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Wednesday, 7 PM, May 16, 2001

Sale 9644

"Buschdorf" by Gerhard Richter

Lot 36, "Buschdorf," by Gerhard Richter, oil on canvas, 40 by 56 inches, 1985

By Carter B. Horsley

Some of today's most celebrated artists have several different major styles or themes and this auction is highlighted by several major works by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) that show off well his diversity.

The auction, which has many top-quality lots, also has good works by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987).

The auction's sales total was $41,239,725, slightly over the pre-sale low estimate of $40,460,000. The pre-sale high estimate was $56,890,000. Of the 59 offered lots, 49 sold, or 83 percent. Despite some disappointments, the sale was generally quite healthy. "It was a thrilling night," declared Christopher Burge, the auctioner, at his news conference after the auction, adding that "there were lots of bidders throughout the sale with strong bidding for all ranges." Mr. Burge noted that while American buyers officially constituted 69 percent of the purchasers versus 28 percent for Europeans, "there was more global interest than suggested" by the figures.

Lot 36, "Buschdorf," shown above, is one of Richter's best landscapes, a 40-by-56-inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1985 and has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,206,000 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article.

The catalogue entry for this lot begins with an intriguing quotation from the artist:

"Of course, my landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all `untruthful' (even if I did not always find a way of showing it); and by `untruthful' I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless; the total antithesis of ourselves, absolutely inhuman. Every beauty that we see in landscape every enchanting colour effect, or tranquil scene, or powerful atmosphere, every gentle linearity or magnificent spatial depth or whatever is a our projection; and we can switch it off at a moment's notice, to reveal only the appalling horror and ugliness. Nature is so inhuman that it is not even criminal. It is everything that we must basically overcome and reject because, for all our own superabundant horrendousness, cruelty and vileness, we are still capable of producing a spark of hope which we can also call love. Nature has none of this. Its stupidity is absolute."

Much of recent contemporary art is preoccupied with the ugly, or the grotesque, or the repulsive and one often senses that many contemporary artists are preoccupied with shock values rather than aesthetics and are not really revolting against prior notions of beauty because their work shows so little sense of composition, proportion, painterliness and palette, which is to say that it often seems that the sidewalks of the new paradise are filled with garbage. There are, of course, a goodly number of talented artists today and Richter certainly can be counted highly among them. You sense that his works are serious examinations and investigations of subjects of great interest to him and that he has applied considerable efforts and brought deeply felt emotion to his work. His landscapes are overcast with his concerns and doubts and his visions are troubled and easy answers are not in sight in his blurred and smudged works.

The catalogue notes that "nature always remains his bête noir" and that "Nature is virtually his adversary the landscape is, arguably, his magnum opus."

Richter's quote, made not too long after he executed this painting, is fascinating because the many of his views of Nature depict man-made, man-cultivated, man-rearranged landscapes, however bucolic.

His scale and his compositions in works such as this and the somewhat inferior "Wiesental," which is reproduced in the catalogue and in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are heroic even if the depicted scenes are merely pastoral. These are not the majestic glories of the spectacular scenes portrayed by Thomas Cole, or Frederic Church or Albert Bierstadt, nor the mesmerizing moments of Caspar David Friedrich, and certainly they are not the riotously luminous impressionistic works of Monet, nor the poetic tonalism of George Inness. They are heavy and momentous and fraught with angst. Will the weather clear, will our vision be cleared?

"Buschdorf" is, unquestionably, a fine and intriguing landscape with a wonderful sense of depth and a quite marvelous and unusual feeling of light. The fallen tree in the center speaks of Nature's cycles while the tufts of grass are soft and inviting. One wants to walk and lay down in this rolling field. The horizon fades away in the misty sky and the nearby trees offer shelter whereas it is not clear that the distant fence is broachable. There is nearness here.

Lot 17, "Portrait Wunderlich," is a 1967 Richter oil on canvas, 78 ¾ inches square with an identical estimate as Lot 36. It failed to sell and was passed at $1,800,000.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Portrait Wunderlich ranks as one of Gerhard Richter's finest and most monumental pictures from the seminal series of black and white photo-realist paintings that the artist produced during the early 1960s. Exquisitely painted in deliberately blurred gradations of gray, this impressive canvas explores the ambiguity that exists between the supposed truthful objectivity of a photograph and the inevitable artifice of the painting image. Its premise has its roots in German Pop Art and shows Richter's appropriating his subject matter from commonplace photographs found in magazines and gleaned from other people's family photo-albums. `I consider many amateur photographs better than the best Cézanne') Richter. 1966 cited in The Daily Practice of Painting, London, 1995, p. 55). For Richter, photography presented the viewer 9(and the artist) with a ready-made snapshot of reality. In that single moment of frozen time, life has been captured and framed for scrutiny. To then paint in oil this specific timeframe of reality as accurately as the original photograph presents I helps to deconstruct its artificiality and calls into question the objectivity of any visual experience. `Being painted, they no longer tell of a specific situation, and the presentation becomes absurd. As a painting, it changes both its meaning and its information content'Richter based the present painting on a photograph of his friend, the artist Paul Wunderlich. The photohad been taken by Wunderlich's wife, the acclaimed German photographer Karin Székessy during a happy day spent together with Richter in the countryside. The image of the proud hunter carrying his pathetically small prey is both anecdotal and humorous; yet Richter has chosen to paint this private moment among friends with the monumentality normally associated with State Portraiture. The figure of Wunderlich as hapless hunter mimics the swagger an ambition found in a Van Dyck or Velasquez portrait and places such timeless characteristics of human vanity within a modern framework. Portrait Wunderlich undermines all preconceptions of the traditional notions of portraiture and figure painting."

"Claudius" by Gerhard Richter

Lot 35, "Claudius," by Gerhard Richter, oil on linen, 124 1/2 by 162 1/2 inches, 1986

Lot 35, "Claudius," is a 124 ½-by-162 ½-inch oil on linen that Richter painted in 1986. A riotous flurry of color and bold brushstrokes, it is one of his largest works and has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,876,000.

"Fisch (1-3) by Gerhard Richter

Lot 45, "Fisch (1-3) by Gerhard Richter

"Schiff (1-3) by Gerhard Richter

Lot 45, "Schiff (1-3) by Gerhard Richter

The same year he painted "Fisch (1-3) and Schiff (1-3)," two triptychs, Lot 45, shown above, designed to be shown in tandem whose six panels each measure 63 by 59 inches. They were created for the reception area of BOC Group's office complex in Surrey, England. "Each work," the catalogue noted, "is a progression of three separate canvases that are interconnected by two powerful and seemingly continuous triangular forms. These unite the three canvases and create a rhombic plane at the heart of the work that suggests an illusionary space. This sense of receding space is accentuated by a metallic-like shading that conveys the appearance o light and depth. Such illusionism is however, simultaneously denied by the emphasis on the surface of the work that Richter has also generated by splattering and smearing each canvas with a vibrant scarlet. In addition, a succession of dramatic and randomly positioned squeegeed brushstrokes further denies such an illusionistic reading of the work but does not go so far as to completely obliterate it. This creates an overall sense of instability and disorientation which s again enhanced by the basic structure of each triptych being a flipped mirror-image of the other. This connected but inverted symmetry between the two weeks dominates the environment in which the paintings are placed and seems to actively invade and disrupt the real space. In this way Richter creates `pictorial quality that the intelligence can't fabricate.' By this he means a beauty that does not adhere to any aesthetic ideology and yet is still perceivable. It is his refusal to abide by any aesthetic rules, to deliberately negate any sense of symmetry, color harmony or constructive unity that distinguishes Richter's painting and generates the dissonance that he believes represents the only truth and is the only hope for finding ay meaning in art. For Richter, his abstract paintings are beautiful fictions. They are artificial in the same way as his photographic paintings, but they go beyond these in the fact that `they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but who existence we can postulate.' In creating two triptychs o separate but seemingly sequential `fictive' mages, Richter recalls his window-like paintings of clouds and his `Mirrors' that reflected the artificiality of all imagery and reminded the viewer that any interpretation made from anything seen was a projection of his or her own making. Richter's abstract paintings reiterate this in their deliberate negation of any aesthetic, but in clearly displaying their paradoxical nature, they also express an awareness of our inadequacies and our limited and fragmented way of seeing he world along wit a hope of progressing towards an understanding. This sense of limitation and fragmentation is particularly acute in the BOC paintings because of their seeming sequential nature and because of the way that each triptych is a flipped image of he other. This conveys a sense of connection between the two works that hints at the possibility of an unexplained, unknowable, but nonetheless real truth or meaning."

This lot is heir to Kandinsky's great abstract legacy and is conservatively estimated at $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,436,000 to an American dealer.

Another Richter abstraction in a very different and more mottled style is Lot 51, "Abstraktes Bild (Flint Tower)," a 1988 oil on canvas that measures 78 ¾ by 55 1/8 inches. It has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $644,000.

One of the most stunning works in the auction is Lot 53, "Coupure," a 45 ½-by-35-inch oil on canvas by Lucio Fontana. Executed in 1961, this lot has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $996,000.

"Fontana's emphasis on surface in this work," the catalogue essay maintained, "represents the bringing to fruition of his experiments with oil paint during the previous year. In a series of heavily painted paintings, known simply as the Olii (Oils) Fontana had experimented with the traditional medium of oil paint as a gesturally expressive textural and spatial addition to the predominantly flat surface of his canvases. Using dramatic swirls and indentations that emphasise the unique material quality and three-dimensional texture of oil paint, the surface of Fontana's canvases became enigmatic reliefs that deliberately evoked a shimmering play of depth, texture and surface tension."

This lot was one of several "highly important works that Fontana executed while preparing for an exhibition of his Attese paintings at the 1961 Venice Biennale," the catalogue noted, adding that the Venezie pictures took the unique light, water and architecture of the floating city as its central theme and were intended as a conceptual unit." "Combining the spatial depth of the cut with the seemingly illusionistic depth of the oil paint, the repeated series of swirling lines are reminiscent of the spatial eloquence of Fontana's Neon Light sculptures. At the same time they clearly mimic the pattern of light as it reflects in ripples off the golden surface of the Venetian lagoon at dawn or sunset," the essay remarked.

A possible companion piece for Fontana's golden interpretation of Venice is Lot 33, "Daddy in the Dark," by John Chamberlain (b. 1927). This 112 /4-inch-high painted and chrominum-plated steel sculpture was executed in 1988 and has a conservative estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $248,000. Metal car parts are to Chamberlain what a lumber yard is to Louise Nevelson and this lot is a particularly successful example of how he has pressed car parts into a very rhythmic sculpture whose essential white monochrome palette imparts considerable elegance.

"Untitled (Ovum and Sperm)" by Kiki Smith

Lot 25, "Untitled (Ovum and Sperm)" by Kiki Smith, 1992

Lot 25, "Untitled (Ovum and Sperm), is an amusing and good work by Kiki Smith (b. 1954), shown above. The ovum of cast aluminum is a 12-inch-high globular object and it is attacked at its base by 10 cast bronze sperm. The 1992 work has an estimate of $40,000 to $600,000, but it failed to sell and was passed at $22,000.

Lot 41, "No. 18 (Brown and Black on Plum)," is a 80-by-82-inch oil on canvas by Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Painted in 1958, it has an ambitious estimate of $7 million to $10,000,000 and has been widely exhibited. It failed to sell and was passed at $3,400,000.

"Executed in the autumn of 1958," the catalogue essay on this lot stated, "this painting belongs to the period when Rothko's work first began to adopt the deep somber Dionysian colours that were to increasingly dominate the artist's palette until his suicide in 1970. Many critics have somewhat misleadingly identified these darker paintings with Rothko's `dark side' and seen in them a symbol of the increasing depression of his last ears but this view is a simplistic categorization give in hindsight that misinterprets Rothko's original intentions. Rothko aimed in his work to create an overwhelming presence that through its combination of shimmering and almost indefinable planes of colour generated an undeniable emotive energy that resonates in the human psyche. The dark paintings that begin in 1957 and dominate his oeuvre thereafter do not so much reflect a `darkening' of Rothko's mood as a deepening of feeling and a more profound attempt by the artist to wrestle with what he saw as the essentially tragic nature of humanity and the wild Dionysian violence that lies at the heart of all life."

The painting's colors, nonetheless are certainly somber in comparison with the pulsating brilliance and saturation of many of his earlier similar abstractions and a vertical element in the large top band of color is distracting.

"Untitled III" by Willem de Kooning

Lot 44, "Untitled III," by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 77 by 88 inches, 1985

Lot 44, "Untitled III," is one of the late, bright and lyrical abstractions by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Entitled "Untitled III," the oil on canvas measures 77 by 88 inches and was painted in 1985 and has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,271,000. It is similar to many that were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997 (see The City Review article). The catalogue includes a black-and-white photograph by Edvard Lieber of the artist working in his studio with this lot in the foreground.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Much like the late work of Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse, de Kooning's paintings contain the sustained energy ad technical finesse of earlier achievements. However, the content of these paintings has been radically reduced and simplified, its composition distilled into pure color and line. This notion is evident in the present painting, where primary colors of blue, red, and yellow weave, cut and bridge across a subtly tinted white plane. Its ribbon-like lines create a tangle of forms that suggest either the traces of movement of a human body or the living vitality of nature, such as the ebb and flow of the ocean tide."

The entry notes that de Kooning was much absorbed with Matisse's abstract cut-outs. These late abstractions are very beautiful.

Lot 5 is a very good Alexander Calder (1898-1976) sculpture entitled "Constellation (Easter Hat)." Executed in 1943, it is 16 inches high and has a conservative estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $1,106,000.

"A self-standing structure that, like some animated table, supports a bizarre surrealist landscape of forms standing on a carved wooden surface, Constellation (Easter Hat) is a perfect example of Calder's unique blend of abstraction and surrealist association. The seemingly animated nature of the strange wooden forms of this sculpture combine with a bizarre logic to form a fantastic molecular structure that looks as if the work were the result of some mad chemist's hallucinatory vision. The striking multi-colored form that anchors this sculpture together at the center of the work recalls closely the forms of Miró's own Constellation paintings which were painted between 1940 and 1941. Yet, although Calder's Constellations clearly echo and indeed have often been compared to these celebrated paintings by his close friend, it appears that Calder did not see Miró's Constellations until after the war. A more certain source of inspiration for the bizarre cluster of forms that `constellate' together in new sculptures like Easter Hat is the work of the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy who along with his wife, the painter, Kay Sage, had moved into a nearby house in Woodbury, Connecticut."

Lot 6 is an interesting work by Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911), entitled "Mortise." Originally conceived in wood in 1950, it is a painted bronze sculpture 60 inches high that was cast in a bronze edition of six later. It has an estimate of $250,000 to $300,000. It sold for $270,000.

The Museum of Modern Art has consigned a classic example by Josef Albers (1888-1976), Lot 3, to benefit its acquisition fund. The 1959 oil on masonite measures 48 inches square and has a conservative estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $270,000.

Andy Warhol, the subject of a few forthcoming exhibitions, has several lots in the auction.

Lot 4 is "Campbell's Soup Can (Clam Chowder)," an acrylic on canvas, 20 by 16 inches. The 1962 painting has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $1,766,000.

Lot 15 is "Orange Marilyn," a 20-by-16-inch synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas that was painted by Warhol in 1962 and has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $3,746,000. A larger version has sold for about $17,000,000.

Lot 39, "Large Flowers," is a 82-by-162-inch synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas unframed that was painted by Warhol in 1964 and has an ambitious estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $8,476,000, the second highest auction price for Warhol, eliciting the first major sustained outburst of applause in the major auction houses this season. The painting was sold at Sotheby's in May, 1989 for about $1,500,000. The work was once in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Scull of New York and is one of four executed at this scale. Warhol "appropriated" the image of the flowers from a color photograph of seven hibiscus blossoms in a June 1964 issue of a photography magazine and cropped the photo to remove three of the flowers for a series of "flower" paintings on a smaller scale and then cropped the image again to reduce the number of flowers for the large canvases to only two.

Lot 47, "Self-Portrait (Camouflage)," is a 80-inch square synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas unframed that Warhol painted in 1986. It has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. It failed to sell and was passed at $550,000.

Lot 54, "Statue of Liberty," is a 72-inch square synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas that as also painted by Warhol in 1986 and has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It sold for $391,000.

See The City Review article on the May 14, 2001 evening auction of Contemporary Art at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg

See The City Review article on the May 15, 2001 evening auction of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall 2000 Contemporary Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Contemporary Art evening auction at Phillips, Nov. 13, 2000

See The City Review article on Contemporary Art Part II auction 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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