This evening sale
of contemporary art has the usual sprinkling of famous names such
as Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Adolph
Gottlieb (1903-1974), Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Anselm Kiefer
(b. 1945), Cy Twombly (b. 1928), Morris Louis (1912-1962), Andy
Warhol (1928-1987), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Roy Lichtenstein
(1923-1997), mostly with good and representative but not truly
Given the tentative state of the stock markets and the national
economy, this should prove to be quite a test of the contemporary
art market, although this evening sale really consists of more
post-war modern masters than "contemporary" artists
although it does have works by Jeff Koons (b. 1955) and Robert
Gober (b. 1954).
the best painting is Lot 41, "Study from the Human Body,"
a large, dramatic and mysterious work by Francis Bacon. Dated
July, 1981, it is an oil on canvas that measures 78 by 58 3/4
inches and its basic composition is similar to his "Study
for Self-Portrait" of the same dimensions and year that is
in the collection of the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, but
this work is more vibrantly colored and complex. In the Wuppertal
picture, a clothed male figure is seated in front of the left
panel of a two-panel black screen and he casts a shadow across
the bottom of the picture. In this work, a naked male figure appears
to be stepping into the right panel but he casts no shadows and
two bright red arrows of unequal length point towards him. It
is painted with Bacon's masterful touch and is a difficult but
impressive image. It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000.
It failed to sell and was passed at $1,800,000, which was quite
surprising given the fact that another large Bacon, "Study
for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes," that sold for $6,712,500
May 13, 2002 at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg (see The City
The painting at Phillips was virtually the same size but was created
17 years earlier. After the Sotheby's sale, Tobias Meyer, the
auctioner, said that the failure of the Bacon to sell was perhaps
because it was a later work and did not have the same psychological
appeal as the female nude at Phillips. "We love the picture,"
he added. Some observers might argue that the Sotheby's picture
was actually a more interesting work intellectually, but therefore
too sophisticated for most buyers.
the disappointment of the Bacon, this sale was relatively successful
with 85 percent of the 60 offered lots selling for a total of
Lot 43 is
an early and very pleasing abstract work by Willem de Kooning.
An oil on composition board, it is entitled "Pink Landscape"
and measures 25 by 37 1/8 inches and was executed circa 1938.
The catalogue provides the following excellent commentary:
"de Kooning and his fellow artists were struggling with the
divergent schools of pure geometric abstraction and the organic
shapes and emotive content of Surrealism. In his own early work,
de Kooning alternated between abstractions of geometric forms
and organic shapes, such as in Pink Landscape, and a more
traditionally figurative series of paintings of men and women
that culminated in Pink Lady (1944). Both directions play
major roles in the development of de Kooning's mature style, in
which he thoroughly embraced both figuration and abstraction in
a manner unique among his contemporaries. Pink Landscape
illustrates de Kooning's comment that 'Even abstract shapes must
have a likeness,' a clear indication of his ability to approach
art along both lines. The rounded forms of Pink Landscape
have an air of Surrealist automatism, as if they emerge from a
dream or reverie. De Kooning's signature palette of intense pinks,
greens, oranges and blues further contradicts any impulse to see
this work as painted directly from nature, yet his reference to
landscape acknowledges that these shapes can be read as windows,
a sun or floating boats. Underlying this bucolic reading, however,
is the strong geometric underpinning of Pink Landscape,
and de Kooning's masterful ability to integrate field and figure
that hints at the structure of Cubism.
This rather poetic and lyrical abstraction has a modest estimate
of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $600,000 not including
the buyer's premium.
very fine abstraction is Lot 11, "Dialogue II," a 66-by-132-inch
oil on canvas by Adolph Gottlieb that is dated 1960. The painting
is from the Samuel and Luella Maslon collection and is described
in the catalogue as "a quintessential example of Gottlieb's
dynamic integration of subject matter and form that would characterize
his entire oeuvre." It had an estimate of $350,000 to
$450,000 and sold for $480,000 not including the buyer's premium
and breaking the artist's previous auction record of $352,000.
"Mythic, archaic images and symbols arranged on a flat, arbitrary,
yet consciously conceived ground are the epitome of Gottlieb's
style," the catalogue noted, "from his early Pictographs
to his mature Bursts and Landscapes. Along with
his colleagues in the American vanguard of the 1940s and 1950s,
Gottlieb fashioned a personal style from the major strains of
the modern tradition.Gottlieb's personal dialogue regarding artistic
expression centered on the tensions of compositional order versus
the intuitive gesture. Along with other post-war modern artists,
Gottlieb believed in a collective unconscious of primitive symbols
which, when removed from their original context, become virtually
abstract.The monumental scale of the later paintings, such as
Dialogue II, amplifies Gottlieb's sense of infinite space,
with the agitated brushwork and the blooming forms of color refined
to their bare essentials, portraying the universal tension between
space and mass."
Richter, the subject of a major retrospective still on view now
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is represented with two
good works, Lots 24 and 53. The former, shown above, is entitled
"Kerze" and is one of his popular and classic "candle"
paintings. The oil on canvas measures 35 3/8 by 37 3/8 inches
and was executed in 1982. It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to
$3,500,000. It sold for $3,969,500 including the buyer's premium.
A "three-candle" Richter sold at Sotheby's a year ago
for $5,395,750 (see The City Review article) and Laura Paulson of Sotheby's
said that there are more than 20 candle paintings by Richter.
The catalogue provides some very good background:
"The early 1980s saw the re-emergence of painting, with wildly
exuberant abstract canvases, as well as muscular, aggressive figurative
images dominating the Canon.artists from Germany, Italy and the
United States were soon loosely bracketed under the 'Neo-Expressionist'
umbrella. The heavy delineation, stark, somewhat tortured treatment
of the figure and human condition, together with an emphasis on
a densely painted surface, that one saw in the early Modern work
of Kirchner, Nolde and Pechstein was now magnified manifold. These
were big punchy paintings by big, punchy artists. Set against
this particular backdrop, it is remarkable that Gerhard Richter
embarked upon a series of works that appears absolutely antithetical
to the aesthetic current of the time. Of course, Richter had previously
executed large-format abstract paintings, orchestrating paint
across his canvases in wondrous symphonies of color and texture.
He was not averse to working on a monumental scale, nor was he
afraid to make grand, gestural comments with his paint. If anything
the Abstract Paintings from the 1970s best illustrate Richter's
desire to explore the very possibilities of painting and painting,
of media and craft. In 1982-83, however, he returned to his 'photopaintings'
that dominated his practice in the 1960s, this time executed in
color, and he made a group of 32 delectably simple canvases depicting
skulls and candles, as well as a number of Still-Lifes
showing apples. Their quiet, contemplative, even melancholic air,
is in marked contrast to the exuberance of the day. Their effect,
however, as well as their standing within the annals of Richter's
own oeuvre, is extraordinary, and their production by Richter
reveals him to be an artist immune to the confines of 'fashion.'
This series of Candles effortlessly reveals Richter's interest
in a dialogue between painterly abstraction and romanticized realism
that is anchored to photography. His course material was photographs
he made in his studio of candles, configured singularly, as a
pair or in a group of three. The elegant functionality of the
candle as an object, as well as its bright incandescence intrigued
Richter, and he approached this particular subject with relish.
The artist was particularly entranced by the light o the flickering
candle, and this series may be seen as a group of visual essays
on the challenges of depicting light in oil paint. Hieratically-conceived,
and positioned against a gray-green interior, Richter uses the
light of the candle to explore relations between the hue and shade
and how they, in turn, contribute toward a sense of total composition.
This is nowhere more beautifully arranged than in Kerze.
The work resonates with the most sophisticated tonal interplay
so that the subtlest of chromatic shifts results in the coherence
and plasticity of the image and composition.Umbras and penumbras
of pure light feed into the surrounding space, forcing color to
lose its sense of autonomy, and became pure shade. Its sense of
painterly and compositional finish is mesmerizing. If the moody
chiaroscuro of previous generations, artists such as Rembrandt,
Georges de la Tour or Joseph Wright of Derby, instilled in their
viewer a desire to contemplate the vicissitudes of life, then
Richter's objectively-grounded painting does not. However, even
if revolves around mechanical and technical concerns, the extraordinary
quality and poignant serenity of this intimate canvas cannot help
but move its viewer. It is a wonderfully poised work, executed
with a stunning refinement of technique, that is a masterpiece
of Richter's craft and vision."
While de la Tour and Wright, of course, are justly famed for their
candlelit scenes, their work featured people and strong and complex
compositions, Richter's "candles" are compositionally
very simple albeit technically marvelously. The enlarged scale
of the subject, however, and the intensity of its presentation
embue such works with a magisterial potency that packs quite a
wallop visually and intellectually. Emotionally, however, these
are subdued albeit exquisite explorations and only Richter's virtuosity
overcomes their essential sterilty.
"Bogen," is a strong abstraction by Richter that is
a 102 1/2-by-78 3/4-inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1984.
It has an estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. It sold for $420,000
not including the buyer's premium.
Lot 27 is yet another Richter, one of his color-chart works, entitled
"180 Farben." The 78 3/3-inch-square lacquer on primed
canvas was executed in 1971 and has a very ambitious estimate
of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $3,969,500, almost
a million dollars more than a similar color field painting by
Richter that sold about a year ago in London. The catalogue
notes that in making this series the artist had "Blinky Palermo
randomly call out colors, which Richter then adopted." While
chance is enjoyable and the reduction of subject matter to swatches
of color and the "sublimation" of artistic personality
may be viewed by some as radical and important, others may not
find it rich and meaningful art.
more intriguing, or at least substantive, is Anselm Kiefer's "Ngalfar,"
a 74 3/4-by-118 1/4-inch soldered lead boat and mixed media on
treated lead mounted on wood, which is Lot 25.
work is much more tactile and emotionally charged than Richter's.
Much of Kiefer's work carries the difficult burden of a ravaged,
tattered history. While Richter often encapsulates his figurative
subjects in Vermeer-like light, smears and blurs, Kiefer engulfs
the viewer with debris.
"Technically, Ngalfar stands out as one of Kiefer's
most accomplished works, incorporating not only the discipline
of 'painting,' but also the crafts of 'sculpture' and 'collage'
into the realm of he canvas, lending this two-dimensional work
an invigorated plasticity and energy one finds reserve for the
art of installation. It overwhelms the viewer: its scale and drama
drawing the viewer into a charged lexicon of memories that sees
the poetry of the Legend become one with the prose of contemporary
history. Here, he depicts a sea of lead, demarcated by the employment
of what appears to be an isolated gunboat from World War II. These
strands of memory, of a specific German heritage, are complicated,
however, by the cascading folds of lead used to symbolize both
sea and sky, lending the scene a darker, ethereal, more brooding
quality, amplified more so through the sheer scale of the work
itself. The title, Naglfar, refers to the ship made from
dead men's fingernails that would carry the giants of Nordic Legend
into battle against the gods at Ragnarok. The size of the ship
depended on the number of men buried with their nails uncut.Materials
play an important role in Kiefer's art: just as the symbols and
narratives he uses carry double meanings, so too is the means
of his production loaded. Here, Kiefer has used real nail clippings
on the surface. Moreover, he has attached waves of lead; some
oxidized to lighten its color when indicating sky rather than
sea, to the canvas."
This lot has a modest estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 as it is
the best work in the auction. It sold for $500,000 not including
the buyer's premium.
"Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus (Rome)," is
a 102-by-118 7/8-inch oil and graphite on canvas by Cy Twombly
that was executed in 1962. The huge canvas has some crimson paint
squiggles/flurries and some pencil marks on it and has far too
many zeros in its ambitious estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000
even though it is better than most Twomblys. It failed to sell
and was passed at $2,100,000.
Infinitely more impressive is Lot 44, "La Gitane," by
Jean Dubuffet, a 36 1/4-by-29-inch oil on canvas from 1954. This
quite painterly work has an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000.
It sold for $480,000 not including the buyer's premium.
"Pennsylvania," is a large oil on canvas, 49 by 63 inches,
by Franz Kline. Also executed in 1954, it is of impressive scale
but not one of his sublime abstractions. It has an ambitious estimate
of $1,200,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,100,000 not including
the buyer's premium.
Similarly, Lot 10 is a large painting by Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
that is bold but uninspiring. The 42 1/2-by-96 1/2-inch oil on
paper mounted on masonite was executed in 1958 and has an estimate
of $300,000 to $400,000. It failed to sell and was passed at
$190,000 although Laura Paulson indicated after the auction that
it was sold afterwards.
Lot 46, "Untitled (Plum and Brown), could be an excellent
Josef Albers but instead is a rather drab Mark Rothko. The 81-by-69
1/8-inch oil on canvas was executed in 1964 and has an ambitious
estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It has no particular luminosity
or painterliness. The somber work was painted in the first year
of Rothko's Chapel commission in Houston and the catalogue claims
that it "speaks to our deepest and most profound emotions,"
but perhaps not everyone has deep and profound emotions. It
failed to sell and was passed at $1,200,000.
On a much shinier note, Lot 4 is a stainless steel sculpture of
a "French Coach Couple" by Jeff Koons. Executed in 1986
and 17 inches high, it is the artist's proof from an edition of
three and an artist's proof. It has a conservative estimate of
$150,000 and $200,000 and is much more delightful than the Rothko.
It sold for $190,000 not including the buyer's premium.
"Untitled," is a very good work by Morris Louis. The
96-by-77 3/4-inch acrylic resin on canvas is yet another work
from 1954 and is from the artist's first group of Veils. "the
color of this Veil, like many n the series, is muted, as washes
of diluted paint float like gossamer silk on the canvas. Multi-directional
fingers of color indicate that Louise experimented with the orientation
of the canvas as he painted. The resulting composition seems to
defy gravity pushing at the painting's edges as it hovers on the
The lot has a conservative estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It
failed to sell and was passed at $220,000.
Andy Warhol, of course, is represented by several works.
Lot 16, "Self-Portrait," was executed by Warhol in 1986
and is the cover illustration of the catalogue. The 80-inch-square
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas is a black and yellow portrait
of the artist and it has an ambitious estimate of $1,500,000 to
$2,000,000. Another Warhol self-portrait, more pensive, is Lot
8, a 22-inch square work that has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
It sold for $3,089,500 including the buyer's premium. (A 108-inch-square
self portrait from the same year but in pink sold for $3,192,500
at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg May 13, 2002.
"Five Deaths," is a 44-by-33-inch acrylic and silkscreen
ink on canvas that was completed in 1963 and the orange, black
and white painting has an ambitious estimate of $3,000,000 to
$4,000,000. It sold for $3,749,500 including the buyer's premium.
Lot 34, "Superman," is a 60-inch-square acrylic and
silkscreen ink on canvas by Warhol that is dated 1981. It has
an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,769,500
including the buyer's premium.
the sale, Mr. Meyer remarked the recent publication of a major
catalogue on Warhol has made people aware that "there are
far less available than they thought."
Roy Lichtenstein is also represented by several works in the auction.
is Lot 12, "Still-Life with Bamboo Sticks," a 25 1/2-by-45
1/2-inch oil and magna on canvas that is dated 1973 and has a
modest estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $300,000
not including the buyer's premium.
Lot 38, "Modular Painting with Four Panels, No. 9,"
is a 90-by-120-inch oil and magna on canvas in four parts by Lichtenstein
that is dated 1970. It is from a series the artist did that was
an homage to the Art Deco period. It has an estimate of $400,000
to $600,000. It sold for $480,000 not including the buyer's
Lot 9 is a very handsome Lichtenstein sculpture entitled "Brushstroke,"
which is 31 3/8 inches high. Numbered 6/6 and dated 1981, it has
an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $360,000 not
including the buyer's premium.
described the auction as "fantastic," noting that 27
of the 51 lots that sold went above the high estimate.