This evening auction
May 13, 2003 of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's is highlighted by
a nice work by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), a beautiful Mark Rothko
(1903-1970), an important "combine" by Robert Rauschenberg
(b. 1925), and a great Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899-1953).
The Pollock, Lot 19, "Number 17, 1949," shown at the
top of this article, is an enamel and aluminum paint on paper
mounted on fiberboard, 22 ½ by 28 ½ inches. The
1949 work was included in the Pollock retrospective at the Museum
of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery in London in 1998-99 and in
several other exhibitions.
The lot is the cover illustration of the auction's catalogue,
which provides the following commentary:
"Beginning in 1946-47, Pollock's technique of placing the
painting on the floor in his Long Island barn, and working from
all four sides to drip, puddle, and fling pigment from sticks
and brushes, inaugurated a new era in abstract art. From 1947
to 1951, Pollock's brush seldom touched his paintings, but physicality
abounds in his work through the dexterity of movement from wrist
to arm to body, and Pollock painted with a sure confidence in
the fluidity of the paint orchestrating its quantity, density,
speed and rhythm into a completely cohesive unity of composition
and expression. Number 17, 1949 is an exquisite example
of Pollock's scintillating color, rhythmic energy and painterly
improvisation during this vital period of invention."
The lot has an estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It sold
to Larry Gagosian, the dealer, for $5,272,000 including the buyer's
premium as do all results mentioned in this article. The Pollock
was consigned by the AG Foundation established by Agnes Gund,
a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The sale was a bit weak
with 84.78 percent of the offered lots selling for a total of
$27,339,600 against a pre-sale low estimate of $33.7 million.
After the auction, Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer commented that
nine of the top lots were purchased by "private Americans"
and noted that museums are now "building galleries"
rather than making acquisitions a priority.
Mark Rothko is represented
by two paintings in this auction, Lots 10 and 18. The former,
shown above, is entitled "Grays in Yellow" and is an
oil on paper mounted on canvas that measures 23 ¾ by 18
¾ inches. Dated 1960, is one of his most beautiful works
and has a conservative estimate of $450,000 to $550,000. It
sold for $960,000. Lot 18 is a more conventional work that
is entitled "White Over Orange." It is an oil on paper
mounted on canvas that is dated 1959 and measures 29 5/8 by 21
5/8 inches. The handsome work has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000.
It sold for $702,400.
Lot 27 is a major "combine"
work, entitled "Minutiae," by Robert Raushenberg. The
oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal and plastic with mirror
and string on wood construction "combine" was executed
in 1954. It measures 84 ½ by 81 by 30 ½ inches and
has an estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000 and is the subject
of a separate catalogue. It failed to sell and was passed at
$4,700,000. After the auction, Laura Paulson, head of Contemporary
Art for North and South America for Sotheby's, commented that
the Rauschenberg was a work that "requires either an institutional
buyer or an informed and sensitive collector who can handle a
work that is devastingly beautiful yet complex."
The work was created for a ballet of the same name by Merce Cunningham
with music by John Cage that was first performed in 1954 at the
Brooklyn Academy of Arts.
The catalogue notes that the work "is one of the earliest
and largest of Freestanding Combines Rauschenberg made,"
adding that the artist "created a structure that would be
used, not so much as a set, but as an object in space which the
dancers would communicate with on state." "Like all
of Rauschenberg's Combines, Minutiae sings in its lavish,
yet delicate presentation. The present work may be seen as a formal
exercise in the elaborate arrangement of shape, color and texture.
It may also be seen to contain a mysterious, idiosyncratic code;
as if Rauschenberg has provided us with a riddle, and our task
is to unravel its various meanings. Though his deliberate lack
of order, achieving any sense of the whole seems a difficult,
even futile exercise. Gaining a purchase of the `whole' must be
a personal aesthetic pursuit, rewarded through the act of looking.
However, where consciously or unconsciously, artists make choices,
in terms of the associations inherent to their subject matter
and in terms of their assemblage of that loaded material. When
looking at Minutiae it is important to remember that this
work was created at a time when television and the mass media
began to become the influence it is today. In a sense, the random,
non-hierarchial quality of Minutiae is analgous to the
image-saturated culture we now inhabit. The present work dazzles
in both the complexity and multiplicity of our experience of it.
The viewer is presented with various patterns, fabrics, objects
and printed materials that all come together to release a stream
of meanings. One has to spend considerable time with a monumental
work such as Minutiae to garner any sense of this.Rauschenberg's
use of cartoons in the present work strikes a chord with both
Warhol's and Lichtenstein's use of cartoons as source materials
for their earliest Pop creations. Minutiae contains both
Donald Duck and Little King cartoons, and Lichtenstein and Warhol
would make paintings including the characters of Donald Duck and
Little King paintings in 1961."
While the Pollack and Rauschenberg lots have considerable historical
interest, they pale in comparison with the lyrical beauty of Lot
11, "Number 15" by Bradley Walker Tomlin.
This 46-by-76-inch oil on
canvas was on the artist's easel when he died in 1953 and was
once in the collection and Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller of New York
and has been widely exhibited.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"Although Tomlin was one of the eldest members of the New
York School of Abstract Expressionism and had been painting in
realist and surrealist styles since the 1920s, his reputation
is founded on his work from 1950-1953. Joining the Betty Parsons
Gallery in the late 1940s, Tomlin was transformed by his encounter
with the combination of order and spontaneity in the work of Pollock
and others. From 1950 to his death in 1953, Tomlin painted approximately
25 oil paintings in his mature style, of which at least 18 are
in museum collections. In these works, Tomlin's meticulous use
of the painterly mark and rhythmic structure achieved the subtle
alchemy of both freedom and control that mark his greatest paintings
such as Number 15. With its thin, delicate tracery of black threading
throughout the strokes of whites and filaments of shifting color
forms, Number 15 is a fitting culmination of Tomlin's career.By
inclination a superb colorist, Tomlin reduced his palette from
1945 to 1947, and focused first on the painterly mark, adapting
a calligraphic technique within a vaguely Cubist structure of
horizontals and verticals. While Tomlin's subtle use of a grid
format is not as literal as that of his friend [Adolph] Gottlieb,
Tomlin's meticulous nature required some sense of order in his
art, revealing the contradictions that persisted in his art between
order and spontaneity. His gestures now relied more upon the subconscious,
but they were more akin to the linear `white writing' of Mark
Tobey than the drips and flings of Jackson Pollock, incorporating
symbols such as crosses and arrows. At the same time, the gestures
were lyrical, and while they were inspired by automatism, it is
perhaps more appropriate to say his gesture was revealing of his
temperament and not his hidden psyche. Rather than the raw, naked
anguish of Pollock, Gorky or even de Kooning, Tomlin's gesture
conveys a more ethereal, musical and elegant content."
This lot has a very conservative estimate of $350,000 to $450,000.
It sold for $904,000 easily surpassing the artist's previous
world auction record of $629,200.
Franz Kline (1910-1962)
is represented in the auction with two works, Lots 25 and 20.
The former is entitled "Sawyer" and is an 82-by-66-inch
oil on canvas executed in 1959.
Kline, the catalogue noted, "is viewed as the master of black
and white Abstract Expressionism from the 1950s, using the two
colors as counterpoints in his masterful compositions of gestural
velocity and collision. Kline's reduction of palette was indeed
instrumental in the development of his individual style among
the Abstract Expressionists as it allowed him to more fully explore
form through line and brushstroke, seeking to define space and
movement in an abstract idiom. Yet, Kline never intended to permanently
banish other colors from his palette and instead continuously
explored how to incorporate color structurally into his self-sufficient
compositions.The other colors in Sawyer encroached into the seemingly
stark black verticals with feathered strokes. These softer strokes
established a more atmospheric and recessive tone that was at
once contradicted optically as the terracotta, sienna, ochre and
gray tones served to push the black forms forward toward the picture's
The lot has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold
Lot 20, "Painting No. 1," is a more classic black-and-white
abstract by Kline. An oil on canvas, it measures 28 by 20 inches
and was executed in 1954. Once in the collection of Mr. and Mrs.
Ben Heller of New York, it has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.
It sold for $736,000.
There are several works
by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) in the auction, most notably Lot 13A,
"Little Electric Chair (Orange)," an acrylic and silkscreen
ink on canvas that measures 22 by 28 inches. Dated in 1964, it
has an estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,200,000. It failed to sell
and was passed at $1,400,000.
There are several other conventional Warhols. Lot 29 is a four-foot-square
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas by Warhol appropriately called
"Four Foot Flowers." It has an estimate of $2,000,000
to $3,000,000. It sold for $2,136,000. Lot 31, "Colored
Campbell's Soup Can," is a 36-by-24-inch acrylic and silkscreen
ink on canvas that was executed by Warhol in 1965. It has an estimate
of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It failed to sell and was passed
at $750,000. Lot 39, "4 Reversal Marilyns," is a 36-by-28-inch
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas by Warhol. Executed in 1979-86,
it has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $433,600.
Laura Paulson remarked
after the sale that the Warhols offered "were excellent works,
vintage and fresh" and suggested that in the future estimates
may be "slightly more conservative."
Willem de Kooning is represented in the auction by Lot 21, "Untitled
V," a 69 ¾-by-79 ¾-inch oil on canvas. Executed
in 1978, it has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. Its brushwork
though not stellar is vigorous. It sold for $1,912,000.
Lot 16, "Reflections on Jessica Helms," is a 62-by-48
½ inch oil and magna on canvas by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997).
Dated in 1990, it has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It
sold for $1,352,000. It was another lot consigned by the
AG Foundation. "The figure of Jessica Helms," the
catalogue notes, "is a fictitious one, but her surname is
the same as that of the conservative Senator, Jesse Helms. Mr.
Helms was a well-known supporter of censorship in the arts and
was a leading protagonist in the so-called Culture Wars. Lichtenstein
therefore makes a wry comment on issues of morality and censorship
in this painting. The figure here is nude, yet her nudity is denied
through these bars of reflections.Amusingly, this disembodied,
incomplete yet suggestive female figure must be seen as some kind
of `portrait' of Mr. Helms, here feminized, stripped and placed
on view for all to see."
Another interesting Lichtenstein
is Lot 38, "Landscape with Seated Figure," a 70-by-105-inch
oil and magna on canvas. Executed in 1996, it is part of the artist's
series of landscapes in "the Chinese style," and has
an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $792,000.
Larry Rivers (1923-2002) is represented in this auction by "Dutchmasters
II," Lot 14, a 42-by-50-inch oil on canvas. Executed in 1963,
it has an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $254,400.
The artist, according to the catalogue, incorporated "within
his individual styles both the gestural application of Abstract
Expressionism and the subject matter of the new Pop culture. Not
for Rivers, the cool detached and mechanical style of advertising
or newspaper graphics or silk-screened images; he preferred the
tactile pleasures of paint. He also did not adopt the detached
posture of Pop artists toward their chosen imagery. Rivers' work
often comments on his subject with an ironic or mocking stance.In
an art historical context, one would at first assume that Dutchmasters
II was based on the Old Master's [Rembrandt's] famous Syndics
of the Draper's Guild (1662). Yet the most immediate
source for Rivers' painting is the more contemporary use of Rembrandt's
image in the commercial sale of cigars."
Lot 34 is a very cool and
very elegant concentric square painting by Frank Stella (b. 1936).
Executed in 1974, it measures 129 ½ inches square and has
a modest estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $624,000.
Lot 8, "Davos S.," is a 27 5/8-by-39 ½-inch oil
on canvas by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Painted in 1981, it is
a mist-shrouded scene of a snow-capped mountain. It has an estimate
of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $2,024,000.
Lot 12, "Structure
(Vertical Construction)," is a very handsome painted steel
and wire sculpture by David Smith (1906-1965). The 22 5/8-inch
high work was executed in 1938 and has an estimate of $600,000
to $800,000. It sold for $568,000.
An auction record of
$545,600 was set for Vija Celmins (b. 1939), breaking the previous
record of $487,356. Lot 5, "Untitled (Ocean), the oil on
linen measured 15 1/8 by 15 5/8 inches and was executed in 1990-5.