Full Speed Ahead for Contemporary Works
By SOUREN MELIKIAN
Published: November 13, 2009
Cy Twombly's drawing went for $722,500 at Christie's.
NEW YORK — The auction market is booming and, when it comes to contemporary art, it is charging on at an accelerated pace, as it did before the financial turmoil broke out in the autumn of 2008.
This week, those attending Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening sessions traditionally reserved for the most important works might have briefly thought that there never was a recession. No awareness of it appeared to linger in the bidders’ minds as they ran up paintings, drawings and sundry three-dimensional works to three times the estimate, or more.
It all culminated with the staggering $43.76 million paid at Sotheby’s on Wednesday for Andy Warhol’s “200 One Dollar Bills,” a silkscreen and pencil work dating from 1962.
This extraordinary outburst of bullishness was the upshot of a two-part play in which Christie’s session on Tuesday served as a launching pad to Sotheby’s superior sale.
The sale Tuesday, which netted $74.15 million, leaving only seven out of 46 works stranded, said a great deal about the renewed eagerness to buy contemporary art. It revealed for the first time a deep interest in works on paper, in contrast to the past when contemporary art had to be spectacular and big to do really well.
The session began with a drawing on board done in 1961 by Robert Rauschenberg. This was titled “Untitled,” possibly because it is difficult to find a label for a panel in which a wheel, some wristwatches and various rubbings have been haphazardly jotted down, in the manner of street graffiti. The colors were pale and the size small — 29.2 by 26 centimeters, or 11.5 by 10.25 inches. Christie’s expected the Rauschenberg to be knocked down between $100,000 and $150,000, plus the sale charge. With bids coming in from every side, the sketch ended up at $938,500.
Another drawing followed. The large sheet of paper sprinkled with blobs and dots in black ink was signed by Philip Guston and dated 1953. Its severity and lack of color did not appear to augur well. Yet, lo and behold! The Guston rose to $542,500, more than double the high estimate. It set in the process a world auction record for a work on paper by the artist.
Two more world records were later established for contemporary artists, or artists conventionally held to be “contemporary” even though they are no longer in this world.
One went to a cartoon in the naughty-schoolboy-at-the-blackboard manner of Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Untitled,” as Christie’s called it, the large size sketch, 152.4 centimeters high, brought one of the more astonishing prices achieved this week. At $3.1 million, it tripled the previous record for a Basquiat work on paper that was set in Paris at the Artcurial auction house in December 2005.
Later, a sketch in ink and gouache by Brice Marden, “Untitled with Green,” set an auction record for the artist at $2.04 million. Squiggles repeated in three vertical columns were apparently deemed irresistible.
Other large prices paid for works on paper confirmed that a new pattern was emerging. A typical exercise in random scribbling by Cy Twombly made $722,500, nearly double the high estimate. The sketch does not markedly differ from the nascent bouts of creativity of 4-year-olds expressing pencil in hand their joie de vivre. Interestingly, this similarity to early childhood artistic endeavor has no bearing on the price. Visual aesthetics are clearly not among the primary considerations driving contemporary art buyers.
If any doubts could be entertained on that score, the $1.98 million paid at Christie’s for another work on paper by Basquiat would dispel them. “Untitled (14 Drawings)” describes 14 sheets of paper individually framed. Each one is adorned with a few lines inscribed in block letters. The first one reads “A LOT OF BOWERY BUMS USED TO BE EXECUTIVES.” The attraction presumably lies in the would-be tongue in cheek witticism — if this is the word.
A new interest in austere paintings came along with this willingness to pay top dollar for works on paper that do not appeal to a yearning for the spectacular.
A dark geometrical composition painted around 1980-1981 by Jasper John in predominant gray nearly doubled its high estimate at $4.33 million. Moments later, a virtually black picture in oil on paper done by Rauschenberg managed to sell for $962,500. A kind of crumpled effect is created to animate a surface that would otherwise resemble a piece of black slate.
The double focus on drawings and on uncompromisingly severe paintings revealed at Christie’s on Tuesday suggests that a new gravity now drives some contemporary art buyers.
Yet, no great importance is attached to personal aesthetic creation. In most cases, words and names alone matter. The parodies of Jeff Koons attract as much attention as ever. A “Large Vase of Flowers” perfectly imitated in polychrome wood brought $5.68 million. Those in despair for having missed it may comfort themselves with the thought that it was produced in an edition of three, plus an artist’s proof. Two vacuum cleaners hygienically displayed in transparent Plexiglas casing “New Shelton Wet/Dry5-Gallon, New Hoover Convertible Doubledecker,” which, the catalog cryptically noted, was a work “executed in 1981-1987,” stirred sufficiently deep emotions to realize $3.1 million.
Minimalist art, which offers another variant of limited artistic intervention, was also well received.
Agnes Martin’s alternate bands of blue and white, which could be mistaken for a sample of fabric or wallpaper were it not for the signature and date (1996), thus comfortably sold for $1.31 million.
Figural art, however, was not forgotten. The great success story at Christie’s was indeed Peter Doig’s “Reflection (What does your soul look like)” painted in 1996. That exceeded the high estimate as it realized $10.16 million. Influenced by the 19th-century French school of naturalist landscape painting, Doig’s large picture bore no connection to any of the other works. Eclecticism, or as some might believe, indifference to what the eye sees, was the order of the day.
These trends were all confirmed on a magnificent scale on Wednesday when Sotheby’s took over. It was as if Christie’s performance had released a spring. During the first half of a session that ended on a $134.44 million score, bidders could barely hold themselves.
Two auction records were set as the first four lots came up. Remarkably, the first record price, $1.65 million, was paid for a picture by an artist whose name, Alice Neel, meant little to the general public. “Jackie Curtis and Rita Red,” a figural double portrait dating from 1970, is broadly painted, with the merest soupçon of Expressionism in the handling of the faces.
The second record price went to the French sculptor Germaine Richier who is well known within a circle of specialists, but hardly rated as a celebrity. “La Feuille” (The Leaf) is the title of a rugged female figure cast around 1950. The severe stylization which distorts the human body and the dark brown surface make the record price, $842,500, particularly noteworthy.
As at Christie’s, Sotheby’s sale thus showed that world fame is no longer an absolute prerequisite for financial success in contemporary art. Neither are bright colors. A Jasper Johns painted in leaden gray as the title, “Gray Numbers” indicates, fetched the second highest price in the sale, $8.7 million.
An even harsher work, a “Large Torso” cast in bronze in 1974, set a world record for a sculpture by Willem de Kooning at $5.68 million. The artist, famous for his Expressionist pictures, is not often associated with sculpture. The price, like those paid for Richier’s bronze or for the gray picture by Jasper Johns, tells us that a search for new avenues to explore is under way in contemporary art.
Works by artists that did not always fare well in the past are now fought over without a moment’s hesitation.
The French painter Jean Dubuffet who is perhaps best described as an Expressionist Naïf did brilliantly with his grinning, rather sinister figures painted in pseudo-childish fashion. A picture in this vein, “Trinité-Champs-Elysées,” dated March 1961, set an auction record for the artist at $6.13 million.
Behind the bewildering diversity of the works that were most enthusiastically received, one constant feature recurred. Most had been consecrated by the passage of time. Of the top 10 lots sold at Sotheby’s only one, Bruce Nauman’s “Violins Violence Silence,” which dates from 1981 or 1982 and sold for $4 million, was less than 30 years of age.
Perhaps buyers willing to spend the largest amounts were not too sure that the art they were looking at was to be taken seriously. The reasoning appears to be that if public acclaim or at least media recognition lasted that long, they had a fair chance of making the right choice.
If doubting Thomases questioned the artistic character of “200 One Dollar Bills” mechanically reproduced by Warhol using the silkscreen technique, you could always point out that the artist’s oeuvre had been sung for half a century. Warhol’s work has actually risen beyond the wildest dreams. The picture that climbed to a dizzying $43.76 million this week had only cost its consignor $385,000. He bought it on Nov. 11, 1986, at the sale of the estate of one of the most famous collectors of contemporary art, the late Robert C. Scull.
Every buyer of contemporary art dreams of such coups, if not necessarily on this scale — it is the most fabulous ever, in any field. If only for that reason, the odds are that contemporary art is set to leap forward for a while.