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Contemporary Art, Part I


7 PM, November 13, 2000

40 East 53rdStreet

The American Craft Museum

Sale NY843

"Johannis Nacht" by Anselm Kiefer

Lot 29, "Johannis Nacht," an oil, straw and epoxy on photographic paper, 23 ¾-by-32 ½-inch work executed in 1978 by Anselm Kiefer

By Carter B. Horsley

In recent years, contemporary art auctions have increasingly devoted a lot of attention to photography that is not necessarily cutting-edge work, but work that is merely provocative, often by its lack of artistry. At the same time, however, these auctions have also included examples of contemporary art that is quite serious and interesting.

This auction, which was very successful, slightly exceeding its pre-sale high-estimate total of $10,400,000 and selling 45 of the 47 offered works, is no exception to the rule with a few very fine works of art and some that may not stand the test of time.

In the first category are Lot 29, "Johannis Nacht," an oil, straw and epoxy on photographic paper, 23 ¾-by-32 ½-inch work executed in 1978 by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) that is very striking.

The catalogue remarks that it is "among Kiefer’s most dramatic and powerful subjects," adding that "in this case the artist’s efforts result in a rare and rich nocturnal palette accompanied by the iconic presence of the applied straw. The straw is a reference to another of Kiefer’s prominent subjects, Margarete. This theme of Margarete is consistently revisited in he artist’s works from the early 1980s. It is based on Paul Celan’s severe and melancholic poem from 1945, ‘Death Fugue.’ The piece was written in a concentration camp. The poet was the only member of his family survive, but later committee suicide in 1970 at the age of forty-nine….The straw represents the golden hair of the character Margarte in the poem, a reference to the Aryan race. The significance of Johannis Nacht (or Midsummer Night) lives in its reference to June 24th, the birthday of Saint John the Baptist – which coincides with the summer solstice. In Germany, this day is celebrated, combining pagan and Christian rites. Traditional, wheels of fire were placed at the top of hills. On one such occasion, in 1941, Hilter chose this day to invade Russia….Kiefer’s use of a material such as highly flammable straw as the central vehicle of these events suggest a kind of suicidal impulse at the core of German culture. The straw works are among the most beautifully poignant and magically represent pieces in Kiefer’s art. Both the beauty and horror of German life are combined in a dreamy night scene of rich, yet portentous blackness.

The lot, which is shown at the top of this article, has a conservative estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $34,500, including the buyer's premium as do all results in this article.

Lot 30, "Baume," is a very fine example of the "blurred" landscape paintings of Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). The 20 ½-by-28 ¼-inch oil on canvas was painted in 1987 and has an estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. It sold for $475,500.

The catalogue notes that the artist has maintained that his painted landscapes are "deceptive" and "refer to the way we view nature transfigured."

"Nature, which in all its forms is constantly against us, because it has no meaning no mercy, no sympathy, because it knows nothing…because it is the absolute opposite…, absolutely inhuman," the artist is quoted in the catalogue, which adds that "it is the haunting melancholy of Baume – the paucity of ‘meaning,’ mercy or sympathy,’ as the artist says – that makes it so very unlike Lorraine’s or Corot’s, yet so uniquely a part of Richter’s singular vision. Explains Richter, ‘each aspect of beauty we see in nature, every enchanting colour, the peacefulness or energy of mood, gentle lineation, lofty space…is our own projection.’"

Lot 25 is an very fine untitled work by Richter that is dramatic departure from his "blurry" pictures: it is an extremely detailed, very colorful large work of microscopic intensity. The 28 ½-by-40-inch oil on canvas was painted in 1989 and has a conservative estimate of $120,000 to $160,000. It sold for $255,500. It is a quite magnificent work that is more contemporary than just about everything else in the catalogue becomes it conjures the technology of computer expansion boards with its seeming three-dimensional scrapes of strong red, yellow and blocks against a white and gray background. The painting also conjures an historical sense of the various blobs of color also seem to have been parts of posters ripped off over the years revealing mysterious underpainting, but the overall effect is not haphazard but tightly organized.

"Schwiezer Alpen" by Gerhard Richter

Lot 33, "Schwiezer Alpen," a 28-inch square oil on canvas executed in 1969 by Gerhard Richter

It is a far cry, indeed, from another, earlier Richter work, Lot 33, shown above, "Schwiezer Alpen," a 28-inch square oil on canvas executed in 1969. "Unlike other monochromatic paintings that were being execute by other artists of this time period, Richter’s work possesses an entirely different driving force motivating its inception and creation," the catalogue remarks and quotes the artist as stating that the work should be "understood as achromatic rather than monochromatic."

The catalogue reproduces nine photographs of snowy mountains from the artist’s Atlas, and the strong, but simple work has a powerful, almost chiseled impact of great scale in part because of its lack of detail.

It has an estimate of $180,000 to $250,000, which apparently puts a higher value on its earlier date and style than the much more complex and alluring Lot 25. Nonetheless, its dull color may not suit all tastes or decors. It sold for $200,500.

An interesting companion piece to Lot 33 could be Lot 46, a fine untitled work by Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967), that is a 22-by-30-inch ink, oil watercolor and gouache on paper, executed in 1949. The first third or so of the work is a vertical strip of white with some black and blue and red squibbles and the remainder of the work uses a much darker palette of blacks, blues and greens to contain similar squibbles. The work is abstract, but highly detailed and very dense, sort of a horizontal Rothko done by Baziotes or Stamos, an altogether engaging and fine work that has a conservative estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $36,800. It and the Richter are muted and almost minimal, but full of character.

Untitled by Robert Rauschenberg

Lot 47, an untitled oil and gesso on masonite, 40 by 30 inches, by Robert Rauschenberg, 1949

The most surprising work in the auction is Lot 47, an untitled oil and gesso on masonite, 40 by 30 inches, by Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1935). Executed in 1949, it is a muted, gray palette study in fluid Cubism and quite different from the bulk of his oeuvre. The catalogue notes that his was the second painting the artist completed in 1949 and is a "precursor to those White Paintings with respect to the way the pigment is applied to the panel," adding that "Rauschenberg painted the board in such light hues that the surface of Unitled is render with a translucent glow." Rauschenberg launched his "seminal" series of White Paintings in 1951, "the surfaces of those canvases serving as a neutral backdrop (or stage setting) for the orchestral play of random shadows and colors that were present in the environments in which they were installed," the catalogue wrote.

This quite lyrical and simple Rauschenberg has a very conservative estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 and harkens to the geometric abstraction of Ben Nicolson. It sold for $63,000.

Lot 45, an untitled work by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) is another monochromatic study that makes a strong statement. Painting in 1950, this 18-by-24-inch Sapolin enamel on paper reflects the artist’s decision in the late 1940s to eliminate "color from his palette in order to focus on line, form and imagery" resulting in "the birth of a confident and energetic synthesis of abstraction, biomorphic forms and gestural ‘action painting’…The black and white abstractions also demonstrate the crucial relationship between drawing and painting in de Kooning’s oeuvre. Thomas Hess wrote ‘the moving pencil, charcoal brush or knife is the way de Kooning thinks…Usually the drawing is a search for shapes or lines or divisions or connections or a sense of light that will be used in painting.’ De Kooning was a skilled draughtsman with a graceful touch that resulted in sinuous lines suggestive of volume as well as shape. The looseness afforded by the materials and techniques of the black and white abstractions encourages the artist to expand his strokes to the outer edges of the paper in ‘all-over ‘ compositions. Untitled, 1950 shares characteristics with the works of de Kooning’s contemporaries such as Pollock,, Kline and Motherwell, soon to be group as as the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. ….Untitled, 1950, the drawing displays associate images that recall an actor’s dressing room.

The work has a slightly ambitious estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, especially since Lot 43 is a colorful de Kooning painted in 1964. It failed to sell.

Entitled "Grumman," Lot 43 is a 45 ½-by-29 5/8-inch-oil on newspaper. As a leading member of the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning startled much of the art world with the introduction in 1953 of his Women paintings, that "bore clearly recognizable images of females figures, and thus rejected the commitment to non-objectivity that previously characterized his own work and Abstract Expressionism more generally. The artist explained later that it while it was "absurd" to do such images, it was for him even more "absurd" "not to follow my desires."

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"By following his desires, and resuscitating the human figure in he midst of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning ultimately produced some of the most potent, iconic images of post-war American art, among which the present work may certainly be counted….Despite this immediate recognition of a figure, one also notices the obvious physical distortions that throw de Kooning’s formal concerns and technical mastery into extremely high relief. A confident, fluid handing of paint is perhaps most apparent in the present work. Board sweeping brushstrokes quickly adumbrate the figure’s cross arms and her thick head of hair. And yet this same description marks remain undeniable strokes of pure pigment to effectively make three-dimensional form to a flat surface. The work also reveals the artist’s masterful of collage. He has painted this image on a support of newspapers, one of which lends the painting its title. He could thus reconfigure this image with ease and toy with planar relationships. This is most apparent in the center or the canvas where two sheets of newspaper bisect the torso horizontally. By disrupting he flow of paint at her midsection, de Kooning creates the subtle illusion that the figure is reclining, her upper body receding just slightly behind her projecting legs." "In works such as Grumman, the catalogue continued, "the palette softened to a range of pale pinks, roses and yellows. The figures often seemed to stretch, flatten and recede as their more generous forms merged with indications of a background landscape, which is here suggested by patches of mint green pigment."

The catalogue entry also quotes the following interesting observations by Diane Waldman of de Kooning’s early 1960s pictures of women:

"…de Kooning’s women appear far more tranquil and are integrated into their surroundings; …Severe frontality, the direct confrontation of figures and spectator, gives way at they women recline, complacent and at ease in the countryside. The mood is pastoral. Ultimately the figures become so distorted that it is virtually impossible to disentangle torsos and limbs from the background…The female figure, although still the theme of the painting, no longer dominates its composition. By the 1960s, landscape assumes a new and more prominent role: de Kooning makes Woman a landscape."

This lot has a conservative estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000 and de Kooning’s "Women" paintings are clear precursors to the ever-increasing contortions, distortions and maledictions that would be become prevalent in much of "contemporary" art subsequently. This de Kooning, which sold for $772,500, bears a strong painterly kinship with Richter’s Lot 25 and to a lesser extent with the untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Lot 24, a 1982 work of acrylic, spraypaint and oil-sticks on canvas that is 72 by 48 inches and is highlighted by a horned skull with floating arrows above an undefined surge of black and pink. The Basquiat, shown below, has a conservative estimate of $300,000 to $400,000 and is a good example of his vibrancy and strong design. It sold for $255,500.

Jean-Michel Basquiat work

Lot 24, a 1982 work of acrylic, spraypaint and oil-sticks on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat that is 72 by 48 inches

De Kooning’s visceral influence would survive the onslaught of minimalism and Pop Art in the 1960s to emerge in much of the work of the 1980s and 1990s.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), of course, has survived his critics and become perhaps the greatest icon of his age and Lot 39, one of his self-portraits, is a splendid example that happens to owe an idealistic debt to de Kooning for its image overflows with orange-reds that seem to consume the image of his quizzical, cool, but enigmatic look. Executed in 1966-7, this 22-inch square synthetic polymer and silkscreen on canvas, shown below, has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $453,500.

The catalogue provides the following interesting commentary:

"Like his contemporaneous paintings of Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell’s Soup cans, and other consumer products, these early portraits were derived from images found in the mass media. By recycling such pre-existing images, Warhol disrupted the conventional notion that a subject may be accurately understood through his or her portrait. He instead revealed how identity is commodified within a media-saturated culture, packaged and promoted like a soup can or a soda bottle, and scarcely recognizable as an authentic expression of the interior self….The present work illustrates how Warhol began most of his portraits by shooting photographs of himself and his sitters, a tactic that suppressed a subjective interpretation of outward appearances. This objective approach was then enhanced by translating the photograph into a silkscreen image. A mechanical process the reduced the artist’s touch even further, the silkscreen generation exceedingly flat paintings comprising a few, unmodulated areas of vivid color. Significantly, this process also allowed for nearly endless repetition of a particular image. While the essential likeness of a given sitter almost remained intact, deliberate variations of color and accidental slippages of the silkscreen layers insured that each painting was ultimately unique. These variations, however, always occurred on a strictly superficial level and thus point to Warhol’s decidedly contemporary concept of selfhood. As the present work demonstrates, one is include to read this photographic image as an accurate, literal likeness of Warhol. The flat layers of pigment hold’s one eyes on the canvas surface and frustrate a desire to know the subject as anything more than mask. This painting ultimate illustrates of Warhol’s most famous, enigmatic statements, "If you want know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings, my films, and me, and there I am, There is nothing behind it….’"

Lot 38, "This Side Up," is an earlier Warhol that is an important transitional work in his early career. In the 1950s, Warhol had displayed some "comic-strip"-type paintings in the storefront windows of the Bonwit Teller Store that was demolished for Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. A few weeks later, the catalogue remarked, Warhol saw some "comic-strip" paintings by Roy Lictenstein at the Leo Castelli Gallery and "disappointed by this strange coincidence, and hoping to avoid further conflicts of interest, Warhol abandoned the comic strip altogether and sought out alternative subjects for his paintings."

"For a brief period in 1962," the catalogue entry continued, "Warhol created several paintings that reproduced various packing labels, stamps and dollar bills in grid formation. The present work belongs to this discrete body of transitional work, and represents a significant turning point in Warhol’s artistic development….This Side Up is…a valuable example of Warhol’s early interest in serial imagery….While the repetition of This Side Up generates a rather bland impression of redundancy, the same tactic would later function as a profound indictment on American consumer culture….By simply printing these words on a blank canvas, Warhol has cleverly and efficiently endowed this banal object with the inexplicable value assigned to all art."

Warhol’s repetitiveness and often banal subjects were only part of his immense and significant impact on contemporary art. Lot 38 has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $200,500.

Lot 7, "Dead Ends Died Out, Examined," is 18-layer wooden and glass vitrine of used cigarette butts put together in 1993 by Damien Hirst (b. 1965). While this large vitrine with its small objects conjures the macrocosmic small worlds of Joseph Cornell, it also pays great homage to Warhol’s re-emphasizing of his imagery. Hirst, one of the more interesting and controversial of contemporary artists, has introduced considerable variation to this grid-theme as the butts vary in length and crushedness and angles. This is a very impressive work and has an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $508,500.

The catalogue provides the following quotation from Hirst:

"The smoking thing is like a mini life cycle. For me the cigarette can stand for life. The packet with its possible cigareets stands for birth. The lighter can signify God, which gives life to the whole situation. The ashtray represents death, but as soon as you it like that you feel ridiculous. Because being metaphorical is ridiculous, but it’s unavoidable."

"Dead Ends Died Out, Examined does not function to lecture at the viewer, but merely provides the issues of mortality with a great sense of wit and irony. By enshrining stubbed-out cigarette butts on eighteen shelves encased in a glass vitrine, Hirst essentially gives the cigarettes a heroic and simultaneously comedic status leading the viewer to think about the large issues related to smoking and cigarettes," the catalogue continued.

Lot 9, "In Love-Out of Love," is another Hirst of a much different nature, but similar temperament or philosophy. It is a diptypch of gloss household paint and butterflies on canvas, one part painting with pink background and the other with a blue background, which illustrates the catalogue’s cover. The work was executed in 1998 and has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $750,500. Much of Hirst’s oeuvre consists of rather shocking and bold images such as shark in formaldehyde, cows cut in half, and medicine cabinets and the like. This work stems from his 1991 installation in London that simulated a Malaysian tropical forest in which butterflies were hatched and then attached to white canvases. This work manifests a poetic side to Hirst and is notable for the spacious freedom of the placement of the butterflies in contrast with some crowded Renaissance paintings of various insects and bugs.

The auction has an interesting work by Chris Ofili, whose use of elephant dung led to a great controversy recently at the Brooklyn Museum over one of his paintings of a Madonna. Lot 3 is a rather dazzling, almost psychedelic rendering of "Cupid’s Wings," which also happens to have some large lumps of elephant dung among the glitter. Executed in 1994, the work has a conservative estimate of $45,000 to $65,000. It sold for $88,300.

"Freeway 280" by Wayne Thiebaud

Lot 41, "Freeway 289," by Wayne Thiebaud, 1977, oil on canvas, 20 by 24 inches

Ofili’s painting has celestial pathways, but Lot 41, "Freeway 280," shown above, focuses on more mundane routes. Executed in 1977 by Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), it is a very bold 20-by-24-inch oil on canvas that is very luminous and a richly complex composition that bears comparison with some of the work of Richard Diebenkorn. "Wayne Thiebaud’s cityscape paintings depicting the California that exists in the artist’s mind utilize realistic subject matter transformed and brought to a level of almost pure abstraction; forms are simplified to their most basic level and perspective is collapsed creating compositions extremely rich in depth of color and emotion. Greatly influenced by Richard Diebenkorn and his own cityscape works (i.e. Cityscape I, 1963), Thiebaud’s painting has a more crystalline structure with color solidity," the catalogue observed.

This quite painterly work has a conservative estimate of $120,000 to $160,000. It sold for $277,500.

Lot 13 is a very fine photograph entitled "Rapture" by Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), an Iranian-born woman who won the Golden Lion Award at the 1999 Venice Biennale for her 11-minute video installation. Her work explores the social, cultural and religious codes of Muslim societies, especially those about women, but her photographs have great moment and poetry. The lot has a conservative estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $43,700.

"Cremaster I Ms Goodyear" by Matthew Barney

Lot 8, "Cremaster I Ms. Goodyear" by Matthew Barney

Among the works that are unlikely to stand the test of time are works in this auction by Rineke Dijkstra, Lot 1, Jack Pierson, Lot 2, Nan Goldin, Lots 10 and 15, William Kentridge, Lot 12, Cindy Sherman (Lot 19 and 22), Cy Twombly (Lot 31), Blinky Palermo (Lot 36), and Matthew Barney (b. 1967), whose "Cremaster 1 Ms. Goodyear," Lot 8, is illustrated above.

In the back of the catalogue, Phillips acknowledges that it has "a financial interest, which may be an advance, a price guarantee and/or an ownership interest in the following lots: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 37, 38, 39, 41, 45, 46."

See The City Review article on Contemporary Art, Part II, at Phillips, Nov. 14, 2000

See The City Review Article on the May 18-9 Contemporary Art auctions at Phillips

See The City Review article on the May 16, 2000 evening auction of Contemporary Art at Christie's

See The City Review article on the May 17, 2000 Contemporary Art evening auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall, 1999 auction of Contemporary Art at Christie's

See The City Review article on the Sotheby's Nov. 17, 1999 auction of Contemporary Art

See The City Review article on the auctions of Contemporary Art from a European Private Collection and Contemporary Art, Part 2, at Sotheby's Nov. 18, 1999

See The City Review article on the May 18, 1999 Contemporary Art Auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on Contemporary Art Part 2 auction at Sotheby's May 19, 1999

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 19, 1999 Contemporary Art auction

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 20, 1999 Contemporary Art Part 2 auction

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