By Carter B. Horsley
The evening auction of Contemporary
Art at Sotheby's November 14, 2006 is highlighted by selections
from the Vanthournout Collection including a masterpiece by Francis
Bacon (1909-1992), a very beautiful abstraction by Gerhard Richter
(b. 1932), a very fine work by Richard Artschwager (b. 1923) and
an excellent sculpture by Robert Smithson (1938-1973). The remainder
of the auction has major works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein,
Mark Rothko and Jeff Koons.
"In the Varnthournout
Collection the avant-garde European painting of Francis Bacon
and Piero Manzoni, the reductive minmialism of Josef Albers, Robert
Ryman, Carl André, Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt and Robert Mangold,
and the bold Pop and conceptual works of Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein,
Richard Artschwager and John Baldessari, inform the paintings
and sculpture from the most recent decade by artists such as Gerhard
Richter, Jean Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Gilbert and George,
Damien Hirst, and Anish Kapoor." The collection of Robert
and Josette Vanthournout was kept at their home and sculpture
garden in the countryside near Brussels, Belgium. Mr. Vanthournout
was a furniture manufacturer and works from the collection were
also included in the Impressionist and Modern Art auction at Sotheby's
November 7, 2006, and will be included in the Latin American Art
auction at Sotheby's November 20 and 21, 2006. Sotheby's has estimated
that the consigned works to all three auctions from the collection
will bring $34.3 to $47.5 million.
All 27 lots in this auction
from the Varntournout Collection sold for a total of $42,146,000
including the buyer's premium.
The highlight of the collection
is Lot 5, "Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic
Syringe," a 1968 oil on canvas by Francis Bacon (1909-1992).
It measures 78 by 58 inches and has an estimate of $9,000,000
to $12,000,000. It sold for $15,024,000 including the buyer's
premium as do all results mentioned in this article, except where
noted, the highest price of the auction and a world auction record
for the artist.
The catalogue entry notes that
the painting "is partly based on a photograph of Henrietta
Moraes, a key member of Bacon's coterie and a fellow regular at
Soho's Colony Club, where the owner Muriel Belcher gave Bacon
free drinks and a £10 allowance," the catalogue entry
maintained, "since he brought in so much business. Moraes
was the erstwhile wife of the Indian poet Dom Moraes, and claimed
to have attended the Colony Club simply so that Bacon would paint
her which ultimately he did at least a dozen times. Moraes was
also painted by Lucien Freud in the course of a year-long affair
during the fifties....Bacon preferred to paint in absentia,
relying predominantly on the combination of photographic material
and memory to inform his image production. Furthermore, he saw
what he did as injurious, a violent paroyxsm on the human figure
that he did not want to practice before his subject. Painting
in absentia freed the artist from the imperatives of empirical
observation and allowed him to liberally reinvent the image in
the sequestered isolation of his studio.....Bacon claimed that
the syringe had purely visual purpose with no sinister connotations,
as he claimed about the Nazi armband in Crucifixion (1965),
but in both these cases the allusive power of the objects is so
loaded that it is disingenuous to deny their impact. Besides,
the hypodermic syringe wa to prove eerily prophetic, in that Henrietta
Moraes became a heroin addict about a decade after the painting
of this work. The swirling brushtokes and rearranged features,
as well as showing the influence of de Kooning, give a sense of
captured movement over time, of film frames overlaid or a flipbook
assembled into a single instant, like a writhing ghost within
the flesh....It brilliantly illustrates his almost sculptural
approach to painting, his ability to mould the fleshy paint like
clay, to be shaped and arranged on the armature of the human skeleton.
The result, almost discomfortingly intimate and poignant, is a
brilliant reminder of the vulnerability of the human ocndition."
The auction was successful
with 90.9 percent of the 83 offered lots selling for a total of
$125,132,000, nicely in the middle of the pre-sale estimates of
$109,330,000 to $148,090. While the sale was not spectacular,
it did manage to set 17 auction records for individual artists,
a very high number.
An equally exposive and sensational
painting in the Vanthournout Collection is Lot 22, "Maria
(544-4)," by Gerhard Richter. An oil on canvas that is 78
3/4 inches square, it was painted in 1983 and has an estimate
of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,368,000. The
catalogue entry maintains that this painting "is one of the
most stunning and lushly vibrant compositions in the entire series
of Richter's Abstract Paintings which evolve in stages,
building up layers of gestural compositions," adding that
it is now rather difficult to think of him as anything other than
one of the great colorists of the second half of the 20th century."
The monchrome paintings Richard
Artschwager (b. 1923) on celotex have a wonderful dimensionality
and texture as well as a ghostly aura. Lot 15, "Destruction
I," is part of his series on the demolition of the Traymore
Hotel in Atlantic City. An acrylic on celotex, it measures 36
by 30 inches and was executed in 1972. It is one of his best works
and has a conservative estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It
sold for $349,855.
Lot 4 is an untilted steel
sculpture by Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002). The unique work was
executed in 1998 and measures 17 1/4 by 26 by 16 inches. It has
an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $884,000.
Lot 27 is a gray alabaster
sculpture by Anish Kapoor (b. 1954) that was executed in 1999
and measures 55 3/4 by 31 1/2 by 12 3/4 inches. It has an estimate
of $350,000 to $450,000. It sold for $2,256,000, smashing the
previous auction record for the artist of $844,444 set at Sotheby's
in London last year.
Other major works in the Vanthournout
Collection are Lot 10, an untitled painted steel and plexiglass
mirrors sculpture by Robert Smithson (1938-1973) that measures
15 by 100 by 6 1/4 inches and was executed in 1965 and has a modest
estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and sold for $352,000;
Lot 9, a richly impastoed but untitled oil by Robert Ryman (b.
1930) on unstretched linen mounted on board that measures 10 1/2
inches square and has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000 and
sold for $688,000; Lot 7, "Achrome," a Kaolin on
squared and folded canvas by Piero Manzoni (1933-1963) that measures
39 1/2 by 29 1/2 inches and was executed in 1959 and has an estimate
of $900,000 to $1,200,000 and sold for $2,592,000 establishing
a new auction record for the artist; and Lot 23, "Sienna,"
a good and vibrant 1984 acrylic, oilstick and silkscreen inks
on canvas by Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) that measures 88
by 77 inches and and has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000
and sold for $2,144,000.
Lot 16 is a 1967 oil on magna
on canvas by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997). Entitled "Modern
Painting with Fishes," it is 36 inches square and has an
estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000 and sold for $2,256,000.
In the general auction, there
are other works by Lichtenstein.
Lot 49 is a 1984 black and
white sunrise painting by Lichtenstein that measures 55 1/2 by
68 inches. It was painted in 1964 and has an ambitious estimate
of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000. It sold for $6,624,000.
A slightly more colorful and
large Lichtenstein oil and magna on canvas is Lot 65, "Still
Life with Lamp." It measures 54 by 74 inches and was executed
in 1976. It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It
sold for $3,040,000.
Lot 56 is a very unattractive
cartoonish head of a woman in yellow and black painted by Lichtenstein
in 1962. An oil on canvas, it measures 48 inches square and has
a very ambitious estimate of $8,000,000 to $10,000,000. It
was passed at $7,200,000. It is hard to believe that the artist
who painted Lots 49, 65 and 56 could later produce enormously
vibrant, colorful and exciting sculptures that, to this observer,
are better than his often drab and depressing early paintings.
Lot 68 is a superb acrylic
and silkscreen ink on canvas by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) that is
entitled "Bald Eagle." It is 60 inches square and was
executed in 1983. With its "accented edges," it is a
smashing, powerful and indelible image, unlike most of Warhol's
oeuvre. It is not prosaic. The catalogue does not indicate how
many versions of this image exist. It has a modest estimate of
$1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $1,248,000.
For those not concerned with
beauty, there is a self-portrait by Warhol, Lot 41, an acrylic,
silver paint and silkscreen ink on canvas that measures 20 by
16 inches. It is the cover illustration of the catalogue and was
executed in 1964. It has an estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000.
It sold for a hammer price of $3,712,000.
There are other Warhols in
the auction including Lot 59, a 48-inch square "Flowers,"
a subject that the artist mass-produced in many sizes with some
variations of color. This example from 1964-5 has an estimate
of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000 and sold for $6,848,000; and
Lot 55, "Colored Campbell's Soup Can," a 1965 version
in rather muted and non-appetizing colors that measures 35 1/2
by 23 3/4 inches and has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000
and sold for $1,808,000.
Lot 37 is a very colorful and
energetic 1977 abstraction by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). An
oil on canvas, it measures 80 by 70 inches and is titled "Untitled
XXX." It has an estimate of $7,500,000 to $9,500,000. It
sold for $10,656,000. In 1977, de Kooning painted 30 large
paintings that the catalogue maintains "have long been regarded
as among the finest within his extensive oeuvre," adding
that "prized for capturing the essence of the sea, the sand
and the surf, the works from this pinnacle year are among de Kooning's
most dynamically expressive representations of nature and the
Long Island landscape he loved."
"De Kooning emphasizes
texture, allowing a variety of planes of paint to coalesce in
and out of each other across the canvas. The impastoed surface
is a signature characteristic of de Kooning's work of the 1950's,
however one of the revelations of de Kooning's later work, such
as Untitled XXX, is the utter sophistication and variety
of de Kooning's paint handling.The quiet passages, created by
scraping and smearing across fields of varying color pigment,
foreshadow the beauty of Gerhard Richter's smeared Abstraktes
Bild of the early 1990s.
Lot 43, "Ushering in Banality," is
a polychromed wood sculpture by Jeff Koons (b. 1955) that measures
38 by 62 by 30 inches. It is number two from an edition of three
and one artist's proof and one of the other examples of this work
was exhibited at the artist's famous "Banality" exhibition
at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, the Max Hetzler Gallery
in Cologne, and the Donald Young Gallery in Chicago between Novmeber
1988 and January 1989. It has an estimate of $3,200,000 to $3,800,000.
It sold for $4,048,000.
On a smaller scale but more
mirthful is Lot 57, "Cape Codder Troll," a stainless
steel sculpture by Jeff Koons that is 20 1/2 inches high. It was
executed in 1986 and is number 3 of an edition of 3 and one artist's
proof. It has a modest estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It
sold for $352,000.
Lot 66, "Crag," is
a good painted metal standing mobile by Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
that was once part of a spectacular and wonderful group that the
artist created in 1974 for "Crags and Critters" exhibition
at Perls Gallery in New York in 1976 and which, sadly, is no longer
together. This lot, one of the least animated of the group, has
an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $800,000.
Lot 67 is a wet pulp paper
on canvas portrait of Philip Glass, the composer, by Chuck Close
(b. 1940). The 1983 work measures 92 by 72 inches and has an estimate
of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $3,208,000.
Lot 82, "Alex de Large in Seinem Geliebten
Madchenzimmer (triptych)," a 82 1/2 by 55 inch triptych by
Jonathan Meese (b. 1977), sold for $251,200, soaring above the
artist's previous auction record of $79,245.
Lot 70 is a impressive, monumental
and very strong work by Barnaby Furnas (b. 1973) entitled "Heartbreak
Ridge." A urethane on canvas that measures 72 by 144 inches,
it was executed in 2002 and has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000.
It sold for $520,000.
The catalogue provides the
"The artist combines strategies
of cartooning and film-making with the decadence of high art and
history painting to form a modern digestible orgy of carnage.
Furnas mixes his own paint by adding pigment to urethane, a technique
resulting in a uniquely radiant finish that enhances the already
vibrant color palette....Our culture is in a de-sensitized state,
bombarded by an influx of images conveying the current global
situation of terrorism, genocide, and extemist religiosity, inevitably
raising the question: what would a modern-day Guernica
look like? In response, Furnas' battle scenes deliver on canvas
what Quentin Tarantino (director of Reservoir Dogs and
Pulp Fiction) and the Wachowski brothers (directors of
The Matrix trilogy) convey on film, what the masterminds
behind Rockstar Games offer in gaming - death in split-second
The film's title refers to
a war film by Clint Eastwood but the uniforms in the painting
are from the Civil War.
Lot 1, "Homage to the
Square, Stucco Setting," a rather bland oil on masonite by
Josef Albers (1888-1976) sold for $912,000, an auction record
for the artist.
Lot 2, "Ana Lena en
Grèce," a 106-inch-high painted polyester sculpture
by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), sold for $1,136,000, more
than doubling the previous auction record for the artist, even
though it had none of the usual humor and grace of her better
Lot 6, "Dittico Nero-Argento,"
a very stunning aluminum powder and acrylic on shaped canvas construction
in two parts, by Enrico Castellani (b. 1930), sold for $352,000,
an auction record for the artist.
Lot 8, "Untitled (100
Copper Square)," by Carl Andre (b. 1935), sold for $912,000
just over the artist's previous auction record.
Lot 36, "The Sky," a white marble
circular sculpture from the Anna Moffo Sarnoff Estate, by Isamu
Noguchi (1904-1988), sold for $1,248,000, setting a new auction
record for the great sculptor.
Lot 48, "Untitled," three yellow
and three red fluorescent lights, by Dan Flavin (193301996), sold
for $744,000, just over the artist's previous auction record.
Lot 76, "Still," an enormous and
unflattering self-portrait by Jenny Saville (b. 1970), sold for
$1,024,000, almost double the artist's previous auction record.
Lot 79, "Bertrand Russell at the BBC,"
by Glenn Brown (b. 1966), sold for $688,000, setting a new auction
record for the artist.
Lot 80, "Bonjour Tristesse," by
Martin Eder (b. 1968), sold for $520,000, way over the artist's
previous auction record of $198,000.
Lot 38, "Hostess," sold for $3,936,000,
setting a record for a sculpture by Willem de Kooning.
Lot 40, "Study for 'Good Morning Darling,"
sold for $1,136,000, setting a record for a work on paper by Roy
Lot 58, "Cagney," sold for $2,480,000,
almost doubling the previous auction record for a work on paper
by Andy Warhol.