Christie’s finished out its contemporary-art auctions in New York with a morning sale and an afternoon sale Wednesday that offered about 400 lots and raked in $88.8 million in total. About 81 percent of the 224 lots in morning sale found buyers, while about 76 percent of the 175 lots in the afternoon did so. Those are standard, solid numbers for such day sales. Artist records were broken for John McCracken, Sam Gilliam, Nicholas Krushenick, Mary Bauermeister, and Mike Kelley.
The morning sale got off to a slow start, with a one-third-full room and six Alexander Calder works, five of which sold below or comfortably in the middle of their estimates. But Calder’s 1950 standing mobile Ostrich surprised by selling for $725,000 with premium, more than double its $350,000 high estimate. The action picked up once a Josef Albers print from 1927 went for $87,500, more than five times its high estimate. Once a teeny-tiny Richard Pousette-Dart painting came up for auction, there was more excitement, causing this work to sell above its asking price. The following two Pousette-Dart paintings continued that trend—Summer Illumination (1958–1963) hammered at $473,000, or double its estimate and then some, and an untitled work from 1940–43 was bought for $905,000. Pousette-Dart has had a strong week, with a new record being set for the artist on Tuesday night at the house. (It’s worth noting that the provenance of many Calders and Pousette-Dart—coming from the Arthur and Anita Kahn Collection—has helped matters.)
Despite two technical malfunctions in which bidders accidentally competed over withdrawn Calder and Franz Kline lots, geometric abstraction remained big throughout the morning sale. The most fought-over lot was Sam Gilliam’s Empty (1972), whose multicolored splashes of paint felt a lot like visual metaphors for the paddles that popped up throughout the room. Both works by Gilliam, who recently had a show at Frieze Masters, performed well, but Empty in particular turned heads as phone bidders, onlookers, and the auctioneer all struggled to keep up with the action. Shortly before it went to the phone for $317,000, more than ten times its high estimate of $22,000, one person shouted amidst all the chaos, “Wait, whose bid is it?”
A 1963 Frank Stella print featuring two squares, both done in the style of his minimalist late ’50s house-paint works, also quickly ignited a bidding war. Perhaps helped along due to the critical success of Stella’s retrospective at the Whitney, the work went for $209,000. (Later Stella still has yet to be a dependable critical or market hit—the room passed on a 1983 sculptural painting, while a 1980 work failed to live up to the print’s hype, going only for its high estimate of $112,500.)
Gestural abstraction also proved big at the morning sale. Work by Kazuo Shiraga, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Sam Francis, among others, hammered above or at the high end of their estimates. In particular, when Mitchell’s black-and-blue Une pensée pour Zouka (1976) hit the block, the crowd seemed to have picked up energy. Ultimately, a phone bidder nabbed the work for $2.6 million, making it the morning’s second-biggest lot. The exception to gestural abstraction’s success was work by Richard Diebenkorn, who produced several of the auction’s highest-estimated lots, but who suffered some big passes.
Minus a Roy Lichtenstein painting that sold with a $437,000 price tag, at more than three times its high estimate, Pop art underperformed at the morning sale. Nudes by Tom Wesselman, collages by Robert Rauschenberg, dreamy paintings by James Rosenquist, and a number of screenprints by Andy Warhol were met with a tepid response from bidders. (The only one of the 21 Warhols in this sale to sell well above its asking price was 1985’s Apple (From Ads), a hot-pink screenprint of an Apple advertisement, which went for $173,000, more than the film Steve Jobs made in any theater on opening weekend.) Although excitement could be felt when a double-flag print by Jasper Johns hit the auction block and went for a respectable $1.4 million, it seemed that buyers were more interested in Abstract Expressionism and lesser-known European abstract painters. Ironically, the only two money-themed works of the auction—one by Larry Rivers, the other by Warhol—failed to sell.
The European avant-garde from the ’60s was met with an energetic response. Bidders, both in the room and on the phone, came out in support of European artists like Mimmo Rotella, Arman, and Tano Festa. A 1972 Paolini painting sold for $629,000, but only after a bidding war that involved nine telephones and multiple paddles. Meanwhile, Pistoletto’s 1965 mirror work Corteo became the morning’s biggest lot when it went for $2.9 million.
After a too-brief break following a four-and-a-half-hour morning auction, bidders sluggishly returned for the afternoon sale, which, much like the morning auction, began slowly. Just after an Ed Ruscha painting became the fourth lot to go unclaimed out of the first ten, Jonas Wood’s Calais Drive (2012) came up on the block and started a back-and-forth between several phone bidders that went on for so long, it left them confused on who had bid what. “Been a long day here at Christie’s,” the auctioneer said just before selling the work for $545,000, $245,000 above its high estimate.
By then the audience had become snappish and restless. When two Richard Artschwager works came up, one audience member could be heard saying, “No one likes Artschwager now. Amazing.” (Though his two works had no trouble finding buyers.)
Then, when several phone bidders vied to be the owner of what would become a $293,000 Adam McEwen sculpture, one woman pulled her e-cigarette out of her pocket and began smoking. A quiet, timid morning audience had become a chatty, somewhat disrespectful afternoon one, and so, when everyone seemed to ignore a Bruce Nauman neon piece that went for more than double its asking price at $665,000, one woman took it upon herself to shush the audience. The auctioneer thanked her.
The more zeroes a price had, the more receptive this chatty audience seemed. Although a smudgy, untitled Christopher Wool painting valued at over $1 million never found an owner, a hush descended over the audience when Mike Kelley’s bejeweled Memory Ware Flat #24 (2001) fared better, bringing in $2.85 million and becoming the afternoon’s top lot and a new record price for the late artist. But that record would be eclipsed just a few hours later, at Sotheby’s, when a similar work, Memory Ware Flat #29 (2001) would sell for $3.07 million.
Despite murmurs that the sale was moving too slowly and that the auctioneer was too sassy, there was no denying that everyone’s attention was on an untitled plank sculpture by John McCracken when it came up on the block. It started out like any other lot—a bid here, a bid there—but a three-way battle ensued and went on for several minutes. In that time, the work rose $600,000 in value, ultimately selling for $965,000.
As the afternoon dragged on and tired attendees left empty coffee cups strewn under their seats, the lots kept coming. A Cecily Brown canvas brought in $605,000, while a Damien Hirst medicine cabinet, titled Lies, sold for $545,000. But by the time those sold, few people were still on hand.
The New York sales are winding down, with a contemporary art day sale today at Sotheby’s and an Impressionist-modern sale this evening at Christie’s.