By Carter B. Horsley
With some bravura, Christies has proclaimed
Lot 520 in this auction, "Nature morte aux tulipes,"
a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso that depicts his mistress, Marie-Thérèse
Walter, as "the lot of the season."
It is also introducing this spring live "web-casts"
of important auctions. The first took place with the Impressionist
and Post-Impressionist Art auction at 7 PM, Monday, May 8. This
auction is the second such planned "web-cast" and another
will be held for the Contemporary Art auction, 7 PM, May 16.
Its major rival, Sothebys this winter
introduced its own on-line auction website that has been heavily
promoted, but Christies has not followed suit as yet with
such a venture. The announcement of its "web-casts"
also noted that its website, http://www.christies.com, will feature
a tour of major selections from this springs sales by Michael
Findlay, its international director of fine art, as well as an
interview with Jeff Koons, the artist who has several works coming
up at Christies in its Contemporary Art auction.
While the Picasso painting, one of nine of
his works in the auction, is the cover illustration for the catalogue
and the only one to have an "estimate on request," there
are many other good works in this auction including a very strong,
bright and loose Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), two excellent works
by Franz Kline (1910-1962), a fine portrait by Amedeo Modigliani
(1884-1920), a very handsome still live by Georges Braque (1882-1963)
still life, a very good Rene Magritte (1898-1967), a good Richard
Diebenkorn (1922-1993) and important sculptures by Salvador Dalí
(1904-1989), Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Jean Arp (1887-1966).
The quality of the offerings in general is very high.
The Pollock, Lot 540, shown above, is particularly
vibrant and a stunning example of fluid style freed from an oversaturation
and overindulgence that characterize many of his famous, larger
"drip" paintings. Entitled "Black Pouring Over
Color," it is an oil on canvas laid down on panel, 20 by
24 inches, and painted circa 1952. It illustrated the cover of
the catalogue for the 1989 Pollock exhibition at the Anthony dOffay
Gallery in London and the unsigned work that comes from the collection
of Lee Krasner Pollock has a very conservative estimate of $500,000
to $700,000. It sold for $666,000 including the buyer's premium
as do all sales results in this article.
"Although this work comes late in Pollocks
short and turbulent life, in its zestful modulation of color and
bold rhythms, it retains all the immediacy and vigor of his greatest
poured paintings from the 1940s. Though the black
line appears to spring directly from the artists subconscious,
it is in fact highly choreographed; a perfectly balanced arrangement
that spreads out geometrically - like dark blossom - to all four
corners of the composition. Equally, the celestial background
that suggests a new dawn breaking is a carefully poised construct,
with its constituent parts diametrically counterposed along the
horizontal band of yellow and red pigment that forms the axis
at the center
," the catalogue, which noted the artists
admiration of Joan Miro, Eastern calligraphy and European Surrealism,
This is unquestionably one of his masterpieces
for the black line dances with wonderful energy delineating perhaps
two figures in a cosmic environment of luscious color. The line
has momentary hesitations but also great dimensionality and direction.
Particularly interesting are four groups of much thinner lines
that perhaps are meant to serve as footnotes or afterthoughts.
In any event, they are details that lend a specificity to this
quite grand vision that abounds in liveliness. (See The
City Review article on the Pollock exhibition at the Museum of
Modern Art in 1999.)
If the Pollock is the auctions biggest
surprise, two large works by Franz Kline, Lots 543 and 543, are
the most stunning. Too often overshadowed in recent years in the
marketplace by Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg, Kline has
a painterly power that is always bold and provocative and very
dynamic. These are marvelous examples.
Lot 533, shown above, is an untitled oil on
canvas, 52 by 91 inches, that was painted in 1958 and has an estimate
of $2,200,000 to $3,200,000. It was passed at $1,600,000. It
is a very fine and powerful Kline. The catalogue appropriately
includes the following quotation from John Gordons 1968
book, "Franz Kline 1910-1962:
"Bold, sooty, black brushstrokes traverse
the large white canvases of Franz Kline like steel girders silhouetted
against the New York sky. They are among the strongest and most
important statements made by an artist during the exciting decade
of the 1950s. So insistent is their image that the immediate impact
is one of almost brutal spontaneous power. Later on the realization
grows that careful structure and loving handling of the paint
are paramount elements in their development. Enormous size, sheer
inventiveness, paint and the appearance of paint being applied
rapidly, almost violently, are important characteristics which
contribute to the extraordinary force of these paintings."
In dramatic contrast, Lot 543 is a rather violent
abstraction in orange, red, yellow and white by Kline. Also untitled,
it is on oil on canvas, 87 ¼ by 67 ¾ inches, circa
1961. While Kline had worked in color early in his career, he
is best known for the black and white abstractions of the 1950s
as evidenced by Lot 533. In 1956, however, he once again began
to experiment with color. "In the present work," the
catalogue maintained, "the brushwork and compositional elements
of Klines earlier years are still evident. Echoing the shape
of the canvas, the central rectangle creates the deliberate tension
and dynamic equilibrium present in Klines most successful
compositions. The bold brushwork and spectacular use of color
point to a new direction in Klines art, while tragically
he was to pass away at this moment of change." The lot has
an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $424,000.
The Modigliani, Lot 510, "Portrait de
femme au corsage bleu," shown above, is a modest but excellent
example of this artists style and mournful and caring eye.
An oil on canvas, 24 by 18 1/8 inches, it was painted circa 1916
and has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for
$2,426,000. This is one of the nicest Modiglianis to appear
on the market in recent years. It has a sympathetic softness and
tenderness that is not always evident in some of his work that
often appears a bit too detached and studied. The painting was
once owned by Paul Guillaume, who was, the catalogue noted, "the
most significant collector and dealer of Modern and African art
in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century, representing artists
including André Derain, Francis Picabia and Giorgio de
Chirico." Guilliaume rented a studio for Modigliani and would
also become the agent for the American collector Dr. Albert Barnes.
Braques still lifes are among the greatest
of the 20th Century and Lot 511, "Nature morte au pichet,"
a 19 ¼-by-28 ¾-inch oil on canvas, painted in 1932,
is a superb example. It combines what the catalogue describes
as "the quasi-naturalistic sense of space and light found
in Analytic Cubism and the muted color harmonies and planar qualities
of Synthetic Cubism, thus producing a set of complex processes
by which contrasts of texture could be rendered - a series of
decisions John Russell has called Braques distributed
sensuality." Here composition rhythm and construction
are dynamically juggled with a warm, but strong palette of black,
brown, red, gray, and green. The work has a conservative estimate
of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $996,000.
Another Cubist still life is Lot 502, "La
casserole," by Juan Gris (1887-1927), oil on canvas, 25 ½
by 32 inches, painted in October, 1919. While less colorful than
the Braque, this is a confident, good Gris "transcends naturalism
in favor of the poetic," according to the catalogue. It has
an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $1,326,000.
Lot 527 is a very good still life by Rene Magritte,
entitled "Le bon sens," an oil on canvas, 18 5/8 by
30 ¾ inches, painted in 1945. The title means "Common
Sense" and the catalogue suggests that it is meant to lampoon
still lifes by Paul Cezanne. The artist altered the work in the
1950s, reducing its height by about five inches and its length
by about an inch and reworking its background that had originally
been painted in an impressionist style. This work is considerably
more precise than many Magrittes. The painting shows a large frame
living atop a table with some apples lying on a white canvas within
the frame and a bowl of pears placed also atop the canvas. The
work has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $534,000.
A somewhat less austere still life is Lot 538,
"Round Table," an oil on canvas, 69 7/8 by 63 ½
inches, painted in 1962 by Richard Diebenkorn. The work, which
has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000, is interesting because
it shows a smokers hand with lit cigarette dumping ashes
in an ash tray at the side of a pile of papers on a large round
table. (See The City Review article on a
Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American
Art.) It sold for $1,271,000.
Another still life is Lot 525, a bright work
by Fernand Léger (1881-1955). The 25 5/8-by-35 7/8-inch
oil on canvas was painted in 1948 and has a somewhat ambitious
estimate of $450,000 to $650,000. It sold for $501,000.
A better Léger is Lot 514, "La femme au triangle,"
an oil on canvas, 36 ¼ by 25 ½ inches, painted in
1930, that has one of his loveliest female figures against a gray
and black background amid a flurry of geometic shapes. It has
a conservative estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for
$886,000. (See The City Review article
on a major Léger exhibition at the Museum Modern Art in
Lot 523 is a simple but very dramatic still
life by Pablo Picasso (1881-1983), entitled "Cafetière
et tasse," an oil on canvas, 24 by 15 1/8 inches, painted
April 3, 1944. The catalogue noted that the artist executed 10
still life paintings with a cafetière in a seven day period
then. The work shows a cup and saucer, a coffeepot and an unlit
candle and is drawn in a limited palette of black, white, gray,
green and yellow. It has a fine sense of monumentality and élan
about it that is marred somewhat by the brushwork of the tables
top which is a bit sloppy. The work has an estimate of $500,000
to $700,000. It was passed at $400,000.
The auctions major Picasso, "Nature
morte aux tulipes," shown above, a 51 1/8-by-38 ¼-inch
oil on canvas that was executed March 2, 1932, is the cover illustration
of the catalogue and one of the auction houses press releases
for this sale describes it as the "lot of the season"
and notes that "other illustrious Picasso canvases"
from 1932, "a year of rapturous masterpieces," have
recently fetched high prices. "La Reve," for example,
was sold for $48,402,500 at Christies Nov. 10, 1997 and
"Nu au fauteuil noir" sold for $45,102,500 at Christies
Nov. 9, 1999. The auction house had estimated this lot might
fetch about $25 million and it sold for $28,606,000.
While it is nominally a still life with tulips,
more importantly it is a portrait of the artists mistress,
Marie-Thérèse Walter, and hung in the the first
major retrospective of the artist at the Galerie Georges Petit
in Paris. The exhibition was curated by the artist and was the
first time his portraits of his mistress were publicly shown.
His wife, Olga Kohklove accompanied him to the opening and, the
catalogue notes, "after viewing numerous ecstatic portraits
of the same blond woman, Olga quickly realized that her husband
was having an affair and confronted him" and soon left him.
While the basket containing the flowers is
rather crudely executed, some elements of the painting are very
strong such as the womans head, the play of shadows on her
face, "a fillet of laurel leaves in the ancient Hellenistic
style" around her head, and what appear to be fruits on the
table and a rich deep blue tablecloth. "However," the
catalogue observes, "careful examination of the painting
reveals the black armchair that Marie-Thérèse is
so frequently seated upon. Her legs are swathed in a blue cloth
and draped over the side of a chair. A basket of tulips rests
in her lap and illuminates her figure. A white sculptural pedestal
becomes her upper body, and two rotund forms emerge as her breasts."
"Radiating Pablo Picassos signature
dexterity and deft certainty," the painting, Christies
press release continued, "is an emblem of a particularly
beautiful period in both the artists life and his artwork
as well as a sign of the direction his art was soon to take."
A very fine marble statue by Jean (Hans) Arp
(1887-1966), Lot 518, "Torse des Pyrénées,"
shown above, was made by the artist two years after he had made
a bronze cast, in an edition of three, of the composition. This
41-inch-high version is larger. The catalogue provides the following
apt quotation from E. Trier's 1968 book, "Jean Arp Sculpture,
His Last Ten Years": "Arp's figures are always torsos.
The language of his form demands this - it knows no extremities.
A display of subtlety, gesticulating forms that express some ingenious
idea would certainly have been anathema to him. Arp knows only
the torso, but not as a fragment of something originally whole.
The torso becomes an independent complete form." The sculpture
has an modest estimate of $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for
Lot 529 is a wonderful large bronze statue
entitled "Gala à Newton" by Salvador Dalí.
The 152 3/8-inch high statue was cast in 1985 and another cast
is erected in the Plaza Dalí in Madrid and another in the
Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres, Spain. The sculpture, which
has a modest estimate of $250,000 to $300,000, is based on the
artist's painting, "Phosphène de Laporte" that
was executed in 1932. It sold for $776,000.
A fine Dalí painting from the Morris
and Gwendolyn Cafritz Collection is being offered as Lot 508.
Entitled "Galatée," the 39 5/8-by-39 1/4-inch
oil on canbas was painted in 1954-6 and has an estimate of $1,000,000
to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,326,000.
Another Surrealist, Max Ernst (1891-1976) is
well represented by Lot 509, "Paysage avec lac et chimères."
This 20-by-26-inch oil on canvas has an estimate of $800,000 to
$1,000,000 and has a very impressive provenance that includes
Peggy Guggenheim, Eugene V. Thaw, Leonard C. Yaseen and Gerrit
Lansing. It was painted circa 1940. The catalogue notes that "there
is an overwhelming sense of terror conveyed by the foreboding
landscape in which the rocks bear an uncanny resemblance to human
bones." "Furthermore, this landscape is populated by
chimeras - the fire-breathing she-monster from Greek mythology
that has a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail, surrounding
a lake, the depth of which can only be guessed at. This is a land
from which escape is a futile concept," it continued. It
sold for $1,051,000.
Other highlights of the auction include a very
fine and colorful watercolor by Paul Klee (1879-1940), Lot 504,
that has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and sold for $666,000.
Major disappointments at the sale included
Lot 539, "Liz," a large portrait of Elizabeth Taylor
that occupied one half of a 80-by-40-inch surface. It had an estimate
of $1,800,000 to $2,000,000 and was passed at $1,200,000; and
Lot 537, "Figure 3," a sculptmetal and collage on canvas
by Jasper Johns executed in 1961, 26 by 20 inches, that had an
estimate of $2,800,000 to $3,500,000 and was passed at $2,000,000.
Another lot that was passed wasLot 519,
on "Odalisque" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), which had
an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. The 15-by-18 1/4-inch oil
on canvas was passed at $600,000.
Matisse, however, has not fallen out of
favor as Lot 517, a luscious charcoal on paper, 18 7/8 by 26 1/2
inches, of a reclining nude, sold for $2,701,000, more than double
the artist's previous drawing auction record and far in excess
of its high estimate of $1,500,000.
The sale total was almost $73 million. The
pre-sale low estimate for the sale was about $64 million and the
high estimate was about $84 million. Christopher Burge, the auctioneer,
said that 81 percent of the lots sold with active bidding both
in the room and on the phones. He said that 15 lots sold above
the high estimate, 40 sold within the estimates and five below
the estimates. Burge described the market as "strong, not
a crazy market, looking for quality, a point we've been stressing
for eight years." "It's not a speculative market,"
While not a roaring success, the sale demonstrated
that the market has not collapsed, although the failure of the
Warhol "Liz" and the Johns lot might indicate that more
modern and contemporary works might be more susceptible to the
vagaries of the general economy.