By Michele Leight
In March 2008 Mark Porter, President of Christie's
America, hosted a reception and private viewing of exceptional
highlights from Christie's upcoming Spring 2008 sales - entitled
"Art Cabinet" - including several post-war and contemporary
paintings featured here.
"Imagine this is your ideal collecting
world," said Jonathan Reidel, Deputy Chairman of Christie's
International, who personally selected each item, among which
was "No. 15," a shimmering yellow and red Abstract Expressionist
masterpiece by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), (illustrated at the top
of the story), one of the highlights of Christie's Post-War and
Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York on May 13 - an absolute
stunner, with an estimate in the region of $40 million. It
sold for $50,441,000 including the buyer's premium as do all results
mentioned in this article. It was the highest price of the auction,
which totaled $348,263,600, the second highest total ever at Christie's
for Contemporary Art. Of the 57 offered lots, 95 percent sold,
a very high percentage. The pre-sale estimate for the sale had
been $282 million to $399 million.
Brett Gorvy and Amy Cappellazzo, International
Co-Heads and deputy chairpersons, Contemporary Art, Americas,
Christie's, spoke at the post-sale press conference, and were
justifiably thrilled with the result of the sale. Ms. Cappellazzo
observed that the auction house's highest total for a contemporary
art sale (Christie's evening sale, November 2007) included one
painting - Warhol's incredible "Green Car Crash" - that
fetched a staggering $71,720,000 and that sale had many more lots.
Therefore, it follows that tonight's sale was pretty spectacular.
Warhol's iconic "Double Marlon" and
"Soup Can (Pepper Pot)," Zeng Fanzhi's satirical "Mask
Series No. 9," Willem de Kooning's luscious "Untitled,"
and Francis Bacon's important "Three Studies for Self Portrait,"
were among the chosen art works gleaned from across the globe,
offering a historical context for post war and contemporary art.
"Art Cabinet" featured exquisite, world-class art -
and art objects - wrought by human hands, spun from innovative
imaginations; it was a celebration of the creative process.
Lucian Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping"
is also among the top lots offered, and a wonderful "Hoovers"
by Jeff Koons are stand outs, in a sale filled with desirable
works of art in the evening sale and the day sale has some amazing
offerings at what look like almost affordable prices in the current
contemporary art market .
The pre-sale estimate for Christie's evening
sale is $282-$399 million dollars, now catching up to the Impressionist
and Modern art evening sale. Despite the doom and gloom predictions,
and talk of a recession - and a less buoyant atmosphere among
bidders at both auction houses - Christie's evening, day and afternoon
sales of Impressionist and Modern in May, 2008, art realized a
robust $325.5 million combined.
Rothko's beautiful "No. 15," illustrated
at the top of the story, and above, invites comparisons with Matisse,
an artist he greatly admired, whose ground-breaking "The
Red Studio," painted in 1911, was a catalyst for Rothko.
It would be an understatement to say that this seminal work influenced
an entire generation of young artists, and contemporary art as
we know it today. "No 15," a 91 1/4-by-80-inch oil on
canvas that was painted in 1952, is exceptionally joyful for Rothko,
whose sublime compositions convey "mood" as no other
In the photo at the top of the story, Lot 21
is a smoldering Abstract Expressionist work by Sam Francis (1923-1994)
entitled "Black." An oil on canvas, it measures 74 1/2
by 63 1/2 inches and was painted in 1955. It has an estimate of
$4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $5,193,000, exceeding
the artist's previous world auction record of $4,048,000 set at
Christie's in New York in November, 2006. It was heartening to
see three world class Abstract Expressionists - Rothko, Sam Francis,
and Adolph Gottleib - do so well tonight. Three superb examples
of their work achieved $62.9 million. World auction records were
set tonight for Sam Francis' "Black," (Lot 21, illustrated
at the top of the story) which sold for $5,193,000), and Adolph
Gottleib's"Cool Blast," Lot 22, a 1960 oil that sold
for $6,537,000, shattering the artist's previous auction record
of $1,384,000 set at Doyle New York a year ago.
In the same photo is Lot 29, a wonderful bronze
sculpture by David Smith (1906-1965) entitled "Widow's Lament."
It measures 15 by 20 by 6 3/8 inches and was executed in 1942.
It has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for
Lot 49, "Mask Series No 9," is an
unsparing, satirical "take" on the dislocation and psychological
strain imposed on individuals in the wake of China's escalating
materialistic values. It is by Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964). An oil on
canvas, it measures 66 1/4 by 56 1/4 inches and was executed in
1996. It has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold
for $1,721,000. Extremely arresting, it shows the influence
of Max Beckman and Frances Bacon, and the spotted Pug is an inspired
Expectations run high when a painting like
'Green Car Crash" by Andy Warhol sells a year ago for an
astonishing $71,720,000. Once you have won gold, no one is going
to settle for silver or bronze, so it is not unusual that buyers
and media are casting aspersions on some of the consignments -
and their high price tags - this season. When the dust settles,
and perspective is restored, it may become obvious that "Green
Car Crash," and a world-class Rothko consigned by a Rockefeller
do not come to auction often. We were blessed to see them at all.
As the sales results this past year show, it
is becoming harder to distinguish between the outcome of what
has traditionally been the blockbuster event of the art auction
season - Impressionist and Modern art - and the apparently insatiable
demand for Post-War and Contemporary art, whose meteoric rise,
especially in prices, has been phenomenal.
Barely three years ago, pre-sale estimates
for the November 2005 Post War and Contemporary Art sale at Christie's
were $101.2 million to $145.6 million. That auction was considered
hugely successful when it achieved a grand total in excess of
its high estimate - $157,441,600. It remains to be seen whether
the demand for post-war and contemporary art will plateau, or
continue to rise.
"Three Studies for Self-Portrait,"
an awesome painting by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) recalls the skulls
often featured in paintings by the great old masters - especially
Rembrandt. Here, Bacon smears barely enough painted flesh on his
own likeness to have us believe there is a flicker of life amidst
the gruesome decay. Disturbing as he can be, Bacon is hugely important,
as much for his link to the great artistic geniuses of the past
as for his superb painterly effects. One can spend hours simply
contemplating them, and their grim evocations. The painting, which
is in three parts, each 14 by 12 inches, was painted in 1976 and
has an estimate of $25,000,000 to $35,000,000. It sold for
$28,041,000. The painting has sold for $2,900,000 at Christie's
in London in 1999 and had been acquired by Richard and Elizabeth
Hedreen of Seattle at Sotheby's in 2005 for $5,100,000.
Warhol's "Last Supper," Lot 8, a
synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas, diptych, each
40 inches square, was painted in 1986. It was derived from a mass-produced
reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting of the same
name, and it was the last "series" of his life, exhibited
in Milan a month before his death. "Last Supper" is
also a reminder that Warhol sat through many services at the neighborhood
Catholic church in his hometown, Pittsburgh, when he was growing
up, and remained a devoted Catholic throughout his urban pop celebrity
life. Church was the first place Warhol encountered art, and Christie's
catalog reveals that his mother hung a reproduction of this painting
on a wall in their family home. The lot has an estimate of $6,000,000
to $9,000,000. It sold for $8,777,000.
It was in church that Warhol first saw painted
icons of saints, which later influenced his treatment of celebrities
- or saintly pop icons - like his "gold" Marilyn"
in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New
York (See The City Review article "Warhol's by the Millions").
The pomp and ceremony of the Pope's recent visit to New York would
have been creative and spiritual fodder for Warhol - undoubtedly
inspiring a fabulous "Pope" series.
The eerie pink and black "Self Portrait,"
Lot 4, painted in 1986, was also one of a series painted a few
months before Warhol's untimely death. It is disturbing not for
the shock of signature peroxide hair, (a wig), or the catatonic
gaze, but because Andy Warhol - the king of youthful pop culture
- looks old. It is a reminder that the only thing that cannot
be re-produced or manufactured is youth. It has an estimate of
$2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $3,513,000.
Each auction season brings out another iconic
portrait by Andy Warhol: this time it is a male - Marlon Brando
- in "Double Marlon," Lot 10, a silkscreen ink on unprimed
linen that measures 84 by 95 1/4 inches and was painted in 1966.
It is hard to think of a more American male, who was well known
for his fierce individualism on and off screen. Warhol lifted
this image from the controversial 1953 movie "The Wild One,"
which offered movie-goers full-bore Brando as a motorcycle gang
leader, all decked out in slithery leather. It also featured a
fleet of gleaming motorcycles whose biker boys - gang members
- terrorized a town for an entire night. While that might not
seem much like a plot, it doesn't really seem to matter when Brando
was the star.
The reviews for the movie, cited in Christie's
catalog, included selling points like "open throttle hoodlum
brutality" and "long on suspense, unmitigated brutality
and rampant sadism" or, slightly less judgmental: "Marlon
Brando contributes another hard-faced hero who never knew love
as a boy and is now plainly in need of psychoanalysis."
A build up like that is guaranteed to generate
queues around the block. Like Warhol's other iconic portraits
of the fragile and famous - Liz, Jackie and especially Marilyn
Monroe - "Double Marlon," Lot 12, exudes vulnerability.
While Brando remains a cult movie icon across the globe, and one
of the brightest stars ever to imprint himself on celluloid, his
massive weight gain and family problems in later life were a symptom
that even silver screen idols are human - which did not escape
Warhol. They do not make stars like Brando any more, and as if
he was not enough "machismo" and testosterone for one
movie, Lee Marvin was one of his co-stars. Lot 12 had an estimate
on request and it sold for $32,521,000.
On a lighter note is a signature, circa 1962,
"Soup Can", a subject that is now so familiar it might
as well be called an "Andy Can." The fine execution
of "Soup Can" reveals what a wonderful draughtsman and
painter Warhol was, before he began his silk-screening. The casein
and graphite on linen work measures 20 by 16 inches and has an
estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000. It sold for $7,097,000.
Tom Wesselmann's Lot 11, "Smoker #9,"
is a fabulous and sensuous work by Tom Wesselman (1931-2004).
Painted in 1973, it is a nostalgic throw back to pre-politically
correct times when we really did not know smoking was hazardous
to our health. One gets the distinct feeling that this lady, with
her brightly painted red nails and sensuous red lips, would not
have given a damn even if she did know - she would simply exhale,
ŕ la Lauren Bacall. The oil and liquitex gesso on linen
work measures 83 by 89 1/2 inches and has an estimate of $4,000,000
to $6,000,000. It sold for $6,761,000, easily surpassing the
artist's previous world auction record of $5,864,000 set at Sotheby's
a year ago.
Wesselman's surreal, usually nude, "American
Women" on the beach and in the bedroom - and his disembodied
components of women, like his wonderful mouth and hand - are not
as iconic as Warhol's legendary silver screen goddesses, but edgy,
modern "femme fatales" that do not hesitate to come
down off their pedestals and have some fun. "American Women"
and "Smokers" were Wesselman's most successful themes.
Lot 15, "Abstraktes Bild (625)" by
Gerhard Richter is one of the largest, most intensely saturated,
lusciously pigmented and textured of his well-known abstract oil
paintings. The magnificent effect is achieved with a humble squeegee
and traditional artist's brushes, a reminder that this definitively
contemporary and forward looking artist was classically trained
within the repressive confines of the Social Realist style favored
by Nazism and Socialism in East Germany during his youth. None
of this had any effect in suffocating his genius.
For an artist that is famous for his copies
of Polaroid photographs of banal subject matter like toilet rolls,
flickering candles, or murdered nurses gleaned from newspaper
clippings - an artist who questioned the very act of "painting"
in the modern world - it does not come more "painterly than
"Abstraktes Bild (625)."
The laborious "layering" of Richter's
abstracts hark back to the Guilds of the Renaissance, when teams
of artists applied dozens of coats of gesso, and multiple layers
of pigments to achieve their astonishing masterpieces, and enduring
colors, that still glow, centuries later. The difference is that
Richter exposes the layers. The estimate for this gorgeous painting
is $7,000,000 to $10,000,000. It sold for $14,601,000, an appreciative
bow to one of Richter most beautiful abstracts. Like the superb
Rothko that did so well tonight, this is the kind of painting
you just want to own. (See The City
Review article on Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Museum of
Also in the luscious category are Lot 28, "1946
(PH-182)," a red and earth toned gem by Clifford Still (1904-1980),
so contemporary it is staggering to think that it was painted
a year after the end of World War II. A 60 1/2-by-43 3/4-inch
oil on canvas, it has an estimate of $8,000,000 to $12,000,000.
This absolutely beautiful painting sold for $14,401,000.
Another sumptuous work is Lot 27, "Untitled
IV," by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). The deliciously impassioned,
swirling oil on canvas measures 70 1/4 by 80 inches and was painted
in 1975. It has an estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000. It
sold for $12,081,000.
Lot 53, "Self Portrait in the Wilderness,"
originally from The Allan Stone Gallery, New York, is another
beauty by de Kooning. An oil and charcoal on board, it measures
20 1/4 by 22 1/4 inches and was painted in 1947. It has an estimate
of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It failed to sell and was passed
at $1,400,000. It is hard to understand, because it is a gem -
every sale has its head scratchers.
Although it is a Pop Art work, Roy Lichtenstein's
"Reflections on the Prom," Lot 40, offers the same "lift,"
a pulsating jolt of color that tingles like the after effects
of a double espresso. An oil and magna on canvas, it measures
74 by 90 inches and was executed in 1990. It has an estimate of
$3,000,000 to $5,000,000.
It sold for $8,777,000, and was featured
at the post-sale press conference, where Brett Gorvy and Amy Cappellazo
spoke about the outstanding results overall tonight, and for this
painting in particular. This superb
painting has been somewhat eclipsed by another Lichtenstein offering,
Lot 35, "Ball of Twine," shown below, a circa 1963 graphic
masterpiece conceived at the dawn of the Pop Art era, with a correspondingly
high price tag of $14,000,000 to $18,000,000. It failed to
sell and was passed at $12,000,000. Mr. Gorvy forthrightly
said that "intellectual works have a way to go," adding
that collectors are going for works of the highest quality. Ms.
Cappelazo added that the sale was kept "very tight"
with an emphasis on quality and that was reflected in a very high
percentange of lots sold. A magna on canvas, it measures 40
by 36 inches. The catalogue entry maintains that "As a Pop
provocateur, Lichtenstein [1923-1997] audaciously challenged painting's
very foundations through such works, with their crude subject
and seeming lack of expression. With its distinctive benday dots
and graphic contours, Lichtenstein pays ironic homage to his source's
mechanical roots, while also reworking the found image with a
linear fluidity and formal rigor that rivals abstract painting's
best." The Stella had been consigned by Peter Brandt who
had acquired it at Sotheby's in 2001 for $4 million.
Richard Prince's "Untitled" (Cowboy
Saddling a Horse)," Lot 19, evokes rugged individualism,
self-reliance, the great outdoors, the magnificence and harshness
of nature, and the pioneering spirit of America that has become
a symbol of freedom. There is no more renegade figure than the
cowboy - epitomized by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's "spaghetti
westerns," and John Wayne galloping around Monument Valley
in John Ford's spectacular epics.
However, Christie's catalog reveals that this
is a Marlboro ad cowboy that has fallen out of favor because of
the damage we know cigarettes cause. Prince cut away the famous
Marlboro caption and re-photographed it - plagiarizing his own
image. By doing this, he released the cowboy from his original
role as a cigarette salesman. This version has more to do with
the original, mythical "movie star" cowboy - a moving
paradox. Like Health Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain,"
and Christian Bale in "3.10 to Yuma," there are chinks
in the armor of the re-invented western hero, an endangered species
in a world that has become increasingly reliant on technology
- not self-reliant - which Prince exposes in great images like
this. The work is a color coupler photograph, number two from
an edition of two and it measures 30 by 46 inches. It was executed
between 1980 and 1983 and has an estimate of $700,000 to $1,000,000.
It sold for $802,600.
Lot 13, "Man-Crazy Nurse #2,"
by Richard Prince sold for $7,433,000, nicely over the artist's
previous auction record for a painting of $6,089,000 set at Christie's
New York last November.
Lot 37 is a large oil on canvas by Lucian Freud
(b. 1922) of a not thin "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping"
naked on a couch on a wooden floor. It was executed in 1995 and
measures 59 5/8 by 86 1/4 inches. It has an enormous estimate
of $25,000,000 to $35,000,000. It sold for $33,641,000, far
above the artist's previous world auction record of $19,361,000
set at Christie's in New York last November. The woman is
more "voluptuous" than Rubens's women but not quite
as attractive. The catalogue entry remarks that this work "is
a bold and imposing example of the stark power of Lucian Freud's
realism and his extraordinary ability to capture the startling
actuality of life in all its awkwardness, discomfort and artless
wonder." It is impressively painterly but perhaps just "artless."
Lot 24 is a large and stunning oil on canvas
by Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). Entitled "Studio No. 11 in Blue,"
it measures 48 by 84 inches and was painted in 1954. It has a
modest estimate of $900,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $1,889,000.
The poetic, turquoise butterfly painting by
Damien Hirst featured above, Lot 43, "I'm in Love for the
First Time," was executed in 1999. The work has butterflies
and household paint on a circular canvas 96 inches in diameter.
It has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,600,000. It sold for
$1,273,000. (See The City Review
article on and the Ashraya-New
York article on the February 18, 2008 RED auction that was
organized by Hirst and Bono.)
Not illustrated but imposing in the galleries
is Lot 16, "New Hoover Convertibles, New Shelton," executed
in 1981-1986 by Jeff Koons (b.1955):
"They were very virginal and very frightening....I
was showing them for their anthropomorphic quality, their sexual
androgyny. They are breathing machines. They are breathing machines.
But, when they do function, they suck up dirt. The newness is
gone. If one of my works was to be turned on, it would be destroyed."
Jeff Koons, courtesy of Christie's catalog.
And we thought Jeff Koons, creator of leafy
"Puppy," suspended hearts and gigantic blue diamonds,
was all fun and games. Lot 16 had an "estimate on request"
and it sold for $11,801,000.
Lot 18, "Dream Game," by Peter
Halley sold for $457,000, well above the artist's previous auction
record of $277,000 set at Sotheby's in New York last November.
Lot 31, "Untitled," a 1969 work
by Barnett Newman, sold for $5,193,000, a world auction price
for the artist.
Lot 34, "USA 666, The 6th American
Dream," by Robert Indiana, sold for $1,833,000, a new world
auction price for the artist.
The auction also included the Kaufman House
designed by Richard Neutra in Palm Springs, California, which
sold for $16,800,000.
In May, 2007, Warhol's "Green Car Crash
(Green Burning Car)," sold for $71,720,000. The price was
only slightly lower than the record price for a work of Contemporary
art set the night before at Sotheby's with the sale of Mark Rothko's
"White Center, (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),"
for $72,840,000. Both were iconic works of art, the auction equivalent
of Olympic gold that set the bar high. Both paintings were worth
it. Whatever the prices achieved for "Double Marlon"
and "No 15," they are great works of art.
There is no shortage of money to invest in
great art, which has always lured the super wealthy, and that
is fine. However, perhaps it is time for the little guys to get
back in the game as well, with additional focus on day sales,
as Christie's has done this season, without undermining the fabulous,
big-ticket items featured in the evening.
It becomes an issue with buyers, collectors
and lovers of art if gold price tags are assigned to silver or
bronze artworks, which may be the reason for some of the carping
and criticism this season.
Some of the fantastic day sale gems on offer
at Christie's are a reminder of those happy days when post-war
and contemporary art was within reach of those collectors who
really loved art, but did not have limitless funds.
Christie's Contemporary Art catalogs - for
all three sales - are superb, packed with fascinating anecdotes
that breathe life into works by artists that are, sadly, no longer
with us, while celebrating the ones that still are.
For those that cannot afford to take home a
painting or sculpture, a catalog is a great consolation prize.
It is hard to conceive of the knowledge, hard work - and deep
commitment to art - that goes into compiling them.
See The City Review article on the Christie's,
May 20, 1999 Contemporary Art Part 2 auction