On 12 May 2010 Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art sale will offer works by some of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and Brice Marden, among many others. The sale presents an interesting survey of the key artistic schools of the period including Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism and more recent contemporary art. The auction presents collectors with an opportunity to acquire works that, in many cases, have not been offered for decades. The overall estimate for the sale is $114/162 million.
One of the major highlights of the sale is Mark Rothko’s 1961 painting Untitled, a radiantly beautiful and monumental masterpiece in the artist’s oeuvre (est. $18/25 million). Rothko’s genius is amply demonstrated as he reduces colors to their essence, transforming them into form, space, and light. Rothko almost seems to breathe color onto the canvas, alternating the surface between softly ethereal background and decadent saturation of subsequent rich layers, in this case in tones of red. As with many of his paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rothko adopts a monumental scale (93 x 80 in.) for his compositions to achieve a powerful sense of harmony and order. Red was a color that fascinated Rothko from his earliest works and was the focus of his greatest and most monumental paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Red is one of the most potent colors optically, and was used to great effect by Rothko either in juxtaposition with other colors or in a monochromatic range of red as in the case of the present work.
Jackson Pollock was one of the most influential masters of the 20th century, and his rare and exuberant Number 12A, 1948: Yellow, Gray, Black dates from the time of his most creative and transformative period (est. $4/6 million). From 1948 until her death in 1982, this painting was in the collection of his second New York dealer, Betty Parsons, and was extensively exhibited beginning at Parsons’ own gallery in 1949. Number 12A, 1948 was also one of three works illustrated in the infamous August 8, 1949 Life magazine article titled “Jackson Pollock – Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” that proclaimed Pollock’s early and eternal role as a leading figure in American art.
Sagamore, a 1955 work on paper by Willem de Kooning comes from a time in the artist’s career when he was moving away from painting women and toward abstract ‘urban landscapes’ such as the present work (est. $3.5/4.5 million). De Kooning was the most important artist of the Abstract Expressionist movement, receiving a huge number of accolades for a large and varied body of work. Sagamore is made up of autonomous bold brushstrokes each enlivened with vibrant colors; like many of the artist’s most important urban landscapes the painting captures the vitality and vibrancy of the city in all its brash disorder. The profound attention to light which, coupled with a lighter palette that tends towards yellows and pinks, would go on to consume his later paintings after he moved to Long Island. From the height of this long career, Sagamore shows de Kooning at his most liberated.
A further highlight of the Abstract Expressionist woks in the sale is Vera Cruz by Joan Mitchell (est. $3.5/4.5 million). The work was painted whilst Mitchell was living and working in Vétheuil, the tiny village known for Giverny, Monet’s famous estate and garden. Like many Monet works, Vera Cruz changes dramatically as the viewer walks towards it, with ever increasingly nuanced hues. The canvas encompasses all of the painterly techniques for which Mitchell is famous – quick brushstrokes, languid drips, calligraphic lines, dense impasto and the thin base coat. The vivid colors – lush green, dusky reds and copper earthiness – create a harmony akin to the very process of nature itself. Although her approach is anything but ordinary, Mitchell considered herself a traditional painter. Her works are rooted in the landscape and captures the emotions and memories that could be inspired by nature.
Among the highlights of Pop Art in the sale is an iconic and rare Self Portrait by Andy Warhol, executed in 1986 just prior to his unexpected death the following year (est. $10/15 million). The painting is from Warhol’s final series of Self Portraits – widely acknowledged as the most important of his career. The monumental canvas, measuring 108 x 108 in., is one of only a handful executed by the artist and one of only two that are known to be privately held. This superb Self Portrait is an important example of a major theme in the artist’s oeuvre: the complicated dichotomy between the public and private persona.
A further Warhol work in the sale is Flowers from 1964 from the series which was the subject of the artist’s first Leo Castelli Gallery exhibition in November that year (est. $5/7 million). It quickly became synonymous with the Pop Art movement which was rapidly gaining popularity and momentum. The flowers in the picture are based on a photograph of seven hibiscus blossoms from a 1964 photography magazine. The outline of the plants was stenciled onto a printed canvas before the green acrylic of the surrounding grass was added and finally the screenprint image applied over the dried impressions of plants. Flowers follows the ‘Death and Disaster’ series and whilst the bright subject matter may seem distant from the images of electric chairs, suicides and car crashes a flower can also be seen as a metaphor for the frailty of life – whilst exuberant now, they are soon to perish.
Lichtenstein’s Expressionist Head comes from a period when he was moving away from comic and advertising inspired paintings and starting to look at the great artists and movements of the 20th century (est. $3.5/5.5 million). The painting combines the Pop aesthetic with the techniques of the past, by drawing on both a subject – portraiture, and style – German Expressionism, of the past to create an extraordinarily powerful composition. Other influences abound too – the head is shown in both profile and full-face echoing Cubism whilst the strong lines are typical of wood-block carving. However, the influence of these older movements was limited to their aesthetic qualities rather than any deeper investigation of their underlying beliefs. Expressionist Head is a great statement of Lichtenstein’s ability to translate motifs of modern art into his own style.
Agnes Martin’s The Desert expands in front of the viewer like sands of a desert landscape dissolving into a hazy horizon (est. $4/6 million). The painting dates from 1965, Martin’s first decade of classic painting where she used traditional geometric shapes of squares and rectangles to create an impersonal detachment with an intellectual artistic format. The Desert comes just two years before the artist’s move to New Mexico and despite being painted in New York it is clearly evocative of the natural landscape.
Corner Prop by Richard Serra is a classic example of the Prop series from the beginning of his long career of sculptural innovation (est. $2/3 million). On the occasion of his 2007 MOMA retrospective Serra recalled in an interview with Kynaston McShine composing a list of verbs; “to splash, to tear, to roll, to cut and so on” which he enacted in his studio with rubber and lead. Corner Prop embodies a combination of this oft quoted verb list with the rod recalling, “to roll,” in addition to many other verbs on the list. The sculpture pushed a modernist approach to sculpture which used industrial materials to produce works without any trace of the artist’s hand. The elements that make up Corner Prop achieve stability from the exertion and tension of the weight of each toward the other, and toward the wall to engage and define the space around the work and the viewer.
Recent Contemporary Artists
Maurizio Cattelan has spent his career arguing against the institutionalization of art and this Untitled work from 2001 is one of the penultimate statements of his role as an art world outlaw or outsider (est. $3/4 million). In Cattelan’s view, we should be free to engage directly with art rather than rely on the preconceived notions imposed by critics, curators, collectors and, at times, even artists. This work perfectly sums up these ideas; the thief personifying the idea that art should be purloined out of the static realm of the museum and back into the world. As a self-taught artist with a humble background, Cattelan uses wit and humor to force us to reconsider the accepted ‘canonization’ of art. Like many Cattelan works, the current Untitled piece deals with the authority of law; the artist is portrayed as a burglar tunneling into the museum, taking the viewer with him on the quest to liberate art from the confines of the institution. As the figure emerges into the grand gallery with a quizzical expression, Cattelan challenges and subverts the usual process of enshrining art.
Cold Mountain I (Path) is the most important work by Brice Marden ever to appear at auction (est. $10/15 million). Executed in 1988-89, the masterwork was the first in the artist’s acclaimed series of six monumental (108 x 144 in.) canvases named for Han Shan, known as Cold Mountain, a legendary 8th or 9th century Chinese poet. The series marked the culmination of Marden’s journey toward a new style of painting leading away from his monochromatic, multi-panel, beeswax paintings of the 1960s and 1970s. It is the only painting from the series of six that has ever appeared at auction.
Jim Bean – JB Turner Engine by Jeff Koons comes from the ‘Luxury and Degardation’ series (est. $2/3 million). The series included a full length train and also individual cars all of which were inspired by a Jim Bean promotional campaign Koons saw in a liquor store. The work stands as a trophy to both the power of advertising and excessive drinking, with a bottle of bourbon inside the piece. Just as there is an irony in the advertisements taking the seductive power of this symbol of US pride to sell ultimately destructive liquor, Koons creates a work that, whilst shining like platinum or silver is made from the famously common material of stainless steel.
An Untitled collaboration between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1984 which is consigned by the Basquiat estate (est. $2/3 million) is a rare and balanced union of these two great artists of different generations. Brilliantly combining signature elements from both artists, the work uses the materials for which they are best known – silkscreen for Warhol and paint stick for Basquiat. Whilst at very different stages of their careers, both artists were outsiders to a degree – Warhol as a wounded celebrity and Basquiat as a rising star without any formal training. Warhol made his contributions first laying down the hats, baseball gloves, tennis rackets, sneakers, numbers and the Zenith electronics logo. Basquiat then filled in other parts of the canvas with his signature swathes of color, childlike scrawl and totemic heads. These two elements combine to create a synthesis so complete it almost appears to have been painted by a third party; the painting is nothing if not shared, nothing if not one.