Prolific Printmakers: Phillips Specialists on Works to Buy this Week at Auction

In tandem with our continued partnership with Phillips, we spoke with Specialist Ross Thomas and Auctioneer and Cataloguer Rebecca Tooby-Desmond about personal highlights, the thrill of wielding the gavel, and how Phillips is elevating and emphasizing this accessible category.

Ross Thomas, Specialist

Artsy: Can you give an overview of what a collector should be evaluating when looking to buy a print?

Ross Thomas: At Phillips we are primarily concerned with condition, rarity, and provenance when curating our Editions sales, and this focus cannot be underplayed for collectors looking to acquire works. Our aim is to source and present museum-quality editions and we are incredibly discerning with everything we offer.  

With this in mind, we are particularly proud to be offering Roy Lichtenstein’s Expressionist Woodcut Series (Black State), which is coming to us from a private collection and is completely fresh to the market as a complete set – it is in absolutely pristine condition.  

For me it is a privilege to be able to offer works which are exceptional in their provenance, rarity, and condition, but also hopefully something collectors have never seen before.

A: This sale features a fantastic selection of Andy Warhol portraits – can you speak to this particular focus within his work?

RT: Portraiture, celebrity, and the fabrication of icons have always been a central part of Warhol’s oeuvre. From his earliest portraits of Jackie Kennedy, Liz Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe to his later representations of Vladimir Lenin and Ludwig Beethoven, he has appropriated, manipulated, and toyed with images of famous faces to create his own Warholian tapestry of cultural history.  

In my mind there is no better evidence of this than in Warhol’s striking quartet of portraits of Beethoven executed in the last year of his life. Punctuated with alternate bold colors and overlaid with the score of his most famous creation The Moonlight Sonata, these portraits are a world away from the restricted drama and colouration of Joseph Karl Steiler’s original painting; this is Warhol’s celebrity, Warhol’s Beethoven.

RT (cont.): It’s particularly exciting for us to be offering this group as it’s been nearly a decade since a full set has come to the market. The colors retain their pristine vibrancy and freshness and this set comes to us from a private collection where they have been for the last thirty years having been purchased directly from the publisher in the late 1980s.

A personal highlight is an intriguing and unique experimental portrait of Jackie Kennedy which pre-dates his iconic series of paintings the following year. Delving into television, press, and newspaper imagery surrounding the death of JFK in Dallas, Warhol became obsessed with the media representation of Jackie. Using a press photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration on Air Force One soon after Kennedy’s assassination, this tightly cropped portrait devoid of compositional distractions leaves the viewer in no doubt who is the central attraction. For Warhol at least, Jackie Kennedy was symbolic of the emotional outpouring of an entire nation and this important work gives us a window into the working practice which underpinned the formation of what are considered to be some of his most important portraits.

A: David Hockney is also prominently featured in this sale with works dating from the 1960s-70s through to this decade. In addition to his recent exhibition at the Tate, why do you think this artist is so desirable right now?

RT: For me it is his insistent desire to push the boundaries of his work. He is consistently engaged in using new technologies to elevate the way we view and interact with art. Whether it was his use of the humble fax machine and office printer to send and receive ‘works’ across the globe in the ’80s, to creating landscapes and portraits on an iPad, Hockney never shies away from the artistic possibilities of new technology. I think that’s what allows his work to remain so current and accessible whilst compositionally still retaining key elements rooted in traditional painting.

This season we have tried to group together works which really evidence his incredible breadth as an artist. We have included some of his earliest examples of printmaking created while he was still at the Royal College to some of the most recent experimentations with iPads.

A: This sale offers some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art, at particularly accessible price points for new collectors. How would you recommend navigating this extensive selection?

RT: Phillips Editions is unique in our approach to the presentation of twentieth century printmaking.  We are the only house to offer editions in the context of Evening and Day sales, allowing us to showcase and elevate the standout works in the Evening portion while offering a tightly managed selection with the Day Sale for collectors perhaps making their first foray into the art market.  

In the exhibition space we try to encourage dialogue between works by hanging pieces which engage with one another over above simple connections like artist or date.  Our aim is to inspire individuals to rethink their own collections and perhaps even broaden their buying habits which might traditionally focus on a single artist or medium.

A: What makes artists so invested in editioned works?

RT: For many artists printmaking provides an alternate outlet for creativity which can either stand alone in its own right or form part of a wider investigation.  

Picasso, for example, was one of the most prolific printmakers of the twentieth century primarily because he loved to experiment and was always looking for new ways to create and expose images.  The first lot in the Evening sale is a stunning linocut from 1962 created while he was based in the hills above Cannes in the South of France. Infused with the warmth, light, and color of the Mediterranean the work is one of 200 linocuts produced between 1955 and 1965. Isolated from his master printers in Paris who specialized in etching and lithography, Picasso turned to Linocutting because of the ease of its immediate nature.

Our aim is to elevate and emphasize the wonderfully eccentric and experimental nature of printmaking and elevate it as a collecting category in its own right which, in essence, is how many artists viewed it.

Rebecca Tooby-Desmond, Cataloguer & Auctioneer

A: Tell us about the series of Richard Hamilton depictions of actress Patricia Knight. What was the artist’s relationship with her, and what are your favorite nuances between the variations?

RTD: Hamilton didn’t have a relationship with the actress herself, but he had a prolonged creative dialogue with a fantastically dramatic film still of Knight starring in the 1948 couple-on-the-run noir film Shockproof. She stands, with her perfectly coiffed blonde hair and her ‘new look’ coat, staring defiantly past the viewer with the body of a man she has just shot on the floor at her feet.

Hamilton appropriated this image for a series of collages and paintings in the 1960s but was still fascinated by the film still nearly twenty years later, and so revisited the image of Knight in 1982, creating the group of etchings in our Evening sale.

The set of three etchings reveal Hamilton’s obsession with the tactility of etching. He creates sumptuous, velvety black aquatints to go alongside jagged tendrils of scraping with elegantly economical burnished highlights. For me, the excitement comes from Hamilton using the full arsenal of intaglio techniques to develop the subtle disquiet of Patricia I into the full-blown cinematic chiaroscuro of Patricia III.

A: This sale also offers a variety of edition objects, from Picasso ceramics to Kusama pumpkins, in addition to works on paper. What opportunity do these pieces present for collectors?

RTD: It is important to us at Phillips that we have always presented Editions as opposed to simply Prints. Over the last decade we have shaped and defined this category through the inclusion of not only prints both traditional and experimental, but also multiples, found objects, ephemera, ceramics, and video art. We don’t want to limit the possibilities of Edition making or to encourage a narrow perspective of collecting. The works we offer are enhanced through the dialogue between different modes of representation, and we offer clients the opportunity to richen their collections by expanding their expectations of what an Edition can be.

A: Can you describe the feeling of being at the rostrum during an auction? And will you be auctioneering for part of the Day or Evening sessions on June 7th?

RTD: Both terrifying and thrilling in equal measures! There are always nerves before ascending the rostrum - beyond the difficulty of actually auctioneering there is the added pressure of having all eyes on you, from the clients in the room to the countless bidders online. Auctioneering is part mathematics, part sports commentating and very much a performance, so of course part of thrill has to come from enjoying the spotlight. But there is also the enjoyment of settling into the rhythm of a sale, driving the cadence and energy of each lot, and the satisfaction of cajoling just one more bid. I will be auctioneering part of our Day Sale, around one hundred lots, which is over an hour and half on the rostrum. But I can guarantee that the rush of adrenaline will make it feel like twenty minutes!

A: Is it satisfying in a different way to research and catalogue these works and then be at the helm as they sell to new collectors?

RTD: I’m very lucky that I get to experience the full life cycle of a consigned work, from the initial research and valuation, to the cataloguing of a work on arrival, the hanging in the gallery, right through to bringing the gavel down at auction. The selling of a lot can last only a minute, and our pre-sale exhibitions run only for a week, so it can sometimes feel like the artworks come and go in the blink of an eye. Being able to thoroughly handle, catalogue and inspect every single work that arrives through our doors allows me the luxury of time with each work. Once I’ve really gotten to know these pieces, it is incredibly satisfying to look the buyer in the eye (albeit sometimes through a camera!) and hand over a work to its new owner.

A: Are there one or two works you are particularly excited about in this sale? Is there any piece with an intriguing provenance or history you would like to elaborate on?

RTD: Like Ross, I am also particularly excited about Roy Lichtenstein Expressionist Woodcut Series. In January 2016 we were fortunate to have an example from the color edition of 50 of these works, which in itself is rare as a complete set. To now have the even rarer Black State version from the edition of only 8, a complete set of which has never been sold at auction before, is an absolute treat. The series was conceived after Lichtenstein met German Expressionist collector, Robert Rifkind, who delighted in showing the artist his collection of woodcuts by Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, among others. The works inspired Lichtenstein to dramatically depart from his usual style, heavily dominated by the use of commercial Benday dots, to instead focus on stark diagonal lines and oversized woodgrain motifs to reference the woodcuts that inspired him.

Ironically though, Lichtenstein used a hard Baltic birch to create the woodcuts, which is a very smooth wood and does not create much grain in the ink. By then using a woodgrain motif to draw exaggerated attention to the source material Lichtenstein almost parodies the technique used by the German Expressionists. He liked to fight against the wood, trying to make a woodcut, without getting a woodcut quality. The resulting images are controlled and elegant in comparison to the unbridled awkwardness of the Expressionist woodcuts, but they still manage to convey a vibrant energy that perhaps comes from Lichtenstein’s enthusiasm at experimenting with a new technique.  

The series occupies a unique place within Lichtenstein’s oeuvre, which makes it so incredibly special and exciting to be able to offer them at auction for the first time.  

Explore Phillips: Evening & Day Editions on Artsy, and place max bids on more than 250 artworks. Live bidding opens Wednesday, June 7th, at 2:00pm GMT (9:00am ET).

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