By Carter B. Horsley
There's nothing like a little controversy to
warm up the art market and the cover illustration of this catalogue's
auction shows a realistic image of Pope John Paul II felled by
a large rock but still alert and clinging to his crozier. It is
"La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour)," Lot 317, a work of art
by Mauricio Cattelan (b. 1960) and Christie's answer to Jeff Koons's
"Michael Jackson and Bubbles," a larger-than-life-size
sculpture of the famous rock star and his pet monkey that sold
at Sotheby's May 15, 2001 for $5,615,750 (see The
City Review article).
Large figurative pieces, of course, are not
new in contemporary art as witnessed by the work of Duane Hanson
(1925-1996), who is well represented in this auction by Lot 313,
shown below. Christie's thought enough of Hanson's marvelous sculpture
to put it in its large and colorful entrance vestibule giving
it even more visibility than Cattelan's work.
The Cattelan lot is shown in the catalogue
in a large room with a very high ceiling the skylight of which
has been broken, presumably by the huge rock that has landed on
the sculpture of the Pope. At Christie's, the work received the
place of honor in the center of the large staircase at the auction
house, which unfortunately, at least for Cattalan, does not have
a skylight. Nonetheless, the work was very effectively shown as
indicated by the photograph at the top of this article.
There is a second version of this work that
was exhibited in the "Apocalypse: beauty and horror in contemporary
art" exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from
September to December last year and this work was illustrated
in that exhibition's catalogue and has been requested for this
year's Venice Biennale exhibition that starts in June.
This is the first of the two versions and it
has a conservative estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold
for $886,000, including the buyer's premium as do all results
mentioned in this article, breaking the previous world auction
record for the artist of $270,000 set at Christie's just last
It was the subject of considerable controversy
when shown in London and protests when it was shown at the Zacheta
Gallery of Contemporary Art in Warsaw in December, 2000 where
two people tried to remove the rock and stand the Pope up. The
sculpture's viewing at Christie's was not marked by any protests.
In an interview with Alicia Bona published
in the auction catalogue, Cattelan discussed this work at length.
The following are excerpts from Cattelan's remarks in the interview:
"I like to think of La Nona Ora as a sculpture
that doesn't exist; a three-dimensional image that dissolves into
pure communication - an object disappearing in the flux of information,
news, comments, headlines, reproductions, newspapers and other
seductive spectacles. On the other hand, La Nona Ora could simply
be a bad joke taken too seriously, an exercise in absurdity....Ideas
never really come. They go: it's all about distribution. I gather
fragments, bits and pieces, crumbs of reality. Art works need
to function very quickly, no matter how complex and varied they
are: La Nona Ora is first of all a quick image - a mechanism for
incorporating difference in a visual synthesis. When people are
different, they tend to interact only through art or war. I prefer
to use art as a field study for confrontation. That's where La
Nona Ora came from or maybe that's where La Nona Ora ended up....I
don't subscribe to the image of the artist as an isolated figure,
hiding inhis ivory tower. I'm trying to connect images and tensions,to
bring together different impulses: I want religion and blasphemy
to collide, as they do in our daily life....Our life is based
on contradiction. In this sense, the Pope is just a pretext, a
way to hold up a mirror to our daily mediocrity and existence,
so we might as well start enjoying our symptoms....I grew up in
a Catholic family, but right in the middle of the Jewish district
in Padua; in my house there were images of saints and Virgin Marys
everywhere, but when I went tovisit my friends, they all lived
in apartments where images were prohibited. In those houses with
no crucifix and no religious paintings, you could still feel the
presence of something sacred, a strange respect or maybe just
a pure disposition to sacrifice. I think my osbsession for images
comes out of those experiences; I learnt to fear icons and, at
the same time, I learnt not to trust them....I might be idealistic
or naive, but I think that any reaction is valuable and legitimate.
Reactions transform art works, they change their shape and reception.
Objects are nothing but projections of desire, images of a struggle.
And I love when struggles happen right there in the daylight,
so that everybody can see. What happened in Poland was a sort
ofupside down miracle; salvation wasn't coming from the sky but
from the earth, from the people.....Messages are for advertising,
not for art; I always thought that art is not about explanations.
It's about opening up possibiities. Advertising, just like religion,
tries to tell the truth. Art, instead, should try to tell lies."
Cattelan's work is about fragility and ambiguity.
He recently used Hitler as a subject and he has hung a stuffed
horse from rafters.
When Cattelan's Pope does stand up, he would
probably go over and chat with Duane Hanson's "Lady with
Shopping Bags," Lot 313, a polyester resin and fiberglass
sculpture, polychromed in oil with accessories, life-size, that
was executed in 1972. Like most people, the Pope would likely
be fooled by Hanson's ultra-realistic sculpture of a weary women
laden with bags, perhaps pausing to catch her breath before proceeding
on her journey. She is perhaps a bit too well groomed to be the
stereotype homeless bag woman. She has dignity in her bundles,
but she has cares, ones that the Pope surely will care about.
In an age of very quick takes and one-liners,
double-takes are gold and Hanson's sculptures, of which this is
a very fine one, always elicit double-takes. It has a conservative
estimate of $250,000 to $300,000. It sold for $270,000.
The sale total was $22,589,350, almost double
its pre-sale low estimate and well above its pre-sale high estimate
of $17,100,000. Christopher Burge, the auctioner, described the
sale as "fantastic" and "terrific," notigthat
21 workssold forover their high estimates and only 5 sold for
below their low estimates. Of the 51 offered lots, 43 were sold,
a respectable percentage. The sale set 10 world auction records
Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) had five lots in
the auction. Two passed and two sold within the pre-sale estimates.
One went into the stratosphere, a dramatic indication that a "name"
alone does not insure success.
Lot 330, "Henry Moore Bound to Fail
(back view)," is a 26-by-24-by-3 1/2-inch wax over plaster
sculpture by Bruce Nauman (b. 1941), shown above. The unique work
was executed in 1967 and has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000.
It sold for $9,906,000 which prompted the standing-room only crowd
at Christie's to applaud, only the second such occurrence of the
current auction season. The first broad outburst of applause came
the night before when "Large Flowers, a 82-by-162-inch painting
by Andy Warhol executed in 1964 sold for $8,476,000, the second
highest auction price for Warhol. Christopher Burge, the auctioner,
described the record price for the Nauman after the auction as
"sensational," which is an understatement. Nauman has
also produced a cast-iron edition of nine of this work. Warhol
is more famous than Nauman. Warhol's "Large Flowers"
was a quite decorative and very large and colorful work with a
certain abstract quality. Nauman's work, on the other hand, is
monochromatic and not terribly decorative. One cannot compare
apples and oranges easily and Warhol's work is easier to digest
than Nauman's conceptualism. The catalogue offers the following
commentary: "Nauman's choice to use his own body in his work
is a simply one: he is most familiar with it and it is most accessible
to him. Segments of his own body represent something larger, partial
views of the body also invite the viewer to participate, to draw
upon their own knowledge to complete the viewing experience."
"The artist," it continued, "has restricted his
own movements, signifying the enormous burden of the artist's
vocation." "Epitomizing the tongue in cheek approach
that unifies Nauman's work, in Henry Moore Bound to fail (back
view), the artist created a fragile yet powerful relief. At once
the work expresses Nauman's concern in regards to the future of
traditonal freestanding figurative sculpture and simultaneously
salutes the very tradition from which Henry Moore emerged."
It is nice to learn that Nauman is "most familiar" with
his own body, but "partial views of the body also invite
the viewer to participate,to draw upon their own knowledge to
complete the viewing experience" is poppycock, not even bolderdash.
The same year that he did this work he also did two other "body-part"
sculptures, both aesthetically much better than nice, "From
Hand to Mouth" in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum
and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and "Untitled,"
a pair of crossed arms that grow out of a knot of thick rope,
in a private collection in Switzerland, both reproduced in the
auction catalogue. The catalogue also reproduces a drawing and
photograph of the same subject in this lot by Nauman. One need
only conjure the great images of Bosch or the many Renaissance
images of saints tied to pillars and stuck with arrows to realize
that the notion of constraint is not new in art. Not everyone
will find this Nauman work beautiful, or be able to easily reconcile
its "market value" even when limited to "post-war"
and "contemporary" art, or, perhaps more interestingly,
to Nauman's own oeuvre.
Lot 329, "Untitled," is a 72-by-4-by-3-inch
fiberglass and polyester resin sculpture executed in 1965. It
is brown and uneven in shape. It had an estimate of $400,000 to
$600,000 and sold for $446,000. Lot 331, "Four Heads,"
a 39-by-26 1/2-inch watercolor, graphite and Ashaltum on five
sheets of paper was executed in 1990 and had an estimate of $100,000
to $150,000. It sold for $138,000.
While these works sold within their estimates,
Lots 332 and 333 failed to sell. The former, entitled "Five
Pink Heads in the Corner," wa a 50-by-8 1/2-by-7 1/2-inch
epoxy resin and fiberglass cloth sculpture of five pink-colored
heads that was executed in 1992 and had an estimate of $800,000
to $1,200,000. It was failed to sell and was passed at $600,000.
The latter, entitled "Eating Buggers (Version II),"is
a 24-by-36-by 9-inch neon tubing mounting on aluminum monolith
that was created in 1985 and had an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000.
It failed to sell and was passed at $260,000. It was the most
colorful and most attractive of the Nauman lots. Being colorful
and attractive, of course, does not count for much probably in
the Nauman canon. What is difficult to explain, however, is how
the 9-digit bidders for Lot 330 could pass up the opportunity
to grab other works by the artist at such relatively bargain-basement
prices. A Nauman is not a Nauman is not a Nauman, or something.
The art market so far this season has been
rather wild with some extraordinarily high and strong prices indicating
no lack of available money and with so pretty high-ticketed failures
creating a lot of uncertainty for future consignments. Clearly,
the allure of a good, or at least well-publicized, provenance
has become increasingly important as has the notion that particularly
works are "icons." The auction houses this season have
generally outdone themselves with impressive and elaborate catalogues
that often reproduced other artist's work in the entries on some
artists to apparently lend even higher respectability or "associative"
power, even when the alluded to works are not always clearly related
in a substantive way. Some of the lengthier catalogue entries
are almost generic commentaries on the artists and others are
quite specific about the actual lots. One can only admire the
tremendous amount of labor that goes into dashing out these catalogues
and such efforts are generally laudable, especially when they
are informative and help the reader better understand the artist's
perspectives, influences and intentions.
The catalogue's interview with Cattelan,
cited above, is excellent as the artist's comments are revealing,
provocative and very interesting. The accompanying text on Nauman,
unfortunately, does not clearly establish the significance of
his art although it does comment on the artist's frustrations
with art, which suggests to some observers that exasperation is
not surprising. Cattelan's La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour) fared
reasonably well in the auction, but conceivably it could have
done much better given its notoriety and the intellectual stance
of the artist.
Nauman's lot is about himself and his feelings
of inadequacy. Cattelan's lot is about one of the most revered
and important public figures in the world and the challenges facing
him. Hanson's "Lady with Shopping Bags" is about an
"everywoman" and her daily struggles and chores. All
three are very legitimate subjects and essentially share a ultra-realistic
style, yet the differences in their market values as indicated
in this auction are not easy to explain. Each of them stops short
of having explicit messages, leaving the viewer free to apply
interpretation. Hanson's sculpture is the most complete: we do
necessarily need more information to relate to it. Cattelan's
work broaches more possible interpretations. Nauman's work, on
the other hand, is more disconcerting in part because it is not
as clear as his drawing of the same subject, which is better than
his photograph of the same subject, and in part because it represents
only a fragment of the subject and at first glance, wrongly, an
apparently unfinished fragment. Some observers, at least this
one, would probably have been more comforted if all three works
were in the same relative "market value" range. The
Nauman price is simply preposterous, but that's not Nauman's or
Christie's fault and may they long rejoice and it certainly reconfirms
that auctions can be very exciting and fascinating.
Jeff Koons (b. 1955) is represented in this
auction by "Woman in Tub," a porcelain sculpture of
a naked woman missing the top half of her head clutching her breasts
in a bubble bath. The 1988 work, Lot 311, is number one of an
edition of three plus one artist's proof and has an estimate of
$1,500,000 to $2,500,000. It sold for $2,866,000. Another
work in this edition sold a year ago at Christie's for $1,711,500.
Lot 335, "Buro," by Thomas Demand
sold for $99,500, significantly exceeding the previous world auction
record of $61,716 for the artist set at Christie's this past February.
Lot 308, "Smash The Reds" by Gilbert
& George sold for $314,000, breaking the previous world auction
record of $253,866 for the artist set at Sotheby's in London this
Lot 341, "Drawings for Projection Series:
Johannesburg-Second Greatest City after Paris Monument Mine Sobriety,
Obesity and Growing Old," by William Kentridge, sold for
$149,000, breaking the previous world auction record for the artist
of $101,500, set at Phillips last November.
Lot 344, "x + y = 0," by Chris
Ofili sold for $237,000, breaking the previous world auction record
for the artist of $211,500 set at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg
May 14, 2001.
Lot 310, "David, Victoria + Brooklyn,"
by Elizabeth Peyton, sold for $94,000, breaking the previous world
auction record for the artist of $77,300 set at Phillips de Pury
& Luxembourg May 14, 2001.
Lot 325, "Interfacing," by Jenny
Saville, sold for $198,500, breaking the previous world auction
record of $84,353 set at Christie's in London in December, 1998.
Lot 312, "Untitled Film Still,"
a handsome photograph by Cindy Sherman, sold for $336,000, breaking
the previous world auction record for the artist of $269,750,
set at Sotheby's last May.