By Carter B.
The inaugural Latin American
sale at Christie’s
new quarters at 20 Rockefeller Plaza is splendid, full of major
works by the masters as well as a good selection of work by important
Interestingly, many of the lots
are superbly framed, a comment that might seem unusual, but
is not applicable in many auctions.
As a whole, this is a very
in terms of the individual quality of many works.
The results of the first part
of the sale,
which was held at night with a packed room, however, were puzzling.
Many of the most famous artists fared poorly, but some lesser
Three of the most important
artists whose works
were being offered were Roberto Matta (b. 1911), Rufino Tamayo
(1889-1991) and Fernardo Botero (b. 1932). While these are established
stars in the firmament of Latin American art and are among the
relatively few who are internationally known, few of their finest
works have been seen in this country and this auction included
some really superb examples of their work.
Matta is a Chilean who became a
in the Surrealist movement, but his achievements go beyond such
a narrow definition. His works have a fantastic energy and vibrancy.
He is like a high-tech Bosch on steroids and his works are
infinite in their spaces and as daunting as any Star Wars special
The cover illustration of the
is Lot 35, "Crucifixion," shown above, a Matta oil on
canvas, 28 3/4 by 36 1/4 inches, painted in the summer of 1938
when he was living and working in Trévignon with fellow
artist Gordon Onslow-Ford, who owned this work for more than 50
years. This painting is "considered his first in a series
of revolutionary paintings known as ‘psychological morphologies’
and is the only painting he actually completed in Trévignon,"
according to Christie’s. "These first paintings signaled
a new direction, more abstract and gestural, for both Surrealism
and American painting of the post-war era," the catalogue
maintains. "While Matta’s fascination with the subject
of the crucifixion can be linked to his Jesuit upbringing, the
painting can also be viewed as a metaphor for the violence of
the time, particularly the rise of fascism in Spain," it
added. The work, which prefigures the mystery of Arshile Gorky’s
organic forms and the painterly drama of Francis Bacon, has an
estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. It was passed, however, at
A later Matta is Lot 54,
"Succin du Tu,"
an oil on canvas, 25 1/4 by 31 3/4 inches, which was painted in
1947. This painting, which is more complex and dynamic than the
earlier work, has a conservative estimate of $130,000 to $160,000.
It passed at $110,000. Just three years later, he
paint "Sin titulo," Lot 59, a 78 1/2-by-82-inch oil
on canvas that has a less fluid and more fragmented geometry than
the 1947 work. It has an estimate of $250,000 to $300,000 and
was passed at $180,000. After he joined the Surrealists in
1937 at the invitation of André Breton, Matta came to New
York in 1939 where he was close with Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy
and Victor Brauner.
"Many of the themes of his
works of the
1940’s were suggested by the highly evocative prose poem
Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de
Lautreamont, a literary
masterpiece that inspired many other Surrealists, inlcuding Salvador
Dali, Max Ernst and André Masson," the catalogue noted,
adding a quote from Dore Ashton that Matta developed his compositions
on the basis of "great cosmic themes and the clash of mystical
By the end of the 40’s,
returned to Chile and broke with the Surrealists, eventually returning
to Europe in 1949.
"This work...is characterized
by a pronounced
sense of angularity. The mineral colors as well as the fluidity
which typified the artist’s palette from the late 1930’s
through the late 1940’s give way here to a new sensibility
in which more strident tones...permeate the visual field. The
central element in this composition is, on one hand, an amorphous
shape, yet it could also be understood as reminiscent of a mechanical
construction, a fantastical imagination of a vessel or capsule
careening through space. About it swirl cloud patterns, suggestions
of comets and meteorites - all elements of an indeterminate time
and place. In this work there is an ambiguous sense of apprehension,
as if the firmament were opening before our eyes, disgorging its
contents upon the earth," the catalogue observed about "this
enigmatic but absorbing painting," noting that it was grateful
to Dr. Edward Sullivan for his assistance in cataloguing the lot,
which is estimated at $250,000 to $300,000. It was passed at
$180,000, rather conclusive evidence that the market for Matta,
who has a world auction record of $1,652,000 for a painting, is
not hot, inexplicably.
An even more stunning Matta is
Lot 102, "Les
Humarbes," an oil on canvas, 81 by 80 inches, painted in
1973. Here white forms dance in front a bluish and pinkish field
and conjure fission and the coolness of a mechanistic universe.
It is estimated at only $80,000 to $100,000. It failed to
If Matta's fantastic worlds
a sci-fi saturated world, Tamayo takes the opposite direction,
digging into earth colors with primitive forms. If Matta’s
world is luminist and cool, Tamayo’s is textural and hot.
He adds color and sobriety to Dubuffet’s grit and humor.
In "Hombre mirando pajaros,"
39, an oil and sand on canvas, 31 7/8 by 39 3/8 inches, shown
above, Tamayo depicts a man waving his hands to passing bird-like
forms on an intensely pink field. It is a marvelous painting and
a great Tamayo. It was estimated at $400,000 to $600,000 and sold
for $550,000 (not including the buyer's premium), far short of
his world auction record of $2,587,500, perhaps an indication
that Latin American economies are not currently stellar. A smaller
Tamayo, Lot 52, a figure of a man consigned by Sharon Stone, was
sold for $95,000 (not including the buyer's premium) and just
short of its low estimate. Even more puzzling was his large,
very interesting and earth-toned "Man and Woman," Lot
94, which failed to sell and had a low estimate of $200,000. "Hombre,"
Lot 103, was another good Tamayo and it managed to sell for $217,000
(including the buyer's premium).
Botero was seen to great
advantage not too
long ago when many of his very large bronze sculptures adorned
Park Avenue for several months. Known for his inflated and rotund
figures, Botero's style is always gentle and humorous - jolly
bronze, 72 3/4 inches high, is a classic Botero that reveals his
masterly touch as a sculptor. During the auction's exhibition
it stood outside the entrance to Christie's impressive new facilities
at 20 Rockefeller Plaza on 49th Street east of the Avenue of the
Americas. One of an edition of six, it was estimated at $300,000
to $400,000 and sold for $240,000 (not including the buyer's
premium.) Another Botero sculpture, Lot 30, "La vida,"
a very pleasant, 24-inch-high work depicting a naked man and woman
on a base, was estimated at $180,000 to $250,000 and was
at $140,000! Lot 42, a Botero sculpture of a reclining nude
woman, 33 1/4 inches long, sold within its estimate for
(not including the buyer's premium), but Lot 49, a 1979 still
life, oil on canvas, 75 1/8 by 58 1/2 inches, failed to reach
its low estimate of $280,000 and was passed at $260,000. The
best two Botero paintings in the auction, however, at Lot 106,
"Poodle," 1970, 40 by 32 inches, and Lot 108, a 24 1/16-by-20
1/8-inch oil of canvas of a matador, that are estimated conservatively
at $80,000 to $120,000 and $70,000 to $90,000, respectively.
The "Poodle" sold for $101,500 and the Matador sold
for $107,000 (both including the buyers' premiums." Another
Botero, Lot 167, a pleasant painting of a woman with knitting
needles, sold for $41,400 (including the buyer's premium), more
than double its low estimate.
in the auction is Lot 48, "Mujer pescado," by Francisco
Toledo (b. 1940), an oil, sand and paper collage on masonite,
44 1/2 by 30 1/8 iuches, executed in 1967. Toledo is better known
for his beautiful Klee-like watercolors, several of which are
also in the auction. This lot sold for its low estimate of
$80,000 (not including the buyer's premium). Two
gouaches and one small watercolor by Toledo, all very lovely,
Lots 135, 136 and 137 sold nicely above their high estimates.
the most fascinating
works in the auction is Lot 25, "Are You Really Sirius?"
by Leonora Carrington (b. 1917), 1953, oil on panel, 21 7/8 by
35 15/16 inches, a detail of which is shown above. The catalogue
goes into considerable detail about the artist's interest in the
notion that the Egyptian culture "may have been inherited
from an older and deep tradition" believed to have come from
"visitors form the Sirius Galaxy" and also refers to
the knowledge of the Sirius star by the Dogon tribe in Africa
prior to 3,000 B.C. The painting sold for its $200,000 high
estimate (not including the buyer's premium).
results would seem to
indicate that the Latin American market was not terribly buoyant.
That would be misleading, however, as the elegant crowd at the
auction broke into applause several times at the astounding prices
achieved by some items.
a topsy-turvy auction
where great art was often eclipsed by kitsch.
for example, was an
extremely garish, large painting by Antonio Berni (1905-1981)
of a very buxom blonde wearing only black stockings seated partially
behind a (real) pink curtain on a bed in the Chelsea Hotel on
West 23rd Street. The 79 1/4-by-64 1/4-inch, acrylic and collage
on canvas was painted in 1977 and sold for its low estimate
of $400,000 (not including the buyer's premium). The
noted that "Berni's whole artistic production was engaged
in social criticism against the fluctuation of power and injustices
of the Latin American governments. He was constantly acting as
a witness and representing his own lifetime by relentlessly depicting
social themes in his pictoric work. His art captures not only
the social issues that he aimed to portray, but also his rich
artistic and moral spirit as well." The Argentine artist,
who studied with André Lhote and was a friend of Louis
Aragón, won the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale in 1962
and came to New York where, the catalogue maintained, his paintings
"were rendered in saturated and strident colors, and he filled
in the empty spaces with larger than life grotesque characters
that seemed to have lost their identities to a consumerist society."
It is doubtful this painting would have sold at the annual art
show in Greenwich Village not far from the Chelsea Hotel, a famous
at least, or perhaps
one should say at most, blatant.
"Vaso de flores,"
by Alberto da Veiga Guignard (1896-1962), probably would have
sold at the same Greenwich Village art show for it is a rather
conventional painting of a vase of flowers with two pieces of
fruit on a table with a cloth in front of a window. Painted in
1931, the 35 1/4-by-27 3/8-inch oil on canvas was estimated at
$70,000 to $90,000. It sold for $690,000 (not including the
buyer's premium), a almost preposterous price for a very unassuming,
unimpressive, and unimportant painting.
other highlights were
Lot 28, a large, lightly colored 1944 painting of fruit trees
by Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) had a high estimate of $600,000 and
sold for $850,000 (not including the buyer's premium), Lot
38, an excellent photorealistic painting of a wrapped painting
against a blue sky by Claudio Bravo (b. 193 6) had a high estimate
of $150,000 and sold for $190,000 (not including the buyer's
premium), Lot 44, a large Picassoesque painting of two women
by Lam that was estimated at $300,000 to $400,000 and sold
for $550,000 (not including the buyer's premium), Lot 53,
a beach scene by Armando Reverón (1889-1954), which
sold for $160,000 (not including the buyer's premium) and
had a high estimate of $100,000. Lot 147, "Carnaval,"
a rhythmic and lively tempera on wood veneer and amate paper laid
down on masonite by Carlos Mérida (1891-1084), sold for
$43,700 (including the buyer's premium), well above its high estimate
of $32,000. Two lovely and excellent sculptures, Lot 122 and 123,
by Agustín Cárdenas (b. 1927) and Francisco Narváez
(1905-1982), did well, the former selling for $25,300 (including
the buyer's premium), well over its high estimate of $15,000,
and the latter selling for $74,000 (incuding the buyer's premium),
far above its high estimate of $30,000.
the other disappointments
were Lot 37, a Cubist-style work by Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971)
that sold for $200,000 (not including the buyer's premium),
far below its low estimate of $300,000, Lot 51, "Nina"
by Diego Rivera (1886-1957) that failed to reach its low
of $150,000 and was passed at $120,000. Lot 41, a large
of actress of Paulette Goddard by Rivera sold for its low
of $500,000 (not including the buyer's premium). Lots 100 and
101, very handsome oil and beeswax on paper laid down on canvas
works by Armondo Morales (b. 1927) each failed to sell and had
low estimates of $50,000. Morales is a very fine painter whose
bluish, brown and gray palette, style and subject matter are
of the work of Puvis de Chavannes and Arthur B. Davies.
auctioneer for the evening
sale was Barbara Strongin who conducted the sale very professionally
with a good sense of timing that elicited higher bids without
agonizing the non-bidders while Spanish pesetos, French and Swiss
francs, Mexican pesos, Argentinian pes and Venezuelan bolivers
ticked away on the room's large tote board. She also did not switch
to a murmur on the occasions she had to announce that a lot passed.
Most laudable and forthright.
some of the larger works
were hung in the auction room, a number of lots were not shown
on stage but on a large slide panel, an increasing practice in
recent sales that has its good and bad points. For works that
are too large, of course, it makes sense, but the slides never
look the same as the real thing and experienced bidders are often
swayed by the final presentation of the real lot in isolation
and bright light at the auction. On the other hand, the room is
so big that some of the lots appear rather small and are hard
to see well from the back of the very large room. Ideally, all
but the most monumental lots should be present in the auction
room when they are sold and perhaps slides should be shown at
the same time to help the visibility of the smaller lots. One
lot in the sale, Lot 70, had been deemed a "National Treasure"
and Ms. Strongin announced that it would not be let out of Mexico,
but then did a double take and noticed that it was, in fact, on
the easel on the stage, and she quickly added that "this
is it," "on loan," "temporarily here."
A nice 1909 painting by Saturnino Herran (1887-1918), it had a
high estimate of $180,000 and sold for $200,000 (not
the buyer's premium). Hopefully, Christie's will get a better
easel in the future whose lower support will not block part of
the lower section of the work of art on display.