It was a jam-packed auction season—the first in two years with in-person audiences—with some standout collections and blue-chip artworks that led to a soaring $2.6 billion in generated revenue for Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Due to time, I did not get a chance to cover the Phillips sales, but in the next few blog posts, I summarize some highlights from the modern and contemporary auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But here, first, an introduction of sorts, with a few over-arching points and themes to touch on:
In a sign of our ever-changing times, it’s worth noting that Sotheby’s has yet again restructured its marquee sales into different categories. You may recall in my December 2020 post, I recounted the confusing structural changes that the auction houses experimented with in the face of the pandemic, including global online “relay” auctions, throwing in some Old Masters (and T-Rexes) into the mix, and generally shaking up the time-honored categories of “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary.” And for their 2021 Spring auctions, Christie’s committed to a permanent change away from these categories to respective 20th and 21st century sales, the parameters of which are noted as “flexible.”
This fall, Sotheby’s announced they are restructuring the modern and contemporary evening auctions into 3 sales: “The Modern,” (covering late 19th to early 20th century art), “The Contemporary,” (covering postwar art to the late 20th century) and “The Now” (art of the last two decades). A Sotheby’s representative noted that, like Christie’s’ groupings, these parameters are flexible, because the sales also take into consideration stylistic—rather than strictly chronological—factors.
Sotheby’s’ and Christie’s’ creation of marquee sales just for 21st century art reflects the unprecedented market demand for art by living artists. There is no doubt that the art in these contemporary sales is absolutely fabulous, and when you survey the modern and contemporary sales, the newest work does feel fresh and incredibly satisfying. With waiting lists at galleries for some of the hottest emerging artists—who can only produce so much (good) art in a year—artworks that were painted in 2019, 2020, and 2021 are showing up at auction, and bursting past their estimates at jaw-dropping rates.
The concern of many in the artworld, however, is that emerging artists are missing out on the financial returns. More often than not, it is collectors who are flipping the paintings, after having purchased them at modest “emergent prices” from the artist’s gallery. We are seeing some glimpses where artists are submitting their paintings straight to auction, and reaping the rewards. Until recently, it was considered inappropriate—and even arrogant—for an artist to bypass galleries and sell new work directly to auction. Damien Hirst was one such rare case with his 2008 Sotheby’s auction of new work fresh from his studio, and even as a market veteran, he was called “cocky” by more than one critic for the stunt.
In the NFT market, it is almost exclusively artists who are selling their work at auction (see my post on the Christie’s auction with Beeple’s recent HUMAN ONE, or my general blog post on NFTs, for more on the current NFT trend). But anyways, perhaps with the new trend toward contemporary—and the auction houses’ pivot to serve this market—it’ll be more commonplace to see artists selling directly through auction.
Sotheby’s took another note from the Christie’s playbook, too: they took advantage of the many eyes on the popular modern and contemporary sales to squeeze in an anachronistic but high-profile item: a single lot sale of a copy of the original printed U.S. Constitution, one of only two copies that exists in private hands (out of 13 extant copies total). Wedged between “The Now” and Contemporary evening sale, the Constitution was offered by private collector Dorothy Tapper Goldman, and sold to billionaire collector Kenneth Griffin for $43.2 million.
As always, year on year, as the art market continues to reach dizzying and seemingly endless heights, I reflect on what it says about our culture and society at large. While I love art—which, if you’re reading this blog, I am sure you do too—I am alarmed at the excess of the artworld, especially now, when so many people in the world face financial insecurity in the midst of COVID. The strength of the art market is a symptom—and powerful symbol—of the growing wealth inequality of our times. So until we address wealth inequality in a major way, I don’t think we will see much of a deflation in the art market soon.
There was a lot to cover this year, so I’ve broken up the summaries of the auctions’ offerings into different posts—you can read about Sotheby’s’ sales here, and Christie’s’ sales here. Remember, when I speak of pre-sale estimates it refers to hammer prices, whereas any final selling price I quote includes the buyer’s premium (the buyer’s fees to the auction house).
Christie’s had one of its most successful weeks in its history–which given the current state of the country and world, is saying something. With just the three auctions discussed below–the 20th and 21st century sales, plus a single-owner auction of Impressionist masterpieces–Christie’s raised nearly $1 billion.
Christie’s’ first sale of the week was its 21st century sale (i.e. contemporary art). The biggest ticket item of the sale was a massive Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, The Guilt of Gold Teeth from 1982. Interestingly, there is no lot essay for this work, which is surprising given the pre-sale estimate of $40–60 million. Perhaps this work was a last-minute addition to the sale, which may explain why it ultimately did not meet the house’s expectations, selling with fees at the low estimate of $40 million. Peter Doig’s large Swamped, one of his classic images of a canoe on water, took in almost $40 million as well.
The next big seller was from Beeple, the artist with the record-setting NFT collection EVERYDAYS: The First 5000 Days which earlier this year sold for $69 million. Here, Beeple has created HUMAN ONE, a kinetic sculpture with four video screens of rotating landscapes traversed by a lonely astronaut. As Beeple explains in his own Terms and Conditions issued with the art, the sculpture is the “Physical Element” that displays the digital “Artwork:”
“Although the NFT and Physical Element are sold to the purchaser, the Artwork is licensed and not sold to such purchaser. The Artwork is neither stored nor embedded in the NFT, but is accessible through the NFT. The Physical Element displays a copy of the Artwork.”
Of course, given the hype of NFTs, and Beeple’s recent success (which instigated said hype of NFTs), HUMAN ONE achieved almost $29 million. While I think Human One is far better than 5000 Days, in my opinion, Beeple is a better opportunist than an artist. Here’s why:
You don’t need a f*cking NFT to create a digital work of art!! It is strictly a marketing ploy. NFTs are being marketed to sell you the idea that you can’t own or trade unique digital artwork unless it has been minted on the blockchain. But this is completely false.
There are hundreds of artists who create digital artwork. Sometimes, the artist designs a special mechanism or sculpture to display the digital creation. There are also artists who have used A.I. algorithms to create digital art that changes and evolves. All of these works can be created as secure, unique artworks (i.e. one copy) or limited edition works (often in small editions of 2, 3, 5, etc.). This can be all be done without NFTs. Let me repeat: the NFT is completely unnecessary.
You may glean from my tone that I am not a fan of NFTs. You can read my fuller assessment of NFTs here (one point I think I failed to make in my previous blog post on NFTs is that they have an astronomical energy footprint and are thus terrible for the environment. One more reason not to be suckered in to this ridiculous hyped-up scam).
I need some cheering up: let me talk about the art that I liked in the 21st century sale.
The first three lots in the sale were among my favorites: opener Darling by Xinyi Cheng from 2017 sold for $300,000, far outstripping its $30,000–40,000 estimate. And the second lot, Hilary Pecis’s 2019 canvas Upstairs Interior, sold for more than ten times its high estimate of $80,000, bringing $870,000. And while I don’t love all of Nicolas Party’s work, I do like the landscape he submitted to the auction, which roared past its $300,000–500,000 estimate to achieve $3.27 million, with fees. All together, Christie’s 21st century sale raked in $219 million.
Just as Sotheby’s’ season benefitted from the marquee sale of the Macklowe Collection, Christie’s’ fall season was enhanced by a collection of Impressionist masterworks from the Estate of the late Edwin Cox, a Texas oil magnate. The heart-stopping prizes of the night included an absolutely magnificent Vincent van Gogh landscape from 1889. Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprés has the classic van Gogh palette, with its aquamarine sky and bushes, contrasting against the bright yellow fields and spindly cypress trees. The show-stopper sold for $71.35 million with fees (estimate was by request).
Two more van Goghs brought in stunning prices as well: a bright watercolor of peasants harvesting threshes by haystacks (Meules de blé) from 1888. Interestingly, this work was stolen by the Nazis from the famous French banking family the Rothschilds in Paris 1941. Christie’s noted that the sale of the work was pursuant to a settlement between the Cox Estate and the descendants of the Rothschilds, who claim rightful ownership. I think they’ll be satisfied with their settlement: this little work on paper sold for over $35.8 million.
The other van Gogh took everyone by a surprise: a portrait of a boy with a blue flower in his mouth, painted one month before the artist’s untimely death in July of 1890. The boy’s red hair is wild; his cheeks ruddy from his antics in the sun; his lips chapped; and he has a rather goofy expression. Given the admittedly less appealing palette and subject, Christie’s had put a more modest estimate of $5–7 million on the painting, but bidding far surpassed expectations, bringing this small portrait (16 x 12 in.) to more than $46.7 million.
And finally, a record was set for the evening for Gustave Caillebotte’s Jeune homme àsa fenétre, from 1876. This museum-quality work went, in fact, to a museum: the Getty in Los Angeles acquired it, shelling out $53 million, more than double the artist’s previous record of $22 million.
All in, the Cox collection grossed over $332 million, serving as a highly satisfying appetizer to the evening’s main entrée: the new 20th century sale. The fresh catch (to continue the food analogy) of the night was Andy Warhol’s portrait of fellow art market superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dated from 1982, the painting incorporates a brief experimental phase of Warhol’s, in which he coated paintings with a copper metallic pigment and urinated on them, creating an oxidized effect over time. The portrait sold for just over $40 million, making it the highest selling work of the night.
Another notable sale of the evening was Lee Bontecou’s classic sculptural painting Untitled from 1960. With an estimate of $2–3 million, it sold for more than double the high estimate, bringing $9.2 million and breaking the artist’s previous record of $1.9 million (set over 10 years ago). Cy Twombly also has had a good auction season, with a few works offered at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s; in this sale, a large untitled painting from 1961 brought $32 million.
Some additional personal favorites from the sale: Light, a still life by Alice Neel. More reminiscent of Jane Freilicher than the portraiture for which Neel has become so well-known, this still life was recently featured in Neel’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting brought over $2.3 million against a $900,000–1,200,000 estimate. David Hockney’s bright study of a Woldgate Tree, Mayfrom 2006 sold over its $3–5 million estimate to bring $6.27 million. And Kazuo Shiraga’s dynamic abstraction Chiken-sei kendoskin (1961) sold for $3.33 million, against a $2.5–3.5 million pre-sale estimate.
In total, the 20th century took in $419.8 million, which, when taken together with the Cox collection sale that preceded it, Christie’s had a $752 million dollar evening—one of its most successful nights ever.
After nearly six decades of marriage (and art-collecting), the couple went through a bitter divorce. There were 65 artworks for which the divorcees could not agree on a value or settlement, so in 2018 a judge ordered them to sell these works and split the revenue.
Sotheby’s won the bid for the collection, on the promise that they would guarantee at least $600 million to the Macklowes. Well, they delivered: of the 35 lots offered in this single-owner sale, a whopping 20 sold over $10 million, with the final tally coming to a staggering $676 million dollars with fees.
The biggest ticket items included Alberto Giacometti’s Le Nez (conceived in 1947-49, cast in 1965) which took home $78,396,000; No. 7, a warm Mark Rothko canvas (1951), which achieved $82,468,500; Warhol’s Nine Marilyns in silver from 1962, which took $47,373,000; and a Jackson Pollock which soared past its $25–35 million estimate to sell for $61,161,000 (Number 17, 1951).
My favorite of the sale: Franz Kline’s Crosstown (1955), which brought $12,0401,250 (surprisingly just inside its low estimate of $12–18 million).
Next, let’s touch on the “The Now” auction. Sotheby’s scheduled this 23-lot auction of ultra-contemporary art as a kind of opening act for its main contemporary evening sale, hoping to generate buzz and interest. It paid off: several artists records, and a 100% sell-through rate that generated $71.8 million, well over its collective presale estimate of $36.6–53.2 million. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the opening lot: Lisa Brice’s No Bare Back, after Embah (2017), which exploded past its estimate of $200,000–300,000 to bring over $3.1 million, crushing the artist’s previous auction record of $34,500.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, now ever-present in contemporary art auctions, also set a new record with Through Line, which took $2.2 million for the evening. This beats Odutola’s record of $832,700 that was set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this past April.
Undoubtedly the starlet of “The Now” auction was Yoshitomo Nara’s 1996 painting Nice to See You Again. This menacing little tyke had a presale estimate of $8–12 million, ultimately earning $15.4 with fees. Other favorites included Matthew Wong’s exquisite Night Crossing from 2018, which tore past its $1–1.5 million estimate to earn $4.86 million; Hernan Bas’s Night Flight or Midnight Migration, or My Merry Way (2008), which took $746,000 against an estimate of $150,000–200,000; and Mickalene Thomas’s Portrait of Maya #10, which sold for $528,200.
In a first, during the “The Now” sale, Sotheby’s allowed live bidding in cryptocurrency on two works by Banksy (Trolley Hunters and Love is in the Air). While the live bidding was conducted in Ether, the winning bidder can settle their tab in crypto or USD, so frankly I’m not sure what the point was. Alternating the currency during bidding seems arbitrary, and in this case a stunt to pump up interest in cryptocurrency. (Not to mention I think that bidding in crypto is incredibly messy, because crypto’s market is still so volatile and unstable. But perhaps that’s another blog entry…)
Sotheby’s fall season also got a nice boost from the collection of the late Douglas S. Cramer, a TV producer who died in June. Works from his collection will be sold throughout November and December, but the Contemporary auction in particular benefited from some standout works of his, including the biggest prize of the night: Roy Lichtenstein’s Two Paintings: Craig… (1983). The artist gifted the work to Cramer in 1992, and it was a gift that kept giving many times over, earning almost $20.4 million, surpassing its $12–18 million estimate.
Two Cecily Brown works from Cramer’s collection—Spree (1999) and Bend Sinister (2002)—each exceeded their pre-sale expectations, with the former earning almost $6.6 million (the second highest record for Brown), and the latter over $6.3 million (a third Cecily Brown, Untitled (Trapeze) unfortunately under-performed, bringing only $806,500 against a $1.5–2 million estimate).
My personal favorites from the contemporary auction include two wonderful collages by Romare Bearden which bookended the sale: The Street (1975) and The Cardplayers(1982), with the former setting a new record for the artist when it pushed past its $500,000–700,000 estimate to achieve just over $1.1 million. (Personally, I think it’s insane that a national treasure like Romare Bearden doesn’t have a market even close to the stratosphere of some of today’s popular yet completely mediocre and overrated contemporary art. But what can you do…)
I also loved Charles White’s large charcoal and crayon work Nobody Knows My Name #2 (1965), which exceeded its $400,000–600,000 estimate to bring $867,000; Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1959), which scored $6.2 million against an estimate of $5.5–6.5 million; and Robert Indiana’s athletic 5 (1964), which broke through its $250,000–350,000 estimate to achieve $528,200.
The total revenue for Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale came to $119.2 million.
Finally, the modern sale. The real show-stopper was a double-portrait by Frida Kahlo, with Diego Rivera painted onto her mind’s eye in a self-portrait. Executed in 1949, the tears on her cheeks refer to Rivera’s infamous infidelity. The portrait sold for almost $34.9 million, not only shattering Kahlo’s previous auction record ($8 million) but also breaking the record for any artwork sold by a Latin American artist—a distinction previously held by none other than her husband, Diego Rivera. Sweet revenge for Frida!
Another record was broken that fateful night: Pierre Soulages, one of my favorite artists, is perhaps best known for his monochromatic black paintings, but in this case it was a black-and-red 1961 canvas that set his new record at $20.1 million, crushing the painting’s $8–12 million estimate and Soulage’s previous record of $10.6 million (set in 2018).
One of the other big attractions of the night was Claude Monet’s Coin du basin aux nymphéas, a classic late work from the artist’s famous garden at Giverny. This 1918 canvas’s gorgeous abstract composition feels decidedly modern, and sold for $50.8 million (the pre-sale estimate was not published). A few more Monet’s were included in the sale that are more squarely 19th century Impressionist works, but seemed to make the cut for the modern evening sale.
Other favorites of mine from the sale include a stunning and tame Symbolist landscape by Edvard Munch ($5.32 million) and a classic German Expressionist work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (I’m a sucker for Kirchner), which sold for $2.9 million. In total, Sotheby’s modern auction took in $282.8 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $192.2–266.9 million (remember pre-sale estimates are hammer prices, the final total includes buyer’s premiums to the auction house).
In case you missed it: the Art Basel /UBS Global Art Market Report came out in March, and noted that global sales for art and antiques in 2020 were down 22% from 2019 ($50.1 billion). But if the spring 2021 auction season is any indication–with several 8-figure lots and many broken records for artists–we’ll be returning to a pre-pandemic market in no time.
Before diving into the sales themselves, I’d like to say a few words about a few words–literally. There have been some interesting category changes in auctions that signal the power of words to reflect the changing landscape of art collecting. As I reported in my December 2020 blog post, last year Christie’s and Sotheby’s used the occasion of the pandemic to experiment with format, offering a confusing array of day sales, evening sales, and global relay sales.
This season, Christie’s announced that it would be doing away with its “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” designations all together, and instead offered a “20th Century” evening sale, and a “21st Century” evening sale. These adjustments are semantic rather than literal, however, as the 20th century sale still includes works dating back to the 1880s (ie Impressionist/Post Impressionist), while works dating back to the 1980s are included in the 21st century sale. BUT, to still make things confusing, the “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” titles still apply to the day sales (insert shrug emoji).
Sotheby’s has also jumped on the rebranding bandwagon, dropping “Postwar” from its auction headline, so it just reads “Contemporary Art evening sale,” even though the sale does still include postwar art. In another notable case of wordsmithing, Sotheby’s has also taken “Old” out of their “Old Masters” sales, so the auction instead is simply called “Master Paintings.” I must say, this is one rebranding strategy I can understand: the word “Old” certainly has more negative connotations than, say, the word “Impressionist.” And it can’t hurt the struggling Old Masters–excuse me, the Masters–market. It completely worked on me as clickbait.
Now, on to the sales themselves. As always, I focus only on New York because, frankly, it would be overwhelming to cover sales in Europe and Asia too. (NOTE: I have addressed this season’s NFT works and auctions in a separate post). Christie’s 20th and 21st Century evening sales together grossed over $691 million; in the 20th century sale, 98% of the lots sold above their low estimate–many surpassed their high estimates. And some standout pieces helped push the sales past the half a billion mark.
A few artists also had new auction records in the 20th Century sale: Alice Neel, no doubt buoyed by her current retrospective at the Met, set a new record when her 1966 canvas Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room sold for over $3 million, nearly 4 times its high estimate of $800,000 and doubling her previous record. She was followed in the next lot by Barbara Hepworth’s Parent II sculpture (1971), which burst past its high estimate of $3.5 million to sell fora record $7,110,000. New auction records were also set for Grace Hartigan and Alighiero Boetti.
As for Christie’s 21st Century evening sale (ie Postwar and Contemporary sale), the masterpiece that drove the sale was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In This Case (1983), which inspired competitive bidding all the way up to $93,105,000–the second highest auction price for the artist (illustrated below).
A whopping ten artists–six of whom are people of color–had sales records broken in this 21st Century sale, continuing the collecting trend for black contemporary artists. Jordan Casteel, who exhibited a lovely show of portraits at the New Museum last year, set a new record with his portrait Jiréh from 2013 when it sold for $687,500. Nina Chanel Abney’s 2015 canvas Untitled (XXXXXX), painted in the aftermath of the shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement), catapulted beyond its pre-sale estimate of $200,000 – 300,000 to sell for just under $1 million (illustrated below). And (white guy) Jonas Wood also set a record when his colorful still life Two Tables with Floral Pattern (2013) achieved over $6.5 million, more than 50% over the high estimate of $4 million (illustrated below).
Now, on to Sotheby’s evenings sales! While Sotheby’s had a few standout works, their auctions were decidedly less robust than Christie’s: together the Impressionist & Modern and (Postwar) & Contemporary sales brought $439,639,200, more than a $250 million less than Christie’s equivalent sales. In the Impressionist & Modern category, the big ticket item was Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas, a classic late water lily canvas (1917-19), which brought $70,353,000.
A few other works that sold well include Leonor Fini’s delightful self-portrait with a scorpion (Autoportrait au scorpion) from 1938, which soared to three times past its high estimate ($800,000) to sell for $2,319,000; and Diego Rivera’s exquisitely elegant Retrato de Columba Domínguez de Fernández (1950), sold more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring $7,445,250 (each illustrated below).
Several other works in the Sotheby’s sale, however, sold around their low estimate or, in some cases, below it. Paul Cézanne’s fruit still lifes are usually top sellers, but the Nature morte: pommes et poires that was in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern auction sold for $19,969,350, a far, far cry from its $25 – 35 million estimate (illustrated below). Fritz Glarner’s Relational Painting Tondo No. 65 (1965) also sold well below its $600,000 – 800,000 estimate to bring $403,200 (illustrated below). And Les Coteaux de Thierceville, temps gris, a typical landscape by Camille Pissarro, sold for $1.472 million, just under its $1.5 – 2 million estimate.
Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale generally fared better than its Impressionist & Modern evening sale, although overall the offerings did not excite bidders as much as the equivalent Christie’s sale did. The big ticket item was Basquiat’s Versus Medici (1982), which just about sold at the high end of its $35 – 50 million pre-sale estimate ($50,820,000)–not quite as impressive as the $93 million Basquiat at Christie’s, but the highest grosser of the night for Sotheby’s.
There were some impressive sales, however: newcomer Salman Toor has had an explosive few years, capped with his recent wonderful, intimate solo show at the Whitney Museum, which included The Arrival, the third lot in Sotheby’s sale. With a modest pre-estimate of $60 – 80,000, the 18 x 14-inch painting sold for a whopping 10 times its high estimate, finally bringing $867,000. This was the auction record for the young artist until Girl with Driver sold a few weeks later for almost $890,000 at Phillips in Hong Kong. (Mind you, Girl with Driver is 60 x 78 inches, so, inch for inch, tiny little The Arrival takes the cake!)
A few other highlights of the sale include Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), which reached $15,315,900, surpassing its $9 – 12 million estimate. Charles White’s The Ingram Case (1949), depicting the incarcerated Ingram family (whose murder trial of a white neighbor underscored the institutionalized racism of the time), is as timely and evocative now as ever. The powerful drawing achieved $1,472,000, more than double its high estimate ($500,000 – 700,000). As with Christie’s contemporary auction, the high prices achieved by these few artists reflect the continued strong interest in artists of color.
Last but not least, another noteworthy highlight is Banksy’s famous Love is in the Air (2005), depicting a masked protester throwing a bouquet of roses (rather than the expected molotov cocktail). With a pre-sale estimate of $3 – 5 million, the canvas ultimately brought nearly $13 million. It was the only lot in the sale that accepted cryptocurrency as a form of payment.
And speaking of cryptocurrency, I bet you’re all wondering why I haven’t addressed this season’s auctioned NFTs yet. I have written a separate post regarding the NFT craze here. Enjoy!
A rather odd experiment has come out of the COVID pandemic—although it’s unclear if it really has anything to do with the pandemic—and that’s the merging of departments to create a sale of mixed 19th, 20th and 21st century works. With a few rare exceptions—da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundiand a T-Rex fossil were both recently sold in contemporary art sales—the decades-long modus operandi of the auction world has been to host sales in the category of Impressionist and Modern art separately from Postwar and Contemporary art. This year amidst COVID, Christie’s started a trend of doing a global “relay” sale, which starts in Asia in the evening, and seamlessly continues in New York the same morning. Now, this December, Sotheby’s offered its first Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sale, based in New York.
But, to make it more confusing, Sotheby’s also still offered its normal day and evening sales in New York in the separate categories of Impressionist and Modern, and Postwar and Contemporary (October 28th). Christie’s also still offered daytime sales in both categories in New York (December 3rd and 4th), and a few hours before the global relay sale on December 2nd, Christie’s also held a Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sale in Hong Kong, with offerings from an international but largely Asian-leaning roster of artists. Then there was a “separate” auction at 8 pm for a single work of art: Sanyu’s fantastic Goldfish (1930s-40s) which sold for about $21,950,000 (170,170,000 HKD). Then the relay auction—”20th Century: Hong Kong to New York”—finally officially began at 8:30 PM.
What was the point of these mixed sale experiments? There is undoubtedly a utility to separating art by category, so that a collector of, say, Cubism, knows to follow the Impressionist & Modern sales. But, given that the “connoisseur” collector seems to be a dying breed, perhaps the auction houses think it makes more sense to separate buyers by price point, and organize their sales not by date/style, but by quality. This is, in fact, how other auction departments can function—a jewelry or furniture department will separate out its “exquisite” from its “fine” property, for example (and technically, the house’s daytime and evening sales already do this separation of “fine” and “exquisite”). But will this condensing of 150 years of art really make a difference for the art market? Or does this model only further commodify art, and further stratify collectors: the ultra-wealthy collectors and everyone else? All I know is, it’s been highly confusing trying to track these sales, and I’ll go crazy trying to recap all of this, so we’re going to focus on these hybrid sales to see how they did.
At Christie’s in Hong Kong, where daily reported cases remain low, the auction house hosted a hybrid format of live auction—with dealers and collectors in the audience—and remote bidding via phones and online. With New York’s infection rate tipping towards 5%, bidding remained remote. The sale started off fairly strong in Hong Kong, with a handful of world records set for artists: Dana Schutz’s 2017 Elevator—which was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial with her controversial painting of Emmett Till—sold for more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring about $6.5 million (50,050,000 HKD), shattering her previous record of $2.4 million set last year.
Baba Diop (2019), a portrait by the new art world darling Amoako Boafo, sold for $1.14 million (8,890,000 HKD), shattering the record his painting The Lemon Bathing Suit (2019) set in February earlier this year at Phillips in London $880,900 (675,000 GPB). Like many emerging artists, Boafo has expressed displeasure that collectors are flipping his works for such steep profits. And the very much under-appreciated French postwar artist Georges Mathieu set a new record for his explosive Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria)from 1978, which brought $2.23 million (17,290,000 HKD).
The New York leg of the auction was a more muted affair, with several works hammering at or below their pre-sale estimates, including Andy Warhol’s Small Campbell’s Soup Can(1962; $6 million with fees), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée (c. 1917; $2.19 million with fees), and Robert Rauschenberg’s Drawing for Dante’s 700th Birthday (1965), which, even with the buyer’s premium, didn’t break its low estimate of $1.2 million (it sold for $1.014 million). Is it possible that the lack of live audience made for less energetic bidding than the Hong Kong side of the sale? Possibly.
The real winner and standout piece of New York’s offerings in the relay sale was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s stunning painting of his favorite model, Carmen Gaudin, called Pierrusefrom 1889. The painting came from the collection of automotive mogul Henry Ford II, and had never been offered at auction before. The provenance no doubt helped the painting burst past its estimate of $3–5 million, selling for just over $9 million with fees.
Sotheby’s hybrid sale, spanning 150 years of art, had a healthy total hammer value of $52.9 million against a cumulative pre-sale estimate of $40.1–58.6 million. The sale started off with a bang with Barkley L. Hendrick’s excellent Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, which broke through its pre-sale estimate of $2–3 million to sell for just over $4 million with fees—a new record for the late artist.
The next headline grabber was Alexander Calder’s fabulous mobile, Mariposa (1951). This piece came from the corporate collection of Neiman Marcus, which is selling off its holdings since filing for bankruptcy. The mobile sold for more than double its high estimate, or $18 million with fees.
The other big surprise of the evening came with Matthew Wong’s Pink Wave, a 48 x 60-inch oil on canvas dated to 2017. Tragically, the artist committed suicide in 2019 just as his career was taking off. But, as one might expect, the death of the artist makes for a finite inventory, which has accelerated his market: Pink Wave exploded past its pre-sale estimate of $300,000 – 400,000 to sell for $2.35 million with fees. Believe it or not, that makes it only the third highest auction result for the late artist.
Despite these marquee prices, the success of Sotheby’s hybrid sale is misleading: one might be confused by the mention of Milton Avery and Edvard Munch works in the press release, neither of which was included in the sale. Artnet reports that nearly twenty-percent of the entire sale was withdrawn prior to the auction, ostensibly because tepid pre-sale interest augured poor results. No bueno.
Are these hybrid sales worth it? I’m not yet convinced, but obviously it’s a new experiment that needs further testing.
2020 was a challenging year for the art world—galleries and art fairs certainly reported lower sales, and many arts professionals find themselves under- or unemployed. But, as we have seen with the ever-widening wealth gap in this country, the ultra-wealthy have been doing just fine. Sure, some have tightened their purchases and prioritized other investments in this economic downturn, and the market reflects some of that conservatism. But with artist records still being broken, and many millions still spent on blue chip artists, the .01% are still keen to buy art. Unfortunately, only .01% of galleries and artists are benefitting from this patronage. I may be one of the few art advisors you’ll hear say this, but here it is: we need the market to continue to contract before the art world implodes.
If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.
In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.
Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.
To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.
Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.
I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.
I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.
Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.
I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.
A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.
“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.
In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, lithographic poster.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1893, lithographic poster.
In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.
In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.
Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.
In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.
I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.
And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.
There’s a lot of good art at the Armory Show—too much to be able to write about everything I liked. So, forgive the brief format, but I will just post pictures and descriptions for a selection of the art that I enjoyed, with the exception of a fantastic show of work by the artist Cassils—the highlight of the whole fair, which deserves a few words, in my opinion.
There has been an admirable and long overdue uptick in transgender representation in the last ten years or so, both in popular culture and fine arts. Unfortunately, in tandem with this increase in transgender visibility has been an uptick in fatal hate crimes against the trans and queer community. In a layered body of work at Ronald Feldman Gallery’s booth at the Armory, the artist Cassils (b. 1975) memorialized the victims of such violence, whilst also celebrating the resilience and beauty of the transgender body.
In a live performance called Becoming an Image, which has been performed several times since 2012, the artist beats up a 2,000 pound slab of clay in complete pitch darkness. No one in the audience can see the artist–who is nearly or completely naked–including the photographer documenting the event; they can only hear Cassils’ grunts, moans, punches and slaps against the clay. When the photographer snaps a photo, it creates a brief flash of illumination for all to see what’s happening. Cassils’ act of aggression on the clay is an act of cathartic anger, even revenge, in response to the invisibility of and violence against the LGBTQ community. But simultaneously, the performance is a fierce and true celebration of the trans body that is still largely invisible in our culture: in the dramatically lit photographs from the performances, Cassils’ naked rippling body is powerful and beautiful.
The artist did not perform Becoming an Image at the Armory Show, but their representing gallery, Ronald Feldman Gallery, presented a wonderful selection of the stills from a 2018 performance. Also on view was a 2016 bronze cast of the brutalized slab of clay called The Resilience of the 20%, referring to the 20% increase in murders of trans people worldwide since 2012. What a beautiful and affective installation.
Enjoy these other works by some top notch artists as well! The images are linked to the artists’ websites, or their representing galleries.
Gorgeous watercolors by Guo Hongwei, presented by Chambers Fine Art:
This year’s Fall modern and contemporary auctions in New York were once again a mixed bag: there were no real headline-grabbers, and there even a handful of flops. But there were also some bright spots; several records were set, and as blue-chip artists become more and more out of reach for most collectors, more buyers are purchasing younger contemporary artists’ work at auction, especially those artists for whom there’s a waiting list on the gallery circuit.
Ahead of the sales there was cautious speculation of how global turmoil—Brexit, protests in Hong Kong, and the Trump impeachment inquiry—could impact the art market. Once again, there’s mixed data on this; while there is generally some soft market contraction, there was spirited bidding this season from Asia, including Yoshitomo Nara’s smashing new auction record of $25 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, despite its political upheaval. And although the fall New York auctions were more subdued than the last few years, sell-through rates were still strong, and every auction sold within its pre-sale estimate range. Ultimately, despite some soft contraction, the art industry survived 2019 with few scratches. Let’s recap some of the auction highlights, starting with the Impressionist and Modern sales, and move our way up to contemporary.
Generally, the Impressionist and Modern category slowly continues to downshift in value; Christie’s and Sotheby’s Imp & Mod evening sales this fall were down 52% and 40% respectively from the equivalent sales in May. But it is important to remember that there were some blockbuster artworks offered in May: Monet’s Mueles (1890) set a record at Sotheby’s for any Impressionist work at $110.7 million, and works from the esteemed S.I. Newhouse collection gave Christie’s Imp & Mod sale a $100 million boost.
Christie’s took in $191.9 million (with buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale estimate of $138–203 million; this was a 31% drop from the equivalent sale last November of $279.3 million. Only sixteen of the 58 lots had in-house or third-party guarantors, which accounted for about $53.3 million of the total sale. One of the great highlights of the sale was Umberto Boccioni’s Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (Unique Forms of Continuity in Space), the artist’s undisputed masterpiece. Boccioni was one of the founding members of Italian Futurism, and just as his work was maturing, he tragically died in 1916 during a training exercise in World War I, at the age of 33. With a curtailed body of work, Christie’s specialists noted that this was a difficult lot to price; it is only the second time in a century that one of Boccioni’s sculptures has been offered at auction. The auction house conservatively estimated the work at $3.8–4.5 million, but the bronze busted past its high estimate to sell for a record $16.2 million, with fees.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale outperformed Christie’s, raking in $209 million; unfortunately, this was still far below the equivalent sale from May ($349.8 million) or last November ($315.4 million). One of the gems of the evening was Gustave Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1894), a large, richly-painted portrait of his friend walking along the Seine. But the painting generated less interest than Sotheby’s anticipated, selling just inside its low estimate at $19.7 million, with fees. A happier outcome occurred for Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka’s La Tunique Rose of 1927, depicting a solidly-built, reclining woman in a red slip. The lovely modernist painting surpassed its high estimate of $8 million, as well as the artist’s previous auction record of $9.1 million, selling for $13.4 million with fees.
Moving on to the Contemporary market: Christie’s topped the evening sales with $325.3 million, which was squarely in the middle of its $270.3–397.8 million estimates. This is a 9% downturn from the same sale in November 2018, but it is worth noting last year’s $357.6 million sale was augmented by David Hockney’s $90.3 million Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). 24 of the 54 lots offered this year had third-party guarantees. Despite promoting the “fresh to market” appeal of the works (all but three of the 54 lots had not been offered in at least ten years), 43% of lots hammered below their low estimate. But this contraction in the market was countered by a few bright spots.
The standout of the evening was Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), a great, early example of Ruscha’s more conceptual approach to Pop, which achieved $52.5 million with fees. Another lovely offering was a rediscovered Hockey painting called Sur la Terrasse of 1971, which hasn’t been shown publicly since 1973. Encouraged by last year’s record Hockney sale, the Christie’s specialists estimated Sur la Terrasse to reach $25–45 million. Unfortunately, this proved to be ambitious; the painting hammered under estimate, and only reached $29.5 million with fees.
Sotheby’s Postwar & Contemporary evening sale brought in $270.5 million with an 89% sell-through rate, which was down 25% from November’s 2018 sale ($362.6 million). Artnet reports that the top bidders of the night seemed to be hailing from Asia: Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for Asia bid on behalf of one client who spent $54.4 million, or 20% of the value of the total sale. This buyer purchased the top lot of the evening, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII(1977) for $30.1 million, as well as Clyfford Still’s PH-399(1946) for $24.3 million, well over its $18 million high estimate. But other lots did not fare as well: one high-profile work was a Francis Bacon Pope painting deaccessioned from the Brooklyn Museum, which sold for $6.6 million against an estimate of $6-8 million. And works by Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and David Hockney all passed unsold.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXII (1977)
Clyfford Still, PH-399 (1946)
The market for artists of color and women artists continue to rise, with records set and re-set for several artists this season. On the heels of a retrospective exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, Alma Thomas set a new record when her 1970 painting Fantastic Sunset sold at Christie’s for $2.7 million with fees. Also riding the success of his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art, Charles White set a new auction record, only to have it broken the next day: his painting Banner for Willie J (1976) sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million, followed by his work on paper Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), which sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s. Also at Sotheby’s, Norman Lewis’s Ritual (1962) sold for $2.8 million, trumping his previous record of $956,000; and Kerry James Marshall had another eight-figure sale when his painting Vignette 19 sold for $18.5 million, just a few million shy of his $21.1 million record for Past Times, sold to P. Diddy a few years ago.
As the .001% continues to push prices at the top of the market beyond the reach of collectors, more buyers are taking the risk to purchase art by emerging artists at auction, paying incredible amounts for some artists who are not quite “market tested.” Reviewing the day sales, rather than evening sales, is very eye-opening in this regard: Michael Armitage’s The Conservationists (2015), was estimated at $50,000–70,000 when offered at Sotheby’s contemporary day sale; the painting soared to $1.52 million, over twenty-one times its high estimate. Tschabalala Self’s Star, also from 2015, sold at Phillips for $350,000, nearly triple its high estimate of $120,000. Based on retail data, artnet speculates that Star probably only cost $10,000 when it was first offered in a gallery in 2015. Noah Davis, who died tragically in 2015 from cancer, had his first artwork offered at auction this year in May, selling for $47,500, well-past its $10,000–15,000 estimate. At Phillips this fall, his painting Single Mother with Father out of the Picture sold for $168,750, far outperforming its $40,000–60,000 estimate. Notably, all these young artists are also artists of color, yet again underscoring the craze for collecting artists that have, in previous generations, been marginalized.
With the presidential election on the horizon in 2020, the market will likely contract a little more, as it did during the 2016 election cycle. As has been the case the past few years, there will be some standout works that will tantalize the market, such as the likely forthcoming sale of the famous (or infamous) Macklowe Collection. In my honest opinion, it would not be the end of the world if the market contracted a little bit; to quote one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, “It’s not good when [my art] is the value of a house.” Even with a slight softening, the art market will likely continue to be quite healthy; that is, Richter’s work will always be the cost of a house. A very nice, very big house. In the Hamptons. With a helipad.
College art history courses tend to tell a very direct trajectory for postwar art: namely that the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe instigated the intellectual and artistic “brain drain” that left a creative vacuum in Europe, enabling America, and New York in particular, to emerge as the cultural hub. Jackson Pollock and his circle dazzled the world with Abstract Expressionism, which soon gave way to American Pop, Minimalism, and so on and so forth.
In contrast to the chauvinism and surrealism favored by postwar American artists, European artists, still surrounded by rubble and ruin, were dealing head on with the existential fallout of the war. For French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), he dispensed with the concept of beauty altogether—beauty seemed frivolous after such atrocities—and created what he called “Art Brut.” Dubuffet’s Art Brut, which translates literally to “raw art,” works highly textured materials like sand, gravel, and plaster into muddy and tar-like surfaces to make what the artist called “matterologies.” These paintings are not psychologically escapist, but rather insist on their own material presence, and, in turn, reify the viewers’ own physical presence and confrontation with reality.
This 1946 portrait of the artist’s friend, writer and critic Jean Paulhan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderfully layered image. The childlike rendition of Paulhan’s features underscores Dubuffet’s commitment to “anti-art,” but there is far more complexity to the figure’s expression: Paulhan’s wide eyes, parted mouth and open-armed gesture gives the subject at once a vulnerable—even pleading—look, as well as one of confusion. The gesture is also reminiscent of Christ or apostolic figures in religious painting.
Scroll down to see more works by this amazing modern master.
Later in his career, Dubuffet’s palette narrowed onto a predominantly blue, red, and black scheme, and his subjects were typically rendered as you see below: built from flat segments of solid and striped irregular shapes.
Let’s get one thing straight: any market that generates over $7 billion a year is doing fine. But, as has been the case the past few years, there’s mixed results reflected in the auction seasons: there are statistics we can examine in the spring 2019 sales that speak to bullish growth, enthusiasm and collector confidence; and there are other statistics that speak to a slowly waning art market. This fickle data requires collectors, advisors and appraisers to pay close attention to the nuances of each auction, and the fluctuations in each artist’s own market.
The nearly 2,000 lots offered this past May by the three major houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips) grossed just over $2 billion; the equivalent sales last May brought in more than $2.8 billion—a gloomy decline. Another ominous statistic: Sotheby’s, the only publicly traded auction house of the three major houses, reported a 2018 income of $108.6 million, down from $118.8 million in 2017. For the first quarter of 2019, the auction house declared a loss of $7.1 million—worse than its $6.5 million loss for the equivalent period last year. One can perhaps attribute Sotheby’s decline to poor business decisions or structural issues, resulting in their recent decision to sell the company back to private hands for $3.7 billion. But one wonders if this regression is reflective of the secondary market as a whole (as privately held entities, Christie’s and Phillips do not report their profits and losses).
Another interesting fact: the number of guaranteed lots declined at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s from this time last year. In his New York Times preview of the spring sales, Scott Reyburn noted that this reflects seller confidence in the market; that these sellers don’t need the guarantees, and are confident enough to take on the risk that the good ol’ fashion auction model is all about. But seen another way: could the lack of guarantees reflect hesitation on the part of third-party guarantors—including the (possibly cash-strapped) auction houses themselves?
When we start to break down the sales themselves, the statistics get more nuanced. The “less good” news first: the Impressionist and Modern market generally continues to slow. Christie’s and Sotheby’s New York Imp and Mod day sales each sold below their aggregate estimates, respectively selling only 72% of their lots. Sotheby’s New York’s Imp and Mod evening sale came in just under $350 million, with the lion’s share of the revenue coming from the highlight of the spring season: a spectacular, luminous painting from Claude Monet’s haystacks series, which sold for $110.7 million—the new record for any Impressionist work at auction.
Yet despite the record-setting Monet, and a general sell through rate of 91%, other statistics from the Sotheby’s evening sale paint a different picture: twenty-five lots (nearly half of the offerings) sold below their low estimates, and some highlight works failed to sell at all, such as William Bouguereau’s La Jeunesse de Bacchus (1884), which stalled at $18 million, below its $25 million low estimate. And while this recent Imp and Mod evening sale did top Sotheby’s equivalent sale from 2018 ($318 million), both auctions relied heavily on the income of one major masterpiece (in 2018, half of the revenue of the evening sale came from Amedeo Modigliani’s $157 million Nu couché sur le côte gauche. As any business owner (myself included) will tell you: it’s never healthy to have your income so unevenly reliant on one source.
Speaking of blue-chip masterpieces: Christie’s Imp and Mod New York evening sale reached nearly $400 million ($50 million more than Sotheby’s), thanks in large part to the esteemed collection of the late Condé Nast juggernaut S.I. Newhouse, who passed away in 2017. Five artists alone accounted for more than $100 million of the Estate’s sales, including a $40 million Van Gogh landscape, and a Cézanne still life that was famously stolen in the 1970s and recovered in 1999, when Newhouse bought it at auction for $29.5 million. In their May sale, Christie’s sold it for $59.3 million.
As has been the case for many years, the news is better for the Postwar and Contemporary sales: the total sales for the three major houses was $1.214 billion. The gross revenue for the evening sales was $981 million, up 6.6% from the same sales last May. According to Artsy, this spring’s evening sales results were the biggest week for P&C auctions since November 2017 (which was greatly skewed by the $450 million sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi), and the best spring sales result since May 2015.
Love him or hate him, the big headline-grabber of the week was Jeff Koons, whose Rabbit (1986) broke David Hockney’s recent auction record for a living artist when it sold for $91.1 million at Christie’s (Christie’s increase in buyer’s fees, introduced February 1, just tipped it past Hockney’s $90.2 million record). This work was also from the collection of S.I. Newhouse, and purchased by art dealer Robert E. Mnuchin on behalf of a client.
The art market trend–or correction–for works by women and artists of color continued: Louise Bourgeois’s massive Spider sculpture (1996-97) sold in Christie’s evening sale for $32.1 million—a world record for the artist, and a new record for a contemporary sculpture by a female artist. If artist Dana Schutz’s market felt any fallout following the controversy around her Emmett Till painting in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, it appears to have recovered, with two back-to-back auction records: her 2009 painting Signing set a record of $980,000 at Phillips, only to be shattered a few hours later at Sotheby’s when Civil Planning (2004) burst past its $400,000 high estimate to sell for $2.42 million (backed by an irrevocable bid).
Other notable sales by women and/or artists of color this spring included British artist Cecily Brown’s Confessions of a Window Cleaner, which sold for $3.62 million at Sotheby’s New York evening sale, and British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Leave a Brick Under the Maple (2015), sold for 795,000 GBP (about $1 million) at Phillips London, almost double its high estimate. The latter’s market may be benefitting from her inclusion at the Ghanaian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, as well as a forthcoming retrospective at the Tate Britain next year.
A record was also set for Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Compound Leaf, a self-portrait of the Nigerian-American on paper, which brought 471,000 GBP ($597,000) at Phillips London, well above its high estimate of 150,000 GBP ($191,000). And Tschabalala Self, the young African-American artist currently in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, set a new record when dozens of bidders competed for her 2015 collage Out of Body, ultimately selling for 371,250 GBP ($415,000).
It is remarkable that such recent works by young, trending artists are already coming up for auction, as galleries—and artists—struggle to keep up with the demand for fresh work. Some galleries have waiting lists for their hottest artists, and sellers are clearly willing to bypass galleries and put their works directly onto the secondary market, bringing prices that rival or even exceed gallery prices. Collectors are sometimes flipping their purchases after only a few a years: the seller of Odutola’s aforementioned Compound Leaf only acquired it in 2017, and a collector who bought Barkley L. Hendricks’s Yocks (1975) for $942,500 in May 2017, sold it this season for $3.74 million (against an estimate of $900–$1.2 million). This also speaks, however, to a still volatile and uncertain landscape for young artists who are not market-tested, and I urge collectors to make educated and measured decisions; we can learn lessons from artists like Jacob Kassay, whose auction market exploded rapidly between 2011–2013, and deflated just as quickly.
The other much-discussed winner of the spring sales was the street artist known as KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly). KAWS has not usually been taken seriously by critics, but his Instagram-friendly and accessible art has bypassed the usual market trajectory of artistic success (i.e. through critics and curators); Scott Nussbaum, head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips, especially credits a young, emerging class of collectors from Asia for boosting KAWS’s market. Following a whopping $14.8 million sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this spring for The KAWS Album (2005)—a parody of the Beatles’ famous Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, with characters from The Simpsons—for the first time, all three major houses simultaneously included works by KAWS in their sales (19 works total). In these recent auctions, KAWS’s pieces continuously surpassed their estimates, including 2012’s The Walk Home, a large painting featuring SpongeBob SquarePants which sold at Phillips for an impressive $6 million, 10 times its low estimate of $600,000–a ‘KAWS’ for celebration (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). We’ll see what the fall sales have in store for him and the rest of the P&C market.