By Carter B. Horsley
This Contemporary Art evening
auction at Sotheby's May 10, 2005 is highlighted by several fine
Pop Art works, two major heroic paintings by Chuck Close, a fine
Wayne Thiebaud, a very good abstraction by Gerhardt Richter, a
superb sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, a very good early Mark Rothko
work and a nice sculpture by Alexander Calder.
The most spectacular work is
Lot 11, "The Cocktail Party," a group of 15 sculptures
by Marisol Escobar (b. 1930), that was one of several important
works consigned to this auction by the Robert B. Mayer Collection. Robert
and Beatriz Mayer established an education wing at the Museum
of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The group consists of free-standing
figures and a wall panel with painted wood, cloth, plastic, shoes,
jewelry, mirror, television set and other accessories. It was
executed in 1965-6 and has a modest estimate of $400,000 to $600,000.
It sold for $912,000, including the buyer's premium as do all
the results mentioned in this article, shattering the artist's
previous world auction record of $131,200.
"I began to make self-portraits
because working at night I had no other model. I used myself over
and over again. At time making these self-portraits, I would learn
about myself," Marisol was quoted in the catalogue as saying
in 1968. As perhaps the most beautiful woman artist of her generation,
she really did not need other models.
The catalogue provides the
following commentary on this lot:
"Born of Venezuelan parents
in Paris, Marisol Escobar's early artistic training was a transcontinental
experience that brought her from Europe to the Jepson School in
Los Angeles and then the Art Students League in New York. There,
she had to opportunity to study under the tutelage of Hans Hoffman,
and soon thereafter she would shed her surname Escobar in order
to assume an identity distinctly her own, rather than that of
her father. She quickly catapulted herself onto the New York art
scene in the 1960s, armed with a precocious talent and au aura
of mystery and cool chic that mesmerized her earliest admirers,
but which would later became a catalyst for her critics. Even
the typically laconic Andy Warhol quipped that Marisol was 'the
first girl artist with glamour.'...Morisol's sophisticated aesthetic
immediately linked her to the new Pop Art movement, but her work
remained in a category of its own, displaying a myriad of influences
from sources as diverse as Pre-Colombian art and Surrealist imagery.
Even today, Mariosl's art resists any linear curatorial reading."
The auction's highlight is
Lot 17," a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, the actress, by
Andy Warhol. One of a series of 13, it is 40 inches square and
was executed in 1963. It was consigned by Irving Blum, the dealer
and has an estimate of $9,000,000 to $12,000,000. It sold for
$12,616,000 to Lawrence Graff, the jeweler, the highest price
in the auction, was moderately successful with 82.2 percent of
the 73 offered lots selling for $68,036,800, a bit above the pre-sale
low estimate of $63,070,000.
Nine other records were
set at the auction, substantially more than were set at the previous
week's Impressionist & Modern Art sales. Last week's Impressionist
& Modern Art evening auction at Sotheby's was poor, but it
was followed by a very successful evening auction at Christie's
that buoyed up a rather stunned art market. This auction's relatively
soft results is likely to further confuse the auction market that
is giddy over high prices but still cautious.
The catalogue notes that the
"Liz" series "represents the apotheosis of Warhol's
creative vision, both as the technician of the (still then) revolutionary
silkscreen process, and the architect of the various ideas he
used to build monuments to the vagaries of celebrity. The present
painting is the outstanding example of this celebrated group.
Its status is elevated because of the excellent registration of
the silkscreen. The hair, eyes, nose and lips all display wonderful
plasticity and detail. This is further enhanced by the saturated
crimson background, pushing the silhouette out of the picture
plane, and lusciously conveying the film star's lips."
Another Pop Art star, Roy Lichtenstein has
several works in the auction, most notably Lot 56, "Blue
Nude," a 81-by-60-inch oil and magna on canvas that was consigned
from the Collection of Gianni Versace, the designer. Executed
in 1995, this lot has a conservative estimate of $2,500,000 to
$3,500,000. It sold for $5,280,000.
Versace commissioned two other works by Lichtenstein,
Lots 59 and 60. The former is entitled "Interior with Diana"
and measures 50 1/4 by 46 7/8 inches. It has an estimate of $400,000
to $600,000. It sold for $968,000. The latter is entitled
"Interior with Ajax" and measures 50 1/4 by 46 1/4 inches.
It has the same estimate as Lot 59. It sold an estimate of $400,000
to $600,000. It sold for $688,000. Both were executed in
The auction has two major large portrait paintings
by Chuck Close (b. 1940).
Lot 9, "John" was consigned by the
Robert Mayer Family Collection and is a 100-by-90-inch acrylic
on gessoed canvas. Executed in 1971-2, it is, according to the
catalogue, "the only painting to appear at auction from Chuck
Close's first series of the artist's signature motif-portrait
heads." "Monumental in scale and impact, the eleven
paintings," the catalogue observed, "beginning with
Close's own image in the black and white Big Self Portrait
of 1967-68 through to John, the final work in this
seminal group, established the subject matter, technical approach
and aesthetic parameters within which the artist has produced
a body of work of critical importance to 20th Century art. Significantly,
five of the paintings in this group were purchased by museums
or institutions between 1959 and 1971, an amazing aknowledgement
of their importance at the time....Currently, nine of the eleven
works are in museum collections....John is a masterpiece from
this seminal group, which bean with a restricted palette of black
and white and progressed in 1970 to include four color paintings....John
...demonstrates the return of color to Close's oeuvre and the
introduction of photography as inspiration for the artist's process
and technique. Close emerged from Yale University School of Art
and Architecture...in 1964, and on a Fulbright scholraship, he
studied in Venice and traveled through Europe from 1964-65....Returning
...to the United States as an instructor at the University of
Masachusetts in Amherst, Close shifted to figuration, partially
from frustration with his inability to break away from the habits
of his student work....Close turned to found photographic sources
as a departure point for multimedia constructions and shallow
reliefs. He soon progressed to working from his own black and
white photography and limited his composition only to the image
recorded in the photograph. By the time Close moved to New York
City in the fall of 1967, he artist had further defined his parameters
by abandoning color in his palette, and by working in extreme
scale so as to render the replicated image insistent and unavoidable....In
November of 1967, Close opted to concentrate on a head-and-shoulder,
passport-style composition, in order to achieve heightened concentration
and enlargement of detail, thus arrived at a format that has remained
the core of his oeuvre."
"John" is the cover illustration
of the catalogue and has an ambitious estimate of $5,000,000 to
$7,000,000. It sold for $4,832,000 to the Eli Broad Foundation,
breaking the artist's previous world auction record of $2,807,500.
Lot 10 is a series of five dye transfer photographs
of "John," mounted on paperboard with ink, graphite,
masking tape and acrylic, each sheet measuring 24 by 20 inches.
It has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $204,000,
also shattering the artist's previous world auction record for
a print of $46,800.
The other major Close acrylic on gessoed canvas
portrait is Lot 48, "Eric," a portrait of the artist
Eric Fischl. It is an oil on canvas that measures 100 by 84 inches
and was executed in 1990. It has an estimate of $2,800,000 to
$3,500,000. It sold for $3,040,000. It sold to Robert Mnuchin,
The catalogue provides the following commentary
on this lot:
"...through the genius of Chuck Close,
portraiture returns with full force to the forefront of Twentieth
century art, as the artist chooses this seemingly straight-forward
subject matter to produce an oeuvre of extraordinary complexity.
Though a variety of medium, Close experiments with the parameters
of portraiture from the eerily factual representation of his early
portraits such as John...lot 9..., to his later work, such
as Eric, in which a fractured prism of details coalesce
into a resemblance only at a distance....Based on photographs
of his subjects, Close creates a proscribed area in which he can
experiment with various media and investigate the nature of perception,
often creating several works of astonishing variety from one photographic
source. ..Close adapts many of the classic tenets of the canon:
the extreme frontality of his Heads is as basic to portraiture
as early church icons, Greek funerary portraits and Roman coins,
yet it is also most closely related to present-day passport or
yearbook photographs....By the 1980s and 1990s, the link with
photography becomes more complex, intuitive, and less technical.
As Jochen Poetter has observed, '[Close's] portraits are free
of emotion and affectation; they make no attempt to shape a 'character'
or typify. Even if the focus is always on the human being, Close
never ventures beyond the realm of visibility, devoting equal
care and attention to each external detail. Whereas the liveliness
is lost in a photograph, the painting gives birth to a new, lively
and colorful cosmos....The documentary statics of the photographic
representation are clothed in a veil of brilliance which, though
taken from the external world as material and phenomenon, obeys
internal intelligble laws - namely those of painting.'....In Eric
and other portraits of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this freedom
to create to create color in a myriad of combinations is mirrored
in the grand relaxation of Close's brush. Dots, diagonals, curves
and dollops of paint activitate the surface, and in their infinited
inventiveness, the picture surface and the image are fractured
into jewel-like individual units that act as small abstract paintings
within the whole. Almost in pointillist fashion they swim before
our eyes when viewed up close. Yet when viewed at a distance,
the image not only coalesces into a recognizable whole, but a
personality emerges - the sitter has been both deconstructed and
reconstructed by Close who has never lost sight of the image and
its essence....Having struggled with the debilitating affects
of paralysis due to a spinal blood clot in December 1988, Close's
ability to focus on discipline and process, while at the same
tme celebrat[ing] the sheer joy of art-making, allowed him to
continue his creative development."
Historically, Close's early huge portraits
like John are impressive and important, but the later ones like
Eric are spectacular and awesome even if they look like they might
have been conceived with the "glass lens" filter in
Photoshop. The catalogue reproduces photographs of Close painting
in a special lift.
Close's portraits remind one
of early book illuminations with their meticulous and brilliant
detail, very neat and organized. At the opposite pole of painting,
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), who also works in large scale, is intensely
into surface texture and very much focused on emotional impact.
Lot 69, "Athanor," is one of his finest creations, an
oil, sand, ash, gold leaf and lead foil on canvas that measures
111 by 150 1/4 inches. Executed in 1991, it has a modest estimate
of $700,000 to $900,000. It was sold at Sotheby's November 14,
2001 for $1,160,750 when it had been consigned by the collection
of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch of Berlin. At this auction, it
sold for $800,000.
Kiefer has made other works with the same title.
A 1983-4 version shows the courtyard Albert Speer designed for
the Chancellery in Berlin, the same setting the artist used in
"To the Unknown Painter" in which a palette stands where
the ceremonial sculptures may have stood, according to the catalogue.
This work exemplifies Kiefer's exploration
of Germany's past and is one of his most ambitious works.
"The reason for the charring is explained
by the painting's title. Athanor was a large furnace use by alchemists
who transmuted lead...into gold," the 2001 catalogue observed,
adding that "the fire which the alchemist tames is...not
one of destruction but of purification." In this work, Speer's
courtyard has been replaced with the Reichstag. "Its emptiness,
as well as the ravaged ground and pregnant sky, add a curious
serenity to the scene. It also adds a grandeur, as Kiefer here
creates a building reminiscent of the Ancient temples of Greece
and Rome. Kiefer's Athanor has now became a Parthenon for the
Twentieth Century, and he himself a Delphis Oracle for Germany's
past," the catalogue maintained.
This season's catalogue noted that "Athanor
is a wonderful example of Anselm Kiefer's continued exploration
into Germany's past, and the vicissitudes of history and memory."
"This monumental work must be seen as one of the artist's
most ambitious paintings, and in its power of presentation, its
depth of meaning and its accomplished technique, Athanor remains
one of Kiefer's most charged and concise commentaries on the meaning
of matter and the matter of meaning," it added.
Kiefer's "ruins" resonate with history
Lot 31 is a fine and impressive early Surrealist
work by Mark Rothko (1903-1970). A watercolor on board that measures
21 1/2 by 14 1/2 inches, it was executed circa 1944-5. It has
a modest estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $408,000.
Lot 29 is a very beautiful
white marble sculpture by Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) that was
executed 1962-1981. The 36 1/2-inch-high work is one of three
variants based on the two original plaster sculptures of the same
title but half the size executed in 1962. The artist also executed
a cast iron edition of 5 with one artist's proof, circa 1967,
and an edition of six plus one artist's proof in the 1980s cast
in bronze. It has an estimate of $900,000 to $1,200,000. It
sold for $940,000.
Lot 19 is an enormous painting
of a slice of cake by Jeff Koons (b. 1955). It was executed in
1995-7 and measures 125 1/8 by 116 3/8 inches. It has an estimate
of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $3,040,000 breaking
the artist's former world auction record for a painting of $2,248,000.
Lot 68 is a very fine and strong
abstract painting by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Dated 1992, it
is an oil on canvas that measures 78 1/4 by 63 inches. It has
an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $1,248,000.
Lot 5, "TV Set,"
is a eery, Munch-like landscape by Luc Tuymans (b. 1958) that
has a nice feeling of mystery. The oil on canvas measures 32 7/8
by 32 inches and was executed in 2000. It has a modest estimate
of $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $352,000.
The catalogue provides the
"Having just been celebrated
with a major retrospective at the Tate Modern in London last year...,
the Belgian artist's reputation has never been more pronounced.
Tuymans' project is underaken with a liquid-like fluttering of
oils on canvas. Loose, yet still extremely deliberate (and deliberated
upon), Tuymans' seemingly miminal brushwork is used to convey
objects and subjects which speak powerfully not in their concrete
rendition, but in their mood. Tuymans treats paint like poets
Lot 49, "Circle Street," is an excellent
example of the cityscapes of Wayne Thiebaub (b. 1920). A 48-inch-square
oil on canvas, it was executed in 1985. It has an estimate of
$1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,024,000.
Lot 72 is a good example of the work of Kara
Walker (b. 1969). A 5-part paper cutout with adhesive backing,
it was executed in 1995. It has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.
It sold for $329,600, smashing the artist's previous world
auction record of $51,000.
Other records for set for Andreas Gursky
(b. 1955) when his huge and very impressive chromogenic color
print, "May Day IV," Lot 3, sold for $632,000; when
an untitled work, Lot 8, by Tom Friedman (b. 1965) sold for $352,000;
when "Volkswagen," Lot 13, by Red Grooms (b. 1937),
sold for $96,000; when "Untitled Leg," Lot 23, by Robert
Gober (b. 1954) sold for $912,000 Michael McGinnis, the head of
the Contemporary Art Department at Phillips, de Pury & Company,
and when Lot 54, a collaboration between Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) sold for $1,001,600.