Mark Rothko, No. 10, 1958
Lot 35B in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 13th
Estimate: in the region of $45 million
It’s no shock to see a stellar Rothko hit the auction block. Still fresh in the art world’s collective mind is the jaw-dropping, record $86.9 million that the Ab Ex master’s 1961 Orange, Red, Yellow brought at Christie’s New York in 2012. Numerous other Rothko works have fetched multimillion-dollar sums. His No. 10, however, is a different kind of powerful stunner. Simmering with dark-yet-radiant, otherworldly heat, the painting represented a major shift from the juicy, vibrant hues for which Rothko had become known. He painted it around the same time he’d been commissioned to create a series of murals for the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson-designed Four Seasons restaurant in New York—a project Rothko embraced as a chance to move toward a more somber palette, says Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “But then he realized he didn’t want his paintings hanging in a restaurant.” (The murals now occupy their own room at the Tate Modern in London.) While beautifully brooding, the work still glows with rosy intensity. “It’s almost impossible to describe the color,” says Gorvy. “There are so many different layers of paint.”
Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Resting, 1994
Lot 31B in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 13th
Estimate: $30–50 million
This painting graces the cover of Freud’s main monograph and is clearly an impressive achievement in flesh, a subject the late painter mastered like few other artists have. Freud painted the same sitter, his friend Sue Tilly, a.k.a. Big Sue, four times over the course of three years starting in 1993. (Roman Abramovich bought another of Freud’s paintings of her for $33.6 million from Christie’s in 2008.) The sheer heft of the nude’s bulbous, sagging flesh might be more jarring if it weren’t so sculptural and painterly and the light so luminous. Freud explained that he never tried to shock or even create an exact replica of a person, but rather he aimed to capture something about a model’s emotional presence. “He wanted his sitters to find a comfortable positions so they could really relax and show themselves,” says Gorvy. In this case, with her head thrown back, Tilly could simply be resting, or she could be luxuriating in ecstasy. That ambiguity makes it all the more fascinating. Freud clearly ranks with the best of the Old Masters, and yet, as Gorvy says, “he’s one of the most contemporary of painters.”
Christopher Wool, Untitled, 1990
Lot 60B in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 13th
Estimate: $15–20 million
For all the clarity of its lettering, this work is powerfully ambiguous. “Who is the ‘hypocrite’? The collector? The viewer? The artist? All of them?” asks Gorvy. “It’s really a classic work by Wool, and so provocative.” Wool created the work at a crucial moment, early in his career, as part of his “Black Book” series, which was first conceived as an artist’s book. Finding a conceptual approach to painting in the late ’80s, an era where the medium was considered to be dying, Wool put words to work to represent different characters. Many examples from the series are in museums, and they don’t come up at auction all that often.
Jasper Johns, Target, 1960
Lot 4B in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 13th
Estimate: $2–3 million
This piece has a fantastic pedigree, hailing from the estate of Nina Castelli Sundell, by descent from her mother, Ileana Sonnabend, an early champion of Johns’s work in Europe. Sundell’s father, Leo Castelli, is of course credited with catapulting Johns to stardom. But the work would have major collectability even if it didn’t have such a sparkling provenance. Johns painted 25 targets between 1955 and 1961, so to leave one blank for the buyer to fill in (and co-sign) is a witty, conceptual take on the exaggerated heroism of the Abstract Expressionists, and a crack at his own celebrity. “It’s a truly iconic example from the collection that made Johns,” says Sara Friedlander, Christie’s vice president and head of the evening sale, who points out that Johns also did an editioned version of the work, “truly making the Do It Yourself Target a post-Duchampian Pop icon,” she says. “Basically every museum has one from the edition.”
Mark Bradford, Ghost Money, 2007
Lot 74B in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 13th
Estimate: $1.5–2 million
“This is a great example from an important period in Bradford’s career, and he didn’t make all that many of these,” says Wendy Goldsmith of London’s Goldsmith Art Advisory. “The energy and intensity of his process of building up and working the surface and gouging and tearing is palpable.” This sprawling mixed-media collage is like an urban bird’s-eye view, a map, and a representation of a place all in one. Bradford famously uses detritus of the city streets as collage materials, and in this case he embedded bits of flyers advertising empty financial promises—hence the title Ghost Money. He created the work a year after he won the coveted Bucksbaum Award at the Whitney, and two years before landing a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
On Kawara, SEPT. 13, 2001, 2001
Lot 12A in “Looking Forward to the Past,” May 11th
Estimate: $600,000–$1 million
Works by Kawara don’t show up on the block all that frequently, so to have two fantastic ones is a rare treat. (There’s a stunning, unusually red one, titled JAN. 12, 1978, in the first part of the day sale on May 12th.) The long-awaited Kawara retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which just closed, is an obviously powerful tie-in. This lot is particularly noteworthy because of its somber date: September 13, 2001. For Kawara, the ritualistic aspect of making carefully hand-painted works every day for so many years was an essential part of his artistic practice. If he didn’t finish one by the end of the day, he’d trash it—so each work is intimately linked to the moment it represents. This date is special in that it summons the indescribable shock of the days immediately following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but also because, as indelibly printed in our memories those horrific moments are, the date inevitably works as a symbol. Like all of Kawara’s work, it points to the unyielding march of time. With each of his date paintings, the artist included a storage box lined with newspaper clippings from the day. In this case, the paper shows the devastation in lower Manhattan.
Ruth Asawa, Untitled, S. 080 (Hanging Five-Lobed Continuous Form Within a Form), ca. 1950
Lot 521 in Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale Session II, May 14th
“This is a stunning woven sculpture by a California fiber artist who no one paid attention to for so long,” says Wendy Cromwell, a New York-based advisor and president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors. “Her market is a good value compared to Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and others of her generation.” Asawa’s work comes out of a practice—fiber art—that was long lumped in with craft but is now understood, in the context of so much contemporary use of alternative materials, as a serious endeavor. What’s particularly striking about Asawa’s work is that it’s actually crocheted metal wire, and the associations run from line drawings to chain-link fencing—invoking her stay as a teenager in a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas during World War II.
Frank Stella, Point of Pines, 1960
Lot 434 in Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale Session II, May 14th
“Dreamy” is how Friedlander describes this gem of a work by Stella. “And with his highly anticipated survey opening at the Whitney this fall,” she adds, “I’m sure it will do very well.” Stella, who helped establish Minimalism in New York in the early 1960s, made this work the year he had his first show at Leo Castelli Gallery. It hails from the Sonnabend/Castelli Sundell collection and is inscribed “For Ileana Frank Stella ’60 ‘Point of Pines’” on the back. While the work clearly recalls Stella’s iconic series of black and aluminum paintings, with their repeating monochrome bands, this piece is in fact a small collage of metal foil applied to Masonite, and it has a wonderfully handmade quality that’s perfectly in line with his early Minimalism.
Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2005
Lot 140 in Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale Session I, May 12th
We don’t often see pieces this colorful by Guyton. He made the work by designing an image on a computer and then printing it with a large-format Epson inkjet printer on materials not meant to be fed into the machine—a process for which the artist is now celebrated. The imagery includes Guyton’s iconic grids and U’s, which are both abstractions and symbols, typed in a font called Blair ITC. The work also has the irresistible aberrations Guyton embraces, which are the result of running a large swath of fabric through a printer. While those kinds of marks often represent the artist’s “hand,” humanizing a medium that might otherwise be too perfect, in Guyton’s case, says art advisor Goldsmith, “they show the satisfying results of pushing our available technology past its limits.”
Cheyney Thompson, Chronochrome II, 2009
Lot 127 in Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale Session I, May 12th
https://www.artsy.net/christies-spring-auctions-2015It’s unusual to find multiple paintings by Thompson in the same sale, or on the block at all. The brainiac New York artist has a knack for mixing institutional critiques—particularly the fabrication, distribution, and consumption of art—with elaborate processes. His grid-like abstract “Chronochrome” paintings are magnifications of the texture of canvas, applied via a complex color system created by the early 20th-century painter Albert H. Munsell. “He’s really smart about the process of making art and working in this post-internet way, and he hasn’t had a big blowup even though he’s just as critically important as some others of his generation,” says Cromwell.