Art Market

Abstract Expressionist Titans Drive Sales at Sotheby’s Contemporary Auction

Alina Cohen
Nov 15, 2019 6:17AM

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXII, 1977. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art on Thursday was marked by protracted bidding wars for major artworks by Charles White, Kerry James Marshall, Norman Lewis, Clyfford Still, and Agnes Martin. It capped a week of major evening sales in New York, unfolding amid talk of a more cautious market than in recent seasons, with a shortage of masterpiece lots.

Nevertheless, Sotheby’s sale began with a bang, as the opening lot, White’s Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), hammered at $1.45 million, or $1.8 million with fees, setting a new auction record for the late Los Angeles artist. Auctioneer Oliver Barker introduced the second lot, Kerry James Marshall’s Small Pin-Up (Lens Flare) (2013), as a work by White’s pupil—White taught Marshall at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. This canny lot ordering contributed, perhaps, to an equally impressive result: Marshall’s work hammered at $4.6 million, or $5.5 million with fees, well over its high estimate of $3.5 million. New auction records for U.S. painters Wayne Thiebaud, Norman Lewis, Brice Marden, and German painter Günther Förg followed.

Top lots

Clyfford Still, PH-399, 1946. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Mark Rothko, Blue Over Red, 1953. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII (1977), the evening’s biggest lot, sold to the same bidder as its third-biggest lot—a buyer calling in from Asia. The de Kooning passed its low estimate of $25 million to sell for a hammer price of $26.2 million, or $30.1 million with fees.
  • Mark Rothko’s Blue Over Red (1953), which had the same pre-sale estimate as the de Kooning—$25 million to $35 million—fell short of its low estimate, selling for a hammer price of $23 million, or $26.4 million with fees.
  • Clyfford Still’s PH-399 (1946) marked a rare auction outing for the Abstract Expressionist; he notoriously refused to sell his paintings and retained tight control of his oeuvre throughout his life. Over the course of a 15-minute bidding war, PH-399 passed its high estimate of $18 million to sell for a hammer price of $21.1 million, or $24.3 million with fees. Referencing these sales, David Galperin, head of evening sales at Sotheby’s New York, remarked on the night’s “amazing” results for the “titans” of Abstract Expressionism.

Brice Marden, Number Two, 1983–84. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Canvases by two cool-headed American painters whose markets took off in the 1980s also achieved stellar results on Thursday. Marden’s brightly striped Number Two (1983–84) hammered at $9.6 million, or $10.9 million with fees, edging out his previous record by just $3,600. Two lots by Christopher Wool were on offer. A spray painting did better than an aggressive, text-filled canvas that read “AND IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE.” The former, Untitled (1995), hammered at $8.9 million after a long contest between a phone bidder and a shaggy-haired brunette man who reluctantly ceded the work around $8.8 million. With fees, the price came to $10.4 million—good enough to be the sale’s sixth-biggest lot.

On the eve of his 99th birthday, Thiebaud achieved an auction record with his luscious 2011 canvas, Encased Cakes (in celebration of the work, the auction house created a faux cake display case at the entrance to the sale room). The painting sold for a hammer price of $7.2 million, or $8.4 million with fees, handily beating his previous auction record of $6.3 million.

The second-to-last lot of the night, Förg’s Ohne Titel (2007), enlivened an antsy crowd as phone bidders competed from around the world. The brushy, abstract canvas notched an even hammer price of $1 million, or $1.2 million with fees, beating his previous record of $815,000. Earlier this year, Hauser & Wirth mounted its first presentation of the German artist’s work after adding his estate to its roster in 2018: The high-profile gallery support, as well as tonight’s result, signal growing interest in Förg’s market.

After Wednesday night’s record for Ed Ruscha at Christie’s, the two works by the L.A. artist up for sale at Sotheby’s failed to produce equally newsworthy results. Broken Glass (1968) beat its high estimate of $1.5 million, hammering at $1.6 million, or $1.9 million with fees. More unsettling was Ruscha’s 1974 egg yolk on moiré (textured fabric) work She Gets Angry At Him—from the collection of designer Marc Jacobs—which failed to find a buyer the first time around, when it was offered as the sale’s third lot. Undeterred, Barker later announced he’d be reoffering it after the final lot. The second time, in a much emptier salesroom, the work hammered for $1.4 million, still well short of its $2-million low estimate. The long-term effects of Ruscha’s record-setting Christie’s result remain to be seen; for now, it looks more like an outlier than the new normal.

While David Hockney’s Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool (1964) wound up as the evening’s 9th highest lot, notching a hammer price of $6.1 million ($7.2 million with fees), the audience took a pass at the artist’s other offering, Yves-Marie in the Rain (1973). Not all Hockneys are easy sales, and a glistening pool is far more appealing than bad weather—especially as temperatures dropped below freezing this week in New York. Winter is coming.


David Hockney, Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool, 1964. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

During the post-sale press conference, Barker noted he was glad to see that “business was as usual” as the auction house adjusts to new leadership under its new owner Patrick Drahi and new CEO Charles F. Stewart. Of the sale’s 51 lots, one was withdrawn and four failed to sell, making for a sell-through rate of 92 percent by lot. Among the lots that sold, only 10 went for hammer prices below their low estimates. The sale brought in a total of $270.6 million, well short of the equivalent sale a year ago, which totaled $313.9 million, or this past spring’s post-war and contemporary art sale in New York, which totaled $341.8 million. It also lagged well behind arch rival Christie’s total of $325.2 million the night before.

The week’s auctions in New York wrap up with the contemporary art day sale at Sotheby’s on Friday morning.

Alina Cohen