Sotheby’s Reports Astounding $1.25 billion Results For Contemporary Art

Sotheby’s, the international auction house have reported their third most successful year ever for global auctions and a new record for Contemporary Art (2012), which totalled $1.25 billion and saw a new record set for the work of any living artist. The company is now preparing for its February Evening Auction of Contemporary Art. The sale, which will take place at Sotheby’s New Bond Street premises in London on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013, features a select offering of outstanding masterworks by leading Post-War and Contemporary artists, including Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko and Lucio Fontana, among others. The Evening Auction comprises 56 lots and is estimated to realise in excess of £63 million.

Reflecting on the market for Contemporary Art and commenting on the forthcoming Auction, Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s Chairman of Contemporary Art Europe, said: “The marketplace and demand for contemporary art has never been stronger or more international – of the top 20 prices achieved by Sotheby’s last year, more than half were post-war and contemporary masterworks. Last year we witnessed intense competition for gold-standard achievements by classic artists who produced works with commanding presence – whether abstract or figural. With Richter setting the record for a work by any living artist, the re-valuation of artworks from the 1980s and 1990s has enabled us to source some extremely strong works from private collections. We’ve tailored our first sale of 2013 in this category with these trends and this reassessment in mind, and assembled a classical auction led by powerful masterworks of extraordinary ‘Wall Power’ by blue-chip artists such as Bacon, Richter and Basquiat.”

Headlining this season’s Contemporary Art Auction is Three Studies for a Self-Portrait by Francis Bacon (1909–1992), which comes to market from a distinguished European collector. Self-portraiture has played a role of unparalleled importance in the work of Francis Bacon. This oil on canvas triptych, was executed in the artist’s eighth decade at the age of 71 and belongs to a corpus of 11 triptych self-portraits in Bacon’s standard 14 by 12 inch format. Painted in 1980, nine years following the suicide of Bacon’s closest companion George Dyer, these three portraits collectively embody among the most elegiac in this intimate and somewhat commemorative triptych format. The work counts among the ten executed following Dyer’s death, the profound trauma of which precipitated searing self-analyses by Bacon executed across the remaining years of his life. Bacon was an artist for whom the reality of life itself was the subject and nowhere is this more forcefully evident than in the haunting opus of Self-Portraiture. Three Studies for a Self-Portrait significantly preserves the penultimate depiction of Bacon’s likeness in this unflinching, intimate and crucial triptych format. Bacon had learned the nuances of re-invention and self-presentation from a young age, spending hours scrutinising and tracing the particularities of his own appearance in the mirror and such a reading of the mirror image is extraordinarily present in the almost 1 to 1 scale of this work. This work will be included in the forthcoming Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné, being prepared by The Estate of Francis Bacon and edited by Martin Harrison. Startlingly powerful in execution and psychological effect, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait truly counts as a masterpiece of Bacon’s intimately scaled triptychs and is estimated at £10-15 million.

Following the recent record set by Sotheby’s London for the work of any living artist with the sale of an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter in October last year, Sotheby’s will offer for sale another magnificent work by the artist, Abstraktes Bild (769-1). The painting is one of the most vivid, superlative and optically commanding works from Richter’s astounding opus of abstraction. Comprising a graphically powerful schema of vertical stripes layered over strident sweeps and fractious linear markings, this work belongs to the cycle of abstracts executed in 1992 in which Richter implemented the squeegee with sweeping pressure. First exhibited in Rome the very same year of its execution in 1992, alongside a concise selection of Richter’s finest work from that year, Abstraktes Bild (769-1) announces the climactic achievement in Gerhard Richter’s spectacular inquiry into the realm of abstract painting – an inquiry initiated in the late 1970s and perfected surrounding the very moment of this work’s creation. The complexity and unparalleled brilliance of Richter’s abstractions of 1992 coincided with a period of personal turbulence for the artist. The jubilant and explosive mood prevalent in Richter’s earlier abstractions, between 1982 and 1983, was linked with the artist’s euphoric mood during the early years of his relationship with fellow artist Isa Genzken. Surrounding their second separation and final split in 1993, the works produced are bestowed with an increasingly complex painterly construction. The exquisite painting is estimated at £7.5-9.5 million.

 From a distinguished private collection, Gerhard Richter’s oil on canvas Wolke (Cloud), dated 1976 and numbered 413 on the reverse, is a sublime example of the artist’s output of photorealist works. A leading paradigm of Richter’s masterful brushwork, with its formal and imposing beauty, the painting rivals the National Gallery of Canada’s Cloud Triptych (1970), a work that recently formed a centrepiece in the touring Panorama retrospective. Dislocated from terra firma, Richter’s fair weather fragment of sky radiating sunlit hues filtered through soft ephemeral forms is undeniably indebted to a long and familiar legacy of art historical heritage, and is evocative of the Romantic and sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, the famous cloud paintings by John Constable, and the atmospheric light effects of Turner. Richter’s Cloud paintings, in which he depicts nature’s most abstract form in a photo realist manner, straddle the divide in his oeuvre between the abstract and figurative modes of painting. The present work stands among the most beautiful and stunning of Richter’s career and is estimated at £7-9 million.

Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) (est. £7-9 million) is one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s most immediate, arresting and accomplished works. Though executed between 1982 and 1983 when the artist was only 22 years old, it signals the very apex of Basquiat’s powers of artistic expression. Born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents and brought up in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat drew from his manifold ancestral background and racial identity to forge a body of work acutely conscious of his contribution to an almost exclusively white Western art history. In this present work, the overlapping themes of black hero worship, anatomy, graffiti, art history and death coalesce to form a cohesive composition rich in cultural commentary and autobiographical narrative. The words Pecho (Chest) and Oreja (Ear) directly allude to Basquiat’s fascination with anatomy which was sparked by a gift given to him by his mother following a childhood accident. As Spanish was also his mother’s native Puerto Rican language, this leads to an intimately personal reading of the work. Previously, Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) was owned by the band U2 who acquired the work in 1989, keeping it in their recording studio where it remained until 2008 when it was sold by Sotheby’s London.

Continuing Sotheby’s strength in the field of Italian Post-War and Contemporary Art, the auction also features a strong section of works by leading Italian artists, including Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Alberto Burri and Alighiero Boetti. Headlining this section of the sale is Lucio Fontana’s waterpaint on canvas Concetto Spaziale, Attesa, which the artist executed in 1965 (est. £2.2-2.8 million). With its pure white ground surface articulated with a precisely and masterfully incised single cut, and belonging to only ten works created in this grand scale (46½ by 35⅝ inches), the present work counts among the most iconic of the artist’s Concetto Spaziale, Attesa – Fontana’s most revered and instantly recognised body of work. The first tagli dates to the autumn of 1958 and by 1960 Fontana had executed tagli works in an expansive variety of experimental colours. With the tagli, Fontana took great lengths to maintain an immaculately equal paint surface, concentrating all trace of his hand upon the slash. Employing a paint brush and not a roller, this required great craftsmanship and demanded the progressive layering of horizontal and vertical strokes to eradicate inconsistencies and realise a true depth of opacity. This painting exquisitely and forcefully comprises the purest and most absolute essence of Fontana’s art, and as such boasts an impressive exhibition history, starting with Fontana’s show at the Walker Art Center, Mineapolis, in 1966-7, and concluding with his exhibition at Palazzo delle Esposizioni, in Rome, in 1998.

Magnificent in scope and scale (70 by 40 inches), Mark Rothko’s oil on paper laid down on canvas Untitled from 1969 is one of the most powerful and visually arresting examples of the artist’s extraordinary late works on paper. Impressive in height and monochromatic depth, Untitled represents the work of an artist at the absolute apogee of his creative powers, and is one of the largest works of its kind that the artist painted and the first to appear at auction in almost 20 years. A true masterpiece among Rothko’s late oeuvre, it has remained in the same private Swiss collection for the past 20 years. Rothko considered black to be a crucial member of the chromatic spectrum as opposed to representing an ‘absence’ of colour, a belief expressed with extraordinary care in Untitled – three exquisitely subtle gradations of the hue segue into each other, resulting in a delicate horizontal division. From the summer of 1968 until his death in February 1970, the majority of Rothko’s production was on paper, a medium that he favoured over canvas at that time. Rothko believed that an impressive scale encouraged a greater sense of connection with a painting and with these works sought to break away from the traditional notion that paper was only suited to small-scale work. It is estimated at £2.5-3.8 million.

The auction will also feature a group of works from an extraordinary Private Swedish Collection of Modern and Contemporary artworks. Assembled by a private Swedish individual from the 1960s onwards, the collection comprises stellar names from the 20th-century art firmament, including Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Henri Laurens, Tom Wesselmann, Alexander Calder, Josef Albers and Natalia Goncharova, among others. The 37 lots will be presented within a series of London sales in February, March and June 2013, including the Contemporary Art Evening Auction and the Surrealist Art Evening Sale (5th February, 2013). Combined, the collection is estimated to bring in excess of £4.5 million.

Among the works from this collection to be offered in the Contemporary Art Evening Sale is Tom Wesselmann’s oil and mixed media collage on board, Great American Nude No. 5. Created in 1961, the work is one of the earliest examples from Wesselmann’s eponymous series, and was soon after exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1962. Pictured against the Star Spangled Banner with its accompanying window onto ideal surburban America, Wesselmann’s blonde bombshell is a bold vision that unreservedly defines the language of Pop Art. At the time when Great American Nude No. 5 was bought from Sotheby’s in 1973 it set a record for the artist at auction, and it now comes to the market for the first time in 40 years with an estimate of £500,000-700,000. The collection also includes an exquisite selection of works by Alexander Calder that span three decades of the artist’s production. Calder was immensely popular in Sweden during the 1960s and 1970s, which is when these works were acquired, reflecting a growing European awareness of the international importance of the American artist. Highlights of this group include The Red Base, dated 1969 (est. £500,000-700,000); Red Skeleton, a painted metal stabile (est. £150,000-200,000); and Red, Yellow and White and Untitled (each estimated at £150,000-200,000), dated 1945, 1950 and 1954 respectively.


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