A Serious Moment for Contemporary Art
By SOUREN MELIKIAN
Published: July 1, 2011
LONDON — Is the market for Contemporary art at a crossroads? For the first time in years, it seemed to be heading in a new direction this week as Christie’s opened the round of sales on Tuesday evening.
Francis Bacon’s ‘‘Study for a Portrait’’ sold for almost £18 million at Christie’s.
In a session where 53 of the 65 Contemporary works of art on offer found takers, adding up to almost £79 million, or $126 million, the six most expensive lots were decidedly figural.
Francis Bacon’s 1953 “Study for a Portrait” topped the list. At £17.96 million it exceeded by half the unprinted estimate in the region of £11 million, plus the sale charge, quoted only “on request.”
This brilliant performance comes as no surprise. Bacon has long been a blue chip in what I called a few years ago in this column “historic Contemporary,” meaning art that is actually not contemporary because the artists are no longer alive. Bacon died in 1992.
Interestingly, the study, which does not show the distortions of face and body, ranks among Bacon’s most strictly representational paintings — it may portray the art writer David Sylvester.
This appreciation of faithfully figural art probably helped to rescue the “Mao” executed by Andy Warhol in 1973.
The quasi-photographic likeness managed, albeit with some difficulty, to sell for £6.98 million, the second highest price paid that evening. Warhol, who died in 1987, has also been perceived as a blue chip for some time. But the portrait of Chairman Mao, barely transformed by the silkscreen stylization that is the hallmark of a typical Warhol, lacks the punch of the Pop artist’s images admired by his fans.
Worse, a warning flagged in the catalogue by a symbol and read aloud by the auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen before opening the proceedings was enough to dampen the enthusiasm of potential buyers.
The Warhol was the object of a “guarantee” to the consignor, contractually assured of receiving an undisclosed payment usually set at 90 percent of the low estimate, whether it sold at auction or not. A third party “financed the guarantee” and would become the buyer of the picture if it failed to sell at auction. In exchange, the third party would receive a share of the profits if the Warhol sailed above the reserve. Most ominously, he/she was entitled to participate in the bidding to whip up prices. Experienced art market hands dislike being led by the nose and tend to stay away from works offered under such conditions. Given all that, the successful sale of the Warhol was a real feat.
No such qualifications surround the third highest price in Christie’s sale. Peter Doig’s “Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)” fetched £6.2 million, triple its high estimate. This world auction record for the artist is the more astonishing because the painting is hardly the best among Doig’s works seen at auction. Rather banal, it is pedestrian in execution. The reasons for the triumphant success of the landscape with exotic-looking men rowing in a boat against a backdrop of palm-trees may well lie in the echo that the subject sends back to Gauguin’s Tahitian period oeuvre.
Works with references to 19th-century artists combined with straightforward figural execution were sought after right from the beginning at Christie’s. Lucian Freud’s portrait “Boy With Pipe,” sketched in pencil in 1943, bears a kinship to scores of 19th-century drawings from the French school. It doubled the high estimate at £253,250. The drawing of an equally realistic “Rabbit on a Chair” done in 1944 brought a staggering £1.05 million. At Sotheby’s on Oct. 18, 1990, the rabbit had cost a more modest £93,500.
Most astonishingly, Mr. Freud’s portrait of a “Woman Smiling” painted in 1958 or 1959 in a style that harks back to French realist painting in the later 19th century was received with considerable enthusiasm. It soared to £4.74 million.
Then came the sensation of the day in artistic if not financial terms. “Faena de Muleta” painted in 1990 by Miguel Barceló is one of the most remarkable Contemporary works of art seen at auction. The view of the arena at Nîmes in southern France, where bullfighting takes place, manages the contradictory feat of being both truly figural and close to abstraction. The mixed media crushed and carved on the canvas give the scene a sculptural quality and a vibrant rhythm. The attendance responded to the masterpiece by making it a world auction record for the artist at £4.74 million.
It was followed by another Mr. Barceló painting, “España Economica,” which depicts the detail of a map of Spain while bringing it to the brink of abstraction. Executed with the same flawless mastery, it matched the low estimate at £457,250. Very subtle in its off-white nuances with a touch of grayish blue, its figural subject was too elusive to stimulate bidders that evening.
No such ambiguity handicapped four bronze figures that made up a group called “Esquina Positiva” by Juan Muñoz, the Spanish artist who died in 2001 at 48. That, too, set an auction record for the artist when it went for £3.4 million.
This is not to suggest that abstract works were unsuccessful. One of Lucio Fontana’s “Concetto Spaziale” compositions, painted a golden color and punched through with eight holes, brought £2.33 million. A solid white canvas slashed with three gashes as if it had been entrusted to a psychotic patient given to uncontrolled fits of rage, knife in hand, later brought £2.05 million. Neither figural nor noticeable for their mastery in wielding the brush, the Fontanas proved that for the moment, the market turnabout is only partial. Pavlovian reflexes continue to be triggered by names repeatedly celebrated in museum displays and in the media.
The sale Wednesday at Sotheby’s conveyed a message that was further blurred. It outshone the Christie’s session with its financial score, £108.8 million realized by 79 Contemporary works, leaving nine unwanted.
Here too, figural art was represented among the top 10 lots, but it was less clearly representational. Bacon’s “Crouching Nude” of 1961, which brought the highest price as it sold for £8.32 million, is in the artist’s expressionist style that twists humans out of shape.
“Dschungel,” or Jungle, the second most expensive work at £5.75 million, is a 1967 landscape by Sigmar Polke done in the “dispersion” technique that creates a screen effect similar to that of a color plate on newsprint. Bidders loved it well enough to make it an auction record for the painter.
But the third runner in the race to top prices, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” picture painted in 1981 that climbed to a stupendous £5.41 million, is an outsized cartoon, and the fourth most expensive work, Polke’s “Stadtbild II,” (City Painting II), sold for £4.63 million, is even less forthright in its figural intention — high-rises at night are only suggested by whitish blobs and noodle-like contours.
Gerhard Richter came in the fifth position among the top 10 lots with a non-figural, geometrical composition of colored squares. “1024 Farben” (1024 Colors) painted in 1974 multiplied experts’ expectations two and a half times as it shot up to £4.29 million.
It is too soon to say that a page has finally been turned. The time when “works” of the talentless followers of Marcel Duchamp’s art of the absurd sell in the millions of dollars is not over yet. Would-be witty pieces were still seen this week, though in fewer numbers. At Christie’s, butterflies pinned on a large ace-of-hearts, painted a solid pink, made £601,250, more than the high estimate. It was “Untitled.”
At Sotheby’s another “Untitled,” with the added specification “(P137),” was signed Christopher Wool. The white panel displays black lettering in three lines that read “Cats in a Bag.” Estimated at £1.5 million to £2.5 million plus the sale charge, the Wool was allowed by the auctioneer Tobias Meyer to sell for £914,850. His considerable expertise in Contemporary art is widely acknowledged. Perhaps Mr. Meyer suspects that such cats may not stay in the bag for ever.