By Carter B. Horsley
This evening Contemporary Art
auction at Sotheby's May 15, 2007, is highlighted by major paintings
by Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon, three works by Jackson Pollock,
and good works by Jean-Michele Basquiat, Franz Kline, Peter Doig
and Roy Lichtenstein.
Lot 31, "White Center
(Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)," is a splendid 1950
oil on canvas by Mark Rothko (1903-1970) (see The City Review article on a Rothko exhibition) that was consigned by David Rockefeller.
The lot, which measures 81 by 55 1/2 inches, has an estimate of
$40 million and press reports indicated that Sotheby's gave Mr.
Rockefeller a guarantee of $46 million. The auction record for
Rothko is $22.4 million, set at Christies in 2005. Mr. Rockefeller
acquired the work for $10,000 in 1960 from the Sidney Janis Gallery
in New York.
"The impact of White Center,"
according to the catalogue entry, "inheres in the complexity
that underlies its ostensible simplicity. At first glance, the
unwary viewer might discern little more than a mere four shapes
arrayed upon a ground. Look closer, though, and everything becomes
changeful, nuanced and contrapuntal - like a fugue of feelings
translated into colors. Thus, Rothko rubbed down the orange ground
in the lower sections so that there it almost evaporates before
the gaze. Yet when we look towards the top half of the composition,
this selfsame 'ground' has modulated into a blood red aura advancing
around the white, black and crowning orange rectangle. Likewise,
the even application of the lowermost rectangle counterpoints
the hazier, mottled surfaces of those above it. The apparent lateral
symmetry, too, is deceptive: notice how the white ends at its
right in staccato vertical dabs whereas its leftward edge splays
out and slightly downwards. The shadowy black band also seems
to emerge beneath the white as a horitzontal turquoise strip -
a premonitory whisper amid the loudest chords of light."
While there is no question
that this is a superb Rothko and that David Rockefeller is impressive
provenance, the high estimate and guarantee are pretty ambitious.
Still, in a recent article in artnet.com, Charlie Finch wrote
that the Rothko "should probably meet the hammer at, conservatively,
The painting sold for $72,840,000
including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this
article. It was a world auction record for the artist and for
Post-War and Contemporary Art. Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer, announced
at a press conference after the sale that Mr. Rockefeller attended
the auction and issued a statement in which he said he was "very
pleased it did so well" and that he "was sorry to see
Works on paper as a rule do
not fetch as astronomic prices as oils on canvas and Rothko is
an artist who frequently created his signature images on paper.
Lot 36, for example, is a fine acrylic on paper mounted on board
that measures 23 3/4 by 18 5/8 inches. Executed in 1968, it carries
an extremely modest estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It
sold for $3,064,000. Its provenance is listed only as "property
of a private New York Collection" that acquired it at Sotheby's
May 2, 1988.
If the Rockefeller Rothko has
the highest estimate in this auction, the painting that was placed
on the catalogue's cover, "Study from Innocent X," by
Francis Bacon (1969-1992) does not lag too far behind as its "refer
to Department" estimate was reported to be more than $30
million. The work, Lot 22, is an oil on canvas that measures 78
by 55 3/4 inches. Executed in 1962, it was influenced by Diego
Velasquez's 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon started the
series of paintings of Popes in 1946 but he destroyed those he
did between 1946 and 1949.
"As the present work demonstrates,"
the catalogue entry observes," Bacon's chosen task in painting
the Pope was not one of representing an image but rather re-representing
the meanings inherent to Velàquez's portrait: stature,
presence, public role and the very mecahnics of being. In essence,
Bacon gets under the skin, goes beyond the surface of the image,
and engages a series of emotions that lie at the heart of ordinary
daily existence in the most extraordinary way. This 1962 work
is the painting that most directly engages the palette of the
Velàsquez. It is the first canvas in the papal series to
evoke both the Pope's red robes and the red velvet of the throne
and drapes in the background of the Spanish master's portrait,
in contrast to Bacon's previous use of dark blue, green or black
backgrounds in the Popes....Bacon's other source material was
the film still from Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin
- the close-up of a nurse on the Odessa steps with open mouth,
bloody face and broken glasses. this agonized image with the solent
scream gave birth to distorted faces throughout Bacon's oeuvre
and was emloyed to great effect in the Poples. In Study from
Innocent X, the grimacing face contains traces of the broken
lenses, while the vigorous impasto and brushstrokes of the face
convey the anguish of human strife."
The painting sold for $52,680,000.
Bacon's previous auction record was $27,598,425.
The sale was quite successful
with 87.8 percent of the 74 offered lots selling for a total of
$254,874,000, not far off from the pre-sale high estimate of $265,100,000.
Mr. Meyer said that he was "absolutely thrilled" with
the "fantastic" results. He said that 41 works sold
for over one million dollars and that there was "lots of
international bidding," adding that "you can see how
aggressive and strong the market is.
In addition to the Rothko
and Bacon records, 13 other artist's auction records were set.
The auction, however, was
not a complete success as all three lots in the auction by Jackson
Pollock failed to sell, which has to be something of a record
and underscores the inebriation of a market. Given reports in
the last year or so of private sales of 20th Century art in the
nine figures, it is perhaps not surprising now that major works
by major artists might lead hedge-funders to part with $50 million
or so. It is interesting to speculate how many billions they must
spend to accumulate an "impressive collection" of a
couple of dozen high quality works. It is even more ponderous
to consider what world-class collections of tribal art and antiquities
they could amass with just of fraction of what they are now spending
on their Rothkos and Bacons.
On a more realistic level,
of course, it is becoming extremely difficult to extrapolate values
for an artist's oeuvre given these "impressive" prices.
Lot 25 is a strong work by
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) entitled "Figure in Landscape
I." An oil and enamel on board mounted on fiberboard, it
measures 24 1/2 by 14 1/2 inches and was executed circa 1951.
The painting is closely related to a larger work, "Figure
in Landscape No. 2" at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture
Garden in Washington, D.C. This lot has a conservative estimate
of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $4,072,000.
Another fine de Kooning in
the auction is Lot 32, "Untitled (Woman)," which is
an oil on canvas that measures 47 1/4 by 35 3/4 inches. It was
once in the collection of Mr. and Mr. Joseph H. Hirschhorn of
Washington, D.C., and it is dated 1966. It has a modest estimate
of $4,500,000 to $6,500,000. It failed to sell and was passed
at $3,500,000. The catalogue notes that the later paintings
of women appear more tranquil and their integration into thir
surroundings more lush and laconic," adding that "their
superstructure is no longer overt; whipash line is replaced by
large areas of freely brushed color. There is a clear shift to
a luminous pastel palette borrowed from nature and landscape,
which coincided with de Kooning's move out of Manhattan to Springs,
Long Island, leaving behind both the pace of the city as well
as the intensity of the artistic community of the 1950s."
Lot 24 is a very strong abstraction
by Franz Kline (1910-1962). Entitled "Study for High Street,"
it is an oil and tempera on paper that measures 14 by 22 inches.
It was painted in 1952. It has a modest estimate of $400,000 to
$500,000. It sold for $450,000.
Lot 20 is a strong work by
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997). Entitled "Girl in Mirror,"
it is an porcelain enamel on steel that is one of an 1965 edition
of 8. It measures 42 by 42 by 2 inches. It has an estimate of
$1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $4,072,000.
Several works in the auction
have been consigned by the estate of Barbra Jacobson including
Lot 43, "Still Life with Green Vase," by Roy Lichtenstein.
The oil and magna on canvas measures 56 by 40 3/4 inches and was
painted in 1972. It has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000.
It sold for $4,296,000. While its limited palette is not
as colorful as many Lichtensteins, this large work is a very strong
composition and the inclusion of paint brushes indicates that
it held a special significance for the artist.
Another major work from the
Jacobson estate is Lot 48, "Smoker #17," by Tom Wesselmann
(1931-2004), an oil on shaped canvas that measures 96 by 131 inches.
Executed in 1975, it has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000.
It sold for $5,864,000, more than double the artist's previous
auction record. Wesselmann became well-known in the 1960s
for his series of the "Great American Nudes" and in
1967 he became the "Smoker" series and began using a
projector to transfer his sketches to large canvases. He subsequently
introduced a hand to the imagery in the series, and, according
to the catalogue entry, "With the addition of the hand came
added complexity and dynamism, as well as a heightened sexuality.
The sultry smoke wafts through the fingers and off the glossy
red lips reminiscent of a film still or advertisement. The long
red manicured nails evoke the glamour and style of Hollywood where
the cigarette was often viewed as a fashionable and seductive
accessory - a covenient and unmistakable allusion to sex at a
time when films were heavily censored."
Lot 47, "Woman in a White
Wicker Rocker," is a fine sculpture by George Segal (1924-2000)
that was also consigned by the Jacobson estate. The plaster, wood
and wicker chair sculpture measures 42 by 33 by 50 inches and
was created in 1984. It is unique but a bronze version was cast
in the same year in an edition of five. The lot has an estimate
of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $180,000.
Also from the Jacobson estate
is Lot 51, "Number 26, 1949," an enamel on canvas painting
by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) (See The City Review article on a major Pollock
exhibition). It measures
23 1/8 by 14 1/8 inches and was acquired at Christie's November
3, 1987 in New York. It has an estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000.
It failed to sell and was passed at $2,600,000.
The best of the three Pollocks
in this auction is Lot 34, "Rhythmical Dance." An oil
and enamel on cut-out paper, it measures 32 by 24 inches and was
executed in 1948. It has an estimate of $12,000,000 to $16,000,000.
It failed to sell and was passed at $7,500,000.
The largest Pollock in the
auction is Lot 26, "Number 16, 1949," an oil and enamel
on paper mounted on masonite that measures 30 3/4 by 22 1/4 inches.
It has an estimate of $18,000,000 to $25,000,000. It failed
to sell and was passed at $17,500,000. This lot was once in
the collection of Peggy Guggenheim in Venice and G. David Thompson
Anthony Grant, a member of
the Contemporary Art Department at Sotheby's, said after the sale
that they knew from the exhibitions that interest in the Pollocks
was "thin," but added that there was "great interest
after the sale."
The auction has two strong
and large works by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Lot 15 is
an untitled acrylic, oilstick and spray paint on canvas that measures
78 1/2 by 72 inches and was executed in 1981. It has an ambitious
estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000. It sold for $14,600,000,
shattering the artist's previous auction record of $5,509,500.
Lot 73, "Untitled (Bracco
Di Ferro)," is an acrylic and oilstick on canvas with wood
supports by Jean-Michel Basquiat. It measures 72 inches square
and was executed in 1983. It has an estimate of $1,500,000 to
$2,000,000. It sold for $2,840,000. It is not crystal clear
why similar works of similar size and date and quality by the
same artist should have such disparate prices and while the more
expensive lot is more colorful it may not be as easy to live with
as the less expensive one for some collectors.
Lot 35 is a striking, painted
aluminum sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) that is entitled
"Black Venus (EK227)." It measures 85 by 36 by 2 5/8
inches. It was created in 1959 and is unique. It has an estimate
of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $2,952,000. One could
argue that this sculpture is much better than the artist's paintings.
Lot 70 is an impressive work
by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) that is entitled "Die Frauen der
Antike (The Women of Antiquity)." The oil, shellac, emulsion
and crayon on photographic paper on canvas measures 110 1/4 by
75 inches. It was executed between 1991 to 2000. It has a modest
estimate of $450,000 to $650,000. It sold for $992,000.
Lot 12, is a arresting work
by Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) entitled "In the Beginning."
An oil on canvas that measures 57 by 78 3/4 inches, it was painted
in 1991. It has an ambitious estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000.
It sold for $1,608,000.
Lot 13, "Italian Woman,"
is a stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons (b. 1955) that is
30 inches high. Executed in 1986, it is number one in an edition
of three with one artist's proof. It has an estimate of $900,000
to $1,200,000. It sold for $2,168,000.
Lot 68, "Those Who Are
Here Again," is a large oil and lacquer on canvas by Daniel
Richter (b. 1962). It measures 116 by 133 1/2 inches and was painted
in 2002. It has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It sold
Lot 11 is a striking, large
oil on canvas by Peter Doig (b. 1959), entitled "The Architect's
Home in the Ravine." Executed in 1991, it measures 78 3/4
by 108 1/4 inches and has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000.
It sold for $3,624,000, far below the more than $11 million that
one of his paintings fetched in London in February. The catalogue
entry notes that while modern architecture was "the talisman
of a brave new urban world," "Instead of optimism, however,
Doig here presents an image of abandonment and creeping desuetude
at odds with Modernism's ideal: the rectilinear, architectural
lines are all but consumed by the encroaching organic riot of
frosted foliage, a poignant reminder of the futility of man's
endeavors in the face of indomitable nature."
Lot 3 is a strong work by Glenn
Brown (b. 1966) that is entitled "The Marquess of Breadlabane."
An oil on panel, it measures 38 by 31 inches and was painted in
2000. It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for
$734,400, a new auction record for the artist. Brown appropriates
the work of other artists through reproductions. Here the image
is based on a series of portraits by Frank Auerbach.
Lot 2, "Guys and Dolls,"
by Cecily Brown, sold for $1,104,000, a new auction record for
Lot 4, "No-One Ever
Leaves," by Jim Hedges, sold for $689,600, more than double
the artist's previous auction record.
Lot 7, "Kiss/Panic,"
by John Baldessari, sold for $992,000, a new auction record for
Lot 14, "Dude Ranch
Nurse #2," by Richard Prince, sold for $2,504,000, a new
auction record for the artist.
Lot 28, "Jardin d'Armour,"
by Hans Hofmann, sold for $2,056,000, a new auction record for
Lot 38, "Photograph,"
by Robert Rauschenberg, sold for $10,680,000, a new auction reocrd
for the artist.
Lot 39, Standing Male Nude
in the Shower," by David Park, sold for $1,160,000, a new
auction record for the artist.
Lot 56, "Beta Delta,"
by Morris Louis, sold for $1,832,000, a new auction record for
Lot 62, "Untitled,"
by Dan Flavin, sold for $1,384,000, a new auction record for the
Lot 68, "Those Who
Are Here Again," by Daniel Richter, sold for $824,000, a
new auction record for the artist.