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Latin American Art


Thursday, 7PM, May 31 (Lots 1-56)

Friday, 10:15AM, June 1, 2001 (Lots 70-182)

Sale 7670

"Portrait of Cristina, My Sister" by Frida Kahlo

Lot 15, "Portrait of Cristina, My Sister," by Frida Kahlo, oil on panel, 31 1/8 by 23 5/8 inches, 1928

By Carter B. Horsley

This Latin American Art auction at Sotheby's May 31, 2001, is highlighted by excellent examples of three great women artists - Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Remedios Varo (1908-1963) and Leonora Carrington (b. 1917) - as well as a good selection of other prominent and very imaginative artists such as Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), Matta (b. 1911), and Ignacio Iturria (b. 1949).

Other fine works in the auction are by Daniel Senise (b. 1955), Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974).

The cover illustration of the catalogue is Lot 15, "Portrait of Cristina, My Sister," shown above, by Frida Kahlo. The 31 1/8-by-23 5/8-inch oil on panel is dated 1928 and has an estimate of $900,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $1,655,750 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article. In 1988, the painting was sold at Sotheby's for $198,000.

"The portrait is extraordinary for its mixture of primness and sensuality," the catalogue entry by Hayden Herrera for the lot maintained, adding that the artist had once described "Cristi" as "the chubby one" of her three sisters.

"Although there was sibling rivalry between the two youngest Kahlo girls, Cristina was Frida's closest companion through most of her life.Frida Kahlo had only been painting for two years when she embarked on her sister's portrait. She began to paint in 1926 while recuperating from a near fatal bus accident. By 1928, Kahlo had recovered from the accident enough to be able to walk with just a slight limp. She could go out in the world, and she was now determined to make a living through art. Indeed, it was in this year that she took four of her first paintings to the Ministry of Education, where Diego Rivera was painting murals, and demanded that he tell her whether it was worth her while to go on painting. Rivera's answer was yes. In his autobiography, he wrote that the works Frida showed him that day (which may have included Portrait of Cristina, my sister) 'revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity. They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own. They communicated a vital sensuality, complimented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.' Rivera was a s taken with the artist as he was with her art. After a period of courtship, he and Frida married.Curiously, Frida inserted a wooden panel into a stretcher frame and painted over both, so that the stretcher becomes a kind of interior frame. This makes Portrait of Cristina the first of several instances in which Frida extended her painted image out into the frame. If Portrait of Cristina, my sister does not have the fierce intensity we associate with Frida Kahlo's self-portraits, it does have a special vibrancy - a kind of electric charge. As in many of Frida's paintings, the drawing is somewhat primitive. Frida chose primitivism as a way of expressing her solidarity with the folk traditions of the Mexican people. Cristina's portrait is naïve and knowing at the same time. The face is realized in minute detail. The branch, with its nine succulent leaves, seem to allude to Cristina's sexuality, a sexuality underscored by Cristina's low cut dress. The same year that Frida Kahlo painted Cristina, she persuaded her sister to pose nude for Rivera. Although Frida's portrait is proper and chaste compared to Rivera's frescoes, the juxtaposition of Cristina in her pure white dress with the vulval leaves suggests the temptation of Eve. And Cristina was tempted; her love affair with Diego Rivera six years later caused Frida more pain than any of Rivera's other philandering."

More than 78 percent of the 55 offered lots in the evening section of this auction for a total of $7,189,0675. The pre-sale estimate for the evening session was $6,200,000 to $8,100,000.

"El Camino Arido" by Remedios Varo
Lot 28, "El Camino Árido," by Remedios Varo, vinyl resin on thin board mounted on masonite, 28 by 8 3/8 inches, 1962

Remedios Varo is one of Latin America's other great women artists. Lot 28, "El Camino Árido," a 28-by-8 3/8-inch vinyl resin on thin board mounted on masonite, is a wonderful work by her that was painted in 1962. Widely exhibited and published, it has a conservative estimate of $175,000 to $225,000. It sold for $236,750.

"Painted the year before death," the catalogue entry for the lot observed, "Remedios Vario's Camino árido may well be the artist's swan song. In point of craft she was never better; the delicate draftsmanship and subtle brushwork that characterize her best paintings are here married to a pulsating spirituality, causing the painting to glow with an inner life. Varo's search for enlightenment included eastern hermetic philosophy, and is suggested by the allusion to Chinese landscape paintings in the rendering of the cloudy mountaintops that form the backdrop to Camino árido.Camino árido may perhaps be best understood as the pendant to a work of the previous year, La Llamada or The Call (private collection). A frequent figure in these late works is a mystical sage - often Varo's own self-portrait - trying to engage, energize, enlighten a mass of respectful but static disciples. "

The "sage" in this work is a beautiful, ghostly figure wearing a sensational dress and cape seemingly made out of luminous layers of stones. She walks with a cane and is very erect and thin. Small rocks seem to be either falling or rising at her side. The foreground consists of many layers of rock, echoing the layers of her dress. This is a haunting work of mystery and beauty and one of the best paintings to be offered this spring auction season.

"Faet Fiada" by Leonora Carrington

Lot 10, "Faet Fiada (The Appearance of a Wild Beast," by Leonora Carrinton, oil on panel, 35 7/8 by 21 5/8 inches, 1951

Leonora Carrington is another great Latin American woman artist and Lot 10, "Faet Fiada (The Appearance of a Wild Beast," shown above, is an example example of her work. The 35 7/8-by-21 5/8-inch oil on panel is dated 1951 and has a modest estimate of $90,000 to $120,000. It sold for $92,750. Carrington is an important surrealist whose best works combine eerie drama with intriguing creatures/characters in loosely defined and usually mysterious spaces.

"Detail of Faet Fiada" by Leonora Carrington

Detail of Lot 10, "Faet Fiada (The Appearance of a Wild Beast," by Leonora Carrinton, oil on panel, 35 7/8 by 21 5/8 inches, 1951

The catalogue provides the following fine, brief essay by Susan Aberth on this lot:

"In The Appearance of a Wild Beast Leonora Carrington lifts the veil of ordinary sight, permitting us a momentary glimpse into another dimension where the near and far have collapsed into a nebulous atmosphere of verdant green. Inhabited by ghostly figures - animal, human and combinations thereof- the identity of the intruding wild beast in question is, delightfully, an unanswerable query. The two scepter-bearing figures in the left foreground are reminiscent of, respectively, the Egyptian horned cow-goddess Hathor and the jackal-headed Anubis, a correlation further suggested by their static frontal and profile poses. The diminutive figure clutching at both, with its lacy spider web head, lends the appearance of a family unit to this group. The humanoid persona on the right, whose hair and cloak have merged into a fleecy bestial pelt, raises an arm in a gesture more beckoning than rhetorical. Locked in a stare of wordless communication, the psychic intensity of these two central figures is palpable. During the early 1950s Carrington executed a number of paintings in a style similar to this one, which are characterized by the use of a luminous single-colored background. Captured under a nocturnal light, the hieroglyphic-like figures in these works are often frozen in gestures evocative of both ritual and dialogue and are placed in spaces that deny traditional three-dimensionality. As always, caution is advised for the viewer attempting to decipher this work. For within the pictorial world of Leonora Carrington, let all those who make assumptions, beware."

The painting's composition is quite unusual with the top half devoted to a dreamy, bucolic landscape and the bottom an asymmetrical grouping of figures with mysterious objects between them. There is enormous charm in the figures' dainty formality and great calm in the stillness of the "landscape." The "diminutive" figure in the foreground is both curious and fascinating, protected and fearsomely magical.

"Les Chats" by Leonora Carrington

Lot 34, "Les Chats," by Leonora Carrington, oil on panel, 18 1/8 by 15 inches, circa 1940

Another marvelous Carrington is Lot 34, "Les Chats," shown above, a 18 1/8-by-15-inch oil on panel that was painted circa 1940.

Susan Aberth has again written a fine, perceptive, catalogue essay with the following commentary on this lot:

"Under a red sky and within a rough-hewn archaic arena, a battle of some sort is being waged. Spilled blood is everywhere while in the foreground the severed body parts of one of the cat-like creatures testifies to a recent casualty. Although scenes of violence are rare in the paintings of Leonora Carrington, they are more common in her literary works where characters often reveal, and revel in, their animal natures. As in many of Carrington's paintings, there is a staged quality to this scene, reminding us that the artist has had a life-long involvement with the theater as a playwright, scenographer, and costume designer. Reclining, sitting, standing, the cats belie their relaxed poses by all staring ahead, with rapt attention, creating an air of heightened expectancy. Their spectral white bodies, lit by a pearly lunar glow, are oddly surmounted by black, mask-like faces, with features crudely delineated in red by the most economic means. This expressive inscrutability adds to the aura of mystery clinging to this primitive theater of cruelty, reminding us that the rules to this game are not meant for us to know. Indebted to Surrealism, yet with a completely unique personal vision, Carrington has always possessed the ability to construct alternate worlds, both fantastical and believable. Borrowing freely yet subtly from archaeological, mythological and art historical sources, in works such as Les Chats, she nonetheless eschews the trappings of pictorial quotations. Lacking the chaos of spontaneous conflict, the artist has instead managed to suggest the solemn dignity of an ancient ritual game. Her fabulous beasts are not so much about the fearsome powers of nature but of its creative potentialities."

This lot has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $148,750.

Carrington is a modern Bosch, but less gruesome, and more feminine.

"Sin titulo" by Ignacio Iturria

Lot 48, "Sin titulo," by Ignacio Iturria, oil on canvas, 52 by 72 inches, 1993

Ignacio Iturria is an artist who delights in dark paintings of crude structures with tiny, toy-like figures. Lot 48, shown above, is a fine example. Entitled "Sin Titulo," it is a 52-by-72-inch oil on canvas that is dated 1993. It has an estimate of $45,000 to $55,000. It sold for $46,750. The tall giraffe in the painting does not seem perturbed by the monkey climbing its very, very long neck, and the front face of the geometric construction in which the giraffe is standing has drawings of an elephant and a lion.

An artist with similar "stage-set" temperament is Guillermo Kuitca (b. 1961) and Lot 44, "Vaga Idea de Una Pasión," is a fine example of his work. The 68 1/4-by-49 1/4-inch acrylic and oil on canvas was painted in 1885 and has an estimate of $125,000 to $175,000. It failed to sell and was passed at $95,000.

Not all works in the auction bear the deep stamps of Latin American culture.

Untitled by Daniel Senise

Lot 47, untitled, by Daniel Senise, acrylic on canvas, 72 5/8 by 94 1/2 inches

One of the most striking works in the auction is Lot 47, which is untitled, by Daniel Senise. The 72 5/8-by 94 1/2-inch acrylic on canvas, shown above, appears as the under-painting for an Italian Renaissance painting of "The Annunciation." The outlines of a vaulted room are clear but faint, but the masses of St. Gabriel and the Virgin are shown prominently as if they had been painted in gold, which had then been rubbed off. It is a striking "ruin" that is haunting and evocative, and its subject matter no doubt will not be lost on the many Catholics of Latin America. It has a conservative estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $14,400.

Lot 56, "The Rape of Fame," by Benjamin Cañas (1933-1987), is another interesting work that draws on European mythology. A sweatered man who bears a resemblance to Picasso is snuggling with a huge naked woman who may be asleep while a woman in red wearing a hat tugs at bearing apart the naked woman's legs. The woman is astride what appears to be a large butcher's block on one side of which is stuck a paper label. The women's pose is very foreshortened and dramatic and one that Michelangelo might have pondered. The lot has an estimate of $90,000 to $120,000. It sold for $104,250.

David Alfaro Siqueiros is represented in the auction by several works including Lots 101, "Volcán," and 129, "El Náhuatl." The former is a 32 1/4-by-12-inch pryoxylin on paper that was executed in 1969 and has an estimate of $25,000 to $30,000. The latter is a 31 7/8-by-23 7/8-inch pryoxylin on panel that was executed in 1965 and has an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000. It shows a person reeling back from a ferocious attacking animal. Both of these are typically strong and boldly painted.

"Ballet" by David Alfaro Siqueiros

Lot 23, "Estudio para Escenografia (Ballet)," by David Alfaro Siqueiros, pryoxylin on masonite, 24 by 25 1/2 inches, 1949

Lot 23, shown above, is a more interesting Siqueiros. Entitled "Estudio para Escenografía (Ballet)," it is a pryoxylin on masonite, 24 by 25 1/2 inches. Executed in 1949, it has a conservative estimate of $50,000 to $60,000. It sold for $55,375. The painting shows three large groups of swirling dancers in the lower half of the picture performing on a rocky promontory beneath a dramatically colored sky of very broad brushstrokes.

Although Siqueiros is best known for his strikingly assertive, almost brutish compositions and limited but strong palettes mostly of yellows and browns and blacks, Lot 26, "El Secreto," demonstrates that he could be intrigued by Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro. The 19-by-23 3/4-inch pyroxylin on masonite was executed in 1939 and has an estimate of $90,000 to $120,000. It failed to sell and was "passed" at $65,000. The work has overtones not only of Rembrandt but also of Daumier and Roualt. Carmen Melián, one of Sotheby's experts, said after the auction that Sotheby's was "disappointed" that it did not sell since it was a "wonderful" painting.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Pledging not to paint new pictures until fascism was defeated in Europe, Siqueiros traveled to Spain in 1937 to aid the Communist Party during the Spanish Civil War. He returned in 1938 to a Mexico that, beyond being a center of asylum for refugees from war torn Europe, had become 'a nest of spies and - like Paris in the middle of the decade - a crucial center of operations.' [quotation from Oliver Debroise, "Action Art," Portrait of a Decade, David Alfaro Siqueiros (1930-1940)]. Siqueiros was very active in the undercover operations of Spanish and Soviet Communist groups in Mexico, culminating in his involvement in the attempted murder of Leon Trotsky at his home in Mexico City in 1940. Painting in the midst of these clandestine plots and activities, El Secreto reflects the climate of paranoia that surrounded the artist and his circle. With the victory of facism in Spain in 1939, Siqueiros broke his pledge of 1937 and returned to painting, in large part due to a commission of several works for a solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. In contrast to much of the artist's work from the first part of the decade, many of these new easel paintings turned away from the representation of historical events, focusing instead on universal views of the human condition. El Secreto captures a sense of uncertainty and impending doom for the wartime era, closing in on two figures sharing a secret while anonymous faces loom in the background. Though seemingly youthful in the shape of their heads and hands, Siqueiros has imbued the central figures with ancient, troubled eyes in his heavy-handed chiaroscuro treatment of their brows. His limited palette of muddied browns and reds envelops the figures within the clandestine, troubled atmosphere in which the artist was engulfed at that time."

Perhaps more than any other Latin American artist, Rufino Tamayo quintessentially encapsulates the earthiness and heat of Latin American and melds them into extremely painterly abstractions of fabulous color.

"Hombre Rodeado de Pájaros" by Rufino Tamayo

Lot 38, "Hombre Rodeado de Pájaros," by Rufino Tamayo, oil and sand on canvas, 51 1/4 by 38 3/8 inches, 1965

Lot 38, "Hombre Rodeado de Pájaros," shown above, is a strong example of his work. The 51 1/4-by-38 3/8-inch oil and sand on canvas was executed in 1965 and has an estimate of $250,000 to $300,000. It sold for $258,750 to a Mexican collector. Considerably more defined than many of his works, it is also a bit unusual in his oeuvre for its composition that is not completely contained within the picture but seems to broach its borders. This work almost seems to mix stylistic elements of Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline and Jean Dubuffet, resulting in a combustible, supercharged, volcanic "moment." Tamayo, of course, is not given to pyrotechnic outbursts but his works are sublimely tactile.

Lot 18, "Serenata a La Luna," a very striking dark Tamayo, 63 1/4 by 30 inches, oil on canvas, sold for $599,750, just $250 short of its low estimate.

Another Tamayo, Lot 22, "Vendedor de Sandias," a 5 3/8-by-26-inch gouache on paper, sold for $87,000, almost twice its high estimate. The very handsome painting of a man and watermelons was executed in 1954.

Detail of "Morphology of Desire" by Matta

Back cover illustration of Sotheby's catalogue showing large detail of Lot 12, "Morphology of Desire," by Matta

Lot 12, "Morphology of Desire," is an important work by Matta that was painted in 1938 and became the first of his paintings to be reproduced in color when it appear in the Surrealist review Minotaure No. 12-13 in 1939. The 28 3/4-by-36 1/4-inch oil on canvas has been widely exhibited and published and has a conservative estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $583,250 to a New York collector. A large detail of it, shown above, is the back cover illustration of the catalogue.

The catalogue notes that Matta first covered the canvas with a thin ground of warm and cool greys and then placed small amounts of different colors next to each other along a palette knife and quickly painted in the four "elements" of his composition which included a stone at the lower right, a bird at the upper right, a person on the left and an "architectural construction" in the center bottom. The artist had been influenced at the time by the writings by Elie Faure, a French art critic, who had suggested that in every masterpiece there should be four main components.

Matta then contemplated the painting and the relationships in it of the four components and with brushes and fingers continue to finish the painting.

Gordon Onslow-Ford provides the following commentary in the catalogue on the lot:

"The stone is shown in its life-span as it became transformed from gaseous, to liquid to solid state, being shaped by the give and take from the environment near and farThe bird is shown in song, in silence, in flight, in nesting, in migration, in relation to other forms of life. The life of a bird shown in a single form.The pink and red human being shows a drama of human relations, the interaction of matter and mind, the continual dance of events with other human beings and Mother Earth. All told in a single form. The architectural construction is shown as an essence of straight lines and auras in impact with the environment and human evolution. Finally there are the relationships between the four components of the painting that in this space-time become visible and taken on subtle forms.The technical aspects of Matta's palette knife gestures of paint were an immediate influence on Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism that appeared in New York City in the 1940s."

Gordon Onslow-Ford had suggested that Matta paint with oils in 1938. Matta was an architect who worked in the studio of Le Corbusier in Paris and became interested in Surrealism to such an extent that he abandoned architecture to experiment, first, with collage and drawing. He went out to create, the catalogue entry notes, "mathematically derived landscapesbased on the algebraic models of the mathematicism Jules-Henri Poincaré. The work of photographers Blossfeldt and Renger-Patsch, who captured the cell during mitosis, also caught the attention of Matta. In 1938 Matta took Surrealism a step further, by depicting the world beyond dreams and the working state. He called this world Psychological Morphology. The term Pscyhological Morpohogy describes an adventure into an alternative reality with its own space-time. In conjunction with the Surrealists André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, André Masson, Matta and Gordon Onslow-Ford left Paris for the United States during World War II. It was the arrival of these exiles and émigrés that heralded the transition of the center of the art world to New York."

Lot 36, "La Ciudalela," by Gunther Gerzso is a fine abstraction that conjures urban density, and the works of Yves Tanguy, Matta, Mark Tobey, and Bradley Tomlin Walker. The 19 3/4-by-28 3/4-inch oil on masonite is dated 1949 and has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $52,500. Gerzso is one of the best Latin American modern masters of abstraction whose works are distinguished by very fine finishes and textures.

Lot 32, "Florero," a large floral still life with bees aflutter and a small puffy hand grasping the handle of the large vase by Fernando Botero (b. 1932) sold for $473,250 soaring past its high estimate of $275,000. A very large bronze sculpture of a woman's torso by Botero, Lot 19, sold within its estimate for $418,250.

Lot 39, "Prueba de Nuevo (de la serie Los Monstruos)," by Jorge de la Vega (1930-1971), sold for $335,750 setting a new auction record for the artist. Kristen Hammer, one of Sotheby's experts, said after the auction that the painting came from "a good European collection, was totally fresh to the market, came from his best period and was one his strongest works of that period."

Lot 2, "Vista del Valle de Caracas Desde El Canvario," a 25 1/4-by-56 3/4-inch oil on canvas, by Manuel Cabré (1890-1983), sold for $148,750 setting a new auction record for the artist. The very handsome landscape had been estimated at $100,000 to $150,000 and his previous auction record was $60,000. It was painted in 1927.

The auction was generally successful and the Kahlo, the Botero and the de la Vega paintings elicited considerable applause. Indeed, the three outbreaks of applause at the fall of the auctioneer's hammer were the most of any of this season's major auctions.

Lot 6, "L'Orange Coupée," a 14-by-16 1/8-inch oil by Angel Zárraga (1886-1946), sold for $72,625, way over its high estimate of $30,000. The still life was beautiful and vibrant.

A good floral still life by Claudio Bravo (b. 1936), Lot 14, "Oquideas," a very impressive pastel on paper 31 1/4 by 34 1/2 inches, was estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 and was "passed" at $52,500.

See The City Review article on the Latin American Art evening auction at Christie's, May 30, 2001

See The City Review article on the Fall 2000 Latin American Art auction at Sotheby's

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

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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