10 Artists Who Had Breakout Moments in a Challenging Spring Auction Season
As the tumult of this spring draws to an end and we look toward a likely even more tumultuous summer, the auction houses have accepted the reality of hosting what would normally be their blockbuster May auctions online and in late June and July. And with Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s suffering a 40 percent drop in revenue in the first quarter of the year, there’s all the more pressure to produce big results in the coming months. But even during the historic downturn caused by widespread confinement, art sold in droves, especially works at lower price points and by younger or more off-the-radar artists.
“Our spring online sales have been the testament to the resilience of the art market, and the current strength of the very contemporary segment specifically,” said Tamila Kerimova, specialist and head of day sales at Phillips, which notched its highest total ever for an online-only sale last week. “The success of these sales proves that people are comfortable buying art online, which is definitely a positive in today’s new world.”
While the upcoming evening sales will likely be dominated by household names like Francis Bacon, Joan Mitchell, and Roy Lichtenstein, the most compelling storylines at the online-only sales of the last several months were driven by less ubiquitous figures. Below, we look at some of the artists who made a splash during the spring sales and seem destined to continue sparking conversations as more of the art world reopens.
Mequitta Ahuja’s self-portrait Rhyme Sequence: Jingle Jangle (2012) utilizes the traditional Indian method of textile printing blocks to create the canvas, using bright, rich paints of blue, brown, and gold to suggest royalty. The piece was estimated to sell at a Christie’s online sale in February for somewhere between £6,000 and £8,000 (or between about $7,500 and $10,000), but in the end went for 10 times that low estimate, bringing in £60,000 (about $77,000), setting a new auction record for her work.
Ahuja, who is of African American and South Asian descent, commented on her use of self-portraiture in a 2018 interview with Nailed magazine: “I see her as myself but also as an emblem, a female archetype—empowered, skillful and abundantly imaginative.” Her imaginative approach seems to be resonating with collectors; last month, another of her large-scale, color-saturated paintings appeared at Christie’s, in a sale of works from the collection of Charles Saatchi, more than doubling its low estimate to sell for £25,000 (about $30,900).
Two lots by Iranian-born American artist Tala Madani exceeded their estimates in recent months: (i) Orange Burn (ii) Burning Hair (iii) Pull Over (iv) Pink Cake (2006–07), sold together, went for £35,000 (around $45,300) over a low estimate of £20,000 (about $25,000) at Christie’s in London back in February; and at Phillips’s online contemporary art day sale in mid-May, her work Imprint Version II (2010) sold for more than triple its low estimate, for £9,375 (around $11,000).
The set of four canvases that sold at Christie’s feature some of Madani’s recurring absurdist depictions of bald white men, often used to satirize Western culture. In these works, the men smash pies on one another’s back, hold flames to what appears to be the final clinging hairs in a ponytail, and burn their chest hair on birthday candles. The latter canvas, Orange Burn (2006), had previously sold at Phillips back in 2013 for £7,500 (about $11,500).
A rejuvenated market for photorealistic painter Richard Estes may be nigh, as Sotheby’s sold his piece Broadway and 64th (1984) last month for a whopping $860,000—more than twice its high estimate of $400,000. The painting, which depicts New York’s Lincoln Center, was last seen at Christie’s in New York in 1999, where it sold for $354,500 to a private collection. In the 21 years since, it more than doubled in value. The online auction at Sotheby’s was lively for this work, with more than two dozen bids placed on the sun-splashed cityscape.
Estes, who is now 88 years old, has works in the collections of many of New York’s greatest art institutions, such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Whitney Museum. Last year, his work appeared at auction 62 times, more than in any other year in the past decade, and his secondary market is on a similar trajectory for 2020, suggesting that collector demand may be catching up with institutional support.
All three of the top auction houses offered works by Eddie Martinez during their online spring sales, and across the board, all of his works sold at least above their low estimates and often exceeded them by multiples. Perhaps most remarkably, even before the art world went into lockdown, at Christie’s post-war and contemporary art day sale in London this February, his piece Owl with Still Life (2010) obliterated its high estimate of £60,000 (about $77,800) and raked in a final price of £200,000 (around $259,300).
The striking results extend to the lower end of his market, too: In an online Sotheby’s sale in late April, a work on paper from 2016 nearly tripled its low estimate of £8,000 (about $9,965) to sell for £23,750 (about $29,600). Martinez’s bold, expressionist painting style evolved from his early life doing graffiti in New York City, where he still resides today. Back in November, Christie’s set a new record for his work when the painting High Flying Bird (2014) sold for HK$15.7 million (US$2 million), more than 12 times its high estimate.
Another artist whose work appeared at all three of the top auction houses this spring was the Irish painter Genieve Figgis. At a Phillips online sale of editions, her print The Swing After Fragonard (2014)—a satirical rendition of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s famed Rococo canvas The Swing (1767)—sold for nearly eight times its high estimate, bringing in a total of $8,125.
Meanwhile, at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, three acrylic works on canvas sold for five- and six-figure prices: Gentleman with a Stick (2014) for $52,500, House (Brown) 2014) for $60,000, and 17th Century Family (2018) for a whopping £125,000 (about $162,000). Despite steadily outpacing specialists’ estimates, those results fell well shy of Figgis’s top five auction results, all of which date from the past eight months—suggesting feverish demand.
Matthew Wong, a Canadian artist who died in 2019 at age 35, was renowned for painting rich, stirring landscapes often rendered in sumptuous blues. His first work to appear at auction, however, was an orange-and-yellow still life, which sold at Sotheby’s online day sale of contemporary art for $62,500—more than four times its high estimate of $15,000. The untitled work from 2018 depicts a wistful tabletop scene, unsettled by one moment of subtle action as a candle is blown out, its smoke whirling faintly into a bright orange canvas.
Max Moore, Sotheby’s co-head of day auctions of contemporary art in New York, said there were eight different bidders competing for this work by Wong. “This was really fantastic to see,” he said. “Those are the trends we see of high participation with emerging artists.”
Emily Mae Smith, Study After Empathetic Machine, 2019. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
At Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Emily Mae Smith’s Study After Empathetic Machine (2019) pulverized its low estimate of HK$60,000 (about US$7,700), bringing in HK$150,000 (US$19,300). The small but mighty painting is jam-packed with energy, featuring a silver tuning fork at its center, its vibrations emanating outwards. The resounding result was Smith’s second-highest auction price to date.
Moore said of Smith’s work more broadly, “They’re beautiful to live with. I’ve been into many collectors’ homes where Emily Mae Smith actually becomes the centerpiece of a room and it really holds itself quite beautifully.”
The stage has been set for Chinese artist Liu Ye to yield a sizable chunk of change at the upcoming evening sale of contemporary art at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on July 9th. A large-scale work by the 56-year-old artist, Leave Me in the Dark (2009), is one of the night’s top lots, slated to sell for a figure between HK$25 million and HK$35 million (around US$3.2 million to US$4.5 million). That impressive projection is still well short of the artist’s auction record, set last October when the monumental canvas Smoke (2001–02) more than doubled its low estimate at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong to sell for HK$52.1 million (about US$6.6 million). His market received a shot in the arm when mega-gallery David Zwirner started representing him in March 2019—nearly twice as many of his works came to auction in 2019 (61) as had in 2018 (31).
Already, in recent online sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and China Guardian, six of Liu’s works featuring his signature characters and homages to Piet Mondrian have sold well above their estimates. In one Sotheby’s online sale on April 15th, for instance, the lithograph A Composition for Mondrian (2001) sold for HK$118,750 (about US$15,300), or nearly six times its low estimate of HK$20,000 (about US$2,600); another Liu lithograph, Crying Over Mondrian (2000), went for HK$237,500 (about $30,600), nearly 12 times its low estimate.
Nicole Schloss, Sotheby’s vice president and co-head of day sales, said collectors of Liu’s work have become far more international of late. “We typically see a lot of paintings by Liu Ye come up in our Hong Kong sale, and more and more there’s increasing Western participation,” she said. “He’s one of those artists whose formative period happened at a time when there were immense government oppressions on individual expression, and it’s an interesting parallel to things that are happening now in Hong Kong and China.”
At Sotheby’s online sale of contemporary art in Hong Kong on June 1st, almost half of the bidders were collectors below the age of 40, and 30 percent of buyers were new entirely to Sotheby’s. The sale featured many works by artists with the type of bright, popping aesthetic or street art edge known to attract this new pool of young collectors, such as Yayoi Kusama and KAWS, and a new voice in this group emerged by way of 26-year-old English artist Sam Cox, a.k.a. Mr. Doodle.
His works accounted for just over half (16) of the 31 lots featured in the sale, and most of them outperformed their low estimates by factors of 10 or more. Take, for instance, Blue Kitty (2019), a print with diamond dust featuring a plethora of Keith Haring–esque cartoon figures punctuated with Hello Kitty characters. It garnered 54 bids and sold for HK$175,000 (about US$22,500), or 35 times its low estimate of HK$5,000 (US$645). Given online bidders’ seemingly insatiable appetites for his work, expect to see more of Mr. Doodle in the coming months.
Djordje Ozbolt, a 53-year-old Serbian artist living in London, told Interview magazine back in 2015 about his work: “There is humor because we live in a world where there’s so many surreal, ridiculous, superficial things going on. I had to be sarcastic.” His highly political and darkly satirical works jeer at religious iconography, war crimes, and class conflicts, eventually leading him to represent Serbia at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
At an online Phillips sale in April, his piece Ay Caramba… (2011) went for a cool $40,000, ahead of its $7,000 to $10,000 estimate. The piece lampoons traditional European portraiture of the ruling class through the use of garish colors and a deadpan expression. Though the same painting failed to sell back in October, this time around someone clearly connected with Ozbolt’s irreverent humor—the painting set a new auction record for his work.