Works to Buy this Week at Sotheby’s: Head of Sale Harrison Tenzer on Highlights and the Market

Contemporary Art Online showcases a striking selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and objects by important artists at a variety of price points. In tandem with our continued partnership with Sotheby’s, we spoke with Head of Sale Harrison Tenzer about personal highlights and market trends.

  • Harrison Tenzer

    Harrison Tenzer

Artsy: Can you start by walking us through some of your personal highlights from the sale?

Harrison Tenzer: My favorite work is the first lot of the sale, Pat Steir’s Waterfall painting Untitled, 1995 ($20,000 – 30,000). Steir’s ability to fuse so many sources of inspiration – Pollock’s drips, Japanese ink drawing and John Cage’s ideas of spontaneity and chance – into an elegant gestural painting is striking. Steir’s market has taken off with her top auction records set this year.

  • Pat Steir, Untitled, 1995

    Pat Steir, Untitled, 1995

HT (cont.): I also love the Richard Smith Kite painting The Nugget, 1976 ($3,000 – 5,000). By the late 1960s and 70s, painting was considered conservative and stale in many critical circles, so young artists who wanted to engage with the medium found innovative ways to do so. With the Kite paintings, Smith pushed the boundaries of painting by removing wooden stretchers and tying canvas directly to metal rods. Like Steir, Smith’s market is on the rise, so at no reserve, this work is a great buy.

Lastly, I really appreciate the marriage of rigorous conceptual thinking and raw physicality in Robert Morris’s Untitled (From Blind Time Drawings IV: Drawing With Davidson), 1991 ($10,000 – 15,000), which was a gift to the incredible art critic Carter Ratcliff. I love when provenance enhances a work and speaks to the life of an artwork once it leaves the artist’s studio to find a new home.

A: What works would you consider to be classic examples of established artists’ oeuvre? How about more unusual pieces or works by newer, emerging artists that collectors should be considering?

HT: We have many classic examples of Post-War art in the sale such as an Alexander Calder brooch, and two vibrant Jean-Paul Riopelle works from the late 1950s, to name a few. We have a vibrant Victor Vasarely painting Axo-Csillag (1350 B), 1978-1992 ($50,000 – 70,000), which typifies the op art championed by the artist with its bold colors and graphic geometric patterns that stimulate the eye. The Sean Scully watercolor on paper Untitled, 2002 ($18,000 – 25,000) displays the artist’s  signature color blocking with a softer and more intimate touch.

  • Victor Vasarely, Axo-Csillag (1350 B)

    Victor Vasarely, Axo-Csillag (1350 B)

  • Sean Scully, Untitled, 2002

    Sean Scully, Untitled, 2002

HT (cont.): Aside from these works by very established artists, I like Suling Wang’s acrylic and ink on paper Untitled, 2005 ($3,000 – 5,000). Wang draws from a long history of both Eastern and Western lyrical mark making, from Abstract Expressionism and Asian Calligraphy to Manga and Disney cartoons, to create densely colored works that fuse the figurative with the abstract. Her work is currently hanging next to a Riopelle, Julian Schnabel, and Mary Heilmann in the preview exhibition and fits right in!

A: What has motivated Sotheby’s to host online-only sales in addition to their traditional live sale format?

HT: In the past decade to cater to an expanding art market, auction houses have revolutionized the way they do business by creating robust private sale channels and adding more auctions, especially mid-season sales to supplement the traditional May and November New York auctions. Some of these initiatives were seen as radical or risky at the time, but now after much success, they are as familiar to art world insiders as the established Contemporary Art auctions.

Alongside the expansion of the art market, there was the further integration of the online and the digital into our everyday lives. It goes without saying that many of us are just as comfortable buying clothes, food, household goods and entertainment online as we are in stores (and let’s face it, some of us are even finding our spouses on dating apps!). It was only a matter of time before the expanding art market and e-tail space would merge. The global online art business grew to $3.75 billion in 2016, up 15% from the year before.

With all of this in mind, it was a logical next step to allow our existing clients to bid online and to reach an even wider audience of art enthusiasts by offering some works at extremely accessible price points. For Sotheby’s the online channel consistently has some of the highest activity from new bidders, which is an exciting opportunity for us.

A: Historically the art world slows down in the summer months, but since this summer art lovers can visit the Venice Biennale and Documenta 14 do you think collectors will be more active than usual in July and August?

HT: As more people from around the world, with diverse life styles and tastes participate in the art world, adhering to traditional fixed schedules seems less important for selling works of a certain value. Collectors are always hungry for interesting work at reasonable prices and there are plenty of apps that will alert them to what is available 24/7, so as long as good work is presented and marketed well, there is not a bad time to sell. Again, there was a time when auction houses found it risky to have sales outside of the traditional May/November New York calendar. The last Contemporary Curated sale we had in September achieved over $26 million! Clearly the market can accommodate sales outside of the established schedule.

A: Finally, what are some trends you have seen within the contemporary art market this year, and how do you see them evolving as we head through the summer and into the fall season?

HT: For me, one of the most exciting trends is a renewed interest in undervalued artists who were doing extremely interesting work outside of the traditional art historical cannon. A few years ago, collectors were gambling on the markets of very young artists like Lucien Smith. Now the focus of many collectors has shifted to Post-War artists like Carmen Herrera and Sam Gilliam, who were making revolutionary work but were marginalized because of the sexism and misogyny of the mostly white male art world at the time. Exhibitions like Women of Abstract Expressionism have placed female artists that have for too long been cast to the fringes of the cannon back into the dialogue and coincide with the rise of the markets of artists like Helen Frankenthaler.

Furthermore, aside from a strong masterpiece market, our Contemporary Curated and Day sales are performing extremely well. While there is an important group of wealthy collectors that can afford to collect works that are millions of dollars, the overall health and longevity of the market is ensured by the large number of buyers that are engaging with us at lower price points. The more people who enter the art market, the more robust and interesting the market and the art world in general will become.  

Online bidding for this selection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures closes soon—register to bid here.