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The Latin American Sale



June 2 and 3, 1999

"Crucifixion" by Roberto Matta

Lot 35, "Crucifixion," by Roberto Matta, 1938,

oil on canvas, 28 3/4 by 36 1/4 inches,

By Carter B. Horsley

The inaugural Latin American sale at Christie’s new quarters at 20 Rockefeller Plaza is splendid, full of major works by the masters as well as a good selection of work by important contemporary artists.

Interestingly, many of the lots being offered are superbly framed, a comment that might seem unusual, but unfortunately is not applicable in many auctions.

As a whole, this is a very impressive auction in terms of the individual quality of many works.

The results of the first part of the sale, which was held at night with a packed room, however, were puzzling. Many of the most famous artists fared poorly, but some lesser artists soared.

Three of the most important artists whose works were being offered were Roberto Matta (b. 1911), Rufino Tamayo (1889-1991) and Fernardo Botero (b. 1932). While these are established stars in the firmament of Latin American art and are among the relatively few who are internationally known, few of their finest works have been seen in this country and this auction included some really superb examples of their work.

Matta is a Chilean who became a major figure in the Surrealist movement, but his achievements go beyond such a narrow definition. His works have a fantastic energy and vibrancy. He is like a high-tech Bosch on steroids and his works are mesmerizingly infinite in their spaces and as daunting as any Star Wars special effects.

The cover illustration of the lavish catalogue is Lot 35, "Crucifixion," shown above, a Matta oil on canvas, 28 3/4 by 36 1/4 inches, painted in the summer of 1938 when he was living and working in Trévignon with fellow artist Gordon Onslow-Ford, who owned this work for more than 50 years. This painting is "considered his first in a series of revolutionary paintings known as ‘psychological morphologies’ and is the only painting he actually completed in Trévignon," according to Christie’s. "These first paintings signaled a new direction, more abstract and gestural, for both Surrealism and American painting of the post-war era," the catalogue maintains. "While Matta’s fascination with the subject of the crucifixion can be linked to his Jesuit upbringing, the painting can also be viewed as a metaphor for the violence of the time, particularly the rise of fascism in Spain," it added. The work, which prefigures the mystery of Arshile Gorky’s organic forms and the painterly drama of Francis Bacon, has an estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. It was passed, however, at $280,000!

"Succin du Tu" by Roberto Matta

Lot 54, "Succin du Tu," by Roberto Matta, 1947,

oil on canvas, 25 1/4 by 31 3/4 inches

A later Matta is Lot 54, "Succin du Tu," an oil on canvas, 25 1/4 by 31 3/4 inches, which was painted in 1947. This painting, which is more complex and dynamic than the earlier work, has a conservative estimate of $130,000 to $160,000. It passed at $110,000. Just three years later, he would paint "Sin titulo," Lot 59, a 78 1/2-by-82-inch oil on canvas that has a less fluid and more fragmented geometry than the 1947 work. It has an estimate of $250,000 to $300,000 and was passed at $180,000. After he joined the Surrealists in 1937 at the invitation of André Breton, Matta came to New York in 1939 where he was close with Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy and Victor Brauner.

"Many of the themes of his works of the 1940’s were suggested by the highly evocative prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautreamont, a literary masterpiece that inspired many other Surrealists, inlcuding Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and André Masson," the catalogue noted, adding a quote from Dore Ashton that Matta developed his compositions on the basis of "great cosmic themes and the clash of mystical worlds."

By the end of the 40’s, however, Matta returned to Chile and broke with the Surrealists, eventually returning to Europe in 1949.

"This characterized by a pronounced sense of angularity. The mineral colors as well as the fluidity which typified the artist’s palette from the late 1930’s through the late 1940’s give way here to a new sensibility in which more strident tones...permeate the visual field. The central element in this composition is, on one hand, an amorphous shape, yet it could also be understood as reminiscent of a mechanical construction, a fantastical imagination of a vessel or capsule careening through space. About it swirl cloud patterns, suggestions of comets and meteorites - all elements of an indeterminate time and place. In this work there is an ambiguous sense of apprehension, as if the firmament were opening before our eyes, disgorging its contents upon the earth," the catalogue observed about "this enigmatic but absorbing painting," noting that it was grateful to Dr. Edward Sullivan for his assistance in cataloguing the lot, which is estimated at $250,000 to $300,000. It was passed at $180,000, rather conclusive evidence that the market for Matta, who has a world auction record of $1,652,000 for a painting, is not hot, inexplicably.

"Les Humarbes" by Roberto Matta

Lot 102, "Les Humarbes," by Roberto Matta, 1973,

oil on canvas, 81 by 80 inches

An even more stunning Matta is Lot 102, "Les Humarbes," an oil on canvas, 81 by 80 inches, painted in 1973. Here white forms dance in front a bluish and pinkish field and conjure fission and the coolness of a mechanistic universe. It is estimated at only $80,000 to $100,000. It failed to sell!

If Matta's fantastic worlds still challenge a sci-fi saturated world, Tamayo takes the opposite direction, digging into earth colors with primitive forms. If Matta’s world is luminist and cool, Tamayo’s is textural and hot. He adds color and sobriety to Dubuffet’s grit and humor.

"Hombre mirando pajaros" by Rufino Tamayo

Lot 39, "Hombre mirando pajaros," by Rufino Tamayo,

oil and sand on canvas, 31 7/8 by 39 3/8 inches

In "Hombre mirando pajaros," Lot 39, an oil and sand on canvas, 31 7/8 by 39 3/8 inches, shown above, Tamayo depicts a man waving his hands to passing bird-like forms on an intensely pink field. It is a marvelous painting and a great Tamayo. It was estimated at $400,000 to $600,000 and sold for $550,000 (not including the buyer's premium), far short of his world auction record of $2,587,500, perhaps an indication that Latin American economies are not currently stellar. A smaller Tamayo, Lot 52, a figure of a man consigned by Sharon Stone, was sold for $95,000 (not including the buyer's premium) and just short of its low estimate. Even more puzzling was his large, very interesting and earth-toned "Man and Woman," Lot 94, which failed to sell and had a low estimate of $200,000. "Hombre," Lot 103, was another good Tamayo and it managed to sell for $217,000 (including the buyer's premium).

Botero was seen to great advantage not too long ago when many of his very large bronze sculptures adorned Park Avenue for several months. Known for his inflated and rotund figures, Botero's style is always gentle and humorous - jolly roly-poly.

"Roman Soldier" by Fernando Botero

Lot 55, "Roman Soldier," by Fernando Botero, 1985,

bronze, one of edition of six, 72 3/4 inches high

Lot 55, "Roman Soldier," bronze, 72 3/4 inches high, is a classic Botero that reveals his masterly touch as a sculptor. During the auction's exhibition it stood outside the entrance to Christie's impressive new facilities at 20 Rockefeller Plaza on 49th Street east of the Avenue of the Americas. One of an edition of six, it was estimated at $300,000 to $400,000 and sold for $240,000 (not including the buyer's premium.) Another Botero sculpture, Lot 30, "La vida," a very pleasant, 24-inch-high work depicting a naked man and woman on a base, was estimated at $180,000 to $250,000 and was passed at $140,000! Lot 42, a Botero sculpture of a reclining nude woman, 33 1/4 inches long, sold within its estimate for $210,000 (not including the buyer's premium), but Lot 49, a 1979 still life, oil on canvas, 75 1/8 by 58 1/2 inches, failed to reach its low estimate of $280,000 and was passed at $260,000. The best two Botero paintings in the auction, however, at Lot 106, "Poodle," 1970, 40 by 32 inches, and Lot 108, a 24 1/16-by-20 1/8-inch oil of canvas of a matador, that are estimated conservatively at $80,000 to $120,000 and $70,000 to $90,000, respectively. The "Poodle" sold for $101,500 and the Matador sold for $107,000 (both including the buyers' premiums." Another Botero, Lot 167, a pleasant painting of a woman with knitting needles, sold for $41,400 (including the buyer's premium), more than double its low estimate.

"Mujer pescado," by Francisco Toledo

Lot 48, "Mujer pescado," by Francisco Toledo, 1967,

oil, sand and paper collage on masonite, 44 1/2 by 30 1/8 inches

The most beautiful painting in the auction is Lot 48, "Mujer pescado," by Francisco Toledo (b. 1940), an oil, sand and paper collage on masonite, 44 1/2 by 30 1/8 iuches, executed in 1967. Toledo is better known for his beautiful Klee-like watercolors, several of which are also in the auction. This lot sold for its low estimate of $80,000 (not including the buyer's premium). Two small gouaches and one small watercolor by Toledo, all very lovely, Lots 135, 136 and 137 sold nicely above their high estimates.

"Are You Really Sirius" by Leonora Carrington

Detail of Lot 25, "Are You Really Sirius?" by Leonora Carrington,

1953, oil on panel, 21 7/8 by 35 15/16 inches

One of the most fascinating works in the auction is Lot 25, "Are You Really Sirius?" by Leonora Carrington (b. 1917), 1953, oil on panel, 21 7/8 by 35 15/16 inches, a detail of which is shown above. The catalogue goes into considerable detail about the artist's interest in the notion that the Egyptian culture "may have been inherited from an older and deep tradition" believed to have come from "visitors form the Sirius Galaxy" and also refers to the knowledge of the Sirius star by the Dogon tribe in Africa prior to 3,000 B.C. The painting sold for its $200,000 high estimate (not including the buyer's premium).

These results would seem to indicate that the Latin American market was not terribly buoyant. That would be misleading, however, as the elegant crowd at the auction broke into applause several times at the astounding prices achieved by some items.

This was a topsy-turvy auction where great art was often eclipsed by kitsch.

Lot 15, for example, was an extremely garish, large painting by Antonio Berni (1905-1981) of a very buxom blonde wearing only black stockings seated partially behind a (real) pink curtain on a bed in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street. The 79 1/4-by-64 1/4-inch, acrylic and collage on canvas was painted in 1977 and sold for its low estimate of $400,000 (not including the buyer's premium). The catalogue noted that "Berni's whole artistic production was engaged in social criticism against the fluctuation of power and injustices of the Latin American governments. He was constantly acting as a witness and representing his own lifetime by relentlessly depicting social themes in his pictoric work. His art captures not only the social issues that he aimed to portray, but also his rich artistic and moral spirit as well." The Argentine artist, who studied with André Lhote and was a friend of Louis Aragón, won the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale in 1962 and came to New York where, the catalogue maintained, his paintings "were rendered in saturated and strident colors, and he filled in the empty spaces with larger than life grotesque characters that seemed to have lost their identities to a consumerist society." It is doubtful this painting would have sold at the annual art show in Greenwich Village not far from the Chelsea Hotel, a famous artist residence.

It is, at least, or perhaps one should say at most, blatant.

Lot 40, "Vaso de flores," by Alberto da Veiga Guignard (1896-1962), probably would have sold at the same Greenwich Village art show for it is a rather conventional painting of a vase of flowers with two pieces of fruit on a table with a cloth in front of a window. Painted in 1931, the 35 1/4-by-27 3/8-inch oil on canvas was estimated at $70,000 to $90,000. It sold for $690,000 (not including the buyer's premium), a almost preposterous price for a very unassuming, unimpressive, and unimportant painting.

Among other highlights were Lot 28, a large, lightly colored 1944 painting of fruit trees by Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) had a high estimate of $600,000 and sold for $850,000 (not including the buyer's premium), Lot 38, an excellent photorealistic painting of a wrapped painting against a blue sky by Claudio Bravo (b. 193 6) had a high estimate of $150,000 and sold for $190,000 (not including the buyer's premium), Lot 44, a large Picassoesque painting of two women by Lam that was estimated at $300,000 to $400,000 and sold for $550,000 (not including the buyer's premium), Lot 53, a beach scene by Armando Reverón (1889-1954), which sold for $160,000 (not including the buyer's premium) and had a high estimate of $100,000. Lot 147, "Carnaval," a rhythmic and lively tempera on wood veneer and amate paper laid down on masonite by Carlos Mérida (1891-1084), sold for $43,700 (including the buyer's premium), well above its high estimate of $32,000. Two lovely and excellent sculptures, Lot 122 and 123, by Agustín Cárdenas (b. 1927) and Francisco Narváez (1905-1982), did well, the former selling for $25,300 (including the buyer's premium), well over its high estimate of $15,000, and the latter selling for $74,000 (incuding the buyer's premium), far above its high estimate of $30,000.

Among the other disappointments were Lot 37, a Cubist-style work by Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971) that sold for $200,000 (not including the buyer's premium), far below its low estimate of $300,000, Lot 51, "Nina" by Diego Rivera (1886-1957) that failed to reach its low estimate of $150,000 and was passed at $120,000. Lot 41, a large portrait of actress of Paulette Goddard by Rivera sold for its low estimate of $500,000 (not including the buyer's premium). Lots 100 and 101, very handsome oil and beeswax on paper laid down on canvas works by Armondo Morales (b. 1927) each failed to sell and had low estimates of $50,000. Morales is a very fine painter whose bluish, brown and gray palette, style and subject matter are reminiscent of the work of Puvis de Chavannes and Arthur B. Davies.

The auctioneer for the evening sale was Barbara Strongin who conducted the sale very professionally with a good sense of timing that elicited higher bids without agonizing the non-bidders while Spanish pesetos, French and Swiss francs, Mexican pesos, Argentinian pes and Venezuelan bolivers ticked away on the room's large tote board. She also did not switch to a murmur on the occasions she had to announce that a lot passed. Most laudable and forthright.

While some of the larger works were hung in the auction room, a number of lots were not shown on stage but on a large slide panel, an increasing practice in recent sales that has its good and bad points. For works that are too large, of course, it makes sense, but the slides never look the same as the real thing and experienced bidders are often swayed by the final presentation of the real lot in isolation and bright light at the auction. On the other hand, the room is so big that some of the lots appear rather small and are hard to see well from the back of the very large room. Ideally, all but the most monumental lots should be present in the auction room when they are sold and perhaps slides should be shown at the same time to help the visibility of the smaller lots. One lot in the sale, Lot 70, had been deemed a "National Treasure" and Ms. Strongin announced that it would not be let out of Mexico, but then did a double take and noticed that it was, in fact, on the easel on the stage, and she quickly added that "this is it," "on loan," "temporarily here." A nice 1909 painting by Saturnino Herran (1887-1918), it had a high estimate of $180,000 and sold for $200,000 (not including the buyer's premium). Hopefully, Christie's will get a better easel in the future whose lower support will not block part of the lower section of the work of art on display.

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