By Carter B. Horsley
Much of "Contemporary
Art," as it is presented in the major art auction houses
these days, is pretty much a joke waiting for a laugh, but it
certainly has an audience and a pretty well-heeled one at that.
The joke often tends to be
on the tawdry side and even a "happy" artist like Jeff
Koons (b. 1945), known for his amusing puppies and Pink Panther,
has a prurient side.
The general notion is to push
the envelope a bit farther. Lot 42, for example, "Red Butt
(Distance)," is a quite elegant and dazzling silkscreen inks
on canvas by Koons of himself having anal sex with a woman with
long platinum hair wearing very high bright red boots, long bright
red gloves, a bright red corset and a tingling tiara of butterflies
with a fiery red and black and yellow background. The woman, who
is fondling herself, has an expression of ecstasy and the man
one of focus. The extremely explicit work measures 90 by 60 inches
and is unique and was executed in 1991. It has an estimate of
$150,000 to $200,000.
At the exhibition, it was shown
behind a panel warning that the image contains "graphic sexual
content" and next to a Jeff Koons sculpture of two terriers.
In the catalogue, the lot is preceded by a bright red page and
the reproduction is hidden behind a fold-outpage, whose bright
red cover states: "Warning: The Following Image Contains
Graphic Sexual Content." Whereas the auction houses have
often used fold-out pages to show bigger pictures, this lot fits
nicely and is contained on one page inside the fold-out.
The image is better than that
found in most pornographic publications, but it is pornographic.
Conceivably, Christie's specialists in the department gave some
thought as how to best present this lot and the suspense of the
auction will be how it will be presented/shown at the auction
Christopher Burge, the
auctioneer, opens bidding on Lot 42, "Red Butt (Distance),"
by Jeff Koons. The slide screen at the left showed a red page
similar to one in the catalogue that indicated that the work contained
a graphic sexual image. Charles Ray's "Male Mannequin,"
Lot 4, is to the left of the Koons and was on display throughout
When it came time for the lot to be bid
on, the rotating easel began to turn and came to rest with the
large work in place, but the large screen to its right and the
audience's left did not display the picture but had a red background
with wording in the center similar to that in the catalogue that
warned that the image contained a graphic sexual image. There
were a few titters in the audience but Mr. Burge conducted the
bidding normally and the audience was extremely blasť about
it. It sold for $336,000, including the buyer's premium as do
all results in this story, well over its pre-sale high estimate,
to a private European individual.
At the post-auction press conference, Mr.
Burge said that while he occasionally has "fun" with
the auction-goers he does not do it with the art. He admitted
that he was a little "nervous" that some auction-goers
might laugh, or get up and leave, but added that since virtually
all of them would have already seen the work in the catalogue
or the exhibition such reactions were unlikely at the auction.
Indeed, there did not appear to be many ostriches in the audience
although one auction-goer quite seriously commented after the
sale that "taxidermy offends me."
Erotic art, of course, is nothing
new, and it is not new to the auction houses who have sold Greek
Vases and Roman bronzes and Japanese prints with clear erotic
content for many years. This lot, however, is most likely the
largest and most blatant example yet and one presumably assumes
that the contemporary art auction-going public is sophisticated,
through probably not entirely made up of swingers.
One gets the sense from this
and other recent Contemporary Art auctions that this sector of
the art market takes itself very seriously but is not entirely
mirthless. Indeed, the nuances of much conceptual art are not
very subtle, though often obscure, and usually do not amount to
much more than a slightly amusing one-liner. Vaudeville at least
had a certain rhythm and sense of timing, whereas much of contemporary
art appears to some simply as shlock shock/statement. Contemporary
art, of course, need not be complex and simple messages can be
very provocative, intellectual and important especially when they
make the viewer begin to view things differently. A sliced cow
by Damien Hirst may make some people vegetarians. A Cindy Sherman
with fake breasts may make some people believe that fake breasts
are wonderful, or terrible. A Chris Ofili painting with elephant
dung may make some people more conscious of cultural differences.
On the other hand, a Cindy
Sherman photograph of vomit may make people vomit and this Jeff
Koons work of art may offend some people as much as some of Robert
Mapplethorpe's more erotic photographs did a few years ago.
The point here is not about
censorship of such works, but the practicality of including such
works in an auction in which most other lots are not prurient.
Would it not be better for
the auction houses simply to hold an occasional Erotica Auction?
To its credit, Christie's did
not use the Koons for its cover, or backcover, catalogue illustration.
The cover is a 73 1/3-inch high, naked mannequin of a man by Charles
Ray (b. 1953) and the catalogue notes that the fiberglass mannequin's
very realistic genitalia are based on the artist's own genitalia
and close-up details of the genitalia are provided inside the
catalogue. The 1990 piece, "Male Mannequin," has an
estimate of $700,000 to $900,000 and is described by the auction
house as "a brilliant example of the artist's celebrated
sculptures based on store mannequins. "A novel clash of the
artificial and the natural, this work disrupts the normative conventions
regarding representation and portraiture. The tension caused by
the juxtaposition of idealized and naturalistic elements is surprising
and alarming, in a manner reminiscent of the great masterpieces
of Dadaism and Surrealism," its press release continued.
At least, Christie's did not liken it to Michelangelo's David!
The lot, which is one of an edition of three, sold for $2,206,000,
breaking the world auction record for the artist of $886,000 set
at Christies, last May 16, which brought forth a round of applause
from the audience.
The back-cover illustration
is a detail of Lot 24, "Untitled," Blood, a 1992 installation
by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) of red and clear plastic
beads that has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold
for $1,656,000, a world record for the artist of $456,750 set
at Sotheby's Nov. 14 this year. The press release has the
following glowing description: "...a radiantly beautiful
and deeply moving 1992 installation..., evokes fundamental metaphors
of human existence. This curtain of red and clear beads gleams
with light and is drenched with a seductive yet palpable red that
invokes feelings of both hope and fear, just as blood functions
both as a life line and a symbol of morbidity. 'Untitled' Blood,
like other Gonzalez-Torres works from this period, is also an
elegiac memorial to love and loss. Completed just one year after
the AIDS-related death of his lover, Ross Laycock, this work is
profoundly intimate and relays Gonzalez-Torres' magical ability
to sustain absolute hope while at the same time truly acknowledging
fear and death." For those not alert to his lover's death,
this might merely be a lovely curtain to enter a room to view
the Koons lot with which it is color-coordinated. All that's missing
is Marlene Dietrich and a lot of smoke. While it is not nice to
belittle personal transcendancies and the like, it is not necessarily
correct to term all such expressions great art. It is, however,
Two prominent contemporary
artists whose work has created substantial controversies in recent
years are included in this auction, Andres Serrano (b. 1950) and
Chris Ofili (b. 1958), but unfortunately the works are not the
artist's best and they are actually much better. Lot 26, "Red
Pope I-III," is a triptych of 60-by-40-inch Cibachrome prints
executed in 1990 and is number one of an edition of four. It has
an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000, but is not particularly shocking
nor as beautiful as some of his other works. It sold for $82,500.
The Ofili, Lot 58, "Popcorn," is a 1995 work of oil,
acrylic, offset lithography on paper, polyester resin, map pins
and elephant dung on linen. It has an estimate of $100,000 to
$150,000. It sold for $121,500. There are many fine passages
in this 77-by-48-by-5 3/4-inch work but the overall composition
is asymmetrical and not terribly interesting whereas some of his
other work has a much richer design sensibility.
One of the highlights among
the non-controversial works include Lot 2, "Silence,"
by Mona Hatoum (b. 1952) is a 1994 work of glass tubes that resembles
a floating crib and has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It
is from an edition of five and is 49 7/8 inches high. It sold
for $149,000, breaking the world auction record for the artist
of $101,257 at Christie's in London last June 27.
Another highlight, illustrated
at the top of this article, is Lot 11, "Untitled," by
Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960), a taxidermied ostrich, 30 3/4-by-33
1/2-by-13-inch work that is unique and has an estimate of $100,000
to $150,000. It sold for $270,000, breaking the world auction
record for the artist of $159,750 set at Sotheby's Nov. 14 of
this year. This lot perhaps should have been considered for
the cover illustration of the catalogue. Ostriches, of course,
Lot 38, "Winter (Rose
Garden that Jaqueline Built When She was a Little Girl,"
is a diptych in oil, plates, antlers wood and bondo on wood that
was executed in 1982 by Julian Schnabel (b. 1951) and has an estimate
of $200,000 to $300,000 and is one of his better works. It
was passed at $130,000.
Lot 47, "Phase Plane Portrait,"
a 108-by-144-inch oil on canvas by Terry Winters (b. 1949) almost
seems out of place in this auction because it is a quite stunning
and lovely abstraction. Painted in 1994, it has an estimate of
$100,000 to $150,000. It was passed at $80,000.
Lot 18, "Prada II,"
by Andreas Gursky (b. 1955), color coupler print, 65 by 124 1/4
inches, number three from an edition of six, 1997, is one the
photgrapher's most beautiful studies of shop interiors. It has
an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. It sold for $270,000 breaking
the world auction record for the artist of $181,750, set at Sotheby's
Nov. 14 of this year. Grusky is one of several contemporary photographers
who have made names for themselves by taking good architectural
and interior pictures and blowing them up to very large sizes.
Thomas Struth, for example, specializes in museum and church interiors.
Lot 50, "The Start of
a Fairy Tale" is a good, large four-panel work by Eric Fischl
(b. 1948) that has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It
was passed at $240,000.
Lot 60, "Coloured Loves,"
is a 20-panel work of hand dyed gelatin silver prints by Gilbert
& George (b. 1943 & 1942), that is delightful decorative
and has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $149,000.
Lot 36, "Conversazione,"
sold for $149,000 breaking the world auction record for the artist
of $101,257 set at Christie's in London last June 27. Lot 14,
"Untitled (Wursterie) (Sausages), by Peter Fischli &
David Weiss, sold for $94,000, breaking the world auction record
for the artists of $73,976 set at Christie's in London last June
27. Lot 32, "Untitled," by Albert Oehlen, sold for $64,625
breaking the world auction record for the artist of $32,118 set
September 26, 1995 at Wiener Auktionem in Vienna.
The sale was quite successful
with 85 percent of the 62 offered lots selling for a total $12,789.200,
nicely over the pre-sale high estimate of $11,825,000. After the
auction, Mr. Burge described it as "another triumphant sale,"
adding that 58 percent of the buyers were European and 39.6 percent
American. Of the 62 lots, 26 sold for more than their high estimates,
22 sold within the estimates and 14 sold below the low estimates,
which is a good showing.
A fine article by Alexandra
Peers in the Wall Street Journal Nov. 17, 2000 noted that the
Contemporary Auctions were considerably more successful this season
than the Impressionist and Modern Art auctions that traditionally
lead off the season and garner the highest prices and set the
tone to a large extent for the remainder of the season.