Auction houses are pretty easy to dislike. They are trading floors for the supremely wealthy, they play fast and loose with the careers of young artists, and they distort the public’s perceptions of art history by only selling a small number of names—the most bankable ones, which are disproportionately male and white.
About 80 percent of the year, I want to shake my finger at them, but let’s face it: they’re easy scapegoats. They didn’t invent the speculative market, they’re just playing it like so many others, and if collectors couldn’t go to them to flip their art, they would find another place to do so.
But then there are those weeks when the auction houses are previewing sales, and we, the art-loving public, get to see, free of charge, the works that will be bought and sold—including some things that have not been seen for decades, and some things that we may never see again in our lifetimes. They offer a chance to test our taste in a big sea of work, revisit art we have seen before, and just maybe even come across some unusual gems, a peculiar drawing or little painting amidst the eight-figure monsters.
The only problem is that these previews typically last only a few days (let’s not even get into the auction houses’ abysmal hanging techniques). This week, houses are showing works from their postwar and contemporary sales, and time is running out to catch them. My advice: call in sick, or sneak out of the office for an afternoon. Below, 29 works—big-ticket and small—that I was pretty thrilled to see, organized by house. (Click each one for more information.)
1. Martin Kippenberger, Untitled, 1988
How great is it that 8-foot-tall self-portraits of overweight Martin Kippenberger in underwear have become collector trophies? Love it. (And love that this one is especially gross.) For the especially juicy lots, the houses pull out the big marketing guns, so make sure to look for the special pamphlet that Christie’s has made for its sale, which includes a number of photos of Kippenberger posing in white underwear for a calendar.
2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills, 1977–80
A collector is selling off 21 of Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” and while grouping together an incomplete set of works (there are 69 in total in the series) as one lot strikes me as a pretty annoying idea, it’s hard to beat the pleasure of seeing so many of them together. A lot of the classics are here, along with a few lesser-known ones.
4. Willem de Kooning, Untitled III, 1978
Lots of late de Kooning in these sales, but this one is my favorite. I tend to think the mid-’80s, super-smooth, white-blue-red numbers are the best, but this messy one is pure magic—electric limes and blueberries lacing a dirty white-gray tangle.
5. William N. Copley, 1776 and All That, 1975
Collector, artist, and man of leisure William Copley is easily one of the most underrated painters of the 20th century. Each of his paintings seems to contain a whole new world—rich with some admixture of sex, liquor, and Americana. And American museums almost never show him. Here we go.
6. Bob Thompson, The Sorcerer, 1964
Speaking of underrated, there are a few nice Thompsons in the sales, but none spookier or funnier than this guy. Is that a bat, a ghost, or a mountain in the background? I would like to hang this in my living room and think about it for a few decades.
7. Charles Ray, All My Clothes, 1973
A total classic—conceptual art pushed into deadpan goofy territory by the younger generation: Charles Ray showing us all of his clothes in a row of photographs. (Not exactly a prolific guy, Charles Ray, so it’s especially nice to see this.)
8. Keltie Ferris, ¡I!, 2011
Fire. I would take this over about 99.99 percent of all other abstraction being made by artists under the age of 40 today.
9. John Armleder, Painting With Coat Hangar, 1984
A pretty irresistibly funny idea from the irrepressible Swiss.
10. Mark Lombardi, International Systems and Control, Houston, 1972–77 (2nd Version)
11. Martin Wong, Courtroom Shocker, 1983
I love the late Martin Wong, and we see his work way too rarely. His scenes of life on the Lower East Side in the 1980s are the best (joyous, dark, charmed), but these sign-language paintings with his trademark brick are pretty handsome too. (As if you need another reason to swoon: Danh Vo is a fan.)
12. Milton Avery, The Orange Shirt, 1950
This is actually going to be in the American art sale, not the contemporary one, but it was on view during one visit to Christie’s. Total banger. Why there are not more young artists ripping off Avery, I do not know.
13. Marisol, Mi Mamá y Yo, 1968
I mean, look at that sculpture.
14. Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1960
Every major museum seems to have only one prime early 1960s Bontecou, so any time another pops up in public from a private collection, you need to drop what you’re doing and have a look.
15. Robert Morris, Vetti V, 1983
This is the most vaginal Robert Morris felt piece that I have ever seen.
16. Bob Thompson, Le Poignarder (The Stab), 1959
Such a weird Thompson—feels a little bit like we’ve zoomed in on, or been tossed into, one of his more wide-angled Poussin-inspired canvases. Sign me up.
17. Leon Golub, White Squad X, 1986
Golub made some of the most honest, horrifying paintings of the 20th century.
18. Louise Lawler, Tremaine Leger at Auction, 1988/93
Viewing (to say nothing of buying) a Louise Lawler at an auction house feels more than a little perverse, but this is such a nice one. It’s from her landmark series of photos of the legendary Tremaine Collection, and features an adorable little Cubist pet.
20. Mickalene Thomas, Don’t Forget About Me (Keri), 2009
You better have a very good excuse for selling a five-year-old Mickalene Thomas at auction, because she just keeps getting better and better, and this one is still looking pretty good. But one collector’s foolish mistake is our gain, at least for a few days.
21. Carrie Mae Weems, Guggenheim Bilbao, 2006–2014
A very elegant photograph, last shown in her show at the Studio Museum earlier this year. And it comes with positive vibes: it’s being sold to benefit the Guggenheim.
22. Robert Rauschenberg, Cleat (Hoarfrost), 1975
With every passing day, Rauschenberg’s relentlessly experimental works from the 1970s looks better and better, and it’s still sadly too unusual to see them in museums.
23. David Lachapelle, Mariah Carey: End of the Rainbow, 1999
I think this one speaks for itself.
24. Martin Kippenberger, Copa und Ipa, 1986
The only thing better than a big, fat, major Kippenberger is a supremely peculiar minor one. The guy just tossed off ideas all day long like it was no thing! For this one he’s silkscreened on fabric (note the self-portrait at left) and framed the thing in cardboard. Stop by and take notes.
25. R.H. Quaytman, Chapter 12: Iamb (An American Place), 2008
Even now, just looking at a JPEG of this, I am feeling more relaxed than I have felt in ages.
26. Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1987
Such a burner. A solid hunk of energy.
27. Mary Heilmann, Jellyfish, 1998
This breezy little number makes me feel like I’m eating mint-cookie ice cream, which is one of the best feelings that I know of.
29. Alice Neel, Night, circa 1936
Not to belabor the point, but this is why you go to auction houses: to see come across surprises like this. No idea what it’s doing at contemporary-minded Phllips, but this tiny circa 1936 Alice Neel—it’s just 12 by 9 inches—of a rainy New York night looks as fresh as the most recent storm that hit the city.
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.