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Latin American Art

Sotheby’s

7 PM, May 31 and 10:15 AM, June 1, 2000

Sale 7485

Kahlo Sets Auction Record For Woman Artist

And For Latin American Art

Self-portrait by Frieda Kahlo

Lot 15, "Self-Portrait," by Frieda Kahlo, oil on masonite, 20 ½ by 24 inches, 1929

By Carter B. Horsley

Serious collectors of Modern Art do themselves a serious disservice if they miss the major Latin American Art auctions for in recent years they have offered not only some remarkable individual works but have also demonstrated that numerous Latin American artists have created oeuvres of great and by no means parochial distinction.

While Matta (b. 1911), Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) and Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) are the three giants of modern Latin American Art, there are many other artists truly deserving of higher international stature such as Àngel Zàrraga (1886-1946), Carlos Mérida (1891-1984) Gunther Gerzso (b. 1915), Leonora Carrington (b. 1917), Armando Morales (b. 1927), Fernando Botero (b. 1932), Francesco Toledo (b. 1940), and Claudio Bravo (b. 1946), among others.

In recent years, Frieda Kahlo (b. 1907-1954) has become much more well-known. The wife of Diego Rivera (1886-1957), another great Latin American artist, she has become a rather romantic figure and graces the cover of this auction’s catalogue with her self-portrait, Lot 15. A 20 ½-by-24-inch oil on masonite, shown above, painted in 1929, which has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000, the highest in the auction and an indication of the slow but steady escalation of values in this field, which still offers many collectors wonderful opportunities.

Kahlo painted 66 self-portraits, the first three years before this one while recuperating from a bus accident that left her a partial cripple. "I paint self-portraits, because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best," she is quoted as having said in the catalogue. In this painting, she is wearing a peasant blouse with a necklace of Pre-Columbia jade beads and Colonial earrings. "The emphasis on Mexicaness….is something that came into her work after she became involved with muralist Diego Rivera, who became to court her I 1928 and whom she married in October, 1929," the catalogue noted, adding her "folkloric style….suggests her allegiance to what she called ‘my people,'" and that "As part of their revaluing of their country’s native culture, both she and Rivera emulated the broad simplification of form and color seen in paintings by nineteen century Mexican limners such as José María Estrada." A second airplane in the sky was painted out by Kahlo, "probably because it made the composition too busy," the catalogue stated.

"In the 1929 Self-Portrait we see a half-innocent, half-insolent girl/woman who not long before had taken her paintings to show Rivera, who was at work on his vast mural cycle for Mexico City’s Ministry of Education. She commanded the great maestro to come down from his scaffold and to give his opinion as to whether it was worth her while to go on painting….In the painting, a ferocity of will lies behind her cool but penetrating gaze," wrote Hayden Herrera in the catalogue entry for the work.

The painting was only her second self-portrait and one of the largest.

The Kahlo painting sold for $5,065,750 including the buyer's premium, as do all sales results in this article, and that easily set new auction records for a woman artist, for Latin American Art and for her. The previous auction record for a woman artist was about $4.5 million for a Mary Cassatt. Another Kahlo self-portrait had previously sold for about $3.2 million in a Sotheby's 1995 auction. When August O. Uribe, the auctioneer who was formerly head of the Latin American Department and is now head of paintings for the West Coast, knocked his gavel down on the Kahlo, the more than 800 people attending the auction burst into applause. Isabelle Hutchinson, the current head of the Latin American Department, said after the sale that the Kahlo was bought by an American private collector and that Americans had purchased half of the top ten lots.

Despite the great success of the Kahlo, the sale was rather disappointing with only 47 of the 75 offered lots selling, or just 62.67 percent, a poor showing, especially as most of the lots that did sell sold at the lower end of their estimates, or below. The evening part of the two-day auction realized a total of $11,517,700, or a bit under its pre-sale estimate of about $11.7- to $15-million, Ms. Hutchinson said. Ms. Hutchinson made the quite valid point at the post-sale press conference that the excellent price for the Kahlo will bring a lot more attention to Latin American art. She also remarked that it was a "very interesting, very black-and-white sale: when there was no interest, the lots passed...and some really beautiful pieces ended up not selling."

"Portrait of Mademoisselle Schmidt" by Zàrraga

Very large detail of Lot 32, "Portrait of Mademoisselle Marcelle Schmidt," by Àngel Zàrraga, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 by 31 7/8 inches, 1917

In dramatic contrast with the rather dour Kahlo self-portrait is Lot 32, Àngel Zàrraga’s "Portrait of Mademoiselle Marcelle Schmidt," a 39 3/8-by-31 7/8-inch oil on canvas, dated 1917, is a very joyful and very beautiful work highly influenced by Cubism, Fauvism and Matisse. Professor Paulette Patrout writes in the catalogue entry about the artist’s use of pointillist textures in the background and notes an "abundance of perfect circles and spheres; the head, the shoulders, the discrete jewel, the breast, the pearls, the bright fruit." "In brief, a sumptuous canvas of perfect Cubist technique happily released from the excessive rigors that this ‘discipline’ could now. It announces the appearance of an renewed classicism, enriched by the considerable contributions of Cubism. Closer to this neoclassicism, Àngel Zàrraga would soon be painting another portrait of the same actress, in a more rigid attitude, a barer dress, in the role of a tragic queen. However, in this impressive canvas, she plays no doubt, the elegant young lady of a romantic comedy."

The work is a truly stunning example of the tradition between the Cubism of Picasso, Gris and Braque and Delaunay and the neo-classicism of Léger. The former generally was too severe, too intellectual and too dense. The latter often fell into repetitive stylistic decoration. This vibrant, highly readible work is voluptuous, festive and alive and yet retains enough visual mystery to generate more interest than mere decorative patterning. The work has an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $566,750, an auction record for the artist. Another Zárraga, Lot 3, "La Couture Au Jardin," a very pleasant but far less pyrotechnical, 21 3/4-by-15-inch oil on canvas of a woman sewing in a garden, sold for $81,250, more than double its high estimate.

"The Flying Ur Jar" by Leonora Carrington

Lot 21, "The Flying Ur Jar," by Leonora Carrington, a 25 1/2-by-18 1/4-inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1953

While Kahlo may be the best known Latin American woman artist, Leonora Carrington is the best artistically. The wife for a while of Max Ernst, she painted in a poetic, surreal style that was delicate and whimsical. Lot 21, "The Flying Ur Jar," shown above, a 25 1/2-by-18 1/4-inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1953, is a fine example of her work. It has an estimate of $125,000 to $175,000. It sold for $170,750.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about Carrington and this work by Susan Aberth:

"By 1953 the British-born artist Leonora Carrington was into her eleventh year of living in Mexico. The 1950's would prove to be a decade of enormous artistic development for this fiercely original and visionary artist whose social milieu included many other extraordinarily talented members of the European Surrealist émigré community such as Luis Bunuel, Benjamin Péret, Kati and José Horna, Wolfgang Paalen, and Alice Rahon. In particular, her close friendship and artistic collaboration with Remedios Varo gave fresh impetus to her life-long exploration of esoteric knowledge and hermetic traditions. Carrington's interest in ancient civilizations - Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Minoan - is evident in the fantastic architectonic structures of The Flying Ur Jar whose monumental proportions and arid atmosphere bring to mind such archaeological sites as the Ziggurat of Ur. Ever eschewing any identifiable elements, Carrington synthesizes multiple architectural styles which are then channeled through her own idiosyncratic imagination to produce a vista at once utterly alien and yet hauntingly familiar. It is this perpetual tension between the real and the imagined that lends her work its compelling nature and is an idiom she shares with other Surrealists."

"Hooded Figure" by Leonora Carrington

Lot 105, "Hooded Figure," by Leonora Carrington, gouache, wax crayon, graphite and gold paint on paper laid done on board, 15 1/4 by 11 inches

Lot 105, "Hooded Figure," by Leonora Carrington, gouache, wax crayon, graphite and gold paint on paper laid done on board, 15 1/4 by 11 inches, is another fine, delicate work, shown above. The trapezoidal work was formerly in the collection of the estate of Roland Penrose. It has a conservative estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It did not sell.

"Mujer con Espera" by Remedios Varo

Lot 50, "Mujer con Espera," by Remedios Varo, oil on panel, 13 by 12 1/2 inches, circa 1957

Another great mystic artist is Remedios Varo (1908-1963) who is well presented in the auction by Lot 50, "Mujer con Espera," oil on panel, 13 by 12 1/2 inches, circa 1957. The quite lovely work has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $64,000.

Artists in Exile photo by George Platt Lynes

Photograph of the artists exhibiting in the Artists in Exile show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, March, 1942. Left to right, first row: Matta, Ossip Zadkine, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger; second row: André Breton, Piet Mondrian, André Masson, Amédée Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann, Eugene Berman. Photograph by George Platt Lynes.

The catalogue entry for Lot 9, "The Initiation (Origine d'un Extrême), by Matta, a 29 3/8-by-37 3/8-inch oil on canvas, shown below, includes a remarkable historic photograph, shown above, of the famous artists including him who exhibited in the "Artists in Exile" exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in March, 1940. Matta is shown seated in the first row on the far left.

"The Initiation" by Matta

Lot 9, "The Initiation (Origine d'un Extrême), by Matta, a 29 3/8-by-37 3/8-inch oil on canvas, 1941

Lot 9, "The Initiation (Origine d'un Extrême), by Matta, a 29 3/8-by-37 3/8-inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1941. It has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for only $555,750.

Matta’s works rarely do not astound and this one is particularly awesome, even in an era of fantastic computer graphics, for its mysterious, mystic, supernatural and surreal qualities.

"The contradictory modes of painting employed in The Initiation ...contain the seeds of the style Matta was to use with such brilliance for many years to come, a style which enabled him to break the barriers of the visually perceived world and the tyranny of Euclidian geometry in order to suggest the simultaneous experience of multiple points in time and unlimited spaces," wrote Martica Sawin in the catalogue's entry for this lot. "In the fall of 1939," the entry continued, "shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Matta Echaurren arrived in New York with his American wife, Anne Clark. Two years earlier he had become the youngest member of the Paris-based Surrealist group, many of whose members were also refugees in New York during the war years. Julian Levy, whose gallery had been an American outpost for Surrealism during the 1930s, gave him a dramatically installed show six months after his arrival, and through Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage he soon met a number of younger American artists who were attracted by his charisma as well as his novel approach to painting. When the young English Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford arrived in New York in June, 1940, he and Matta resumed the pursuit of a shared painting philosophy that they had begun to develop in Paris in 1937. Psychological Morphology was the name Matta gave to their visionary approach to making visible what lies beyond the visible. In the spring of 1941, the Swiss-born Surrealist Kurt Seligmann planned a trip to Mexico with his two students, Robert Motherwell and Barbara Reis. When it became impossible for the Seligmanns to make the trip, the Mattas were enlisted to take their place and they all appear spent the summer in Taxco, meeting every day, according to Matta "in a bar across from the cathedral."

Another excellent Matta is Lot 41, "La Femme Affamée," a 36-by-30-inch oil on canvas, shown below, is particularly striking. Painted in 1945, it has an estimate of $200,000 to $250,000. It sold for $324,750.

"La Femme Affamée" by Matta

Lot 41, "La Femme Affamée," by Matta, oil on canvas, 36 by 30 inches, 1945

"First exhibited in March, 1945, at Matta's one man show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York as Hungry Woman, this is, perhaps, one of Matta's most visceral paintings. The colors, broad brush strokes, bands of sound and imagery propel the painting with a primal voice," the catalogue noted.

If Matta is the super visionary of Latin American art, then Rufino Tamayo is its earthy, heated incarnation and Lot 38, "Cabeza en Blanco," a 19 3/4-by-13 7/8-inch oil on canvas, was executed in 1970 and has an estimate of $125,000 to $175,000 and is a good example of his colorful and textural style. It sold for $132,250.

"Cabeza en Blanco" by Tamayo

Lot 38, "Cabeza en Blanco," by Rufino Tamayo, a 19 3/4-by-13 7/8-inch oil on canvas, 1970

Another good Tamayo is Lot 36, "Sleepwalker," a 25 3/4-by-39 5/8-inch oil on canvas. The 1954 work, shown below, has an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $291,750.

"Sleepwalker" by Rufino Tamayo

Another good Tamayo is Lot 36, "Sleepwalker," a 25 3/4-by-39 5/8-inch oil on canvas, 1954

Tamayo was also a fine sculptor and Lot 19, "Mujer," is a typical work, a 851/2-inch high steel sculpture with a unique patina that is number 3 of an edition of 3 and was executed in 1990. It has an estimate of $250,000 to $300,000. It sold for $291,750.

Wilfredo Lam’s work is much more consistent and less surprising than either Matta’s or Tamayo’s, but not much less powerful. Lot

Untitled painting by Wilfredo Lam

Lot 6, untitled, by Wilfredo Lam, gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 35 7/8 by 48 inches, circa 1938

Lot 6, untitled, by Wilfredo Lam, shown above, is a gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 35 7/8 by 48 inches, circa 1938. It has a conservative estimate of $125,000 and $175,000. It sold for $192,750.

Untitled by Lam

Lot 34, untitled, by Wilfredo Lam, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 by 28 3/4 inches, 1963

Lot 34, untitled, by Wilfredo Lam, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 by 28 3/4 inches, 1963, is a fine example of his work and has an estimate of $130,000 to $160,000. It sold for $137,750.

One of the major disappointments of the auction was Lot 12, "Ceux de la porte Battante," a large grisaille painting by Lam, executed in 1945, that had an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000 and was passed at $725,000.

Matta and Lam were great individuals whose intellectuality did not spawn too many imitators, but Tamayo’s influence was in fact much greater in Latin American art for his rich and colorfully hot palette and painterly textures would find kindred spirits in the works of much younger artists such as Francisco Toledo among others, all of whom find individual ways to recall, conjure, honor and respect many of Latin America’s deepest cultural roots in Pre-Columbia times and cultures.

"Volantin Marciano" by Alejandro Colunga

Lot 73, "Volantín Marciano," by Alejandro Colunga, oil on canvas with wooden sculptural attachments, 135 3/4 by 160 by 6 inches, 1997

The auction's most startling work is Lot 73, "Volantín Marciano," by Alejandro Colunga (b. 1948), shown above, an oil on canvas with wooden sculptural attachments, 135 3/4 by 160 by 6 inches, 1997, that is immensely amusing and imaginative and should be included in any exhibition of great frames by artists. It has a conservative estimate of $35,000 to $45,000. It sold for $30,650.

"Paisaje Rojo" by Gunter Gerzso

Lot 46, "Paisaje Rojo; Composicion No. 5," by Gunther Gerzso, a double-sided painting, oil on canvas, 34 1/2 by 25 5/8 inches, 1958

Lot 46, "Paisaje Rojo; Composicion No. 5," by Gunther Gerzso, a very fine double-sided painting, oil on canvas, 34 1/2 by 25 5/8 inches, 1958. It has a conservative estimate of $35,000 to $45,000. It sold for $87,000.

"Paisaje" by Gunther Gerzso

Lot 146, ""Paisaje," by Gunther Gerzso, oil on board, 22 1/2 by 16 inches, 1958

Lot 146, "Paisaje," by Gunther Gerzso, oil on board, 22 1/2 by 16 inches, 1958. It has an estimate of $30,000 to $35,000. It sold for $32,250.

Another Gerzso work is Lot 147, "Yaxchilán," a very fine bronze sculpture with green patina, 26 1/2 by 23 3/4 inches. The work is number 3 of an edition of 6 and is dated 1888. It has a conservative estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. It sold for $41,000.

Two of the handsomest works in the auction are Lots 23 and 52, both by Armando Morales (b. 1927). The former is entitled "La Gare II,"and is a 31 1/2-by-40-inch oil on canvas that has a conservative estimate of $80,000 to $100,000. It sold for $148,750. The latter is entitled "Femme S'Eloignant II," and is a 39 1/4 by 31 3/4 inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1984 and has a conservative estimate of $125,000 to $165,000. It was passed at $75,000. Both are superb examples of this artist's eerie but elegant, romantic and mysterious compositions that are extremely painterly.

Lot 1, an anonymous early 17th Century Mexican painting of the Virgin painted with feathers, gold leaf and amate paper collage on copper sheet, 19 5/8 by 13 7/8 inches, sold for $126,750, more than double its high estimate.

Lot 43, a very handsome ebony sculpture entitled "Totem," by Agustin Cárdenas (b. 1927) sold for $55,375 and had a high estimate of $30,000.

Other disappointments of the sale included Lot 22, "Grafismo Indo-Americano," a 21-by-31 oil on board by Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949), which had a low estimate of $300,000 and was passed at $190,000; Lot 24, "Enterro (Saga Nordestina)," by Candido Portinari (1903-1962), which had a low estimate of $180,000 and was passed at $120,000.

See The City Review article on the Spring 2000 Latin American Art auction at Christie's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1999 Latin American Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring, 1999 Latin American Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on The Latin American Sale at Christie's in New York in June, 1999

Recap of Pre-Columbian Art auction at Sotheby's, Nov. 23, 1998

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