the sale included Lot 539, "Liz," a large portrait of Elizabeth Taylor that occupied one half of a 80-by-40-inch surface. It had an estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,000,000 and was passed at $1,200,000; and Lot 537, "Figure 3," a sculptmetal and collage on canvas by Jasper Johns executed in 1961, 26 by 20 inches, that had an estimate of $2,800,000 to $3,500,000 and was passed at $2,000,000.

Another lot that was passed wasLot 519, on "Odalisque" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), which had an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. The 15-by-18 1/4-inch oil on canvas was passed at $600,000.

Matisse, however, has not fallen out of favor as Lot 517, a luscious charcoal on paper, 18 7/8 by 26 1/2 inches, of a reclining nude, sold for $2,701,000, more than double the artist's previous drawing auction record and far in excess of its high estimate of $1,500,000.

Christopher Burge

Christopher Burge, the auctioneer

The sale total was almost $73 million. The pre-sale low estimate for the sale was about $64 million and the high estimate was about $84 million. Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, said that 81 percent of the lots sold with active bidding both in the room and on the phones. He said that 15 lots sold above the high estimate, 40 sold within the estimates and five below the estimates. Burge described the market as "strong, not a crazy market, looking for quality, a point we've been stressing for eight years." "It's not a speculative market," he said.

While not a roaring success, the sale demonstrated that the market has not collapsed, although the failure of the Warhol "Liz" and the Johns lot might indicate that more modern and contemporary works might be more susceptible to the vagaries of the general economy.

See The City Review article on the Twentieth Century Works of Art on Paper auction May 10, 2000 at Christie's

See The City Review article on the Christie's evening sale of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art May 8, 2000

See The City Review article on the Christie's evening sale of Twentieth Century Art May 9, 2000

See The City Review article on the Sotheby's evening auction May 10, 2000 of Impressionist & Modern Art

See The City Review article on the May 11, 2000 auction at Sotheby's of Impressionist & Modern Art, Part 2

See The City Review article on the May 11 & 12, 2000 auctions at Phillips of Impressionist & Modern Art

See The City Review article on the Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Auction, Part I, Nov. 11, 1999

See The City Review article on Part Two of the Sotheby's auction November 11, 1999 of Impressionist & Modern Art

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 8, 1999 evening sale of Impressionist & Post Impressionist Art

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

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

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 9, 1999 evening auction of Twentieth Century Art

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 10, 1999 day auction of Twentieth Century Art

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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