By Michele Leight
It was exciting to be in Sotheby's galleries
on May 9th as major works of art were being installed for the
upcoming sale of Post War and Contemporary Art. Mark Rothko's
gorgeous "Orange, Red Yellow" in sunset colors ignited
one wall, while Francis Bacon's "Triptych, 1976," glowed
beneath excellent lighting nearby, far more impressive in reality
than any reproduction can convey. Together, these two works have
a pre-sale estimate in the region of $100 million.
The Bacon is a knock out - a superb work of
art. Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide Head of Contemporary Art
"This is undoubtedly the most important
Bacon in private hands. It has been in the same collection ever
since it was acquired from the Bernard show over thirty years
ago, and it is a masterpiece of the 20th century."
Each of the three panels of the Bacon oil and
pastel triptych measure 78 by 58 each.
The catalogue entry for this work by Bacon
(1909-1992) provides the following commentary:
"Bacon created this monumental work as
the centerpiece for his show at the Galerie Claude Bernard in
Paris in 1977....One of only three triptychs in the show, Triptych,
1976 was illustrated on the cover of the catalogue...In the
central panel, a headless body is savaged by a whirling bird of
prey whose wingspan spirals downwards. This Prometheus figure
is reminiscent of the headless, armless goddess identified as
Leto or Hestia of the 5th Century B.C., among the Elgin marbles
in the British Museum. Bacon admired the disrepair of ancient
Greek sculpture caused by centuries of ruin....In the left foreground,
a second wingless creature clasps a rail with its talons and to
the right, a third avian makes off with its prey. This triumvirate
presents the Three Furies or Eumenides described in Aeschylus'
Oresteia, a text that Bacon knew well and referenced liberally....In
the foreground of the left panel, a half-clothed figure bleeds
down from the portrait, a muscular forearm discernible in the
organic mound of flesh. Crouched on a stool, he stoops over an
open case filled with paper evocative of the torn ticket stubs
of shattered dreams, crumpled newsprint created with Letraset
at his feet.....in the right panel. Here, two contorted nudes
are locked in physical embrace....Bacon scumbels the paint, draws
it across the canvas, exploiting the nearly dry elasticity of
the pigment to create chance effects. Daubing ridges of oil with
corduroy, he takes lessons from photographs of rare skin disorders
to communicate the physicality of flesh."
The lot is anticipated to fetch about $70 million.
It sold for $86,281,000, to a European bidder, including the
buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article. It
was an auction record for the artist as well as the highest price
ever achieved at auction for a post-war work. The sale was extremely
successful with 73 of 83 offered lots selling for a total of $362,037,000,
the highest total for any Sotheby's auction ever. The pre-sale
estimate was $288,000,000 to $356,000,000. After the sale, Tobias
Meyer, the auctioneer, was in a justifiably euphoric mood - well
earned - and between hugs and kisses with his staff described,
again, the Bacon as "one of the great paintings of the 20th
Century." He is consistent. He said this in Sotheby's catalog.
The auction set a total of 18 records for
paintings by artists and 5 more records for works in other media
by artists. Eight lots sold for more $10 million. Alexander Rotter, Sotheby's Head of Contemporary Art, New York, said
that the sales price average was $4,969,410. Sotheby's declined
to provide a geographic break-down of buyers, but Mr. Meyer emphasized
that the market is now "global," and he praised the
"global network" of the auction house.
In May, 2007, the world auction record for
a contemporary work of art was set at Sotheby's with the sale
of Mark Rothko's "White Center, (Yellow, Pink and Lavender
on Rose)," when it sold for $72,840,000. It was an iconic
work of art, the equivalent of Olympic gold, that set the bar
high. Lot 38 in this auction, "Orange, Red, Yellow"
by Rothko (1903-1970) is not as spectacular but is expected to
fetch about $35 million. An oil on canvas, it measures 79 1/2
by 69 inches and was painted in 1956. It failed to sell and
was passed at $33 million.
Many of the works in the auction come from
the collection of Helga and Walter Lauffs, one of the most important
German private collections to ever appear on the market, comprising
superb examples from the full spectrum of Minimalism, Pop Art,
New Realism, Conceptual Art and Art Povera. One of the gems from
this collection is Lot 36, Joseph Cornell's "Bird in a Box,"
created by Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) in 1943. Conceived in an
autumn color palette, it is a construction of wood, cork, branches,
printed paper and grains in a wood and glass box. It has an estimate
of $650,000 to $860,000. It sold for $657,000.
Records are a tough act to follow, because
expectations run high, and no one wants to settle for less. However,
that is unrealistic. Despite pessimistic predictions of an economic
recession, the sad collapse of Bear Stearns, which should never
have happened, and a housing mortgage crisis that must be stabilized,
there is much art to enjoy and bid on this season. New Yorkers
adore art, and this incomparable 'city of cities' has been a catalyst
for the appreciation of contemporary art, that has also contributed
to a meteoric rise in auction prices for the finest post-war and
Those who believe that last week's grand totals
for Impressionist and Modern art at both auction houses is a sign
that New York has "peaked," or that stronger sale prices
for art will emerge elsewhere may be a little hasty in their judgment.
We get greedy when our auction houses rake in prices like those
for the seminal Rothko consigned by a Rockefeller, and Andy Warhol's
"Green Car Crash," from his important "Death and
Disaster" series, which sold at Christie's for slightly less
than Sotheby's Rothko in November 2007 for $71,720,000, pulverizing
its prior auction record of $17,360,000. That gives some idea
of what has happened in just a few years - and the need for perspective.
Illustrated above is a superb Warhol, "Detail
of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times)," Lot 53, the last
series before his untimely death, with a detail below. The acrylic
and silkscreen ink on canvas measures 80 by 421 inches and was
painted in 1986. Warhol (1928-1987) was a devout Catholic his
entire life, despite his anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois nature.
The painting has an estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000. It
sold for $9,561,000.
Lot 59, a wonderful, patriotic "Statue
of Liberty," painted toward the end of Warhol's short life,
is estimated at $2,500,000-3,000,000, and was shown at the exhibition
alongside Lot 200, "Ladies and Gentleman," from the
day sale, which has an estimate of $1,000,000 to 1,500,000. The
"Statue of Liberty" was painted in 1986 and measures
72 inches square. It sold for $5,193,000, well above its high
estimate, which hopefully means that patriotism is alive and well.
"Ladies and Gentlemen" was painted in 1976 and measures
50 by 40 inches. It was good to see a day sale painting included
in a gallery filled with big-ticket evening sale artworks, because
the day sale standard is extremely high at both auction houses
this season, offering hope to those collectors that love art but
do not have unlimited funds.
Some of the estimates for this season's art
works may have more to do with the sense of euphoria left over
from last season's awesome results. Those were stratospheric prices,
so perhaps it is time for a reality check. But this is New York,
and anything can happen.
Whenever a sale generates in excess of $200
million dollars, it can hardly be branded sluggish. Few cities,
if any, have consistently delivered the kind of auction results
that New York has. Sotheby's and Christie's Impressionist and
Modern Art sales last week were robust, generating well in excess
of that figure, although sales by lot of 76 percent and 78 percent,
respectively, may be an indication enthusiasm is not running riot.
"The Minimalist Gallery" at the exhibition
featured Lot 20, "Untitled," by Donald Judd, light cadmium
red enamel on galvanized steel, 15 1/2 by 93 by 78 inches, Lot
14, "IKB1" by Yves Klein, dry pigment and synthetic
resin on canvas, laid down on plywood, 56 1/4 by 44 1/8 inches,
among other iconic minimalist artworks. The Judd sculpture was
created in 1964 and the Klein painting in 1960 and both have estimates
of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. Lot 20 sold for $4,241,000.
Yves Kline's ultramarine blue "IKB1" was displayed to
great effect with his beautiful gold leaf on panel "MG9,"
Lot 13, which has an estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000, and
pink "MP13," Lot 15, which has an estimate of $2,000,000
to $3,000,000), all from the Lauffs Collection. Lot 14 sold
for $17,401,000. Lot 13 sold for $23,561,000, a world auction
record for the artist. Lot 15 sold for $4,745,000.
The Minimalist works in this gallery were from
the Lauffs collection and also included Carl Andre's "36
Copper Square" floor sculpture, Lot 19, which has an estimate
$2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,032,000, a world auction
record for the artist. Also in the same gallery was Robert
Rauschenberg's wonderful "Slug," Lot 32, estimated at
$3,000,000 to $4,000,000. Lot 32 sold for $2,841,000. "Slug"
is a combine painting made of oil, cotton sleeves, electric cord
with light bulb, wood and tin with enameled pot and metal chain
and it measures 67 by 48 by 9 1/4 inches. It was created in 1961.
Speaking in the gallery, Anthony Grant, International
Senior Specialist, Contemporary Art at Sotheby's, said that "Minimalism
re-directed art," adding that "No one can emphasize
the importance of the red Judd enough. It has appeared on the
cover of numerous Minimalist art books. There is also an excellent
work by Robert Smithson, a museum quality work." Lot 22 is
"Alogon #3," a painted steel sculpture in 20 parts by
Smithson (1938-1973). It has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000.
It sold for $4,297,000, an auction record for the artist, and
a wonderful work of art.
Anthony Grant is shown standing in front of
Frank Stella's sublime "Concentric Square," Lot 45,
from the Lauffs Collection. It was the most graphic work in the
Minimalist gallery, painted in alkyd on canvas, with an estimate
of $2,000,000-3,000,000. It sold for $2,729,000. Mr.Grant was
under siege after the auction, and justifiably so. The three Kleins
put on quite a performance tonight, as well as did many minimalist
works of art.
In a catalog devoted exclusively to the Lauffs
Collection, Tobias Meyer wrote:
"When the businessman and art enthusiast
Walther Lauffs met Paul Wember, a visionary museum director in
1968, the seeds of an inimitable collection of Contemporary Art
were sown. An agreement was reached whereby, in exchange for assistance
in building his collection, Mr. Lauffs would place the acquired
art in the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld, Germany, run by Mr.
Wember, on long term loan. A friendship was also forged through
their mutual interest and a love of art that would inspire one
of the most esteemed anthologies of American and European art
from the 1960s and 1970s."
Anthony Grant said: "Paul Wember told
Walter Lauffs 'I will get you access' as long as you can get me
the funding. Their partnership resulted in a collection that offers
an American and European vision of the 60s. Yves Klein's blue
'IKB1' was the first piece purchased. Mr. Wember wanted 'the best
of the best,' and he could pick and choose."
Many works from The Lauffs Collection are illustrated
here, including "The Tar Roofer," by George Segal (1924-2000),
Lot 49, which was executed in 1964 and has an estimate of $300,000-400,000),
shown above with Sotheby's installation crew working hard in the
background. It sold for $421,000.
Lot 34, another work from the Lauffs, is a
bronze sculpture by Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) that is called "Bett
(Corsett)." It was conceived as early as 1949-50, and cast
in the 1960s. It is number 5 of 6 and measures 8 1/4 by 21 1/4
by 9 1/4 inches. It has an estimate of $750,000 to $950,000. A
wonderul sculpture, It sold for $1,049,000, an auction record
for the artist.
Viewing Tom Wesselmann's "Great American
Nude No. 48" on a soggy wet day with rain pouring continuously
from a lead gray sky, was like a shot of adrenaline, because it
offered bright yellow walls and blue skies, visible through the
open "window." "I am interested in assembling a
situation resembling painting, rather than painting," writes
Tom Wesselman, in the catalog. This fabulous 1963 painting, Lot
50, has an estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000. It measures 84
by 106 1/4 by 40 1/2 inches. It sold for $10,681,000, an auction
record for the artist, a clear signal that happy art is desireable.
A total of 33 works from the the Lauffs collection
will be offered in New York, with an estimate in excess of $49
million, while the rest will be sold in London later this year.
The entire Lauffs Collection has a pre-sale estimate in excess
of $76 million. The Lauffs works in this auction sold for about
Alexander Rotter, Sotheby's Head of Contemporary
Art, New York, then escorted press to the next installation, an
electrifying gallery filled with works by Jeff Koons, Takashi
Murakami (b. 1962), Andy Warhol, and Mike Kelly, among others.
Warhol's graphic black and yellow "Detail of the Last Supper
(Christ 112 Times) Yellow," (1986), cropped from Leonardo
da Vinci's grand "Last Supper" dominated an entire wall,
setting the stage for wonderful works of art.
Center stage was Takashi Murakami's intentionally
outrageous and provocative "My Lonesome Cowboy," Lot
9, an oil, acrylic, fiberglass and iron sculpture that is 100
inches high and is from an edition of 3 plus 2 artist's proofs.
For those that might not be familiar with this sculpture, it depicts
a naked - one must be straight-forward here - ejaculating male,
with white sperm rising up above his head in a comic book spiral
crafted from fiberglass and iron.
"This is the most "R" rated
work in the sale," said Mr. Rotter, refreshingly unfazed
by the "over-the-top" eroticism of the sculpture: "We
are thrilled to have such a key work by Takashi Murakami. His
take on contemporary art is a new vision, a Japanese vision of
Through "My Lonesome Cowboy," Murakami
is taking a witty swipe at prudery and puritanical values that
rarely, if ever, condone any reference to male sex organs or sexuality,
while porno magazines are overflowing with naked women in every
"This is the first time male genitalia
is fully exposed," said Mr. Rotter, " usually it is
always the woman. This man, who is shown literally 'giving everything
that he has' is an interesting "take" on art culture,
and our reactions."
Beyond the confines of an art gallery, or auction
house, where censorship will not obstruct freedom of expression,
a sculpture like this would unleash just the kind of hypocritical
condemnation that Murakami is exposing - if it depicts a male.
The estimate for this sculpture is $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It
sold for $15,161,000, an auction record for the artist! At no
point in this historic sale was there more laughter among bidders,
and commentary from Tobias, a sure sign that a significant statement
has been made by a gutsy artist - and one must say, a gutsy Alexander
Rotter, who did not pull his punches with press during a preview
of this utterly winsome but controversial work. The point Murakami
is making is serious, and bidders believed in him.
Twinkling quietly in one corner was Mike Kelly's
bejeweled "Memory Ware Flat #2," Lot 70, its microscopic
intensity requiring intimate inspection. This contemporary Mughal
miniature constellation - fabricated from endearingly ordinary
elements, not emeralds and rubies or gold leaf - held its own
in a fantastically energizing and bullish room, that was the exact
opposite of the previous gallery's beautiful Minimalist calm,
consideration and intellectuality. It was an inspired combination
to offer writers and photographers. (See The City Review, "Without
Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking," and "Color
Chart" for more Mike Kelly). Lot 70 has an estimate of
$450,000 to $650,000. It sold for $713,000.
Lot 67, "Caterpillar Chains," by
Jeff Koons (b. 1955), was displayed diagonally across from "My
Lonesome Cowboy." Koon's adorable poly-chromed aluminum "Caterpillar
Chains" was encircled by cranes and several strong men intent
on securing it from the ceiling. Suspending a cute metal, 77-inch-long
caterpillar in mid-air is no easy task! As the photograph shows,
it requires a serious conference. The estimate for "Caterpillar
Chains," which was created in 2003 as number 3 of an edition
of 3 with 1 artist's proof, is $5,500,000 to $6,500,000. It
sold for $5,921,000.
Before Murakami raised the bar on shock value,
it was Koons that raised eyebrows with his pornography infused
art. Bourgeois "taste" is creative fodder for artists
like Warhol, Koons, Hirst and Murakami, because "taste"
implies that some people "know better" - and therefore
are better - than others.
Not so fast say these artists, who are quick
to confront bourgeois morality and hypocrisy, which plays out
in the media every day, exposing pillars of the community - "respectable"
family men in leadership positions - that turn out to have high-priced
hookers and illegitimate children on the side, among other fallen
and fallible humans.
"Naked," Lot 5, from his "Banality
Series" is another sculpture by Koons on offer at this sale,
executed in porcelain in 1988, that confronts sexuality from another,
more disturbing angle: pre-pubescent fascination with sex, and
our discomfort with it.
Sex and children are not supposed to intersect,
but "Naked" suggests this is delusional, especially
today, because we know they are thinking about sex as they stare
at the phallic yellow stamen of a red anthurium. "Naked"
captures the beauty of innocence, in the fresh pink skin and flowers
strewn near sweet little feet, and implies the inevitable loss
The embracing children recall Adam and Eve
in The Garden of Eden, and the tempting apple - replaced by a
bouquet of flowers - that caused so much trouble. It is a brilliant,
satirical commentary on late 20th society, and the shame and guilt
involved in any reference to sexuality. Like all Jeff Koons sculptures,
"Naked" is flawlessly executed, and has an estimate
of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It is from an edition of three plus
one artist's proof. It sold for $9,001,000, well above its
In another gallery, Gerhard Richter's "1025
Farben," painted in 1974 from his "Color Chart"
series, hung near his beautiful "Abstraktes Bild, Lot 23,
which has an estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000, shared the
limelight. Lot 23 sold for $15,161,000. An outstanding result
for a gorgeous work of art.
Lot 6 is an oil painting that is 11 feet 11
inches in diameter by Damien Hirst (b. 1965) and it is titled
"Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over
simplistic, throw away, kid stuff, lacking integrity, rotating,
nothing but visual candy, celebrating, sensational, inarguably
beautiful painting (for over the sofa)." It was exhibited
at "No Sense of Absolute Corruption" at Gagosian Gallery
in 1996 and has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It
sold for $1,161,000.
Lot 10, "Untitled" is an ektacolor
photograph by Richard Prince (b. 1949) of a cowboy in a rugged
Western landscape. Executed i 1994, it measures 61 by 41 inches
and is number 1 from an edition of 2. It has an estimate of $800,000
to $1,200,000. It sold for $1,385,000.
Lot 56 is a strong acrylic, oilstick and paper
collage on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) that is
entitled "Untitled (Prophet I). Executed in 1981-2, it measures
95 1/4 by 59 3/8 inches. It has an estimate of $9,000,000 to $12,000,000.
It sold for $9,561,000.
Many of the artists featured in Sotheby's and
Christie's Post War and Contemporary Art sale donated their work
outright to Auction RED, which took place at Sotheby's on Valentines
Day, 2008, among them Damien Hirst, Mike Kelly, Mark Quinn, Subodh
Gupta, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and many others.
Sotheby's and Gagosian Gallery waived their commission.
Bono, Damien Hirst, Sotheby's and Gagosian
Gallery collaborated on this historic, star studded auction, that
achieved a staggering $42,580,000 that will help support AIDS
relief programs in Africa, specifically for treatment of women
and children. Reviews of Auction RED can be accessed at The
City Review, and Ashraya-New
One of the highlights of the auction from the
Lauffs Collection is lot 27, "Overdrive," by Robert
Rauschenberg (b. 1925-2008). An oil and silkscreen ink on canvas,
it measures 84 by 60 inches and was painted in 1963. It has an
estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000. It sold for $14,601,000.
Another property from the Lauffs Collection
is Lot 31, a set of four boxes by Andy Warhol that was created
in 1961. The set includes a Brillo box, a Campbell's box, a Del
Monte box and a Heinz box. The lot has an estimate of $2,000,000
to $3,000,000. It sold for $4,745,000.
Lot 29, also from the Lauffs Collection, is
a whimsical "Yellow Girl's Dress," by Claes Oldenberg
(b. 1929). An enamel on plaster over muslin and wire, it measures
31 1/4 by 32 by 6 inches. Created in 1961, it has an estimate
of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $1,721,000, an auction
record for the artist.
Lot 71, "Saat Samunder Paar VII,"
by Subodh Gupta (b. 1964) is a wonderful painting that captures
the fluidity of life today, where people of all nations wing across
the globe in planes, carting goods with universally recognizable
brand names. So much has changed, but the quest for identity in
an ever-changing world persists. An oil on canvas, it measures
66 by 90 inches and was created in 2003. It has an estimate of
$500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $825,000, an auction record
for the artist.
Lot 16, "Achrome," a kaolin on
folded canvas executed in 1958 by Piero Manzoni (1933-1963), sold
for $10,121,000, an auction record for the artist.
Lot 25, "B.J.M.C.-Bonjur Monsieur Courbet,"
by Georg Baselitz (b. 1938), sold for $4,633,000, an auction record
for the artist.
Lot 42, "Gloria in Excelsis,"
by Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), sold for for $4,297,000, an auction
record for the artist.
Lot 43, "Polar Stampede," by Lee
Krassner (1908-1984), sold for $3,177,000, an auction record for
Lot 76, "1/1 V Series," by Robert
Mangold (b. 1937), sold for $937,000, an auction record for the
Lot 79, "Glyphs," by Brice Marden
(b. 1938), sold for $3,065,000, an auction record for the artist.
Lot 80, "The Forest," by Jeff
Wall (b. 1946), sold for $993,000, a record for the artist.
Lot 3, "Cremaster Suite," by Matthew
Barney (b. 1967), sold for $457,000, an auction record for a photograph
by the artist.
Lot 52, "Love Wall (Red Green Blue),"
by Robert Indiana (b. 1928), sold for $2,841,000, an auction record
for a painting by the artist.
Lot 83, "Untitled," by Jean-Michel
Basquiat (1960-1988), sold for $937,000, an auction record for
a work on paper by the artist.
Lot 85, "Light My Fire," by Yoshitomo
Nara (b. 1959), sold for $1,161,000, an auction record for a sculpture
by the artist.
Art auctions are about results, even though
we prefer to think it is only about the art. If more buyers were
able to get into the game at somewhat affordable prices - in day
sales - "grand totals" would continue to swell, calming
the nerves of executives entrusted with protecting the bottom
line, which they must.
As I was leaving Sotheby's, Julian Schnabel
entered the lobby. It was wonderful to see an artist, in a world
where art is rapidly becoming a hugely profitable commodity.
With constant reminders by economic pundits
that we are in a recession, it took the wife of a modest collector
to clarify what the art auction season is all about. Her husband
was incredulous at some of the estimates for post war and contemporary
"Who can afford it?" he said, citing
prices for de Kooning and Rothko.
His wife said nothing while he rambled on about
how it was time to concentrate more on stocks and financial investments,
that art was becoming too risky at these prices.
Finally, when she had had enough dreary pessimism,
she cut him off and said:
"Yes, and if all the markets collapse
like you say they might, what will we have if we only put the
money in financial investments. If we buy paintings, at least
we will have the art."