Friday, May 7, 2010

The Winning Card at Auction: Expressiveness

NEW YORK — If you want to find out in which direction Western culture is headed, watch the auction scene

This week, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were holding their mid-spring sales of “Impressionist and Modern art.” But of Impressionism there was no trace on the catalog covers. Christie’s ran the detail of an early painting by Edvard Munch who would later become a leading Expressionist and Sotheby’s reproduced a Matisse still life retaining a faint whiff of the master’s Fauve period. Neither work is about nuances. Expressiveness is their common denominator, and expressiveness is what buyers now run after.
A very few privileged collectors have an astonishing aptitude at anticipating future trends, sometimes by decades. Over half a century ago, a Los Angeles couple, Frances and Sidney Brody, began to buy modern art with that rare insight and did so throughout their life. On Tuesday, a section of that collection was the hard core of Christie’s sale. Desperate to secure the Brody hoard, the auction house had resorted to giving “guarantees” (the procedure commits the auction house to pay consignors a specified amount whether the works sell or not). This transforms the auction into a dealer-style transaction spiced with a gamble — any amount on top of the guarantee is shared between the consignor and the auction house.
In the event, the gamble exceeded all hopes. All 27 works billed as “property from the collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody” sold in an Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere adding up to a huge $225.17 million.
From the moment Christopher Burge, Christie’s preeminent auctioneer, ascended the podium, electricity was in the air.
Only a few years ago, the opening lot, a self-portrait by Édouard Vuillard, would not have sold easily. Utterly uncharacteristic of the Nabi artist’s manner, it is painted in violently contrasted colors. The small picture on board laid on panel, offers a startling anticipation of Fauvism a decade later. The estimate, $1.2 to $1.8 million, plus the sale charge, would have killed it until recently. This week, ecstatic bidders sent the self-portrait flying to $2.65 million.
Immediately after, Georges Braque’s “La Treille” was greeted with equally unexpected enthusiasm on a considerably larger scale. Painted around 1953-1954, the picture is a throwback to the artist’s pre-World War I days, when Braque, remembering Fauvism, indulged in clearly defined contours and strong colors. Until recently, the picture would have been deemed too late for its style. At best, it might have matched the $3-million lower end of the estimate. This week, bidders responding to the expressiveness of the beautiful picture set a world auction record for Braque at $10.16 million.
That search for expressiveness is the fundamental reason accounting for the extraordinary rise of the one-day cartoon-like portraits that Picasso, full of contempt for the bourgeois establishment, dashed off in a derisive mood. In 1932, the Paris school master developed a very specific style characterized by broad curving outlines and a resurgence of the Fauve colors of the early 1900s. He spiced it with discreet touches of Surrealism.
Mrs. Sidney Brody’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” painted on March 8, 1932 is the ultimate in Picasso’s 1932 style. A livid white plaster head on a pedestal ambiguously leering out of the corner of its eye gives the composition extra eeriness. Around 1936, when the legendary New York dealer Paul Rosenberg acquired it from Picasso, such pictures were seen as prankish creations, which made them virtually unsalable. “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” stayed with the dealer for 15 years until the Brodys bought it on Jan. 2, 1951, no doubt for well under $100,000. This year, Christie’s put on the Picasso a $70 million to $90 million estimate, plus the sale charge, presumably in order to persuade the consignor to part with the picture. The managers then felt it prudent to fend off a potentially catastrophic loss by getting a third party to shoulder the entire burden of the guarantee. They need not have worried. Their experts excel at singing the merits of their goods to potential buyers. It says everything about the culture of our time that such a picture should now be the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. The Picasso brought $106.5 million at the end of an eight-minute-long contest in which four contenders were still taking part in the fray by the time bidding rose above $87 million.
In breaking the magic $100-million barrier, Christie’s made art market history.
An equally significant cultural landmark attracted less attention. The search for expressiveness extended to three-dimensional modern art, propelling some works to previously unimaginable levels. Here, it was Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculpture that proved irresistible with its lanky, linear, rugged figures mostly patinated in blackish colors.

Was it the less common green and brown patination or the rare animal subject that sent a mangy-looking cat into the stratosphere? At $20.8 million, the animal, cast in an edition of eight, somehow exceeded, if only very slightly, an estimate that had seemed absurdly ambitious.
Yet this pales by comparison with the performance of one of Giacometti’s bronze busts in which those who knew Diego Giacometti can recognize the features of Alberto’s brother with his bushy eyebrows and perennial turtleneck sweater underneath the distortion.
Like the $106.5-million Picasso, “Grande tête mince” (Big Thin Head), as catalogs call the model, had induced Christie’s bosses, presumably scared by their bold $25- to $35-million estimate, to negotiate a full third-party guarantee. Again, this proved unnecessary. At $53.28 million, the commercial ascent of “Grande tête mince” was every bit as astounding, and culturally significant, as the record-breaking Picasso. Add Giacometti’s bronze arm (“La Main”), cast in 1948 and sold for $25.84, nearly 50 percent above the high estimate, and there can be little doubt that expressiveness, no matter how simplistic, has become the winning card at auction.
On Wednesday night, Sotheby’s sale confirmed that expressive art, with strong outlines easily recognized and an impact that does not require sustained attention, fascinates present-day bidders. But it added an important footnote to the message.
As at Christie’s, paintings, drawings or sculpture with a punch effective from ten yards away often shot high above the upper end of the estimate. A magnificent charcoal portrait of a woman by Matisse, “Souty (Premier État)” that leaped off the wall at the viewing multiplied the high estimate more than three times as it climbed to $2.32 million. Two lots down, Isamu Noguchi’s “Undine (Nadja),” a Manneristic bronze cast in 1927 in a style that could have been that of French sculptors working in the 1880s, but striking enough with its flowing movement as if the woman were swirling on her toes, drove bidders nuts. “Undine” brought $4.22 million, more than four times the high estimate. Modigliani’s portrait of his companion “Jeanne Hébuterne With a Necklace,” which displayed the artist’s typical distortion of the human body, went up to $13.8 million.
The great success story of the session was a beautiful “Bouquet of Flowers for the 14th of July,” painted by Matisse in 1919. It nearly matched the upper end of the stiff estimate as it sold for $28.4 million. Although no longer truly Fauve, the contrasting colors, and broadly painted composition, make the picture easily legible from the other end of the room.
Abstraction, if carried by the same strong contrasting colors and clear-cut motifs, did just as well when the quality of the works warranted high prices. Kandinsky’s “Deepened Impulse,” with its floating intersecting colored discs, sold for $5.68 million, matching a rather generous middle estimate. One of Salvador Dalí’s best early Surrealist works, an imaginary landscape of 1935, also sold for that price. Utterly different, it too hit the eye across the room.
Interestingly, the sale included two outstanding Impressionist paintings which performed better than expected. Camille Pissarro’s splendid close-up view of “The Garden of Octave Mirbeau at Damps (Eure)” realized $2.65 million, topping the high estimate by more than a third, and Claude Monet’s summertime landscape (titled “Effet de Printemps à Giverny” despite the haystacks visible in the distance) climbed to $15.2 million.
The success of the two Impressionist masterpieces is a reminder that bidders at auction come from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. The dominant trend of our time is undoubtedly to turn away from nuances. These require an ability to contemplate, incompatible with the short attention span of the age. But just as there are still readers capable of being tempted by literature, so do some find bliss in the subtle harmonies of coloristic shades and light effects.

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