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Rob Perrée: Basquiat for more than 20 million

Basquiat for more than 20 million

The New York Times

June 28, 2013
Contemporary Art, Media and Notoriety

LONDON — Even minor auctions can herald small changes in a shrinking market.

The sales of contemporary art held here this week at Christie’s and Sotheby’s were surprisingly thin. Perhaps consignors feared that in these times of recession buyers might not fully respond to art that is not always obvious. After all, who can guarantee that a sponge dipped in blue paint will forever be recognized as a work of art?

One of those actually got that accolade Tuesday at Christie’s, where 51 lots sold for £70 million, about $106 million, but, annoyingly, 13 others were left stranded. You never can tell.

Luckily, one picture accounted for almost a quarter of the proceeds. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting “Untitled,” done in 1982 when the young American was 21, is executed in the cartoon manner that remained his trademark until his death six years later. The rough lines and the color spread in random fits of child-like enthusiasm simulate street graffiti. The outsized picture set a world auction record for the artist at £18.76 million.

The next three top prices for paintings greeted works that all differed hugely from each other.

A landscape painted with considerable skill by Peter Doig brought £7.34 million. Dated 1994, “Jetty” is filled with an atmosphere of mystery, at once lyrical and threatening. A small shadowy figure stands on a jetty gazing at a boat in the distance against a backdrop of dark olive shot through with white streaks suggestive of a snowy mountainside.

Touches of color applied with the tip of the brush create a scintillating pointillist effect that contrasts with the hazy dark tree shapes in the foreground. The landscape, which reconnects with the traditional painter’s art in an innovative style, is far removed from Basquiat’s picture.

So is the next one down on the price scale, Nicolas de Staël’s “Marseille,” which sold for £3.08 million. The supposed view of the French Mediterranean harbor painted in 1954 is effectively an abstract work in which the vague memory of structures defies identification. The violent color contrast in red and blue sends back an echo to a letter written by the Russian-born artist: “One never paints what one sees or thinks one sees; rather one records the shock one has received.”

The third highest price for a picture at Christie’s, £2.8 million, says all about the enduring fascination for the 1960s, when Pop Art broke out on the New York scene. Roy Lichtenstein’s “Cup of Coffee” dates from 1961. The linear monochrome image that recalls some posters of the period is a far cry from the strongly colored style inspired by comic strips that defines Pop Art. This makes the price quite extraordinary. It apparently greeted the name as much as the picture.

If doubts lingered on that score, the £2.7 million paid for the sponge dipped in blue paint by Yves Klein would dispel them. “SE 181,” as Klein called the sponge stuck on a metal stem also painted blue, is signed and dated 1961, a year before the French artist’s death at age 34. Some might believe that there is a limit to the time you can spend gazing in admiration at a blue sponge. But Klein has been celebrated for several decades and his name looks good in an inventory.

In short, notoriety defined by the media, whose role in the making of contemporary art prices has steadily increased over the past 50 years, is the common denominator among the paintings that performed well at Christie’s. That criterion is equally relevant to three-dimensional art.

A world record auction was thus established for Eduardo Chillida when an eight-meter-high chunk of steel executed in 2001 sold for £4.09 million. The 26-foot rectangle that broadens at the top, like some anvil wrought for a world of giants, was called by the Spanish artist, “Buscando La Luz IV” (Looking for the Light IV). The cryptic title goads viewers into marveling about the exact meaning of the 17-ton piece, which can certainly not be ignored. And therein lies the deeper reason for the gigantic price. Call it the “shock and awe” effect that is a fundamental factor in the success of contemporary art.

That same criterion worked at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening, where the auction of contemporary art was just as disparate. Of the 68 works offered, 53 found takers, realizing £75.8 million.

Topping the lot was Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne,” which was dated 1966 and made £11.28 million. It was not quite the roaring success expected by its owner, as may be gathered from the £10 million to £15 million estimate plus a sale charge in excess of 12 percent. Even so, the price paid for a triptych of three small portraits was phenomenal. The consignor who bought the Bacon at Christie’s in 2004 for £2.35 million can hardly feel sorry for himself. A glance at the three faces that seem to be melting away in Bacon’s best nightmarish manner is enough to reveal that the triptych is not the easiest work to sell.

The second highest price, £10.44 million, also greeted a Bacon, “Head III” painted in 1949. The arresting bespectacled face has a ghoulish expression as it peers through vertical streaks of gray and white that resemble rainwater brushed by wind across a dingy glass pane.

A Lucio Fontana of a rare type fetched the third top price at Sotheby’s. “Concetto Spaziale, le Chiese di Venezia,” which went for £4.45 million, is a square composition in which two yellow crescent moons are confronted in a nondescript space painted a deep purple. Holes have been irregularly cut through the entire surface. Never mind that the title does not make the meaning of it all any clearer. It is big and it catches the eye from far away. That rescued the Fontana, sold under the lower end of the estimate.

Two lots down, it was the turn of a 1959 abstract painting by Pierre Soulages to fetch a large price, £4.33 million. Enormous strokes of blue color are piled on top of each other. Violence is conveyed by the thrust of the brushwork. At Sotheby’s viewing, the picture had a compelling presence that struck me as dwarfing whatever happened to be nearby.

In the same vein, the fury conveyed by the slashes cut through another Fontana canvas, this one painted white, helped “Concetto Spaziale, Attese” from 1965 to match the reserve price — at a steep £4.33 million. The consignor earned the right to some self-congratulation — in 1997, the Fontana cost him or her £155,500, also at Sotheby’s London.

Unfortunately for contemporary art consignors, the impact of a visual shock cannot be guaranteed to last forever. Buyers in search of security have a weak spot for artists no longer alive. They instinctively feel their art has been consecrated by the passage of time.

Hailed for decades in the media, artists as far apart as Bacon, de Staël or Lichtenstein are perceived as equally entrenched in the cultural history of the recent past. The works do not matter so much for what they are as for what has been written about them.

Yet the state of the market this week suggested that those holding contemporary art and postwar works by artists now dead fear that even that is no longer an iron-clad guarantee of future success.

The New York November auctions will tell us whether the consignors’ reticence this week was a mere passing fit of bad feeling. Should it persist, it could adversely affect market values.