By Carter B. Horsley
This evening Contemporary Art auction at Christie's
May 11, 2005 is highlighted by several outstanding Abstract Expressionist
works including a great early abstraction by Willem de Kooning,
a marvelous, large work by Franz Kline, an excellent painting
by Philip Guston, a fine drawing by Arshile Gorky and a superb
Clyfford Still as well as good works by Mark Rothko and Barnet
In addition, it has two very good works by
Richard Diebenkorn, two very good boxes by Joseph Cornell, a good
sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, a large and good work by Anselm Kiefer
and an important oil by Edward Hopper, whose works are normally
sold in the American Paintings auctions.
The handsomest work in the auction is Lot 19,
a vivid and very strong early abstraction by Willem de Kooning
(1904-1997), entitled "Sailcloth." It was one of several
important works consigned to the auction by Barbara and Donald
Jonas to benefit the Jewish Communal Fund. It had an estimate
of $8,000,000 to $12,000,000. It sold for $13,120,000 including
the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article.
The auction features
13, mostly museum-quality works in the Jonas group and all the
works sold for a total of $44,200,000, nicely above the pre-sale
high estimate for this group of $40,800,000.
The sale was a great success as 86 percent
of the 76 offered lots sold for a total of $133,707,200. After
the sale, Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, noted that 96 percent
of the sold lots went above or within their pre-sale estimates
and that 35 lots sold for more than $1 million. It was the second
major auction in a row in which Christie's showing was decidedly
better than Sotheby's. Mr. Burge described the very lively auction
as "thrilling" and said that 79 percent of the buyers
Records were set for 15 artists.
The de Kooning did not set a sales record
- his high auction mark is $20,680,000, but it may well have set
a new "time" record as the bidding advanced very slowly,
mostly at $100,000 increments.
The catalogue provides the following excellent
"Sail Cloth is one of the samll
group of outstanding 'abstract' paintings made in the late 1940's
with which Willem de Kooning made his name as the leading painter
of his generation. Representing the culmination of over twenty
years' experimentation with a variety of styles and influence,
these paintings mark the artist's dramatic leap forward into the
then uncharted realm of 'pure' painting. Invoking and celebrating
the spontaneity and excitement of the act and process of painting,
it was these paintings that prompted the critic Harold Rosenberg
to coin the term 'Action Painting' as a potential description
of the new movement then emerging in New York. Forming the essence
of what soon came to be termed 'Abstract Expressionism,' this
small group of paintings are regarded by many to be not only the
finest of all de Kooning's works but also among the greatest painterly
achievements of the Twentieth century....Dense, compressed and
alive with fluid lines and dark powerful, suggestive forms, they
seemed to hover in a painterly netherworld halfway between conventional
abstraction and figuration, expressing what de Kooning once described
as a 'glimpse' of something that he had as much felt as wittnessed
or seen. Packed amidst the thousand 'decisions and revisions of
decisions' that evidently had gone into the building of his pictures,
de Kooning's art seemed to express something of the energy, emotion,
chaos, violence, immediacy, congestion and excitement that a modern
urban environment such as Manhattan instills in the lone human
being. Pregnant with implied meaning yet seemingly devoid of content,
the extraordinary paintings that de Kooning produced at this time,
appeared, at a stroke, to have answered many of the most pressing
questions and anxieties over the future of painting then facing
the American avant-garde....refuting the use of abstraction towards
the the essentially myustical end of transcendence (as adopted
by Rothko or Newman for example), de Kooning drew on the spontaneity
of automatism and on chance configuations as a way of generating
paintings that conveyed, through the viscosity of their own medium,
the vitality and immediacy of tangible coproareal life. De Kooning
achieved this remarkable feat primarily through a conscious and
premediated disruption of is own lyrical and masterly ability
with line.....Struggle and the evidence of struggle formed the
essence of de Kooning's art at this time. To keep his eye sharp
and his hand fresh..., he developed a technique of painting from
multiple drawings layered over one another. The layering of these
often torn or fragmentary drawings created collage-like configurations
in which the original meaning and integrity of the single image
was lost amidst a strange conglomerate whole that teemed with
a fascinating and spontaneously created vitality....it..., in
its freer painterliness and strange insertion of a human eye at
the centre of the composition, anticiptes the artists later Women
series. Such facial features as the eyes, particularly, the mouths
of the figures...served de Kooning as an important figurative
crutch and key compositional element around which he felt he could
work with more fluency and ease."
Lot 16, "Crow Dancer,"
is a monumental and wonderful work by Franz Kline (1910-1962)
that is also part of the Jonas group. An oil on canvas that measures
78 by 69 inches, it was executed in 1958. It has a conservative
estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $6,400,000,
breaking the artist's previous auction record of $4,519,500 set
at Sotheby's November 12, 2002. It was one of 17 records set at
"The forms in Kline's
paintings often have a figurative appearance," the catalogue
entry noted, "which is particularly strong in the black areas
of Crow Dancer. Here, we can really envisage the frenetic
energy of a tribal dance bedecked in feathers, as is hinted at
by the title. ....The visible and pulsating energy of the brushstrokes
is that of an abandoned and myustical dance. Kline was greatly
interested in and intrigued by the place names of his childhhood
surroundings, not least those with Native American origins....Kline
was conscious to a far greater extent than the other first-rankabstract
Expressionists of the distinctly American identity of their so-called
movement, and distills it into this work, creating a new, yet
established painterly mythology, invoking the Wagnerian gods of
a new continent and a younger, more vital civilization through
a younger, more vital art form."
Another Kline, Lot 11, "Red
Field (formerly Black Over Reds)," also from the Jonas group,
set a record for a work by the artist on paper. It sold for $576,000,
breaking the previous record of $310,500 set at Sotheby's November
17, 1999. The oil on paper measures 12 7/8 by 9 1/8 inches and
was painted in 1955. A very strong and beautiful work, it has
an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 and was once in the collection
of Mrs. Nathan Cummings.
One of the highlights of the Jonas group is
a pair of wood box construction, printed paper collage, enamel,
and colored and mirrored glass works by Joseph Cornell. Lot 17,
"Untitled (Medici Princess), measures 15 1/4 by 12 by 3 7/8
inches and was executed circa 1952. The other, Lot 18, "Untitled
(Pinturicchio Boy)," measures 15 by 11 1/4 by 4 3/8 inches
and was executed circa 1946. Both lots have estimates of $700,000
to $1,000,000. The former sold for $2,592,000, which broke
the artist's previous auction record of $495,000 set at Christie's
November 13, 1989. Lot 18, sold for $1,584,000.
Lot 13 is a very good graphite and wax crayon
on paper by Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), also part of the Jonas
group. Entitled "Composition II," it measures 23 by
29 inches and was executed in 1943. It has an estimate of $900,000
to $1,200,000. It sold for $2,760,000, breaking the artist's
former auction record of $697,000 set at Sotheby's November 12,
Lot 22, another Jonas property, is a large,
dark, classic abstraction by Mark Rothko (1903-1970)(see The
City Review article on a Rothko exhibition.) Untitled, it
is an oil on canvas that measures 81 by 69 inches and was executed
in 1964. It has an estimate of $8,000,000 to $10,000,000. It
sold for $10,096,000.
A more handsome abstraction in the Jonas group
is Lot 20, "Untitled 2," by Barnet Newman (1905-1970),
a nice and lovely companion to the Rothko. An oil on paper, one
of only two such works by Newman that are known to exist, mounted
on canvas, it measures 24 3/8 by 36 3/8 inches and was executed
in 1948 several months after Newman's first "zip" painting,
"Onement 1." It has an estimate of $1,500,000 to
$2,000,000. It sold for $1,920,000.
The Jonas group includes two
sculptures by Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), Lots 12 and 15. The former
is entitled "Bindu," and is a basalt sculpture that
is 26 1/4 inches high and was executed circa 1966-7. by Isamu
Noguchi, basalt, 26 1/4 inches high, circa 1966-7. The latter
is entitled "The Cry" and is a cast bronze work that
is 81 inches high and was executed in 1959-1963 and is number
two of an indition of six and one artist's proof. Lot 15 has an
estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $1,024,000 breaking
the artist's previous auction record of $732,800 that was set
by Lot 12. Lot 12, which had an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000,
broke the previous artist's auction record of $643,750.
Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925)
began his "Combines" series in 1954. "The Combines,"
the catalogue entry noted, "incorporated all and any materials
that lay to hand as a surface and.or support for his paint. Fusing
the material and objects or real life with paint in this way was
an act of integration between the artist's daily life and his
work that Rauschenberg consciously sought as a new and vital means
of expression....of paramount importance for Rauschenberg was
the matter-of-factness of these objects and the arbitrariness
of their combination...Rauschenberg's use of paint is almost unique.
he appears to use it in an ego-less and autonomous way that demonstrates
its material properties, its plasticity, opaqueness and its integrity."
Lot 14 is an excellent Rauschenberg combine from the Jonas group
that is entitled "Bride's Folly." It measures 57 1/2
by 38 3/4 inches and was executed in 1959. It has an estimate
of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $3,040,000.
Lot 31 is a major work by Philip
Guston (1913-1980), entitled "The Street." An oil on
canvas that measures 76 by 71 1/2 inches, it was executed in 1956
and was consigned as "property from the collection of Ruth
and Harvey Kaplan." It has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000.
"The Street represents
the zenith of Guston's achievement as a first gnetiaonl Abstract
Expressionist painter in the pantheon alongside his childhood
friend Jackson Pollock and his cohorts, Willem de Kooning and
Mark Rothko. It is one of a mslall body of nearly square-shaped
paintings executed between 1962 and 1956....Characterized by exquisite
brushwork, centralized areas of amorphous shapes and brilliantly
nuanced passages of fleshy color, it was these qualities that
secured Guston's reputation as a dominant member of the New York
School. The composer, John Cage, described Guston's abstract paintings
as 'that beautiful land,' as much for their sublime splendor as
their organic structure and living presence.....Guston saw painting
as a wrestling contest with chaos. He looked to the example of
Piet Mondrian to provide an inherent structure of framework for
his abstractions, especially the latter's 'plus and minus paintings,'
with their small counter-plays between vertical and horizontal
marks. Guston similarly used clusters of short individual brushstrokes
as the building blocks for pictures like The Street, mobilizing
the massed forms in the centre of the canvas where color is the
strongest and tensions are the most extreme. 'Look at any inspired
painting,' Guston told a Time reporter in 1952, 'It's like
a gong sounding; it puts you in state of reverberation.' ...It
was because of the shimmering facture of his surfaces, his tactile
brushstrokes and the atmospheric presence of his forms that Guston
was often called an "Abstract Impressionist' and his work
compared to late Monet and Pissarro. But Guston himself had little
affinity for the Impressionists. ...Dory Ashton tells a story
of a visit to Guston's studio by the composers Morton Feldman
and john Cage. Confronted with the etherial vision of one of Guston's
Abstract paintings, Cage exclaimed, 'My God, it's possible to
paint a magnificent picture about nothing.' To which Feldman replied,
"But, John, its about evertyhing.'"
"The Street" sold
for $7,926,000, smashing the artist's previous auction record
of $1,879,500 set at Sotheby's November 12, 2002.
Lot 28 is a huge and great
orange, yellow and white untitled abstraction by Clyfford Still
(1904-1980). Executed in 1959, it has a very modest estimate of
$1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,920,000.
The artist's auction is $3,144,000, which is relatively
low considering the market's valuations of many Abstract Expressionists.
Lot 34, "Chair Car,"
is a good, classic work by Edward Hopper (1882-1967). An oil on
canvas that measures 40 by 50 inches, it has an estimate on request
that was understood to be about $12,000,000 to $15,000,000. It
sold for $14,016,000, an auction record for Hopper, to Eric Wilding,
the head of Christie's American Paintings Department, who was
on the telephone and instantly announced on the hammer that the
winning bidder was Berry-Hill Gallery, one of the leading dealers
in New York in American paintings. The work's inclusion in a Contemporary
Art auction rather than in the American Paintings auction was
very unusual. The painting is part of the Collection of Helen
and David B. Ball from which Christie's is selling 49 works throughout
the Spring auction season this year. In a press release on this
work, Christie's noted that "With its strong emphasis on
perspective and proportion, Chair Car is one of Hopper's
most magnificent examples of tension and emotion, portraying the
travelers' feeling of anticipation." The catalogue entry
observed that it "exemplifies the hauntingly detached urban
scenes for which the artist is most renowned....As in most of
his best works, Hopper presents in Chair Car a tableau
of people who play out personal dramas in a stage-like or even
cinematic space. These solitary and seemingly lonely people are
central to the work, and a major theme in Hopper's art throughout
this career. In Chair Car, the paucity of passengers and
spatial emptiness may also imply an anxious emotional state, although
alternative readings are certainly possible, particularly with
the artist's use of sunlight as a note of warmth and a counterpoint
to the implied loneliness of the travelers. In this and similar
scenes, Hopper offers ambiguity and complexity - suited to modern
life - while transforming the familiar with almost magical effect."
The auction includes several
fine works by Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)(see The City Review article on a Diebenkorn
by Lot 43, "Untitled (Santa Cruz I)," an 36-by-52-inch
oil on canvas. Executed in 1962, it has an estimate of $1,800,000
to $2,500,000. It sold for $3,376,000 to a European dealer.
Lot 35 is a fine gouache, acrylic and oil pastel
on two joined sheets of paper that was painted by Diebenkorn in
1984. An untitled work that is number 26 in the artist's famous
"Ocean Park" series, it measures 24 by 38 inches. It
has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. It sold for $1,304,000.
A smaller but very strong oil on canvas by
Diebenkorn, Lot 33, "Untitled (Landscape)," has a modest
estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It measures 18 1/2 by 13 1/8
inches and was painted in 1957. It sold for $1,080,000.
Lot 41 is a very bright and good "Seated
Figure" by Francis Bacon (1909-1992). An oil on canvas that
measures 77 3/4 by 58 1/8 inches, it was painted in 1979. It has
an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $3,936,000.
Lot 46 is a large an impressive
work by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945). The emulsion, acrylic, shellac,
chalk and sunflower seeds work is entitled "Das Haus"
and measures 109 3/8 by 148 1/2 inches. Executed in 1996, it has
an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $744,000.
"The seminal sixteenth and seventeenth century mystical philosopher
Robert Fludd...declared that 'every plant, everything on earth,
has its equivalent star in heaven,''' the catalogue entry for
this lot observed, adding that "In 1996, Anselm Kiefer took
Fludd's statement as the root source of a series of Star
paintings in which he sought to visually demonstrate this idea
as if it were the spectacular and elaborate product of some celestial
archiving system. For Kiefer, as it was for his artistic mentor
and predecessor Joseph Beuys, art is a mystical practice through
which the holoistic nature of the universe reveals itself....Das
Haus belongs to a series of figureless paintings that depict
modern terrestial landscapes set against the star-filled night
sky and overladen with Fludd's cosmic maps of microcosm and the
macrocosm. One of the early champions of Rosicrucianism, Fludd
was a Renaissance man who attempted to merge gnostic belief, Christianity,
the Kabbalah and the discoveries of modern science into a cohesive
picture of the universe. His syncretic approach evidentaly appealed
to Kiefer whose art is itself often a project of as a similar
appoach. In Das Haus Kiefer depicts an ominious and official-looking
building with two search lights projecting into the sky. In their
light the Kabbalistic diagram of the sephiroth is written and
around it Fludd's Philosophia Moysaica is inscribed into
the picture surface with Fludd credited to the left."
Lot 40, "The Critic Sees,"
is a small sculptmetal on plaster with glass by Jasper Johns (b.
1930) that was once in the collectin of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Scull.
It was executed in 1961 and measures 3 1/4 by 6 1/2 by 2 1/4 inches
and has an ambitious estimate of $3,500,000 to $5,000,000. It
sold for $3,936,000, an auction record for a sculpture by Johns.
"In The Critic Sees, Johns presents a soft metallic
brick," the catalogue entry noted, "....in which two
mouths cast from life seem to speak behind a pair of glasses.
The critic's teeth are exposed, one mouth open and the other almost
shut, and together they appear like shadowy caverns....The sculpture
in a in part a satirical comment on the rhetoric of critics and
it was apparently inspired by a three-minute visit from a buffon
of a critic to one of Johns' exhibitions. Johns jokes that critics
are blind and see with their mouths."
Not all critics, of course,
Another Johns is Lot 67, "0
Through 9," a cast aluminum sculpture that measures 27 by
20 7/8 inches. Executed in 1971, it is number three of an edition
of 4. It has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. It sold for
Lot 37, is a good and large
charcoal on paper drawing by Johns that measures 42 by 29 7/8
inches. Executed in 1986, it has an ambitious estimate of $2,000,000
to $3,000,000. It sold for $2,032,000. The catalogue states,
unflinchingly and undemonstrably, that "Jasper Johns is our
greatest living visual poet," adding that "his mature
drawings have the convincing power and the absolute insight of
a haiku master."
Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960) is one of the wittiest
artists on the contemporary scene as well as one of the hottest.
Lot 7, "Frank and Jamie" are two life-size figures of
policemen standing on the heads that was executed in 2002 and
is one of an edition of three. It has an estimate of $1,400,000
to $1,800,000. It failed to sell and was passed at $1,300,000.
A far more appearing Cattelan is Lot 64, "Ostrich,"
in which a full-size taxidermed ostrich has its head stuck in
the floor. A unique work executed in 1997, it has an estimate
of $1,200,000 to $1,600,000. It failed to sell and was passed
Not all of the more contemporary works fared
as poorly as the Cattelans.
Lot 71, "No. B., 3," by Yayoi
Kusama (b. 1929), a 78-by-70-inch eggcrate and upholstery stuffing
work on canvas executed in 1962, had an estimate of $250,000 to
$350,000 and sold for $1,050,000. The catalogue provided the following
commentary on this lot:
"Donald Judd described Yayoi Kusama
as a true original, whose provoctive sexual happenings and mancially
obsessive art brought a madcap dimension to the othersiwe austere
Miminalist arena of New York in the erly 1960s. Largely overlooked
in America following her return to Japan in the mid-1970s, her
contribution is only now being reassessed thanks inpart to a major
touring retrospective in 1998, with venues at the Los Angeles
County Museum of art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kusmuma
arrived in New York in 1958 and quickly made a name for herself
with the polka dot and mesh motifs of her infnity net paintings.
She seemed at times desperate for publicity, her sensationalist
antics and shock tactics were underscored by deep friendships
with serious artists such as Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd. After
1961, she experimented with different mediums in a quqest to express
the consuming notion of infinity. Dogged by mental illness, her
work appeared to be driven by a neurotically compulsive quality,
which formerly married the all-over character of Jackson Pollock
with the reductive aesthetic of a burgeoning Minimalist movement.
Lot 62, "John Lennon," by Elizabeth
Peyton (b. 1965), is an oil on masonite that measures 24 1/8 by
19 1/2 inches. Exeucted in 1996, it is a very red painting that
is based on a photograph of the famous Beatle taken the year before
Peyton was born. The Beatle's face looks more like a women's than
a good likance. It has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It
sold for $800,000, breaking the artist's previous auction record
of $135,899 set at Christie's in London June 27, 2002.
Lot 6 is a strong and large oil on canvas entitled
"Briey (Concrete Cabin)," by Peter Doig (b. 1959). It
measures 108 1/4 by 78 1/4 inches and was painted 1994-6. It has
an ambitious estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for
$632,000, breaking the artist's previous auction record of $479,649
that had been set at Sotheby's in London June 26, 2002.
Lot 5, "Sculpture," is a large oil
on canvas by Luc Tuymans (b. 1958) of an African sculpture. It
measures 61 bt 25 1/8 in ches and was painted in 2000. It has
an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $1,472,000,
smashing the artist's previous auction record of $427,500 that
had been set November 13, 2003 at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg.
Auction records were also set for James
Rosenquist (b. 1933), Richard Prince (b. 1949), Sigmar Polke (b.
1941), and Thomas Demand (b. 1964). Lot 54, "Be Beautiful,"
a 54-by-84-inch oil on canvas by Rosenquist that was executed
in 1964 sold for $1,248,000 breaking the previous auction record
of $512,000 set at Sotheby's New York May 12, 2004. Lot 49, "Calculator,"a
68 7/8-by-172-inch chromogenic color print by Thomas Demand executed
in 2001 and one of an edition of six sold for $180,000, breaking
his previous auction record of $176,000 set at Sotheby's New York
November 9, 2004. Lot 53, "Bavarian," a 62 3/4-by-49-inch
oil and dispersion on canvas executed in 1965 by Sigmar Polke
said for $1,696,000, just edging past his previous auction record
set February 7, 2001 at Sotheby's London. Lot 2, "The Wrong
Joke," an acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas that measures
56 by 48 inches and was executed in 1994 by Richard Prince sold
for $800,000, breaking the artist's previous auction record for
$747,200 set May 13, 2004 at Phillips, de Pury & Company.
Lot 36, "Diana," a 29 7/8-by-22
1/4-inch graphite and touche on paper executed in 1965 by Roy
Lichtenstein (1923-1997) sold for $800,000, breaking the artist's
previous auction record of $589,000 for a work on paper set at
Christies November 16, 2000.