While more modest in scope than the Christie’s sale on Tuesday, the Sotheby’s session was a triumph — the 57 lots that sold added up to £50.68 million, or about $80 million. Its makeup revealed a more marked interest than ever in the figural aspects of contemporary art. Interestingly enough, this was not at the expense of abstractionism, as the performance of Gerhard Richter’s work amply demonstrated.
The first big score greeted the appearance of Mr. Richter’s monumental “Abstract Picture,” with columns of red streaks vibrating across a ground varying from silvery to gray. The canvas, 200 by 140 centimeters, or 783/4 by 55 inches, sold for £4.07 million, within the estimate.
A few minutes later, a figural view of floating icebergs titled “Ice” made £4.3 million. Painted in 1981, it is half the size of the red “Abstract Picture,” which makes the price of “Ice” decidedly more impressive.
Add that a third Richter dated 1989, “Child,” which is strictly abstract despite its title, made £3 million. It is exceptionally beautiful, with its suggestion of water running down a panel and carrying away the debris of a destroyed world. Occasionally, beauty can matter in contemporary art.
If doubts could be entertained at that point about the comeback of the figural aspects of contemporary art, these were dispelled by the competition that broke out over two landscapes by the 91-year-old Zao Wou-Ki. The Chinese painter of the Paris school had a very long spell as an abstractionist. Eventually he returned to landscape painting, largely as a way of asserting his Chinese roots. The fact that he signed a landscape dated Jan. 10, 1991, both in Chinese ideograms and in the Romanized form of his name appears to confirm that.
Bidders raved over the untitled painting, which precisely doubled its high estimate at £1.6 million.
In a second landscape dated Dec. 28, 1999, the Western legacy absorbed by Mr. Zao vividly comes out. It reflects memories of Turner and of the English watercolorists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These are definitely more blatant than the connection with a 1668 scroll by Wu Li illustrated by Sotheby’s in the catalog entry. The masterpiece rose to £1.83 million.
Parodies of figuration also aroused interest. An outsized cartoon done in 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat in his usual manner inspired by the graffiti of street artists brought an extremely generous £4 million.
Moments later, the gentler fun poked at the establishment by Roy Lichtenstein was well received. “Nude in Apartment” of 1995, which harks back to the pop artist’s style of his youth, roughly matched the highest expectations pinned on it at £937,250. The price is vast for a work in acrylic on paper collage, printed paper collage and board, which are fragile media that rule out permanent exposure to light.
A striking expression of the new yearning for figuration was the zest with which the five drawings by Lucian Freud were chased. Their style is not merely conservative. It revives the manner of masters active in the mid-19th century. This is as true of the “Head of Success II,” sold for £253,250, as it is of the sketch of Lord Goodman done for the front cover of the London Review of Books of July 18, 1985. The charcoal would not be a surprise from a realist artist of the 1860s. Vivid competition sent it climbing to an astonishing £735,650.
Figuration in its expressionist guise, which goes straight back to the German avant-garde school of the early 20th century, was as sought after at Sotheby’s as it had been at Christie’s on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was not Frank Auerbach, but his contemporary Leon Kossoff, born in 1926, who excited bidders. “Christchurch No. 1, August 1991,” a large oil on panel, ascended to £601,250.
Paintings that are at the opposite end of the contemporary aesthetic spectrum also managed to find takers. “Mercuric Thiocyanate,” a panel of color dots painted at regular intervals by Damien Hirst looks like a color chart for a corner shop selling household paint. It is indeed painted in household gloss. Pulling through on a single bid, it sold at the reserve, below the low estimate, for £577,250, still an extravagant price.
Bridget Riley’s colored stripes painted in 1984 and titled “Tabriz” somehow inspired greater enthusiasm and went well above the high estimate, at £457,250.
Such scores cannot obscure the fact that a large number of figural works in a wide range of styles elicited more interest than the nonfigural works, excepting the marvelous abstract compositions of Mr. Richter.
The Sotheby’s sale might signal the beginnings of far-reaching changes in the multi-faceted world of contemporary art. We will keep you posted.