By Michele Leight
The stage was set for Sotheby's Contemporary Art evening sale with beautiful paintings by Clyfford Still and Gerhard Richter arranged across the far end of their New York flagship auction room on November 9. To see such masterpieces in a group was as breathtaking as it was unexpected - an inspired decision, whoever's it was. The Stills were being sold by the City of Denver to benefit The Clyfford Still Museum, which opens in November and should become a popular destination for art lovers. The impact of several Stills in one room was monumental, sublime - imagine a museum filled with them? This reviewer has long been a huge fan of both Clyfford Still and Gerhard Richter, so the "double-header" of such spectacular works by both artists in this evening auction was a very special treat. The gorgeous spectacle will be cherished.
The sale was extremely successful, achieving $315,837,000, and setting four auction records for artists.
Clifford Still's Lot 11, "1949-A-No.1," (illustrated at the top of this story), had an estimate of $25,000,000 to $35,000,000, and sold for $61,682,500, almost double its high estimate, setting an auction record for the artist. Gerhard Richter's Lot 33, "Abstrakt Bild," had an estimate of $9,000,000 to $12,000,000 and sold for $20,802,500, an auction record for the artist.
Records were also set for Joan Mitchell, for Lot 19, "Untitled," which sold for $9,322,500 and Cady Noland, Lot 7, "Oozewald," which sold for $6,578,500. Cady Noland is an artist of the present generation.
It must be said that I petitioned my editor to do this review without including prices, because so many people out there are hurting at this time. That said, for me, monetary value has no bearing on the "worth" of so many of these treasures - the works of art illustrated here are eternally meaningful and important, whether they achieve a billion dollars, or pass. I want them to do well at auction, I am grateful that they are shared prior to their sale, and there are some works of art I shall always miss. In the end, art is so much bigger than all of us - and price tags.
Professional and profoundly honest, my veteran editor said we are honor bound to report the truth. When auction houses are open and honest about their results, it must be honestly reported. The prices achieved are included in this review.
The stunning abstract painted by Clyfford Still (1904-1980) in 1949 (illustrated at the top of the story) - entitled Lot 11, "1949-A-No.1 -" was exhibited at "Clyfford Still" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, from November 1979 to February 1980. Four works by Still were offered at this sale, chosen by Patricia Still, the artist's widow. A towering figure at the forefront of American Abstract Expressionism, Clyfford Still remained fiercly independent. In a statement in the catalogue for the ground breaking exhibition "15 Americans," curated by Dorothy Miller at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1952, Still wrote:
"We are now committed to an unqualified act, not illustrating outworn myths or contemporary alibis. One must accept total responsibility for what he executes. And the measure of his greatness will be in the depth of his insight and his courage in realizing his vision." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 15 Americans, 1952, p.22)
At the press preview a stunning arrangement of several stunning abstracts by Gerhard Richter (b. 1930) was awe inspiring, presented together, in one gallery. Surrounded by them - with no other artist's work to interrupt the visual flow - was like being in a house of worship, with light filtering through beautiful stained glass windows. The jewel like colors, the luscious paintwork, was an exquisite sight.
Tobias Meyer clearly loved this unique "collection of abstracts" by Richter - all from the same collection, which is amazing - especially Lot 33, "Abstraktes Bild.," illustrated above. At one point during the press preview, Meyer imitated how the artist would have pushed the paint across the composition, almost forgetting we were standing there - lost in his own painterly adventure.
Richter's abstracts have the uncanny ability to mesmerize those that love mysterious and unpredictable virtuoso effects:
"My works are not just rhetorical, except in the sense that all art is rhetorical. I believe in beauty," said the artist. (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale).
Beautiful these abstracts certainly are. Glorious "Abstraktes Bild" (Lot 31), is a showstopper. An oil on canvas, it measures 78 3/4 by 63 inches and was painted in 1992.
Lot 33, "Abstraktes Bild," has an estimate of $9,000,000 to $12,000,000. It sold for $20,802,500, an auction record for the artist.
"Much has been written about Richter's singularly unique technical approach to painting. It is one whereby the properties of form and color powerfully comingle within the painterly process. During an intensive and creative process paint is applied with an arsenal of implements: paintbrushes, scrapers and spatulas layer by layer; already existing layers are overlaid or exposed by scraping. By means akin to an archeological effort, sheer beauty is excavated from the depths. The most radical tool employed by Richter is a crafted wood-and-Plexiglass squeegee, which is used to wipe and drag the paint..." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)
What a line up of paintings in the photograph shown above! The sheer scale of the works magnified their beauty. The photograph above does not do the paintings justice however. They are far more beautiful in person. Lot 34, "Gudrun," circa 1987, shown on the far right, departs from the other abstract paintings in its subject matter. The catalogue shares valuable insights:
"Richter's 'Gudrun' from 1987 is a fascinating and explosive work that references Gudrun Ensslin, a founding member of the radical left-wing German youth protest group, the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. With its eponymous title, 'Gudrun' represents one of the rare instances in which Richter's famed mode of gestural abstraction here incorporates a more charged character than his usual treatise on the abstract nature of art. The color palette of Gudrun represents one of the rare instances in which Richter's famed mode of gestural abstraction here incorporates a more charged character than his usual treatise on the abstract nature of art. The color palette of Gudrun, in which a potent red visually collides with strong black diagonals and veils highlights in yellow, blue and green, provides this painting with a sumptuous and visual muscularity. This intense optical vitality is wedded to an equally forceful and contrapuntal geometric construct, as the pulsating red is joined by a dramatic and vigorous black upsweep of Richter's signature squeegee tool. It is telling that this abstract work is the precursor to the extraordinary - and vastly different - series of fifteen representational works in the "October 18, 1977" series which also touches on the same period in German contemporary history."
It was a period in Germany's history that had a profound effect on Richter, described by the artist:
"I was impressed by the terrorist's energy, their uncompromising determination and their absolute bravery; but I could not find it in my heart to condemn the State for its harsh response...The deaths of the terrorists, and the related events both before and after, stand for a horror that distressed me and has haunted me as unfinished business ever since, despite all my efforts to suppress it." (Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993. London, 1995, p.173, included in Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)
The power of pigment spun into magic such as this is a tonic for the soul.
Lot 34, "Gudrun," has an estimate of $5,500,000 to $7,500,000. It sold for $18,002,500, double its high estimate.
The stunning small abstract by Richter, "Abstraktes Bild, 1988," Lot 30 illustrated above, is like the lining of a prehistoric cave, upon which water carrying mineral deposits has dripped for centuries. This beautiful work has an estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000. It sold for $4,674,500, double its high estimate.
For a complete change of pace, illustrated above are elegantly monochromatic contemporary masterpieces including an alabaster sculpture by Anish Kapoor (1954), Lot 62, "Untitled," - the side view - which conjures up distressed oyster shells, coral reefs and other marine delights. This superb work has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $1,202,500.
In the vitrine opposite the Kapoor (not visible in the photograph, sadly), is an exquisite creation by Yves Klein (1928-1962), Lot 48, "SE 206, rose," circa 1959. The unusual combination of Schiaparelli pink paint on sponge, inserted into a green quartz base by a metal rod, makes this very special "flower" worthy of admission into the other worldly landscapes of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's (1900Â–1944), author of "The Little Prince":
"With the sponges, savage living material, I was able to create portraits of the audience of my monochromes, who, after having seen and traveled into the blue/pink of my paintings, reemerge immersed by their sensibility just like sponges," (Yves Klein in 1959, as quoted in Totraut Klein-Moquay and Tovert Pincus-Witten, Yves Klein USA, Paris, 2009, p.23, Sotheby's catalogue for this sale).
Lot 48 has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $722,500. The other works of art are in the day sale.
Illustrated above is a spectacular painting by Damien Hirst (n. 1965) incorporating butterflies and household paint, on canvas, (Lot 3). It is entitled "High Windows (Happy Life)" - a characteristically ambiguous title by the artist, and paired here with a mystical work by David Hammons (b. 1943), Lot 4, "Untitled," an assemblage of African masks, mirror and wire that was exhibited at The Franz Hals Museum in Haarlem, The Netherlands. It was illustrated in color in "Postcards from Black America," 1997-1998, page 59 (catalogue for this sale).
Lot 3 has an estimate of $1 to 1.5 million dollars. It sold for $1,370,500. Lot 4 has an estimate of $1.5 to 2 million dollars. It sold for $2,266,500.
The installations in Sotheby's galleries were beautiful - enhanced, as always, by the lighting. The installation illustrated above was so mouth-watering, it absolutely had to be photographed. Lot 10, "Grasshopper," by Peter Doig (b. 1959), (right), is a typically atmospheric work by the artist that induces awe - as do most of his paintings:
"Characteristically for Doig, the painting's lack of context has the end result of palpable ambiguity: it is equally plausible the farmstead portrayed at the center of the workd was rendered from the imagination, inspired by a memory or perhaps appropriated from a found picture. Indeed, in 'Grasshopper,' nothing is for certain except, of course, for the sense of wonder the painting induces in its viewer." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale).
"Grasshopper" was exhibited in "The Triumph of Painting," at Saatchi Gallery in London, in 2005. Lot 10 has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $1,426,500.
It is quite astonishing how Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) achieves effects like the painting "Now," illustrated above (left) with mere acrylic. It too is the work of a magician - fortuitously paired with magical "Grasshopper" by Doig.
Lot 52, "Now," is illustrated in color in "Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992," New York, 2009, cat. no. P1990. 35, p.289. Lot 52 sold for $1,314,500. The floor sculpture is in the day sale.
Lot 65, Untitled, by Sam Francis, left, and Lot 67, Untitled, by Willem de Kooning, right
Stellar drawings from The UBS Art Collection include Lot 65, "Untitled," by Sam Francis (1923-1994), a potent watercolor on paper that commanded attention even though it was surrounded by monumental masterpieces:
"A master of the organic liquidity of watercolor, the medium with which Francis first developed his artistic talents during a period of hospitalization during World War II, his works on paper are widely perceived as among the most superlative of this celebrated oevre. Executed in 1958 at the apotheosis of the artist's foundational development in Paris during the 1950s, the present large scale watercolor underlines the extraordinary dexterity of Francis' treatment of form and color, particularly the emblematic abyssal blue which by 1957 had become his signature." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale). Lot 65 has an estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. It sold for $$722,500.
Shown to the right of the Francis is Lot 67, "Untitled," by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). It has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It passed, but it remains a wonderful drawing.
Cindy Sherman's incredibly compelling photograph, "Untitled #282 (Lot 5), depicts the artist dressed up as her version of a contemporary diva - reminiscent of the ghostly sea-captain swarming in snakes that gives Johnny Depp no end of grief in "Pirates of the Caribbean" - among other unsettling creatures. Several pages of text in the catalogue for this sale are dedicated to this bizarre image of womanhood - all of it fascinating. Well known for her feminist stance on male artist's biased portrayals of women through the centuries, Ms. Sherman (b. 1954) dresses herself up here in a sheer dress that does little to disguise a protruding belly barely held in check by sheer, stretchy fabric. Even those that do not want to be voyeurs are forced to stare into the strange world of Sherman's isolated femme fatale - of the new order - whose beauty is presented more as an endangered commodity than an asset, and whose ungainly pose could hardly be more remote from the divas and venuses of classical paintings. This is certainly not Bottichelli's Venus:
"Simultaneously entrancing and disturbing, the subject exudes emotional ambivalence, almost dismissive of her suggestive pose and daringly sheer dress. Indeed, Sherman's portrayal of this distant character - for her works are deliberately not self-portraits - is spawned from the artist's pre-designed subversion of various deeply rooted female archetypes. This is Cleopatra, Venus and Medusa, among others, audaciously rolled into one powerful and compelling female representation; she is a prime example of Sherman's venerable feminist agenda." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale).
The essay in the catalogue includes photographs of two great seductresses - the idealized "La Grande Odalisque" of 1841 by Ingres, and an atmospheric black and white photograph of Greta Garbo by Cecil Beaton. Sherman's diva is as far removed from these two ethereal creatures as she is from Vivien Leigh's or Liz Taylor's alluring Cleopatra's - but she is a convincing Medusa, that terrifying villianess of antiquity.
Lot 5, "Untitled #282" has an estimate of $700,000 to$ 900,000. It sold for $818,500. This work was executed in 1993, number one from an edition of six.
Another powerful image from an artist of the present generation is Cady Nolan's Lot 7, "Oozewald," a disturbing piece that depicts the shooting at point blank range of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, just as the Dallas police were preparing to transfer him by armored car from their headquarters to a local county jail. Just two days earlier, Oswald had shot President John F. Kennedy.
"Oozewald" is flanked by two iconic silkscreen paintings by Andy Warhol. On the left is Lot 22, Warhol's interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," and on the right is Lot 51, "Three Jackies," a sensitive study of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was suddenly transformed from the glowing wife of the president of the United States to a tragic, grieving widow by Oswald's assasination of her husband.
"The Last Supper" series was Warhol's last series, with special significance for the artist. One of the most fascinating aspects of Warhol was his Catholicism, which did not seem in keeping with his wild lifestyle, a paradox that is referenced in the catalogue for this sale:
"On the occasion of Andy Warhol's memorial service in New York City on April 1st, 1987, John Richardson referred to the artist's spiritual life as 'the key to his psyche.' For most of those in attendance that day (art world luminaries, film and rock stars and the international social set), this portrayal of Warhol was most likely a surprise given the very social and public facade promoted by Warhol himself. The artist was in fact the pious son of immigrants from Czechoslovakia, and the antithetical contrast between Warhol the artist - the ringmaster in the whirlwind that was the Factory - and Warhol the spiritual man is central to the production of the Last Supper series...Warhol grew up in a fervently Catholic family and significantly, his first experiences with art were of a religious nature. Growing up in the Ruska Dolina neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Warhol inhabited a world of first-generation immigrants still expecting to replicate the traditions of the homeland for their children."
Lot 7, "Oozewald," by Cady Noland (b. 1956) has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $6,578,500, an auction record for the artist. Lot 22, "The Last Supper" has an estimate of $5,500,000 to $7,500,000. It sold for $6,522,500. Lot 51, "Three Jackies," has an estimate of $3,000,000 to$ 4,000,000. It sold for $2,882,500.
Mickey is an icon across the world, immortalized here by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) in Lot 8, "Mickey Mouse (Myth Series)." The catalogue for this sale notes:
"While these mythic figures carry a range of important cultural attributes, their shared celebrity stature arises from their being heroes of commercial art. Each of these cultural icons is also a commercial icon, a 'logo,' the symbol of a corporate identity. Each is also an artistic creation from which the artist has been erased." (Greg Metcalf, "Heroes, Myth and /cultural Icons," in Exh. CAt., College Park, The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, 'Reframing Andy Warhol-Constructing American Myths, Heroes and Cultural Icons, 1998, p.6)
Mickey joined Warhol's series of ten icons grouped under "myths" that included Santa Claus, Superman, Uncle Sam, Howdy Doody, Greta Garbo and Warhol himself. Lot 8 has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $5,000,000. It sold for $3,442,500.
There are several great paintings by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) in the sale, including the unusual "Elephant Fording a River," (Lot 47), illustrated above, an exotic yet characteristically brooding work. This was painted in 1952, before Bacon's signature disembodied, tortured faces and bodies - but it has their sense of menace, of something bad about to happen. This fascinating painting was influenced by the artist's visit to Africa:
"Bacon was captivated by the luscious and dense landscape of Africa, much like Peter Doig would be drawn fifty years later to the Carribean scenes which he rendered with similar observational and painterly technique. Particularly aware of the effects of different times of day and different qualities of light in the wilderness, Doig clearly looks to syles of the past, particularly artists such as Bacon and Gauguin for the masterful ability to tackle exoticism. The present work is briliantly distinct in depicting the awe for the exotic that Bacon observed in Africa. The scene is a quiet and calm moment - an elephant crossing placid waters of a river that is punctuated only by small disturbances in the water caused by its stride - and it becomes an oddly tender moment for an animal of such authority and force. Yet the unpredictability of the elephant and the vulnerability of the voyeuristic observer, who is perhaps treading a bit too close, results in a sense of danger and uncertainty." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale).
Lot 47, "Elephant Fording a River," has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $5,682,500.
And no, it is not the end of the Richters. Here are two more. Imagine them all in one gallery - with yourself standing in the middle of it. "Surround sound" Richter "abstrakts." Sheer bliss...
Lot 32, "Rain (2)," is a somber and gorgeous work that evokes staring out of a window upon which sheets of rainwater is pouring - Mother Nature at her most awesome, and forbidding.
Lot 36, "Mohre," by Richter, is another masterpiece, illustrated above.
Lot 32 has and estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $3,218,500, far above its high estimate. Lot 36, "Mohre," has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $6,242,500, double its high estimate.
The photo I took of the picket line directly outside Sotheby's on my way to an evening auction illustrates the greatness of this country. Employees have the right to protest here because they live in a country that gives them the right to do so - and Sotheby's said they supported their right to protest.
The banging of drums and vigorous blowing of whistles of the picketers was deafening. Sotheby's is in the midst of a labor dispute - but the shows (inside their New York headquarters, and outside on the sidewalk) did go on.
A young father carrying a baby smiled at the picketers as he hastened to get away from the noise. It is hard to tell what the baby made of all the racket - but his little eyes were wide open, drinking in the spectacle. The juxtaposition of that young father and child and the chorus of picketers made me understand fully that this city - and country - is a bastion of freedom that exists no where else.
"Don't you love New York'" said my editor. "Such drama."
An article in The New York Times ("Arts Briefly," December 3) reported that Sotheby's issued a statement that said "we have offered them a very fair contract" and that the "offer remains on the table."
Despite the labor dispute, Sotheby's has had a very successful season.