Mark Bradford, Helter Skelter I, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips / Phillips.com.
Last May, the artist Mark Bradford represented the United States at the Venice Biennale with a show-stopping suite of work installed in a ripped-up pavilion. In November, his show opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; and at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December, Hauser & Wirth sold a Bradford out of its booth for $5 million—one of the biggest sticker shocks of the fair’s first day. A show in Hauser’s Los Angeles space, which opened this month, sold out within a few days. The going prices for the ten paintings, between $2.5 million and $5 million, place in the uppermost bracket for any work put on the primary market for the first time.
Those institutional and market stepping stones paved the way to the present moment, when one of his paintings hits the block at Phillips’s London salesroom on March 8th for his biggest sale ever. At forty feet long, Helter Skelter I (2007) is also the one of the largest Bradfords to ever exchange hands—and with an estimate of £6 million to £8 million ($8.3 million to $11.1 million) it will be the priciest.
The sale has been guaranteed by a third party and will nearly double the artist’s previous auction record of $5.8 million. It will take just a few more bids above the guarantee price to make Mark Bradford one of the most expensive living American artists, alongside Brice Marden and Frank Stella, and make him the most expensive living artist of color.
“I think that he is the most important living abstract painter—the fact that that painting is likely to break the $10 million mark is a consequence of his extraordinary significance as a painter,” said Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who helped put together the exhibition in Venice.
In the decade since it was made, Helter Skelter I has wound through private collections and public museums, passing through the hands of a collector who runs a $3 billion forklift company and a racket-smashing tennis superstar. It’s a work grand enough to merit the way collectors have pursued it, and it’s an integral part of Bradford’s whole practice—one coveted piece that can sum up and explain his entire ascent.
“This is among one of his most significant paintings, and so does it deserve this degree of attention? As one of the most important paintings by today’s most important abstract painter?” Bedford asked.
He paused, considered his own query, and then said, dryly, “Probably.”
Helter Skelter I was started in 2007 in Inglewood, the Los Angeles neighborhood where Bradford’s studio was located at the time. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York hosted a small but breakthrough show in 2007 and subsequently purchased the twenty-foot-long Bread and Circuses (2007). Soon after his Whitney show, New York’s New Museum asked Bradford to make a work for its brand-new, month-old building on the Bowery to appear in “Collage: The Unmonumental Picture.” He took full advantage of the expanded exhibition space and began the monumental task of putting together a pair of works, Helter Skelter I and Helter Skelter II, that, when installed next to each other, would stretch across the side of the building. The work was striking: a blitzkrieg assemblage of stuff, a collage intimate up close and monstrous to take in fully, a spindly web studded with text snippets—“CANDY,” “KING,” “BEST”—with skeleton heads peeking out from beneath the fog.
“Bradford’s behemoth collages, stretching across another 70-foot wall, with their silver paint over torn-up advertising posters lacerated by networks of fluid, incised lines, are as tough as the street and just as resistant to simple answers or unearned beauty,” wrote Thomas Micchelli in the Brooklyn Rail, adding that the works “can be considered not merely the finest in the show but quite possibly the best contemporary art on view anywhere in New York.”
Bedford said the work marks a key progression in Bradford’s practice, where he was applying the process of adding objects from his outside world to his production in his studio world, but on a much larger scale.
“You can deep dive into the surface of this canvas, you see the application of the silver, you see a lot of caulking, you see the use of string embedded in the surface, there is colored paper, there’s printed paper, there’s custom printed paper, there’s found objects,” Bedford said.
Bedford was working as a curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts, a museum in Columbus, Ohio, putting together the artist’s first survey, when he first encountered Helter Skelter I. From 2010 until 2012, the survey would travel to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Although Helter Skelter I wasn’t included in all the show’s various touring iterations, Bedford chose to write about it in the catalogue, as it was already a talisman for Bradford.
“Mark will talk about this in a semi-mystical way—he feels that he has X-number of truly significant paintings in his body,” Bedford said. “I believe Helter Skelter I belongs in that lineage of paintings.”
It wasn’t in Bedford’s show because it found a new home shortly after its debut. Chelsea gallery Sikkema Jenkins Co., who represented Bradford until 2013, had mounted a show of new work by him in 2008. When the New Museum show closed, partners Brent Sikkema and Michael Jenkins made a deal to sell Helter Skelter I to a collector interested in the gigantic canvas. (Jenkins said in an email he was “not interested in discussing Mark Bradford work.”)
The Phillips catalogue lists the first owner as “Private collection, Ohio,” and three people familiar with the works have said the private collector in Ohio is James F. Dicke II, the CEO of the New Bremen-based forklift company Crown Equipment, which is worth close to $3 billion, according to Forbes. Dicke is a painter himself, and a major donor to Republican politicians. In 2016, as a GOP delegate, he cast a vote at his party’s national convention, and after the election voiced his support for Donald Trump.
Mark Bradford, Helter Skelter I, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips / Phillips.com.
Dicke is also a major supporter of the Dayton Art Institute. A representative from Crown Equipment who confirmed that the work was in the Dicke Collection beginning in 2008 said that Jim Dicke loaned it to the Dayton Art Institute in June 2008, and that it remained on view until May 2010. In 2011, the museum hosted the exhibition “Creating the New Century: Contemporary Work from the Dicke Collection” and Helter Skelter I appears in a photo in the catalogue, and a contemporaneous story in the Dayton City Paper mentions seeing it installed in the Dayton Art Institute’s rotunda room. A curator at the Dayton Art Institute also confirmed that Helter Skelter I was for a time in the Dicke collection.
Jim Dicke held onto the work for about five years. In 2013, the art advisor Josh Baer was sniffing around for a Bradford and heard from another private dealer that Helter Skelter I was very quietly back on the market. Thrilled, Baer passed the word along to one of his biggest clients, the retired tennis champion and commentator John McEnroe, who was nearly as famous for his on-court tantrums as he was for his serve and volley.
McEnroe has been collecting art since the 1980s, and in 1994, the retired champ even went so far as to open his own gallery in Soho, having learned the ropes from friends such as Larry Gagosian. After making the gallery appointment-only, he continued to build his collection and became interested in purchasing a Bradford after getting a recommendation from Ann Philbin, who was then the director of the Drawing Center, and now runs the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Speaking with Baer in an interview published in the Phillips catalogue, McEnroe said, “When you said you can get me one, but it’s going to be the mother of all Bradfords, I was like OK. When we did go and see Helter Skelter I, I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, here we go again.’”
It was a prolonged extraction process—McEnroe makes passing reference to “all the effort of getting Helter Skelter I ” in the interview—but he was finally able to purchase the massive work and transport it, rolled up, to his pied-à-terre in Soho, the entire second floor of 41 Greene Street. After a few years of living with it, in early 2017 he started planning to redecorate his loft, which would mean parting ways with the gigantic work.
The timing, a Phillips official said, was excellent. With the Venice Biennale coming up, Bradford was about to become a household name. And with the artist’s newfound fame, McEnroe thought that it could benefit from a public offering at auction.
“John has this history with very large scale works that he has to own for a limited period of time—he enjoys them, absorbs them and then moves on,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, deputy chairman, Americas, at Phillips. “And, the timing was good.”
Engelen said he began talking with McEnroe in the fall of 2017, and eventually came by the Soho pad to see it. Until then, he had only read about the work and seen photos of it. “I remember coming through the door in his loft and thinking, Oh my God, this is incredible,” Engelen said.
Consignment negotiations ensued, but stalled because there was no third-party guarantee—the irrevocable bid from someone outside of the auction house that reassures the seller she or he will receive a minimum guaranteed price. Eventually, the house was able to rope in someone to put up the money to match the minimum price.
When asked about the third-party guarantor, Engelen said that development was “very, very helpful” in convincing McEnroe to part with the work—and to do so specifically at Phillips, not at its higher-profile rivals, Christie’s and Sotheby’s—but also that the pedigree of the guarantor was much to everyone’s liking.
“The third party knew the painting, knew of the rep of the painting—he had seen it in the New Museum show and was very excited, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” Engelen said. “It made it easier that the third party did see the work initially.”
When asked on the phone why he advised McEnroe to go with Phillips, Baer said, “This is an opportunity for Phillips to demonstrate that they can sell this masterwork, and build their brand.”
“It’s an achievement to make a new auction record for an artist,” added Baer, who also runs the well-read art industry newsletter, The Baer Faxt. “They know what's at stake and I think they’ll get it done.”
Phillips declined to comment on the identity of the guarantor, beyond denying it was one collector whose name had been thrown around by several sources. But being guarantor does not necessarily mean going home with the prize pony. People all over the world seem to want to buy Mark Bradfords. Hauser & Wirth is set to open its first gallery in Asia during Art Basel in Hong Kong next month, and the first show will once again be a stack of new work by Mark Bradford.
Marc Payot, who is partner and vice president at Hauser & Wirth, admitted that Bradford’s high-profile auction appearances—coupled with the shows in Venice and at the Hirshhorn—do affect the way in which the gallery prices the work, but maintained that “the leading factors influencing price and demand are the quality and impact of the art itself.”
“Mark’s work is outstanding—it’s uniquely radical and resonant—and this has become clearer and clearer with his numerous institutional shows over the past couple years,” Payot added in an emailed statement.
Engelen acknowledged Bradford’s market has been fanned by the number of shows around the world, and believed there were plenty of potential bidders ready to outbid the guarantor.
“We’ve been approached by several people who want to come in and take a look at the painting,” he said.
And Bedford, as the director of a major city’s biggest art museum, was less concerned with the identity of the buyer than with the buyer’s intentions—that is, whether or not they would be willing to purchase the work and then gift it to an institution.
“There are certain works, in their scale and ambition and effect, that are pretty unique in their communicative capabilities across those thresholds,” he said. “I think Helter Skelter I is one of them—it would be a remarkable thing if that painting would be committed to a public collection as a promised gift.”