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Contemporary Art


7PM, November 16, 1999

"Pink Panther" by Jeff Koons

Lot 20, "Pink Panther" by Jeff Koons,

41 inches high, porcelain, 1988

by Carter B. Horsley

In 1988, Jeff Koons had an exhibition entitled "Banality," at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. The highlight of the show was his "Pink Panther," shown above.

Banality, of course, is the hallmark of much of the art world over the past decade or so as conceptual theory has made a mockery of most traditional notions of art involving composition, style, originality and perhaps even beauty.

"Pink Panther," however, is a great and legitimate icon, on a par with the previous generation’s Warhol’s Campbell soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles.

While much of recent contemporary art has focused on the prosaic, the dull, the ugly and the obscene, or at least prurient, "Pink Panther" is a magnificently executed work of great irony. The happy-go-lucky panther that grew to fame in Peter Sellers’ movies of the inept Inspector Cloiseau has achieved success and is wrapping his cute paw around the very voluptuous torso of a long-haired blonde who seems to be in ecstasy. The Pink Panther, however, appears forlorn and a little befuddled. Perhaps he hears Peggy Lee in the background singing "Is That All There Is…"

The catalogue describes the woman as "slightly larger than life" and notes that she is naked from the waist up and her "pneumatic breasts characterize here as an embodiment of the standard male fantasy."

Koons is quoted in the catalogue as remarking that "Pink Panther is about masturbation. I don’t know what she would be doing with the Pink Panther other than taking it home to masturbate with." The catalogue goes on to note that "Pornography, like art, is designed for contemplation," which is an acceptable notion, "and is intended to alter the emotions of, and inspire action by, the viewer," which is debatable, or perhaps forced.

In any event, this 41-inch-high porcelain statue, numbered three from an edition of three and one artist’s proof is a marvelous spoof and indictment of artificiality. It has a conservative high estimate of $800,000. It is much more than mere kitsch for it is just too well done: the glaze of the woman’s scant dress is fabulously elegant and when combined with the finely tactile treatment of the doll’s "fur" out-dazzle the well-done "softness" of the women’s much-exposed "skin" and her stylized large mop of hair. She is not as desirable as her plaything and her clothes. Her Jayne Mansfield/Marilyn Monroe/Cicciolina persona suffers in comparison and in her stardom. With her right hand, she demurely covers one breast while the panther seems at a loss as to where to put his paws. The garish colors are the bloom of adolescence and the entrance into the agonies of adulthood and freedom.

In Blake Edwards’ movies, the Pink Panther merely romped through the credits as the epitome of a cool/hat/hep cat of the swinging 60s, and was never a fully developed cartoon character and his fame rested more on Sellers’ lunacy and the bouncy theme music.

The Pink Panther never had the feistiness and personality of Tweety, or the flusteredness of Donald Duck, and the like. From the start, he was a one-purr kitty, never likely to be named Person of the Year by Time Magazine, but he was not banal, indeed not even cuddly, merely sexist and absurd, qualities little appreciated at the political correct end of the century.

While this sculpture may not be a Botticelliesque "Birth of Venus," it does say a lot about the inflated hype of the ephemeral aesthetic of American culture and it works very well as a sculpture because a view from only one side would be misleading.

It has a conservative high estimate of $800,000. It sold for $1,817,500, including the buyer's premium as do all sales prices in this article. The packed room, shown below, burst into applause at the result. The cover illustration of the catalogue, it was the highlight of the auction, easily exceeding Koons' previous auction record of $409,500.

Christie's main auction room

Christopher Burge auctioning "Pink Panther" by Jeff Koons

The auction was extremely successful setting auction records for 18 artists and nicely exceeding its pre-sale high estimate of $12.9 million.

Another work by Koons is Lot 51, "Winter Bears," which is cute but kitsch and has an ambitious high estimate of $600,000. It sold for $486,500.

References to the Renaissance are not inappropriate at this auction as Lot 7 is an arresting cast silicon bronze and forged steel sculpture by Kiki Smith (b. 1954) of a naked and very hairy Mary Magdalene that has a rather clear precedent of Donatello’s wooden "Penitent Magdalene" that was encrusted with mud during the 1966 flood in Florence where it was removed to the third floor of the Palazzo Davanzatti for extensive restoration. Less powerful and not as gaunt as Donatello’s figure, Smith’s 60-inch-high statue has a very interesting and evocative pose with her head bent back and her arms at her side as she strides forward with a chain around her right foot. Smith is one of the most controversial young artists and the current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "The American Century, Part 2," features a sculpture by her of a naked woman crawling with a very, very long excrement. The catalogue notes that the artist, the daughter of sculpture Tony Smith, has said that "our bodies are basically stolen from us, and my work is about trying to reclaim one’s own turf, or one's own vehicle of being here, to own it and to use it to look at how we are here." Has the woman here broken free of her shackles? Or is she still in torment? It is hard to tell from her pose, though she certainly does not seem to be in ecstasy.

This lot has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $178,500.

Another work by Smith, Lot 53, is very different. Entitled "Untitled (Cane)," it consists of 41 red and clear glass pieces of varying lengths, all of which look somewhat like broken pieces of cane candy, but are very, very elegant because they have clear glass instead of white glass stripes and the red colors are not stripes. They were created in 1994 and the lot has a somewhat ambitious estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $43,700.

Smith is certainly not the only controversial artist in this auction. Andres Serrano (b. 1950) is best known for his quite beautiful and infamous "Piss Christ" photograph of 1987, which is also in the Whitney exhibition (and not the more infamous "Sensations" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art). Lot 6 is his impressive triptych, "Red Pope I-III," three 40 by 27 ½-inch Cibachrome prints all mounted on Plexiglas. The work was executed in 1990 and this is number three from an edition of ten. It has a conservative high estimate of $30,000. It sold for $70,700, surpassing the artist's previous auction record of $43,700. In this work, the catalogue notes that a plastic statue of the Pope has been submerged in blood," adding that "the traditional pure white robes here become stained, suggesting the Church’s culpability for the death of innocents over the centuries." "In the shadow of the AIDS crisis, blood has come to be perceived as especially dangerous. Blood has come to symbolize death and defilement while for ages…it symbolized redemption," it continued. While Serrano’s work is unquestionably polemic and not inoffensive to many, his images do have a beauty apart from his intended image and indeed are mild compared to more blatant works on display both in the auction houses and galleries including some photographs by Cindy Sherman of large dolls with genitalia in provocative poses.

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) has several lots in the auction but is best featured in a large portrait of her by Chuck Close (b. 1940), Lot 10, "Cindy II," a 72 by 60-inch oil on canvas, executed in 1988, that has an ambitious high estimate of $800,000. It sold for $1,212,500. Close's previous auction record was only $431,500. The painting uses a radial pattern similar to that easily achieved now in computer programs such as Photoshop. The major lot by Sherman in the auction is Lot 47, "Untitled #225," a color coupler print mounted on foamcore, 48 by 33 inches, that depicts Sherman as a demure, not particularly beautiful, Botticelliesque woman bearing a breast spurting milk." It has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It is number three of an edition of six. It sold for $167,500.

Lot 14, "Spiritual America," is a color coupler print, 24 by 20 inches, by Richard Prince, executed in 1983 that includes a "re-photographed picture of Brooke Shields nude as a child." When it was exhibited in a temporary gallery on the Lower East Side called "Spiritual America," the "public uproar was substantial," the catalogue noted, "not only due to the illicit subject matter but also because Prince chose to exhibit the photograph while Shield’s mother-manager Terri and the original photographer (Garry Gross) were in court over the picture’s ownership rights. This lot is number ten from an edition of ten and has a high estimate of $40,000. It sold for $151,000, greatly eclipsing the artist's previous auction record of $28,750.

Damien Hirst (b. 1965) has several lots, of which Lot 55, "With Dead Head," is particularly striking/gruesome/fascinating/repugnant. It shows the young artist smiling with his head next to the apparently decapitated head of an older and much larger man. The 22 ½-by-30-inch black and white photograph on aluminum is from an edition of 15 and has a high estimate of $35,000. It sold for $74,000. There were four other Hirsts in the auction and all sold and one, Lot 59, set a new auction rcord of $354,500 for the artist.

Not all the works are controversial.

Lot 26, "Untitled IV (Prada 1)," is a 55-by-87.34-inch Chromogenic color print by Andreas Gursky (b. 1955). This large photograph of two rows of shoes, arranged with probably more artistry than Imelda Marcos’ closet, is majestic and very elegant. It is number two of an edition of six. It has an ambitious high estimate of $60,000. It sold for $173,000. Gursky's previous auction record was $90,500.

Lot 32, "Grab des unbekannten Malers," is a 51-by-66 7/8-inch oil and shellac on canvas by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945). Quite dramatic and painterly, this 1982 homage to the "unknown painter" that the catalogue maintains "casts the concept of genius in an ironic light." It has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It sold for $320,000.

Lot 37 is a happy bronze sculpture, 64 inches high, by Joel Shapiro (b. 1941) that has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $200,500.

"Pier In/Out" by Gordon Matta-Clark

Lot 39, "Pier In/Out" by Gordon Matta-Clark,

90 inches high, 1973

One of the more important works in the auction is Lot 39, "Pier In/Out," by Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978), shown above.

This 90-inch-high work is an early "extraction" by Matta-Clark who sought out abandoned structures and carved them up. The catalogue notes that the artist studied architecture at Cornell University but abandoned it and chose "destructuring" and developed the notion of "anarchitecture" and studied neglected structures that he described as "non-u-mental." Matta-Clark was very influential with many avant-garde architects and artists and the catalogue maintained that such works as this were meant to "call attention to the ruins of urban society in the name of modernization and capitalism," choosing to "present rather than preserve" the non-u-mentals. The lot, which was completed in 1973, has an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It was passed at $240,000, one of only four lots that went unsold in this exceeding strong auction that had 60 lots.

Auction records were also set for Thomas Struth, Luc Tuymans, Jac Leirner, Gertrudis Goldschmidt-Gego, Maina Abramovic, Rosemarie Trockel, Martin Kippenberger, Carl Andre, Mike Kelly, and Peter Halley.

While the Pink Panther was obviously the star lot, the surprise lot was Kippenberger's lage painting that had been estimate at $40,000 to $60,000 and sold for $717,500, His previous auction record was only $19,090. At one point, auctioneer Christoper Burge turned to one of the auction house staff manning the phones and said "Surprise me," suggesting that the bidding had finally stopped at the $560,000 level. A few seconds later, the staffer raised his hand upping the bid to $570,000. "You surprised me," laughed Burge and the auction room crowd.

Burge, who is also Christie's North America chairman, said after the sale that the auction had included for the first time some contemporary Latin American artists as an experiment and they did well. Contemporary art is very international now and future such auctions may well include artists from other regions, he said. In response to a question from Carol Vogel of The New York Times that suggested that the auction house's estimates were quite low, Mr. Burge responded that many of the artists have had little or no auction price history and that estimates were higher and based largely on gallery pricing.

Bidding was very lively and Burge estimated that about the successful bidders were split about evenly between Americans and Europeans with a very small percentage of successful Asian bidders. About half of the successful bids came from within the room, a very healthy percentage given the fantastic increase in recent years in telephone bidding. In response to a question after the auction, Burge and his staff estimated that perhaps a third of the telephone bidding came from people on the Christie's premises.

Burge said that the buyers of the top four lots were anonymous, adding that the sale was "triumphant," a not unreasonable statement. "It really was a breeze for me and I was falling out of the box on several occasions," he laughed.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects



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

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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