LONDON.- Following on from the success of Christie’s New York Post-War & Contemporary Art auctions in May when the highest total for a single auction in art market history was achieved, on 1st July Christie’s will present an outstanding selection of Post-War and Contemporary art works. The sale represents many of the most important artists and movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, including works by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin and Peter Doig that challenged the notion of the traditional portrait and changed the face of contemporary art practice. Highlights also include major works from the Blum Collection and the Langen Collection, two exceptional European private collections built up over the past half century.
Francis Outred, Christie’s Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art, Europe, says: “Following the record success of the Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Auctions in London in February – which was a record for Europe - and in New York in May, we are delighted to present a distinct set of works that form a mini-survey of the portrait from the second half of the twentieth century to today. Highlights include Francis Bacon’s luminous portrait head of Lucian Freud from the collection of the writer Roald Dahl; Andy Warhol’s haunting late great self-portrait; and the iconic ‘My Bed’ by Tracey Emin, an artist who has turned her entire career into a self- portrait. It is also a privilege to present two legendary European private collections - the Collection of Rudolf and Leonore Blum from Switzerland, and the Collection of Viktor and Marianne Langen from Germany. Both collections bring a strong selection of Post-War art into our auction. From the Blum Collection we are selling a drip painting by Jackson Pollock - the first major painting by the artist to come to auction in London - and from the Langen Collection we find its reflection in European abstraction of the same period, including works by Burri, Tapies and Dubuffet.”
Building on the success of the record-breaking sale of Francis Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud, which sold for $142 million in New York in November 2013, the London Post-War and Contemporary Evening Auction will offer one of only two single portrait heads of Lucian Freud, Study for Head of Lucian Freud, 1967 (estimate: in the region of £8million - 12million). Bacon uses his rapid, impulsive brush marks to create an intimate and animated portrait that has spent its entire life in the collection of the celebrated writer Roald Dahl and subsequently in the collection of his estate (please find a separate press release here). Where Bacon chose to transform the representation of a person through paint, Tracey Emin chose to present her self-portrait through her installation, My Bed (estimate: £800,000 - 1.2million). An iconic piece that encapsulates Emin’s work exploring the relationship between her life and her art, My Bed caused a furore when it was shortlisted for the Tate’s Turner Prize in 1999, prompting public debate about the nature of contemporary art.
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Study for Head of Lucian Freud, titled and dated 'Study for Head of Lucian Freud 1967' (on the reverse), oil on canvas, 14 x 12in. (35.5 x 30.5cm.). Painted in 1967. Estimate: in the region of £ 8 million - 12 million). Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2014
Notes: ‘The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99).
‘That succulent ferocity which we find in the heads of the 1960s... the turbulence of the paint in the face and neck is the more striking by contrast with the flat calm of the background’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 111).
‘I said rather tactlessly to Graham [Sutherland] ‘who do you think is the best painter in England?’ he said ‘Oh, someone you’ve never heard of; he’s like a cross between Vuillard and Picasso; he’s never shown and he has the most extraordinary life; we sometimes go to dinner parties there’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 26).
‘The visual arts were an important and little understood aspect of Roald Dahl’s life and formed a continuous counterpoise to his literary activities’ (D. Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, London 2011, p. 25).
‘After Pat and I had been married for a while, and when there was a bit more money in the bank, I began buying pictures for keeps... I admired Francis Bacon’s work enormously, and we bought seven of his paintings’ (R. Dahl, ‘Architectural Digest Visits: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’, in Architectural Digest, February 1981, p. 74).
‘Roald Dahl and Francis Bacon had much in common. Both were enigmatic outsiders, both hard to pin down. Both liked to work in small, claustrophobic spaces. Both aroused equal measures of controversy and fascination. They smoked, drank and gambled – often to excess. Both could be generous, believing that money, like muck, needed to be spread around. They had a taste for the high life, as well as the low. Despite the fact that physically their paths crossed only occasionally, there was a deep connection between the two men’ (D. Sturrock, 2014).
‘The writer’s stare is unblinking, and most of his tales are irritants, provocations… they stick in the mind long after subtler ones have faded: incredible (literally), unforgettable...’ (J. Treglown, ‘Introduction’, in R. Dahl, Collected Stories, London 2006), p. ix).
‘All I can tell you about the work of Francis Bacon is that it stirs and excites me emotionally. This is surely how the work of any painter should be judged. I can see no other valid way of assessing a painting’s worth. No paintings stir and excite me quite as much as those of Francis Bacon. I know that there are some people who are not moved by them at all and to those unfortunates I would simply say, “Jolly back luck. I can’t help you”’ (R. Dahl).
‘His work impressed me, his personality affected me. He talked a great deal about the paint itself, carrying the form and imbuing the paint with this sort of life. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me the idea of paint having that power’ (L. Freud quoted in W. Feaver, ‘Beyond Feeling’, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p. 13).
Having spent its entire life in the collection of Roald Dahl and subsequently in the collection of his estate, Study for Head of Lucian Freud, 1967 is one of only two single portrait heads that Francis Bacon executed of his friend and sometime rival, the chronicler of the human condition, Lucian Freud. The essence of Freud emerges from a sumptuously thick and complex surface comprised of lustrous undulations of crisp white titanium mixed with sweeps of emerald, all set against a velvety black void. His features appear and dissolve in the alternating sweeps of gestured paint, with flecks of vermilion articulating Freud’s existence all the more acutely. Darkly haloed by a thin trail of emerald tracing the outline of Freud’s crown, there is more than representation on display here – this is the individual presented as their very essence. It is this very quality that made Study for Head of Lucian Freud so compelling to Dahl, who was to acquire it in the same year as its execution. The work brings together three titans of the arts from the 20th century at the height of each of their artistic powers. Dahl, arguably the greatest children’s author of the 20th century, was first recognized in the 1960s for his uncanny ability to relate to children. His voice on the page was especially attuned to children’s ears and he was able to speak to them like no other adult has, or perhaps ever will. The last of four works, which Dahl acquired by Bacon during the 1960s, Study for Head of Lucian Freud was most certainly chosen for its extraordinary ability to capture the essence of Freud. Much like his masterful triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, Study for Head of Lucian Freud is Bacon’s own raw and intense presentation of Freud. With each masterful sweep of his brush, Bacon has created an emblem to the legendary relationship, defend as much by the friendship as by the rivalry that existed between these two titans of 20th century art. Bacon has animated his friend’s visage, imbuing it with energy and attitude through impulsive, staccato dashes of colour. Conveying the intimacy of their relationship, Bacon succeeds in communicating a sense of Freud’s character, his inner resolve, pride and vitality in paint.
Bacon and Freud became close friends towards the end of the Second World War when they were introduced by painter Graham Sutherland in 1945. As Freud later recounted, ‘I said rather tactlessly to Graham “who do you think is the best painter in England?” he said “Oh, someone you’ve never heard of; he’s like a cross between Vuillard and Picasso; he’s never shown and he has the most extraordinary life; we sometimes go to dinner parties there”’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 26). Sutherland made arrangements for the painters to visit him and his wife in the countryside in early 1945. The two travelled together from Victoria Station and Freud recounted, ‘Once I met him, I saw him a lot’ (L. Freud, quoted in ‘Lucian Freud on Francis Bacon: In conversation with Sebastian Smee’, in B. Bernard and D. Dawson (eds.), Freud at Work: Lucian Freud in Conversation with Sebastian Smee, London 2006, p. 26).
The pair immediately became firm friends and regular companions, imbibing the spirit of post-War London through their shared fondness for Soho and the newfound freedoms it afforded after the privations of wartime. In the 1950s, the two were inseparable: Freud found great inspiration in Bacon’s spontaneity and impulsive painterly skill while Bacon appreciated Freud’s quick wit, vitality and consummate risk taking. Together they shared a fascination for the ‘human comedy’, enjoying a garrulous exchange of gossip between games of roulette and poker. Soho at the time provided a fertile ground for both men to enjoy their vices at leisure, passing between the comfortable settings of Wheeler’s, the Gargoyle and the Colony Room which, more so than any other, was the stage upon which many of Bacon and Freud’s personal dramas unfolded. Meeting almost daily, the two painters were completely ensconced in each other’s emotional trials and tribulations – Freud’s faltering marriage with Lady Caroline Blackwood and Bacon’s own tumultuous affair with Peter Lacy. As Caroline Blackwood recalled, ‘I had dinner with [Francis Bacon] nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch’ (C. Blackwood, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 192-193).
From as early as 1951, Freud and Bacon began to capture their friendship in paint. Bacon’s Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) was the first portrait where he acknowledged the name of his sitter. Freud’s first drawings of Bacon also date from 1951 and the following year he carried out an intense portrait of Bacon in oil on a small copper plate. Executed on a miniature scale, Freud and Bacon sat knee to knee for two or three months until the painting was finished. The work conveys the intensity and closeness that this working relationship afforded and it is now considered to be one of Freud’s greatest works.
Following the first fertile years of paintings and drawings in 1951 and 1952, Bacon and Freud did not paint each other again for another 12 years. Bacon reinitiated the painterly repartee in 1964 with a double portrait of Freud and Frank Auerbach and a large-scale triptych using Freud as his exclusive subject. In comparison to the artist’s earlier work, these paintings were marked by an increased confidence and strength of colour and line, becoming the hallmark for Bacon’s most accomplished and important period. Freud’s portraits from 1964-1966 are equally marked out by their looser and impasto applications of paint. The exactitude which defined his works from earlier in his practice is replaced by an intense, physical use of medium for which he acknowledged the influence of Bacon. At this point the two were seemingly intertwined once again, with Freud painting Bacon’s beloved George Dyer on a couple of occasions and Bacon painting Freud fourteen times between 1964 and 1971 in a mixture of two small panels (of which Study for Head of Lucian Freud is one), four large panels (one destroyed), two small triptychs, three large triptychs (one separated) and the rest as part of larger compositions. The second work on this scale was executed two years earlier in 1965. In contrast to the richly rendered and meditated surface of Study for Head of Lucian Freud, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1965 has a thinner quality due to Bacon’s use of a drier brush to articulate the contours of Freud’s face and hair as his the incorporation of bare canvas to convey the shirt. While these are all techniques particular to Bacon’s practice, their utilization in Portrait of Lucian Freud would seem to indicate that Bacon executed this work in a more immediate, and perhaps incomplete fashion, than the very finished presentation he would offer in Study for Head of Lucian Freud two years later.
Standing in contrast to Freud’s fastidious analysis of the human form, Bacon was reluctant to paint his subjects from life, preferring instead to use photographs as visual triggers, as ways to unfurl personal and poignant recollections. For Bacon, his preference for the photograph or reproduced image was because a friend before him in the studio inhibited his practice: ‘they inhibit me because if I like them, I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I can think I can record the fact of them more clearly’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 41). His portraits of Freud carried out between 1964- 1973, of which Study for Head of Lucian Freud is one, were all inspired by photographs that Bacon commissioned from fellow Soho denizen John Deakin. Several series of Freud by Deakin were found in Reece Mews, including thirteen images of Freud standing outside a terrace of late eighteenth-century houses in Fitzroy Square and nineteen photographs of Freud standing, seated and reclining across a bed in an artist’s studio, presumably his own. It was during this period that Bacon turned to a close coterie of friends, lovers, and confidants as the source for his art. Deakin’s black and white images became the basis for the majority of Bacon’s portraits throughout the sixties capture, not only Lucian Freud, but George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, Peter Lacy, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes. From 1961 Bacon employed the fourteen by twelve inch canvas format exclusively for an unprecedented portraiture cycle depicting a close coterie of friends, as well as his own self-portraits, a format and subject that occupied him until the end of his life. John Russell affirmed the central importance of these works within the artist’s oeuvre when he stated: ‘The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99). For the painter who avidly read the Greek tragedies, the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the philosophy of Paul Valéry and Jean-Paul Sartre, he found that his friends were as ‘vivid and transmutable’ into art as any great literary hero or heroine.
In Study for Head of Lucian Freud Bacon has captured the visceral quality and physicality of Freud by ‘[bringing] the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1986, p. 12). With his prodigious use of rapid, impulsive brush marks, Bacon creates an encrusted surface wrought from swirling rhythms of scumbled paint, giving the sense of Freud’s life-force. The vitality of the image has been made real by the chance-effect of fine vermilion paint that fecks Freud’s face, created through the imprint of ribbed colour using the grain of corduroy or an old sweater. A technique he would favour through the 1970s and 1980s, Bacon’s process of coating the material with oil paint and then pressing it over his painted image heightened the sense of life’s electric energy running through his sitter’s very entity. Here, this unique and powerful formal device simultaneously obscures and heightens the concentrated intensity of this both intimate and startlingly animated portrait. Indeed it perfectly encompasses Bacon’s quest to ‘distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 40). This augments the distortion already at play through the alternating sweeps of colour from right and left which convey a sense of Freud’s head turning. John Russell could have been speaking of Study for Head of Lucian Freud when he noted it has ‘that succulent ferocity which we find in the heads of the 1960s...the turbulence of the paint in the face and neck is the more striking by contrast with the fat calm of the background’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 111).
Bacon’s ability, through rough impasto and gestural sweeps of green, white and orange paint against a dark ground, to paradoxically efface the figurative portrait of his friend Freud in order to more potently bring about the essence of his nature was a quality that undoubtedly appealed to Dahl. Study for Head of Lucian Freud most certainly struck a chord with Dahl as it seems to have leapt off the pages of his short story, Skin, published in 1953. Situated in the gritty bohemian streets of post-War Paris, the story typifies the avant-garde city he experienced with Smith in 1946, and opens with a drunken request by a man to have the artist Chaïm Soutine (who at the time in post-War Britain was considered the foremost artist of the century) tattoo a painting of his wife on his back. Some years later, the man chances on an exhibition of the now dead artist’s work and enters the gallery where he is dismissed until he exposes the work he owns, which subsequently elicits purchase offers. While the story has a macabre ending that is in keeping with Dahl’s work at the time, it also reflects his deep interest and understanding of the art world. In the story he describes Soutine’s portrait-tattoo as, ‘quite alive; it contained much of that twisted, tortured quality so characteristic of Soutine’s other work. It was not a good likeness. It was a mood rather than a likeness, the model’s face vague and tipsy, the background swirling around her head in a mass of dark-green curling strokes’ (R. Dahl, ‘Skin’ in Someone Like You, 1953).
Indeed Bacon’s singular approach to representation in paint finds great sympathy with Dahl’s own way with words. As Dahl described in one of his first short stories: : ‘He wrote it not in the old man’s words, but in his own words, painting it as a picture with the old man as a character in the picture, because that was the best way to do it. He had never written a story before, and so naturally there were mistakes. He did not know any of the tricks with words which writers use, which they have to use just as painters have to use tricks with paint, but when he had finished writing, when he put down his pencil and went over to the airmen’s canteen for a pint of beer, he left behind him a rare and powerful tale’ (R. Dahl, ‘An African Story’, Over to You, 1946).
Study for Head of Lucian Freud was executed at a time of great professional satisfaction for Bacon: his paintings were gaining international recognition and he was being offered exhibitions at major museums around the world. His major retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London in 1962 and subsequent exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York in 1963 were great triumphs and Bacon was gaining sudden traction and celebrity within the contemporary art world. At the same time, Study for Head of Lucian Freud was acquired of great contentment for Dahl. 1967 marked the fruition of a series of Dahl’s professional triumphs. That year, Dahl achieved a coup when he finally succeeded in obtaining a very lucrative deal with the UK publishing house George Allen & Unwin for the publication of both James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which had both already been published to great acclaim in the United States some seven years before. Perhaps surprisingly today, both bestselling books had been rejected by no fewer than 11 UK publishers before George Allen & Unwin finally accepted them. Within weeks of publication in the UK, both books sold out and a subsequent reprint sold out as well. Dahl was also finding success in Hollywood, where he had been sought after to adapt screenplays of his peer Ian Fleming’s work. This included the latest 007 film, You Only Live Twice and Fleming’s children’s book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was in this ebullient atmosphere that Dahl found himself able to act in earnest on his appreciation for art, and specifically for Bacon.
Dahl first became familiar with Bacon’s work through his friend, the artist Matthew Smith. Dahl and Smith first met in the autumn of 1941 when Dahl returned home to London following injury in Palestine while serving with the RAF. Dahl was particularly struck by Smith’s work, which he saw in the window of Arthur Tooth and Son’s Gallery during an afternoon walking around Mayfair. Determined to express his admiration for the artist, Dahl sought out Smith at a hotel on Piccadilly where he found him mourning the recent loss of his sons who had died in RAF service. Despite their age difference of some forty years, the two struck up a close friendship based on their mutual passion for the arts, which they cultivated on jaunts through London and Paris. It was through this close connection that Dahl became acquainted with Bacon when his work was shown alongside Smith’s and Victor Pasmore’s in the spring of 1958, in a touring exhibition put on by the Arts Council entitled Three Masters of British Painting. Ever the connoisseur, Dahl was immediately impressed by what he saw as the ’blend of economy and profound emotion in [Bacon’s] painting’, and immediately named him as a ‘giant of his time’ (N. Crosland in conversations with D. Sturrock and R. Dahl, Letter to Claude Gallimard, 29th October, 1971, in D. Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, London 2011, p. 440).
As Dahl professed, ‘I myself had become an enthusiastic collector of pictures as soon as World War II ended, in 1945. Each time I sold a short story, I would buy a picture when there was a bit more money in the bank I began buying pictures for keeps. I admired Francis Bacon’s work enormously, and we bought seven of his paintings’ (R. Dahl, ‘Architectural Digest Visits: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’, in Architectural Digest, February 1981, p. 74). Buoyed by the triumphant professional and financial success of the publication of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and with the screenplay of You Only Live Twice, Dahl actually bought four Bacon canvases between the years 1964–68. Dahl enthused over the pages of Architectural Digest about his ownership of seven Bacon’s paintings; a boyish exaggeration made on more than one occasion, which his biographer Donald Sturrock regarded as typical of Dahl’s character and a reiteration of the high esteem in which he held Bacon’s work. Between 1964 and 1967, Dahl chose through great care and his exacting eye four singular works from Bacon’s oeuvre: Landscape at Malabata(1963), Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963), Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on White (1964) and Study for a Head of Lucian Freud (1967). While Landscape at Malabata is a rare work by Bacon in its absence of a figure, it is as Ernst van Alphen aptly describes, a ‘bodily landscape’, where the landscape takes on corporeal qualities in order to visually convey something of the soul. Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer is Bacon’s first triptych of his great love and muse and radiates with ‘the inmost nature of human behaviour’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 100). Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on White is an unusual representation of Bacon’s close friend where he has mirrored the contours of her body with an intricate weave of cool lavenders and charcoals all set against a white background. Indeed Sturrock recalls seeing these works when he met Dahl for the first time at Gipsy house: ‘On one wall a triptych of distorted Francis Bacon heads glared out at me alarmingly, reminding me that for years, Dahl’s adult publishers had dubbed him “the Master of the Macabre”. On an adjacent wall, another Bacon head – this one a distorted swirl of green and white – returned my gaze’ (D. Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, London 2011, p. 5). By the 1980s, Dahl’s collection would also include avant-garde Russian artists Malevich, Ermilov, Goncharova and Popova, 16th century Dutch still-lifes, 17th century religious panels, Winston Churchill seascapes and Matisse drawings.
Although he subsequently sold the other three works by Bacon, it is of no great surprise that Study for Head of Lucian Freud immediately captivated Dahl when he saw it in 1967 and that it retained its undisputed place in his collection and subsequently in his family after his death in 1990. Dahl firmly believed that ‘You cannot begin to appreciate any work of art in the true sense until you have studied the personalities involved and the struggles they had’ (R. Dahl, ‘Architectural Digest Visits: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’, in Architectural Digest, February 1981, p. 75). He certainly practiced this where Bacon was concerned, maintaining a close friendship with the artist for many years, often having him over for dinner at Gipsy House in the 1970s and 1980s. The two undoubtedly bonded over such high-brow interests as their mutual admiration for the work of van Gogh, an artist that both regarded as their favourite, as well as their more pedestrian pursuits in Soho. Like Bacon, Dahl was a consummate gambler, who after finding much pleasure at greyhound races as a young man and at diplomatic poker tables in Washington D.C., had settled quite comfortably at the Blackjack table at the Curzon House Club.
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Head I, oil on canvas, 24 x 20in. (61 x 51cm.). Painted in 1958. Estimate £2,500,000 – £3,500,000 ($4,242,500 - $5,939,500). Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2014
Notes: ‘Bacon had not left Van Gogh behind entirely, however, for Head I is reminiscent of several of the self-portraits Van Gogh painted in Arles between 1886 and 1888, not least in the way in the threequarters front head the eyes glance to engage the viewer’s gaze. But it is evident that in Head I Bacon was mainly in a dialogue with Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890, especially the version now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Bacon painted further homages to Van Gogh’s self-portraits in 1959 and 1960, and Head of Man – Study of Drawing by Van Gogh, 1959, has marked affinities with Head I’ (M. Harrison, 2014).
‘Bacon’s genius was to have found a single image through which he could express the whole range of his most extreme emotions: fear, disdain, hate, lust, and even a fierce kind of love’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich 2006, p. 26).
‘One cannot consider therefore that a portrait of any given person is simply that particular person seen through the eyes of the artist. It is rather a combination of: that person as seen through the eyes of the artist at a particular time; secondly, it is the artist himself as seen through his own eyes at that particular time; thirdly, it is any human face that has meant something to the artist at any given time (as a sort of prototype), and which finds its way into his vision as a basis on which to build his paintings. One cannot exclude the fact that the viewer, too, in some strange way, identifies himself with the dissolving, contorted features of the heads in Bacon’s paintings. This serves in some measures to indicate the extent of truth that is revealed in his paintings of the human image – that the spectator, against his own wishes, recognizes something of himself’ (J. Reichardt, in ‘Francis Bacon’, in The London Magazine, vol. 2, no. 3, June 1962, pp. 40-41).
‘It was during those years, filled with rebuffs and reversals of fortune, but also with extraordinary invention and daring, that Bacon began to explore in depth all his great themes while trying out a number of others that he eventually discarded. It was, in my view, the most fertile single decade of his career. Never again would the Baconian world be so rich and diverse’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Norwich, 2006, p. 14).
Set against a deep sea of saturated, Prussian blue, Francis Bacon’s Head I, 1958 exemplifies the artist’s ability to painstakingly perfect the features of the human form and violate them with an impulsive sweep of his paint brush. This work finds much in common with Bacon’s full-figure Self-Portrait, held in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. executed the same year. Indeed the barely defined placement of the hand at the figure’s chin and the three-quarter profile recalls the suite of self-portraits Bacon executed in 1958. This similarity in composition may elucidate the fact that this painting may have begun its life as a larger format canvas, with Bacon later choosing to focus exclusively on the face, a subject which preoccupied the artist throughout his entire life. Allowing chance and contingency to enter the fate of his composition, Bacon achieved this perfect expression in paint through what the artist once described as the ‘brutality of fact’. Bacon conveys the viscerality of flesh through accents of crimson and blue, which commingle to create discrete passages of skin tone. The piercing eyes are countered by the highly gestural swathes of textured oil paint which at once obfuscate and clarify the figure’s physiognomy.
Executed in 1958, Head I was conceived at a time when many of the most central and memorable images of Bacon’s entire career were finding form. From the screaming heads and snarling chimpanzees of the late 1940s through to the early Popes, portraits of van Gogh and anonymous figures trapped in tortured isolation, the 1950s have been described by Bacon’s biographer Michael Peppiatt as the moment when Bacon ‘came of age as a painter. It was during those years, filled with rebuffs and reversals of fortune, but also with extraordinary invention and daring, that Bacon began to explore in depth all his great themes while trying out a number of others that he eventually discarded. It was, in my view, the most fertile single decade of his career. Never again would the Baconian world be so rich and diverse’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 14). This crystallization in his creative development took place at a time of great personal upheaval for the artist: homeless, in debt and caught up in a tempestuous relationship with former RAF pilot Peter Lacy, it is undoubtedly the psychological instability of this period that contributed to the great breakthroughs Bacon made as an artist.
The pair had met at the bar of Soho emporium the Colony Club and entered into a relationship that would prove passionate yet deprave, violent yet insatiably addictive. While Bacon was known to have various indiscretions, Lacy was the great love of his life. ‘Being in love that way, being absolutely physically obsessed by someone, is like an illness’, Bacon was later to recount. ‘It’s like a disease, a disease so ghastly I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 40). With his personal life completely entwined with his combative lover, Head I seems to conflate the features of Lacy with those of the artist himself. As Jasia Reichardt points out regarding Bacon’s portrait practice: ‘One cannot consider therefore that a portrait of any given person is simply that particular person seen through the eyes of the artist. It is rather a combination of: that person as seen through the eyes of the artist at a particular time; secondly, it is the artist himself as seen through his own eyes at that particular time; thirdly, it is any human face that has meant something to the artist at any given time (as a sort of prototype), and which finds its way into his vision as a basis on which to build his paintings. One cannot exclude the fact that the viewer, too, in some strange way, identifies himself with the dissolving, contorted features of the heads in Bacon’s paintings. This serves in some measures to indicate the extent of truth that is revealed in his paintings of the human image – that the spectator, against his own wishes, recognizes something of himself’ (J. Reichardt, in ‘Francis Bacon’, in The London Magazine, vol. 2, no. 3, June 1962, pp. 40-41).
During the early 1950s, Bacon inhabited a unique moment, where his raw intensity and novel approach were to result in works of perhaps improbable brilliance. As Peppiatt has suggested, ‘Bacon’s masterpieces of the late 1940s and early 1950s were produced, through constant trial and error, elation and destruction, technical awkwardness absorbed and made suddenly effective by sheer force of invention’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 33). Head I was executed in the aftermath of Bacon’s Man in Blue series, which continued the artist’s themes that were so powerfully conveyed in his now iconic first series of Popes (Study for a Portrait I-VIII), 1953. Here, Bacon seems to be distantly recalling the burgeoning symbols of Post-War capitalism, the businessmen that were defined in his Man in Blue series, but has instead swapped the perfectly starched white shirts and meticulous tailoring for a looser, more expressive countenance of the human figure.
Unlike the laden paintwork of the 1940s, in Head I Bacon has created an identity of flesh through the suggestion of veiled surfaces rather than through application. As Bacon was to explain, this was part of a new process of ‘opening up areas of feeling rather than merely an illustration of an object’ (F. Bacon, quoted in ‘On the Margins of the Impossible’, M. Gale & C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2008, p. 18). With a paint brush buffed on his own pant-leg, Bacon has set about capturing the vitality and mortality of human existence. Just as in other works from this period such as his Portrait of Lisa, 1957 (Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection), in Head I Bacon has laid the paint on the canvas and then subsequently scraped it off, initially resulting in a ghost-like pentimento barely visible on the canvas. This application of near-dry paint creates a suffusive luminosity and a textural interplay between flesh, cloth and shadow. Bacon then laid the paint on so thickly round the eyes and forehead that the figure’s visage takes on a sort of mask-like quality. Indeed the figure’s head with its squared-jaw, wide brow and angular physiognomy is reminiscent of William Blake’s Life Mask, 1823, National Portrait Gallery, London. Bacon has rendered the skeletal form of the head, the brow bone and jawline with bruised bluish highlights and the cheekbones and forehead with texture built up from crimson, conveying life below the surface of the complex physiognomy. Carrying this out with a prodigious use of rapid, impulsive brush marks, the heavy impasto sweeps of the paint transform the figure’s features, especially the nose, into a more primal rendering of expression. Indeed, the expression of Head I seems to give credence to John Russell’s belief that‘... what Bacon is after is, on the contrary, the most direct and poignant of possible statements about the fugitive nature of human beings. What he stalks in his sitters is a certain resonant energy in the realization of their flawed natures’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 88).
This textural phenomenon is reiterated through Bacon’s singular use of priming the back of the canvas. Much of the atmosphere imbued in Head I derives from its Prussian blue-black canvas ground, the isolated figure at its centre surrounded by an expanse of colour. This deep, saturated blue arose from Bacon’s unique practice of priming the reverse of his canvases, allowing the oil and turpentine to penetrate deep into its woven fabric. Indeed most of his works from this period were painted on dark inky blue backgrounds with contrasts of thick and thin paint and flesh colours delicately smeared and smudged on to a stained background. This technique sometimes gave his figures an insubstantial, almost ghost-like character, which played on the existential nature of his practice in the post-war European art landscape.
Despite the apparent anonymity of the figure, Head I simultaneously evokes the distinctive features of self-portraits Bacon executed that same year fused with an abiding influence of Lacy. As Bacon confessed, ‘most of those pictures were done of somebody who was always in a state of unease, and whether that has been conveyed through these pictures I don’t know. But I suppose, in attempting to trap this image, that, as this man was very neurotic and almost hysterical, this may possibly have come across in the painting’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 48). Indeed, all of the ferocious fights with Lacy, and a sense of the peripatetic, subversive existence of the artist at this time, find their way onto the canvas. As he explained, his oeuvre was ‘concerned with my kind of psyche, it’s concerned with my kind of – I’m putting it in a very pleasant way – exhilarated despair’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York, 1990, p. 83). Bacon relished the extremes of sensation, his ‘nervous tension’ allowing him to test the boundaries of painting. As he himself suggested, ‘you have to go too far to go far enough – only then can you hope to break the mould and make something new’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 22).
MARTIN HARRISON ON FRANCIS BACON’S HEAD I, MAY 2014
The years between 1956 and 1962 are often characterised, not entirely without justification, as a period of transition in both Bacon’s life and art. In several respects Head I, 1958, occupies a key position in relation to the changes this perception signifies. In 1957, having emerged from a lengthy ‘monochrome period’, Bacon painted his most extreme essays in violent colour, gestural brushstrokes and dense impasto in a group of six radical variations on Van Gogh’sPainter on the Road to Tarascon (1888). Yet almost immediately after completing them he modified his palette again, adopting the more subdued colours that characterise Head I, the relatively muted tones of which are in distinct contrast to the ‘Van Gogh’ series.
Between 1956 and 1961 it was Bacon’s invariable custom to stay in Tangier during the months April to July. Although he painted there, in various rented rooms, he destroyed most of his output; his visits were principally motivated by the desire to see Peter Lacy, his erstwhile lover who had settled in Tangier in 1955. Soon after Bacon returned to London in August 1958, in the borrowed room he occupied in Overstrand Mansions, Battersea, he painted Head I and Head II, both of which depict Lacy. They were to be the last paintings he sent to Erica Brausen at the Hanover Gallery, which had represented him for ten years, before his switch in October 1958 to Marlborough Fine Art Ltd.
Bacon had not left Van Gogh behind entirely, however, for Head I is reminiscent of several of the self-portraits Van Gogh painted in Arles between 1886 and 1888, not least in the way in the three-quarters front head the eyes glance to engage the viewer’s gaze. But it is evident that in Head I Bacon was mainly in a dialogue with Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890, especially the version now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Bacon painted further homages to Van Gogh’s self-portraits in 1959 and 1960, and Head of Man – Study of Drawing by Van Gogh, 1959, has marked affinities with Head I.
Gauguin’s self-portrait in Les Misérables, 1888, also appears to have informed Head I, conspicuously, in addition to the compositional format and bust length, in the deeply-lined eyes; the ringed eyes, from which Lacy is peering slightly warily, also echo those of Picasso’s ‘primitive’ heads of the Demoiselles d’Avignon period. But perhaps the most salient aspect of Head I, its soft colours, recall one of Bacon’s abiding inspirations, the pastels of Degas. The influence of Degas was manifested in disparate ways at various points in Bacon’s career, but in this instance a specific trigger may have been the Degas exhibition held at Lefevre Gallery, London, in April-May 1958; although this show, which Bacon almost certainly attended, consisted mainly of monotypes, seven works were all, or partly, executed in pastel. Bacon did occasionally use pastel as well as oil paints, but passages in many of his paintings almost have the appearance of having been executed in pastels. Head I can be considered then, in part, the sum of the complex affinities with French Impressionism or Post-Impressionism that distinguish (along with references to Soutine, Bonnard, Daumier and Rodin) Bacon’s paintings of the late 1950s.
The tenderly and skilfully painted open-necked white shirt in Head I was virtually a cipher for Bacon’s depictions of Lacy in the late 1950s, even when, as here, he is not named; in fact Lacy, whom Bacon continued to paint until 1963, the year after Lacy’s death, was only ever identified in the paintings’ titles by the initials ‘P.L.’. Bacon’s aides-memoire for the likeness in the present painting were probably a series of photographs that John Deakin took of Lacy in London, probably in Smithfeld Market; these have been dated c. 1959, but their usage by Bacon on this occasion implies that they were more likely taken in 1957 or 1958. Given that the viewpoint in the photographs was lower than Bacon’s (Deakin’s Rolleifex camera was held at waist level) the photographs can only have acted as rough guides.
The yellowish marks that issue to the left of Lacy’s mouth resemble ectoplasmic emanations, the kind that Bacon took from photographs in Baron von Schrenck Notzing’s book, Phenomena of Materialization (1924); considered together with the vaporous, pale blue contour to the left of the head, they suggest that Bacon intended to capture Lacy’s aura. Alternatively, these marks may be simply residues of a hand that had been brought up to the face, a gesture that Bacon was to retain in Lying Figure, 1958, and which may have originated in Van Gogh’s portraits of Dr. Gachet. As was invariably his practice, Bacon reserved the most intensely-worked paint and deepest impasto for the face, and it is the subtly mixed pigments in this area that most resemble Degas’s pastels, the hotter skin tones serving a reminder that he was a painter of flesh. Bacon over-painted Lacy’s dark jacket in Head I in quite thin, sweeping strokes of pale grey, eliminating superfluous detail to effectively concentrate attention on the face.
It is evident from the reverse side of Head I that the painting in its final form, which is 61 x 51 cm. (24 x 20 ins.), was cut out, on all four sides, of a larger canvas; in its first state it was probably about 152.5 x 119.5 cm. (60 x 47 ins.), and the figure painted full-length, seated in a room, as for example in Study for Portrait of P.L. No. 2, 1957. The ‘cropping’ of his canvases became a crucial aspect of Bacon’s practice in the late 1950s, and Head I is a fascinating example of this evolution in his technique. He had begun to use 24 x 20 inch canvases for more intimate subjects in 1952, and these became the standard dimensions of most of his smaller portraits until 1959, when he adopted the 14 x 12 inch (35.5 x 30.5 cm.) format to which he adhered for the rest of his life. This process of closing-in was an alternative strategy to his ‘space-frames’, with their connotations of existential isolation, as a means of focusing on the head to represent the essence of his subject.
Thus Head I represents a key transitional moment in the development of Bacon’s small portrait idiom. He probably took his lead in this from John Deakin’s photographic techniques, keeping the scale of the head consistently near to life size but gradually moving closer in, while transcending the neutral photographic document to express deeper layers of feeling and painted sensation.
Martin Harrison is the editor of the forthcoming Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné.
Arguably no other artist in the twentieth century was as deeply engaged with the representation of his or her own likeness as Andy Warhol. Completed shortly before his sudden death in 1987, Andy Warhol’s Self- Portrait, 1986 (estimate: £6million - 9million) is rare in his series of late self-portraits, depicting the artist larger than life-size and in close-up. The sculpted - almost skull-like - tight crop of the artist’s face, heightened by the contrast between light and dark, and the vivid red, makes the picture appear to act as both self- examination and self-presentation. Indeed, more than any other artist of his generation, Warhol’s image, identity and cultural persona were inextricably bound to his art, and his self-portraits served as a means of extending each.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), stamped with the Estate of Andy Warhol stamp and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts stamp and numbered ‘PA 40.021’ (on the overlap); stamped with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts stamp (on the reverse); numbered ‘PA 40.021’ (on the stretcher), acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 40 x 40in. (101.6 x 101.6cm.). Executed in 1986. Estimate £6,000,000 – £9,000,000 ($10,182,000 - $15,273,000). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘Warhol’s 1966 Self-Portrait is probably the most well-known of the three versions he produced during the 1960s and, with his Self-Portrait of 1986, one of the most representative and iconic images of the artist’ (G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2B, Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, London 2004, p. 227).
‘Haunting and poignant, these portraits remind me what a true visionary Andy was’ (V. Fremont, Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits 1963-1986, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2005, p. 22).
‘If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures and there I am; there’s nothing in between’ (A. Warhol, quoted by G. Berg, ‘Andy: My True Story’, in Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3).
‘The new painting, coming as it does twenty years after the last great self-portraits in the sixties, has by contrast with them a strange sense of absoluteness... Certainly, the portrait derives part of its power from the sense that we are being given a rare chance to witness the aging of an icon’ (J. Caldwell, ‘A New Andy Warhol at the Carnegie’, Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January-February 1987, p. 9).
Completed shortly before his sudden death in 1987, Andy Warhol’s Self-Portrait, 1986 is rare in his series of late, great self-portraits, depicting the artist much larger than life-size, ‘up-close and personal’. With its searing and fiery colour combination of scarlet red and intense cadmium yellow, the closely cropped classic 40-inch square format, Warhol encourages us to stare deep into his darkened eyes and analyse every square inch of his visage. The artist’s sculpted appearance, heightened by the contrast between light and dark, makes the picture appear to act as both a self-examination as well as a self-presentation. This painting stands out in this renowned ‘fright wig’ series, of which other iterations depict the artist’s entire head and ‘fright wig’ against a deep black background. The Self-Portraits that span his career were the lifeblood of his work, and of all the self-portraits he made, it is the 1966 and 1986 series that are most revered. As Georg Frei and Neil Printz have said, ‘Warhol’s 1966 Self-Portrait is probably the most well-known of the three versions he produced during the 1960s and, with his Self-Portrait of 1986, one of the most representative and iconic images of the artist’ (G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2B, Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, London 2004, p. 227). Above all, Warhol’s self-portraits offer a series of theatrical masks that, even when seeming to confront the viewer with frightening intensity, evade our gaze. Nearly thirty years after the artist’s death, the haunting image that Warhol constructed of himself has become the lasting one in which we remember him by, adding poignancy to his own statement: ‘I paint pictures of myself to remind myself that I’m still around’ (A. Warhol quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1989, p. 480).
Throughout his career, Warhol chronicled and charted his own appearance in a range of self-portraits, culminating in this final defining series of works. Just as this series, which was prompted by gallerist Anthony d’Offay, it was the legendary dealer Ivan Karp of the Leo Castelli Gallery who suggested to Warhol that he paint his first self-portrait and enlisted the support of pioneering Detroit collector Florence Barron. Initially visiting Warhol’s studio to discuss the commission of her own portrait, in a brilliant reversal of the typical artist-patron relationship, Barron proposed instead that she would commission Warhol to paint his portrait for her – and to turn the icon-making apparatus of his Pop art vision on himself. The commissioned work, Warhol’s first silk-screened image of himself, was derived from a Photomat strip originally published as part of a June 1963 Harpers’ Bazaar feature titled ‘New Faces, New Forces, New Names in the Arts’. Warhol’s second self-portrait, dating from 1964 follows closely on from the first but takes an entirely different approach: here he has selected and repeated a single photo-booth image, a straight-on mug shot reminiscent of theMost Wanted Men series he had presented at the New York World’s Fair earlier that year. Warhol’s ascendance to stardom is evident in the dramatic pose for his self-portraits of 1966: bathed in the chiaroscuro of the photographer’s theatrical light, Warhol embodies the kind of constructed self-projection that was crucial to his public façade.
Twenty years later, Warhol would return to the self as subject for the last time in his career. More than any of its predecessors, the ‘fright wig’ portraits present not merely ‘Warhol the man’ but also ‘Warhol the icon’. In these last self-portraits, Warhol consciously and openly presented himself as an artificial construct, his unblinking gaze oscillates between telling us all and telling us nothing about the artist, who can seem, even in the same work, both vulnerable and invulnerable, both superficial and profound. Warhol was addressing one of the great themes of art history – that of the aging master taking perhaps a last look at himself. Robert Rosenblum commented at the time that the works had a ‘melancholy introspection’ like the ‘great late self-portraits of Rembrandt and Van Gogh’ while also later pointing out that the works also betrayed a pervasive ‘mood of both personal and public retrospection’ that aptly captured the ‘period favor’ of the time (R. Rosenblum ‘Warhol as Art History’, On Modern Art, New York 1999, p. 227). The self-portrait has been a major subject of art history since the Renaissance, often used by artists in order to investigate and express their inner psyche and emotions. Warhol’s repeated engagement with his own visage and persona places his art among the great artists whose self-portraits populate the art historical canon such as Durer, Rembrandt, Courbet, van Gogh, and Picasso. Arguably no other artist in the twentieth century was as deeply engaged with the representation of his or her own likeness as Warhol, a fact all the more marked since the twentieth century evidenced such a break with the long historical tradition of self-portraiture. Warhol’s response to this tradition was to create a seemingly anonymous and emotionally vacant self-image. Indeed, more than any other artist of his generation, Warhol’s image, identity and cultural persona were inextricably bound to his art, and his self-portraits served as a means of extending both. Emerging from the void, Warhol’s fright wig Self-Portraits are arguably, the work establishes itself as the final icon of the famously empty, enigmatic and often frighteningly clairvoyant persona that Warhol built for himself and presented to the world. ‘If you want to know about Andy Warhol, the just look at the surface of my pictures and there I am; there’s nothing in between’ (A. Warhol, quoted by G. Berg, ‘Andy: My True Story’, in Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3).
The series of 1986 self-portraits derived from Polaroid photographs taken by Benjamin Liu, operating under Warhol’s instructions. Sitting in the stairwell outside his studio, Warhol presented a carefully constructed persona of himself in a black turtle neck and teased peroxide wig. Warhol’s life-long preoccupation with public image and beauty stemmed from his frustration with his own physical appearance, and by the late 1980s his self-image was almost completely artificial. His nose had been altered and his face had been tautened with astringents and collagen injections. His shock of peroxide hair, the hue of which Warhol could subtly alter thanks to his huge collection of ‘fright wigs’ or ‘wig hats’, as the artist preferred to call them, became his most notable trademark.
While the wig would go on to define how the series would be referenced, Vincent Fremont notes ‘I do not remember Andy, Jay Shriver (his 1980s art assistant), or any of us referring to these paintings that way. This “title” was probably thought up after Andy’s death because of people’s reaction to the portraits with Andy’s head floating in space, his wig hair standing straight up or sideways, as he stares powerfully and mysteriously out at the world... the portraits dominate the room they hang in. Haunting and poignant, these portraits remind me what a true visionary Andy was’ (V. Fremont, Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits 1963-1986, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2005, p. 22).
These last self-portraits focus entirely on the artist’s face and the strands of hair in his silver wig exploding from the monochromatic background. Throughout his career, Warhol had carefully constructed legends surrounding the inspirations for his art which often centred on chance encounters with friends and confidants. Indeed the ‘fright wig’ works are no exception: London-based dealer Anthony d’Offay prompted Warhol to think about doing a new series ofSelf-Portraits in the winter of 1985-1986: ‘At Christmas we visited a collector friend of Lucio Amelio who had a powerful red portrait of Beuys by Andy Warhol hanging in his house. As I looked at the painting I realized two things; first that Warhol was without question the greatest portrait painter of the 20th Century, and secondly that it was many years since he had made an iconic self-portrait. A week later, I visited Warhol in New York and suggested to him an exhibition of new self-portraits. A month later he had a series of images to show me in all of which he was wearing the now famous “fright wig”. One of the images had not only a demonic aspect but reminded me more of a death mask. I felt it was tempting fate to choose this image, so we settled instead on a self-portrait with a hypnotic intensity. We agreed on the number of paintings and that some would have camouflage. When I returned to New York some weeks later the paintings were complete. The only problem was that Warhol had painted the demonic “Hammer House of Horror” image rather than the one we had chosen. I remonstrated with him and reminded him of our agreement. Without a demur he made all the pictures again but with the image we had first selected. And so between us we brought two great series of self-portraits into the world’ (Letter from Anthony d’Offay to D. Elger, 17 February 2004, quoted in D. Elger, ‘The Best American Invention – To be Able to Disappear’, D. Elger (ed.), Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits, Ostfldern-Ruit, 2004, p. 127). D’Offay selected the Polaroid with Warhol’s hair lying across his forehead, while Warhol preferred the image with a vertical tuft of hair sprouting up from his wig.
This exhibition – the last to take place in London during Warhol’s lifetime – was a spectacular critical and commercial success, though the predominant reaction from the public was one of shock. Many viewers left the show ‘deeply moved’ – Warhol’s friend and biographer David Bourdon recalled, ‘Some spectators interpreted the pictures as amomento mori, an unblinking, unsentimental view of a hurriedly approaching mortality. Others perceived them as a metaphor for the multiplicity of ways in which the artist was perceived’ (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 402). ‘We had enormous press coverage, lots of TV’, d’Offay remembered: ‘[Andy] came over for five days. It was fantastic. There were security guards and people asking him to sign their underwear. Four of the paintings were sold to museums. He was so amusing with the critics, too. He had this wonderful ability to work out what was lurking in the back of your mind’ (A. d’Offay, quoted in ‘Interview by Leo Hickman’, The Guardian, 4 February 2002).
In contrast to Warhol’s proliferation of self-portraits, Peter Doig in his extremely rare self- portrait, Gasthof, 2002-2004 (estimate: £3million - 5million), uses abstract processes and formal compositional devices to create the dreamy atmosphere of the figurative scene where two mysterious gatekeepers, costumed in nineteenth century regalia and modelled on a photograph of Doig and his friend, are standing guard to an unknown place as the silhouette of a single canoe drifts idly in the distant lake. The presence of the canoe– a touchstone of sorts for the artist across his oeuvre– appears as if to transport the artist to this realm of the imaginary. Considered to be a key transitional piece within the artist’s body of work and completed at a moment when the artist was in Trinidad and dreaming of Europe, it was unveiled at the critically acclaimed exhibition Peter Doig – Metropolitan, at Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, in 2004. Gasthof was also featured in the artist’s major exhibition No Foreign Lands at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. A related work is in the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago.
Peter Doig (B. 1959), Gasthof, signed, titled, inscribed and dated 'GAST GUEST HAUS HOUSE HOF Peter Doig 2002-04 P.O.S + London' (on the reverse), oil on canvas, 108 x 78 ¾in. (274.5 x 200cm.). Painted in 2002-2004. Estimate £3,000,000 – £5,000,000 ($5,091,000 - $8,485,000). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘In Gasthof, for instance, I made drawings and sketches of the coloured stone wall. I was first engaged in painting the wall, a dam actually, and the problem was how to structure the gateway. I wanted to find some gatekeepers for the gateway, but before I could find the right ones I painted a few versions without any. Originally I was going to use a musician, maybe a Neil Young or a Gram Parsons character, from one of their early 1970s costumed album covers. I wanted someone whose clothes were out of sync with their own time but who was dressed in such a way that the fashion reminded you of the late nineteenth-century painting or literature. But I thought if I used a known figure it would be way too specific... so I searched around and eventually found a photograph of myself and a friend dressed as two very minor crowd scene characters from a production of Petrouchka. We were working backstage at the theatre at the time. As soon as I put these two figures down in the painting it was like they had always been there’ (P. Doig, quoted in ‘Interview by Kitty Scott’, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 39).
An extremely rare self-portrait by the artist, Peter Doig’s Gasthof, 2002-2004, comes to life under a scintillating night sky, as the silhouette of a single canoe drifts idly in the distant lake. One of two key, large scale paintings featuring the artist set within this surreal dreamlike vision, the other iteration, Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, 2000-2002, forms part of the prestigious collection of The Art Institute of Chicago. Inviting the viewer to cross the threshold into this imaginary world, two mysterious gatekeepers, costumed in nineteenth century regalia, stand guard to a place unknown. The sentinel characters appear like an apparition, their absinthe-tinted visages fading in and out of focus in the dusky, crepuscular light. The presence of the canoe– a touchstone of sorts for the artist across his oeuvre– appears as if to transport the artist to this realm of the imaginary. Begun in London in 2002 and shipped to Trinidad when he moved there, this work is one of a small group of works which evolved during this key period of change for the artist.Gasthof was completed at a moment when the artist was in Trinidad and dreaming of Europe. The iridescent colour of this painting exemplifies the more-highly keyed tonalities that Doig was exploring during this period as he painted his remembrances from Trinidad. Shining sapphires and turquoises and bursts of green and yellow all combine over the expanse of midnight blue to add to the picture’s mood of dream-like other-worldliness, hinting at some twilit moment between night and day, a concept that is extended by the distinctive blue that dominates the palette. The light, gauzy layers of paint perform like the translucent curtain used in theatres, appearing opaque when lit from the front, but transparent when backlit. Indeed, this translucent quality in Gasthof evokes a mélange of Pierre Bonnard’s dreamlike imaginary, Marc Chagall’s topsy-turvy reveries, and Edvard Munch’s expressive visions. Doig’s abstract processes and formal compositional devices fuse the dreamily atmospheric and the reality of the figurative scene. Unveiled at the artist’s critically acclaimed exhibition Peter Doig – Metropolitan, at Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, in 2004,Gasthof was also featured in the artist’s major exhibition No Foreign Lands at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.
The move to Trinidad sparked a transformation in Doig’s technique in which he began to use delicate lines and veils of diaphanous colour. The artist describes this paradigm shift as that which inspired a series of ‘pure paintings, which evolve into a type of abstraction’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 37, pp. 19-20). This oneiric sense of wonderment is created by Doig’s vast array of painterly techniques. Although this is clearly a figurative image we are looking at, the composition is enshrouded in abstract processes: veils of translucent colour of liquid midnight blue and violets akin to Rothko are overlaid. Across the bottom half of the composition vertical strokes shoot up to form a meadow that recalls Francis Bacon’s grassy Study of a Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Built upon this scene, impastoed dollops of snow-white paint float over the thickly encrusted gem-studded wall with its coloured bricks alternating between glowing gumdrops and powdery Turkish Delight. Doig’s expert handling of paint builds a mesmeric composition which exists in the space between photographic reality and vivid memory, somewhere between the fantastic fairy tale and reality.
The otherworldly figures dissolving into the landscape represent a perfect moment of alignment between the various territories in which Doig operates: dreams, memories, travel and experiences. The subjects clearly hold an important place in the artist’s psyche, with Gasthof standing as a focused inquiry on the protagonists of this curious scene. Speaking of these characters in Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, Judith Nesbitt describes the uncanny double portrait: ‘Their costumes and moustaches make it impossible or irrelevant to decipher who is who. The painting sets up its own terms of reference and precipitates its own drama – resulting from the merging of the photograph with a nineteenth century postcard to create one of Doig’s most surreal apparitions. But our knowledge of the artist’s presence at the heart of the painting adds another layer of psychological complexity. A lark behind the scenes at the opera house becomes enshrined in a landscape of entrancement within which the artist stands, disguised’ (J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 17).
Fusing his personal snapshots with scenic postcards, Gasthof combines two disparate source images: the result is an image that seems displaced from both place and time. Just as a theatre backdrop sets the stage for dramatic production, Doig places his players upon a painted backdrop which relies less on the actual representation of space and more on the conveyance of action and mood. The backdrop hung across the back of this stage is appropriated from an antique pre-First World War postcard, circa 1910, depicting the Muldentenspree; an old German tavern from which the work is titled, and the dam and lake were derived. The origin of the figures harken from a photograph from Doig’s student art days in London, with the artist standing on the left. Having arrived in London in 1989 to study at Chelsea School of Art, the artist held a part time job as a dresser at the English National Opera with his friend Haydn Cottam. As such, Doig has returned to febrile memories of working at the Opera House, and looks to a photograph of the two friends dressed in costumes during a production of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (1911). Speaking of the application of this distinct memory, the artist recalled, ‘In Gasthof, for instance, I made drawings and sketches of the coloured stone wall. I was first engaged in painting the wall, a dam actually, and the problem was how to structure the gateway. I wanted to find some gatekeepers for the gateway, but before I could find the right ones I painted a few versions without any. Originally I was going to use a musician, maybe a Neil Young or a Gram Parsons character, from one of their early 1970s costumed album covers. I wanted someone whose clothes were out of sync with their own time but who was dressed in such a way that the fashion reminded you of the late nineteenth-century painting or literature. But I thought it I used a known figure it would be way too specific... so I searched around and eventually found a photograph of myself and a friend dressed as two very minor crowd scene characters from a production of Petrouchka. We were working backstage at the theatre at the time. As soon as I put these two figures down in the painting it was like they had always been there. (P. Doig, quoted in ‘Interview by Kitty Scott’, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 39).
This setting appears at once familiar yet foreign, an image that triggers a primeval memory through Doig’s masterful brushwork. Doig’s expressive use of colour and evocative handling of paint blurs the boundaries of what is real, imagined and remembered. Speaking of the Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, and of equal relevance here, Searle identifies: ‘Doig is of course, playing an ironic game with painting itself. Blobs of snow are also blizzard of paint. Briars and vines are tangles of drips and brush strokes. A painting’s surface can never be truly penetrated, because it is, quite literally, all there is to see, however much we might entertain the idea that the landscapes and figures and buildings are actually multiple, parallel worlds to our own, and inhabited by people much like ourselves, who move from place to place, appearing and disappearing from sight, just as we do to others, and others do in relation to us’ (A. Searle, ‘A Kind of Blankness’, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 86).
Doig’s handling of the paint also produces a slippage of the landscape – his abstract techniques and experimental processes along with the limitless properties of his medium and its ability to resonate with the tones and textures of the natural landscape enable the image to remain enigmatically in the critical space between photographic reality and vivid memory. Doig’s remembrances are reflected in the manner in which he approached the painting. The wistful intermingling of joy and his melancholy colours capture Doig’s attitude towards painting. Tinged with nostalgia, this image, along with others that he has created throughout his travelling life, are the result of a desire to depict, capture and represent highly personal memories, feelings and experiences. Much in the way that Proust identified that our minds do not capture and relive static imagery, but moments or scenes that are re-played slightly differently each time according to our own mood and at a certain moment, so too does Doig’s painting capture this raw reality. A wholly whimsical approach, it is through theatrical expression that Gasthof perfectly encapsulates these dream-like visions and psychic distortions where the decorative curtain is drawn back to reveal a shimmering, brightly coloured spectacle of fragmentary motifs. The costumed gatekeepers enhance the oneiric atmosphere, which permeates the canvas, suggesting that it is the characters- indeed the artist himself – who is conjuring this dream-like vision.
A rare self-portrait, Gasthof is one of only a handful of works in the artists’ oeuvre where the artist appears. Indeed, it was first in Trinidad that the artist began to envision himself within his landscapes. This extends on the time honored tradition of artists engaging with nature by exploring the self through the landscape. As with all of Doig’s great paintings, here he balances the sense of his intellectual progression in painting in the late twentieth century with his acute relationship with tradition and most particularly Romanticism. The image of the man in nature speaks directly to the great German Romantic painters of the 19th Century and in this way Gasthof not only captures the sense of the artist’s relationship with the landscape but also offers an oneiric atmosphere of man’s place in a vast universe. With its vivid expressionist departure from reality, estranged from its original source, Doig’s surreal, hallucinogenic palette has introduced an existential dimension, prompting the viewer to ask questions about the picture itself, the world it represents, and our own place within our own surroundings.
Doig’s work consistently operates through this process of displacement. His painterly practice evokes the place that Doig once called home. Indeed for Doig, the act of painting is always retrospective, referring not to his contemporary location but to places, people and moments suspended in the past. Just as Doig’s earlier iconic works of the Canadian landscape were realized in London, here the artist’s young adulthood in London is translated in Trinidad. Doig began painting Gasthof in London in 2002, and brought the painting with him when he moved to Port of Spain Trinidad, where it was finally completed in 2004. House of Pictures Carrera and Black Curtain were also initiated in London and completed in Trinidad. Those along with Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre (which was completed in London after his return from the Port of Spain residency in 2000) are considered a key ‘transitional’ works within the artist’s oeuvre. Painted from these archival images from his studio in Trinidad, this emotional complexity unites these surreal scenes with his prior oeuvre. The imagery leaves the viewer spell bound as if awoken from a lucid dream. It is this non-specific nature of the landscape in Gasthof which invites the beholder to share in the mental terrain of the picture plain. Speaking of this quality, the artist elucidated, ‘I think the way that the paintings come out is more a way of trying to depict an image that is not about reality, but one that is somehow in between the actuality of a scene and something that is in your head’ (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Charley’s Space, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2003, p. 18). Through its profoundly reflective subject matter and execution, the marriage of figurative memories and abstract painterly processes, Gasthof perfectly conjures an extraordinary envisaging of the artist himself.
MASTERPIECES FROM TWO EUROPEAN PRIVATE COLLECTIONS
Another highlight of the sale includes works from the Swiss Collection of Rudolf and Leonore Blum. One of Jackson Pollock’s most advanced and exploratory drip paintings, Silver & Black Square I, circa 1950 (estimate: £3million - 5million) was acquired by the Blums from the Sidney Janis Gallery, which held the 1958 Jackson Pollock exhibition, and it remained in their collection for nearly half a century. The first major Pollock painting to be sold at Christie’s London, this work makes full use of the artist’s command of his newly invented medium of the drip and is the product of a brief period when Pollock was at his most confident, ambitious and prolific. Other works from the Blum Collection include Howard Hodgkin’s Waterfall, 1991-1992 (estimate: £150,000 - 200,000) and Nicolas de Stael’s Paysage (Composition; Composition Rouge et Noir sur Fond Jaune or Paysage Rouge et Noir), 1951- 1952 (estimate: £1.2million - 1.5million).
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Silver & Black Square I, oil on board, 22 x 22in. (55.8 x 55.8cm.). Painted circa 1950. Estimate £3,000,000 – £5,000,000 ($5,091,000 - $8,485,000). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘His assuredness... (was) frightening to me. The confidence, and the way he would do it was unbelievable at that time’ (L. Krasner, ‘Interview with Barbara Rose, 1980’, in P. Karmel, Jackson Pollock, Interviews, Articles and Reviews, New York 1999, p. 45).
A dynamic and intricate fusion of metallic, silver, black, and yellow paint dripped, poured, cut and splashed onto the smooth surface of a square hardboard base, Silver & Black Square I of 1950 is one of Pollock’s most advanced and exploratory drip paintings. Silver & Black Square I was first exhibited in the 1959 exhibition Jackson Pollock at the Sidney Janis Gallery. The Blums acquired the painting from the same prestigious gallery and it has remained in their collection for nearly half a century. Making full use of the artist’s uncanny command over his newly invented medium of the drip, the picture is the product of that brief period when Pollock was at his most confident, ambitious and prolific – a time when his wife Lee Krasner said of Pollock that ‘his assuredness... (was) frightening to me. The confidence, and the way he would do it was unbelievable at that time’ (L. Krasner, ‘Interview with Barbara Rose, 1980’, in P. Karmel,Jackson Pollock, Interviews, Articles and Reviews, New York 1999, p. 45). An ‘overall’ drip-painting, without apparent beginning or end, Silver & Black Square I is in many ways a key example of this series of square paintings made on board. But, it is also distinct among them for being one of only very few in which Pollock chose to paint on the smooth, rather than the rough side of the hardboard ground. In addition to this, Pollock has also used a range of metallic oil paint that includes silver and a highly material metallic black; a key influence on a generation of international artists from Lucio Fontana to Rudolf Stingel.
Executed in 1950, this was the climatic year when Pollock, now at the very height of his fame and the pinnacle of his creativity, made his greatest and most ambitious paintings before tragically, near year’s end, beginning again his descent into the alcoholism that would ultimately cause his death. After three years of continuous creative invention, sobriety and pioneering exploration of his radical drip-painting technique, it was in 1950 that everything came to a dramatic head for Pollock and he was to create his most awe-inspiring masterpieces that now rank among the most radically important pictorial achievements of the entire 20th Century. Among these were the three vast, nearly 5m-long paintings, One (Number 31, 1950), Museum of Modern Art, New York, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30, 1950), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Number 32, 1950, Nordrhein Westfalen Museum, Dusseldorf, all painted in the summer of 1950 and shown at Betty Parsons’ gallery in November.
Alongside these celebrated paintings, Pollock spent much of 1950 also working on a series of drip paintings made on hardboard of which Silver & Black Square I is one of the most intricate and explorative examples. Notable for their rare square format (approximately 22 inches square), they were made of identical pieces of board that Pollock had obtained from his brother Sandford McCoy. Pollock’s aim with these works was to create a sequence of new, intimate, individual and complete painterly worlds that asserted nothing and were beholden to nothing except themselves. Laid on the floor and easy to work on from all sides as was Pollock’s chosen method – painting as much in the air above the pictorial ground as with the resultant fall, splash and drip of his paint onto the painting’s surface – these were the paintings in which Pollock gave full experimental rein to his drip technique, pushing it, in 1950, ever further to the limits of its potential. As the critic Robert Goodnough was to write in one of the first articles to appear after Pollock’s 1950 Betty Parsons show, Pollock ‘feels that his methods may be automatic at the start, but that they quickly step beyond that, becoming concerned with deeper and more involved emotions which carry the painting on to completion according to their degree of strength and purity’ Pollock, Goodnough explained, ‘does not know beforehand how a particular work of his will end... he depends on the intensity of the moment of starting to paint to determine the release of his emotions and the direction the picture will take. No sketches are used. Decisions about the painting are made during its development and it is considered completed when he no longer feels an affinity with it…He feels that his most successful paintings carry the same intensity directly to edges of the canvas. “My paintings do not have a centre” (Pollock says), “but depend on the same amount of interest throughout”’ (R. Goodnough, ‘Pollock Paints a Picture’, inArt News, vol. 50, no. 3, May 1951, pp. 38-41). Pollock himself, in one of the rare statements he made about his art said, in this context, ‘Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was’ (J. Pollock, quoted in ‘Unframed Space: Interview with Berton Roueché’, in The New Yorker, 5 August 1950, p. 16).
After the extraordinary success of the Life magazine article and his show at Betty Parsons in the previous year, Pollock, for much of 1950, was full of confidence and riding high. He flamboyantly bought himself a new Cadillac to drive around in and was, for the first time in his life, easily able to afford to experiment with a whole range of the kind of metallic paints displayed in Silver & Black Square I. The most unique characteristic of this painting however is the way in which Pollock has also cut into this paint and his paintwork in various places with a knife to articulate new forms and textures. Echoing a technique that he first pioneered in a series of paintings of 1949, most notably the appropriately entitled Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, in which Pollock had cut through all of his dripped paint surface to reveal the fibreboard ground of the picture beneath, here Pollock has attempted to push the electrifying surfaces of his paintings to new heights of complexity by cutting forms into the paint while keeping its colour and material integrity intact. Such actions reflect Pollock’s awareness that he was now at the top of his game in his use of the drip technique and, eager to resist it becoming a mere mannerism or ‘style’, was attempting to push it further. To take it to a new level of material expression, to divine something more of the ‘rhythms of nature’ he had found displayed within its mesmerizing surfaces and to hopefully articulate even more his own sense of emotional interaction with the expression of ‘space and time’ that this unique and radically new manner of painting had given to him. ‘My concern is with the rhythms of nature… I work inside out, like nature’, Pollock said. ‘The modern artist is working with space and time...expressing his feelings rather than illustrating’ (J. Pollock, quoted in L. Emmerling,Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956 Cologne, 2003, p. 48).
In all of these aspects, as the artist Donald Judd was among the first to articulate, Pollock was operating on a level never before seen in the history of painting, radically redefining the entire art in a way that hadn’t been done since Picasso. Indeed, in 1950, after seeing Pollock’s recent work at the Venice Biennale, the Italian critic Bruno Alfieri wrote, ‘Compared to Pollock, Picasso, poor Pablo Picasso, the little gentleman who, since a few decades, troubles the sleep of his colleagues with the everlasting nightmare of his destructive undertakings, becomes a quiet conformist, a painter of the past’ (B. Alfieri, ‘A Short Statement on the Painting of Jackson Pollock’, L’arte Moderna, Venice, June 8, 1950, reproduced in P. Karmel, Jackson Pollock, Interviews, Articles and Reviews, New York 1999, p. 69).
Howard Hodgkin (B. 1932), Waterfall, signed, titled and dated 'Howard Hodgkin WATERFALL 1991-92' (on the reverse), oil on panel, 17 ¾ x 21 1/3in. (45.2 x 54.1cm.). Painted in 1991-1992. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘The frequent references to travel in Hodgkin’s art, the countless allusions to places that are foreign, alien or unfamiliar, record the painter’s movements, but only imprecisely, and they do not stop at that. They amount to a statement of ambition for the paintings themselves. They say that to look at a picture should itself be to travel, to be transported, to be taken somewhere else. Every painting is its own self-sufficient world to be experienced as we would experience a foreign place travelled to for the first time: radiant, uncanny alien... This may partly explain Hodgkin’s preference for colours that are clear and fresh and unclouded, colours as seen by someone who approaches the world with the attitude of the one travelling, who sees it unveiled and undimmed’ (A. Graham-Dixon, Howard Hodgkin, London 1994, pp. 103-104).
Painted in 1991-1992, the same year Hodgkin was knighted for his outstanding contribution to British art, Howard Hodgkin’s Waterfall translates into painterly form the complex myriad of colours contained within a brief memory. With the characteristic flourish of his gestural brushstrokes, Hodgkin is able to suggest natural phenomena without a strict adherence to the confines of figuration. Evocative of a cascading torrent, variegated swathes of lapis lazuli paint rippled with brilliant white flood the pictorial space, the tactility of the sumptuous paint introducing a sense of pictorial depth and movement into the composition. Painted directly on the artist’s frame, the composition overflows beyond the traditional boundaries of painting. Waterfall was one of seven artworks shown at the artist’s solo exhibition at the British School in Rome in 1992, Waterfall was also exhibited in the ‘Life into Paint, British Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century’ exhibition at the Israel Museum, 1992-1993, before being acquired by the present owner in 1994 where it has remained for the last twenty years.
Hodgkin’s paintings are almost always inspired by the memory of a place or travel distilled in Hodgkin’s mind’s eye. Nothing however is made explicit: the remarkable air of the work is articulated purely through Hodgkin’s extraordinary sensitivity to the effects of colour and his uncanny ability to stimulate an emotive response in the viewer. The result is a rich and complex series of painterly layers of colour and form that hints at representation without ever defining it. In Waterfall, steams of vibrant azure, interspersed with passages of midnight blue meet warm scarlet, crimson, and persimmon in a whirling eddy, adding a sense of chromatic balance to the composition. Appearing almost sculptural, Hodgkin’s gestures cover each smooth stretch and groove of the wood, creating illusionistic depth in the picture plane, the waterfall seeming to overflow into the viewer’s space.
The journey of Hodgkin’s hand across the surface of the board can clearly be seen in the sweeping trails of his brushwork, which escape the traditional confines of the frame specifically chosen by the artist. It is through the artist’s intentional concealment and repetition of layered images that Hodgkin elicits a complex relationship of responsiveness between artist and viewer. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘The frequent references to travel in Hodgkin’s art, the countless allusions to places that are foreign, alien or unfamiliar, record the painter’s movements, but only imprecisely, and they do not stop at that. They amount to a statement of ambition for the paintings themselves. They say that to look at a picture should itself be to travel, to be transported, to be taken somewhere else. Every painting is its own self-sufficient world to be experienced as we would experience a foreign place travelled to for the first time: radiant, uncanny alien... This may partly explain Hodgkin’s preference for colours that are clear and fresh and unclouded, colours as seen by someone who approaches the world with the attitude of the one travelling, who sees it unveiled and undimmed’ (A. Graham-Dixon, Howard Hodgkin, London 1994, pp. 103-104).
Despite the immediacy of his gestures, it often takes months of preparation for Hodgkin to execute a single brushstroke. Whilst the colours may be vivid and the brushstrokes energetic, the actual process of laying down the layers of paint may take a number of years and only end when the original inspiration finally appears in the artist’s mind. Painted over a prolonged period of time, the energetic brushwork and non-representational use of colour incorporates the scene from shifting viewpoints and with the changing perspectives caused by the passing of time. This non-representational depiction is further enhanced by Hodgkin’s refusal to contain his reminiscences within the confines of the traditional painted surface. His brushwork escapes the restrictions of the edge of his support (in this case, wood) and advances his gestures out towards and through the traditional painterly boundary of the frame. ‘My pictures are finished when the subject comes back,’ Hodgkin once told David Sylvester. ‘I start out with the subject and naturally I have to remember first of all what it looked like, but it would also perhaps contain a great deal of feeling and sentiment. All of that has got to be somehow transmuted, transformed or made into a physical object, and when that happens, when that’s finally been done, when the last physical marks have been put on and the subject comes back-which, after all, is usually the moment when the painting is at long last a physical coherent object-well, then the picture’s finished and the is no question of doing anything more to it. My pictures really finish themselves’ (H. Hodgkin, quoted in D. Sylvester,Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1984, p. 97).
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Paysage (Composition; Composition Rouge et Noir sur Fond Jaune or Paysage Rouge et Noir), signed 'Staël' (upper right), oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 25 5/8in. (65 x 65cm.). Painted in 1951-1952. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘These canvases [have] a luminosity which de Staël had never achieved before. Here for the first time he really displays the needle-sharp acuteness of his eye and the subtlety with which it could distinguish between minute differences of tone. Here too he lets himself go and delights in strong colour for its own sake because he knows that at last he has it under control’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 36).
Nicolas de Staël’s Paysage (Composition; Composition Rouge et Noire sur fond Jaune; Paysage Rouge et Noir), 1951-52 embodies all the elements that define his mature body of work. Last seen in public nearly half a century ago,Paysage forms part of the illustrious Blum Collection. The present work made its public debut at the artist’s first ever exhibition in England in 1952. Shown alongside Composition fond Rouge, 1951, now in the collection of Fond national d’Art contemporain, Paris, and Les Toits, 1952, now in the collection of Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Paysage was one of 26 works exhibited at the Matthiesen Gallery, London, a show which received a great deal of attention in the British art world and garnered accolades in both the art and national press. It was subsequently exhibited at de Staël’s retrospectives held in Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1956, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, 1959-60, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Turin, 1960 and Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich, 1965.
Constructed from a carefully considered patchwork of pure colour blocks, de Staël allows the space between to reveal contrasting tones, bringing about a dynamic compositional harmony through an interplay of positive and negative space. Rendered in a palette of acacia, cerise and onyx, Paysage epitomises the tension between abstraction and figuration which de Staël was striving to achieve. Indeed Douglas Cooper, de Staël’s close friend and art critic notes of this period that ‘In the second half of 1951 he abandoned his patchwork of brickwork effects in favour of a sort of mosaic technique... In such pictures thickly painted little rectangles of colour are used in certain focal areas, the rest of the canvas being treated in broad planes of more or less flat paint, while everywhere different tonalities are allowed to overlap or to accumulate one on top of another. The vibrant, multi-coloured effect which results makes for a curious spatial illusion, but also in these paintings one feels that the artist is striving towards a figurative image, because the tesserae serve a structural purpose and suggest solid forms’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 35). Existing in a delicate balance of colour and form, Paysage’s bold blocks of pigment have a raw and intense physicality that recalls the gestural vigour of America’s celebrated Action Painters, who were contemporaneous with de Staël, while still presenting a discernible figuration that sets his painterly practice apart. It was in this way that de Staël charted his own path against the pure abstract style that was de rigueur during the post-War period and bridged the gap between his contemporaries. Of this almost antithetical pairing of abstraction and figuration de Staël explained to Cooper in a letter written in the same year of this work’s conception, ‘Painting, true painting, always tends towards all aspects, that is to say, towards the impossible sum of the present moment, the past and the future... I’m doing something which can’t be examined closely, which can’t be taken to pieces, which has a value through its adventurous quality, which one may accept or not... One uses strong, delicate, or very delicate, direct or indirect values, or even the converse of value – what matters is that it should be right’ (N. de Staël, quoted in letter to D. Cooper, January 1954, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1981, p. 18).
Alternating between palette knife and brush, de Staël heaped paint on to his canvas in short swipes, pulling and pushing the pigment in order to convey a sense of the tactility of the material itself and highlight the formal qualities of colour. Rendered in progressive layers, de Staël creates a sense of rhythm in his discrete passages of fiery red and daubs of cool grey that adds richness and complexity to the overall composition. An essential ingredient for the artist, de Staël used colour to expand the space of his compositions and to bring out visceral sensory responses. The works from this period are ‘still closer to nature and more consciously impressionistic in kind than those which preceded them’, Cooper explains. ‘These canvases [have] a luminosity which de Staël had never achieved before. Here for the first time he really displays the needle-sharp acuteness of his eye and the subtlety with which it could distinguish between minute differences of tone. Here too he lets himself go and delights in strong colour for its own sake because he knows that at last he has it under control’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 36). In his idiosyncratic need to bring expression to the natural world, de Staël said: ‘All my life I have needed to think painting, to see paintings, to make paintings to help myself live, to free myself from all the impressions, all the sensations, all the anxieties to which I have never found any other issue than painting’ (N. de Staël, catalogue preface for Knoedler Gallery 1953, in Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1981, p. 171).
We are also proud to present works from the Collection of Viktor and Marianne Langen, a German couple who began collecting modern art in the 1950s and commissioned Tadao Ando to design the Langen Foundation for them in 2004. These include Jean Dubuffet’s Paysage, 1953 made of butterfly wings (estimate: £150,000-200,000), Alberto Burri’s Bianco T, 1954 cellotex work (estimate: £650,000 - 850,000) and Antoni Tàpies’s Large Ochre with Incisions, 1961 (estimate: £400,000 - 600,000).
Jean Dubuffet, Paysage (Landscape), signed and dated 'J. Dubuffet 53' (upper left); signed, inscribed and dated 'à Enid et Joe leur ami Jean Dubuffet novembre 53' (on the reverse), butterfly wings on board , 7 ¼ x 10in. (18.5 x 25.6cm.). Executed in 1953. Estimate: £150,000-200,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: Jean Dubuffet’s Paysage belongs to a rare series of butterfly paintings created in the fleeting summer days of 1953. Reflecting a spectrum of copper, ochre, periwinkle, and cream, the dappled butterflies form an intricate landscape, with three whimsical characters dressed in ornate costumes emerging from the composition like a trompe-l’oeuil. Taking cues from the natural irregularities of each unique butterfly, Paysage was informed by the unique colours and shapes of each wing. Thus, the moiré-like sage wingtips transform into rolling hills, while iridescent mauve becomes a windswept sky. The pin-point spots become the eyes of three distinct figures who emerge out of the landscape. The beautifully iridescent surface completes the composition; the tactility of the sumptuous filigree introduces a sense of pictorial depth that hints at representation without ever defining it. As Dubuffet proclaimed, ‘I believe that the meaning, or rather the meanings, of any work of art should be wide open so that each of us can absorb it into our own particular universe’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1973, p. 35).
In July of that year Dubuffet holidayed in the Savoie in Chaillol region of France with his friends Lili and Pierre Bettencourt. Max Loreau, author of Dubuffet’s catalogue raisonné described how from August through October 1953, the artist was so inspired by the landscape that he worked almost exclusively with butterfly wings to create a discrete series of assemblages, of which this work is one. Following this brief summer season at Chaillol, Dubuffet was so enthused by this experience that in October he developed a lithograph process to enabled him to continue working with his beloved butterflies. Substituting ink-mottled paper, he would create textured imprints of ridged wings, speckled porphyry, grooved wood, and bubbly cork, which he would then assemble into collages. Paysage, 1953, was originally part of the distinguished Bissett collection. The American collectors were close friends of Jean and Lili Dubuffet, and acquired Paysage, 1953, directly from the artist. It remained in their collection for twenty years. Following the death of Enid Bissett in 1965, her husband Joe gave several works from his collection, including seven works by Dubuffet, to the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin.
Crafted from fabric imbued with organic characteristics, Dubuffet constructs a landscape out of the building blocks of nature, seeking to create an artwork that appears to have organically sprung from nature itself. Manifesting Dubuffet’s insatiable interest in found details, texture, and materials, the butterfly fascinated the artist with the possibilities it enabled him to create, describing the wings as ‘a diaphanous iridescent haze, impossible to analyse and richly luminous’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in V. da Costa & F. Hergott (eds.), Jean Dubuffet, Barcelona 2006, p. 61). In Paysage, the viewer is encouraged to mentally craft the landscape from the organic components. ‘With respect to the use of this sparkling coloured material- the constituent part of which remain indistinguishable- with the aim of producing a very vidid effect of scintillation. I realized that, for me this responds to needs of the same order as those that formerly led me, in many drawings and paintings, to organize my lines and patches of colour so that the objects represented would meld into everything around them, so that the result would be a sort of continuous, universal soup with an intense flavour of life’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in V. da Costa & F. Hergott (eds.), Jean Dubuffet, Barcelona 2006, p. 61).
In its raw tactility, Paysage is informed by the earthy, primitive nature of Dubuffet’s earliest Art Brut artworks. The pure, organic materiality of the butterfly wing highlights the fragility of both human and material life. In his choice of materials, Dubuffet stressed the importance in the use of raw materials in the same way that he sought inspiration in ordinary life. Dubuffet’s whimsical use of gleaming butterflies reflects this interest: the fragility and intensity of the wings exemplify the astounding beauty that is present in the everyday.
Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Bianco T, signed, titled and dated ‘Burri 54 Bianco T’ (on the reverse), oil and vinavil on cellotex, 24 3/8 x 33 7/8in. (62 x 86cm.). Executed in 1954. Estimate: £650,000 - 850,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘Words are no help to me when I try to speak about my painting.
It is an irreducible presence that refuses to be converted into any other form of expression.
It is a presence both imminent and active.
This is what it stands for: to exist so as to signify and to exist so as to paint.
My painting is a reality which is part of myself, a reality that I cannot reveal in words’ (A. Burri, 1955, quoted inAlberto Burri: A Retrospective View 1948-77, exh. cat., Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, 1977, pp. 48-49).
Sensuous, tactile and absorbing, Bianco T was created in 1954 and is an historic painting by Alberto Burri whose importance was soon reflected in its provenance and exhibition history. Owned by G. David Thompson, one of the most legendary collectors of the post-war era, this work also featured in the 1957 touring show of Burri’s works organised by the great museum director and art historian, James Johnson Sweeney. Bianco T was therefore a witness to Burri’s burgeoning international reputation.
The rich white surface of Bianco T, with its cracks and crannies, flecks of red, and discrete passages of putty-like substances conveys an incredible textural intricacy that evidences Burri’s mastery of media. Here, areas of the picture may recall the parched landscapes of the deserts in which Burri served as a soldier in North Africa and where he was a prisoner of war in Texas. In Bianco T, this aridity is not derived from a painful origin: instead, it is an exorcism, as Burri stretches the versatility of his materials to new purposes, creating a sensuous array of textures that fill the viewer with a sense of haptic palpability. This is an image of healing, of optimism, as the humble materials are placed upon a pedestal and revered in their own right.
The variety in Bianco T is only increased by the other colours and materials present, which form crucial counterpoints to the white of the title. Created through a combination of Burri’s own exertions and the sheer properties inherent in the materials themselves, one sees a prefiguration of the Achromes of his fellow Italian artist, Piero Manzoni. However, Burri has not created a tabula rasa: instead, his work is a form of elegant, restrained cornucopia, boasting its wealth of materials, techniques and textures.
During the earlier part of his career, Burri’s work was celebrated in Italy and in the United States alike. He was sometimes considered a painter’s painter, as was reflected by the fact that it was that year that he was visited in his studio by a young Robert Rauschenberg. Despite their inability to speak each other’s languages to any adequate degree, Rauschenberg returned several times, and it has long been speculated that the increasing autonomy of his works of art owed itself to his experiences in Burri’s studio. Certainly, looking at Bianco T, there is a focus on the material rather than any reliance on representation that would be echoed in his Combines and other works. In Bianco T, the contents of the picture represent nothing: they simply are.
During 1954, Burri was also visited by the then director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, James Johnson Sweeney. Although already familiar with Burri’s work, which he had included in a group show the previous year, Sweeney was nonetheless impressed, and would come to orchestrate a number of exhibitions celebrating the artist, writing on him several times. Indeed, Bianco T featured in the 1957 touring exhibition that began at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, before travelling to the Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, and the San Francisco Museum of Art. While Burri’s works had been shown in group shows in various galleries over the previous few years, as well as a few one-man exhibitions, predominantly held at Allan Frumkin’s Chicago gallery, this was one of the first occasions upon which a far wider public was exposed to his pictures. Sweeney’s own introduction to the exhibition discussed Burri’s use of collage, seen in Bianco T in the use of the various elements and even in the variegated use of paint, which resembles affixed elements: ‘Burri also speaks the language of collage. But with a vast difference from any of these predecessors. His expression is primarily sensual – as playful and as tightly organised as the best of any of the others – but primarily sensual in its approach to surface textures, colours and psychological associations in contradistinction to any primary cerebral, witty, or literary interest. Nevertheless this sensuality in Burri’s approach does not in any way preclude an elegance or intellectual organisation in the final product. As a matter of fact these are both striking characteristics of all that is most characteristic of Burri. Burri enjoys his art like every other true artist. He plays in it: plays with the materials he employs, allows them to play with him, to collaborate in the final expression, even to dictate some of the forms which seem his most personal. This ability to play unselfconsciously with his medium, combined with an unashamed, natural sensuality – both controlled and refined by an intellectual ideal for his work, a delicate sensibility and a technician’s competence and conscience – has made it possible for Alberto Burri to give one of the most individual and refreshing expressions of the past ten years and at the same time one directly in line with the soundest traditions’ (J.J. Sweeney, quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Burri 1915-1995: Retrospektive, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, 1996, p. 270).
The fact that Sweeney’s exhibition began in Pittsburgh may have related to one of the most pioneering collectors of the artist’s work, G. David Thompson, who owned Bianco T. Thompson was a Pittsburgh-based steel magnate who assembled a collection of astounding proportions during his lifetime; this included, at one time, one of the finest and largest assemblages of the work of Paul Klee, which later formed the foundation of a museum collection, as well as a formidable group of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti which was ultimately acquired by several Swiss museums. Thompson managed to buy works by artists already famous, for instance Henry Moore, with whom he struck up a friendship, and Pablo Picasso; yet he also championed artists whose works were often less known. Only a few years after Bianco T was created, the curator Alfred H. Barr, Jr. would use Burri as an example demonstrating the incredible ability that Thompson had to keep his pulse on the developments throughout the international art world. Recalling a visit to Stone’s Throw, Thompson’s Pittsburgh home, he wrote: ‘I asked him if he liked the work of Alberto Burri, at that time rather little known even in Rome. His reply was characteristic. He disappeared into a closet and emerged with his arms full of painted-and-sewn burlap compositions. Twice more he repeated the performance until there were a dozen or more works by Burri standing around the walls’ (A. Barr, ‘Foreword’, The Collection of Twentieth Century Paintings and Sculptures Formed by the Late G. David Thompson of Pittsburgh, Pensylvania, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1966, unpaged).
Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012), Gran ocra amb incisions (Large Ochre with Incisions), signed and dated 'tàpies - 1961' (on the reverse), mixed media on canvas, 102 ¼ x 76 ¾in. (260 x 195cm.). Executed in 1961. Estimate: £400,000 - 600,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘The adventure only starts when painting is backed up against the wall, when it evolves from being a support – a pretext – to being the essence, when the quest for the highest level of quality only serves itself [...] Tàpies has something else to say, he knows it, he only has to do it’ (M. Tapié, Tàpies, Barcelona 1959).
A vast ochre plane inscribed with a dense tapestry of visceral markings expands before the viewer in Antoni Tàpies’Gran ocra amb incisions (Large Ochre with Incisions). Upon this expansive ground, subsuming our vision through its monumental scale, Tàpies has created an unearthly geological terrain, incised with cracks, slits, gauges and stabs that tremble with raw presence. Executed in 1961, the work was first owned by Michel Tapié, the influential critic, curator and leading authority on Tàpies, who played a key role in the artist’s rise to international acclaim and whose work provides a central source of reference for Tàpies scholarship today. Indeed, it was Tapié himself who coined the termart informel in 1952, championing the work of its most important exponents including Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Alberto Burri, Willem de Kooning and Tàpies himself. Tapié directed the Centro Internazionale di Ricerca Estitica in Turin, a unique centre for contemporary art research, where the present work was kept. Currently part of the Viktor and Marianne Langen Collection, where it has been held for the last thirty five years, Gran ocra amb incisions is an exquisitely intricate example of the ‘matter paintings’ that represent one of the most fundamental strands of Tàpies’ practice. Materially grounded yet metaphysically conceived, these works constitute a deep enquiry into the relationship between the tactile substance of earthbound matter and its inherent mystical properties. The 1960s were an important time for the artist, with growing international recognition evidenced by his first solo museum exhibitions in Europe and America. The present work was widely exhibited during this period, including at the XVIIIe Salon de Mai at the Musée de la Ville de Paris in 1962, and has not been seen in public since it was exhibited in Vienna in 1968, nearly half a century ago.
Tàpies was entranced by raw media and notion of human trace, creating works that attempted to access unknown dimensions of being through their rarefied physicality. Much of this aesthetic was rooted in his fascination with the weather-beaten, graffitied walls that lined the streets of his native Catalonia, and which bore traces of the hardship and repression endured throughout the Spanish Civil War. The present work, resembling a distressed stone edifice or a fragment of dried, cracked earth, is a superb demonstration of this influence. Its complex distribution of marks seems to strain towards communication, executed with pseudo-symbolic, automatic gesture. Like an ancient relic, the work quivers with the untold mysteries of its making. As the critic John Russell has claimed, these are works that ‘seemed to have been not so much painted as excavated from an idiosyncratic compound of mud, sand, earth, dried blood and powdered minerals’ (J. Russell, quoted in W. Grimes, ‘Antoni Tàpies, Spanish Abstract Painter, Dies at 88’, in The New York Times, 6 February 2012).
Tàpies’ slashed and punctured picture plane may be said to recall the work of Lucio Fontana, whom the artist had met several years earlier. Indeed, the two artists were motivated by a similar desire to access a deeper reality by wounding and lacerating their pictorial surfaces; indeed, Fontana went so far as to rupture the very fabric of the canvas itself. Yet whilst Fontana’s practice was driven by his own Spatialist theories, inspired by contemporary developments in space exploration, Tàpies’ outlook arose from a more fundamental interest in the auratic properties of the materials he employed. Heavily inspired by Eastern philosophies, Tàpies cultivated an artistic language in which rough-hewn textures and caustic mark-making were understood as means of invoking profound existential forces. ‘The mystical consciousness – almost indefinable – seems fundamental for an artist’, Tàpies has explained. ‘It is like a “suffering” of reality, a state of constant hyper-sensitivity to everything that surrounds us, good and bad, light and darkness. It is like a voyage to the center of the universe which furnishes the perspective necessary for placing all things of life in their real dimension’ (A. Tàpies, ‘I am a Catalan’, 1971, reproduced in K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds)., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1996, p. 56).
THE ENDURING POWER OF PAINTING
Gerhard Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder, 1992 (estimate: £4million - 6million) is a rare four panel painting from the height of the artist’s abstract practice. Executed in 1992, the work was featured as the centrepiece of Richter’s landmark installation at Documenta IX in Kassel of the same year and was later exhibited at his travelling retrospective held at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris in 1993 and the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn. With its opulent visual surface, Abstrakte Bilder hails from the finest period in Richter’s abstraction, as the paintings created between 1989 and 1994 represent the purest articulation of the artist’s improvised technique. Another highlight is Richter’s Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colours), 1966 - 1996 (estimate: £3,500,000 - 4,500,000), the fifth work from his very first series of colour charts in 1966. Executed on a monumental scale, this painting was previously in the Onnasch Collection, Berlin.
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Abstrakte Bilder, each: signed, dated and numbered sequentially ‘760-1-4 Richter 1992’ (on the reverse), oil on canvas, in four parts, each: 78 ¾ x 27 ½in. (200 x 70cm.). Painted in 1992. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘The truth... When [the paintings] have a similar structure to and are organized in as truthful a way as nature. When I look out of the window, then truth for me is the way nature shows itself in its various tones, colours and proportions. That’s a truth and has its own correctness. This little slice of nature, and in fact any given piece of nature, represents to me an ongoing challenge, and is a model for my paintings’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Christiane Vielhaber, 1986’, in D. Elger and H. Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter TEXT: Writings, interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 189).
Towering over the viewer, Abstrakte Bilder is a rare four panel painting from the height of Gerhard Richter’s abstract practice. Executed in 1992, the work was featured as the centrepiece of Richter’s landmark installation at Documenta IX in Kassel of the same year and was later exhibited at his comprehensive travelling retrospective held first at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris in 1993 and Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn in 1994, which gave birth to Richter’s then most significant catalogue raisonné publication. With its opulent visual surface, Abstrakte Bilder hails from the finest period in Richter’s abstraction, as the paintings created between 1989 and 1994 represent the purest articulation of the artist’s improvised technique. Indeed the early 1990s was a time of great professional recognition for Richter, his breakthrough exhibition at Tate Gallery, London, took place in 1991 and Documenta IX was the first major presentation of his work in Germany since the showing of 18 October 1977 in Krefeld in 1989. Documenta IX was an important milestone for Richter. Inviting the architect Paul Robbrecht to assist in designing his space, Richter transformed the aluminium mobile pavilion offered by the organizers in Kassel into an intimate and luxuriously wood panelled room. In doing so, Richter revisited his own interest in the architectural spaces and arrangements of rooms that had begun with his formative years in Dresden as a mural painter. He was also entering a dialogue with modernist exhibition practice, eschewing the isolated, neutral white cube in favour of a more historically derived setting. Richter assembled fourteen works including Abstrakte Bilder into two rows lending the installation, ‘an air of permanency and intimacy [that] unified the work and the space’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. 322). Amongst the large abstract works was also an exquisitely photo-realist flower painting, Blumen (Flowers) and the double panelled grey painting, Grauer Spiegel (Grey Mirror), held in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. The success of the installation was such that Richter decided to replicate its appearance in the layout of his studio.
In its entirety, Abstrakte Bilder makes an immediate chromatic impact. By presenting this monumental work across four panels, Richter enables us to experience the work as a whole as well as more intimately according to each panel, with each offering a unique visual spectacle in their own right. Each of these panels represents the most representative characteristics of Richter’s abstract practice: the rich marbling, the blooming chromatic fusions, cavities and canyons that emerge to reveal kaleidoscopic fissures. Taking into consideration each singular panel in relation to the whole, certain gestures continue across all panels, bringing them into dialogue with one another and engendering Abstrakte Bilder with a sense of dynamism.
Each panel represents a distinct painterly journey that Richter has taken with colour as his guide. In the first panel, scumbled colours of burnished crimson and purple rise up from beneath like cross-sections through a fossil and are interspersed by broad apertures revealing earlier paint surfaces, offering the viewer visually engaging glimpses of the artist’s working practice. The horizontal pull of the squeegee in the second panel coupled with the hard edge of a palette knife imbues the canvases with an unrelenting verticality that is evocative of waterfall cascades. The rich blues and intense verdants rise to the surface as though lit upon by pure unadulterated light. In the third panel Richter offers a combination of anthracite from which emerges discrete swathes of aquamarine blue, palimpsests of canary yellow, passages of subtle pinks, violets and mauves – a subtle but rich palette that recalls Monet’s Waterlilies. Toward the top of the panel a cloud of pure pigment coalesces, arresting the eye and stopping it at the surface, preparing it to move on from the ethereal beauty of this panel onto the ultimate canvas. The fourth panel presents rills of paint that run up like tides alongside bands of turquoise colour, as though holding intense chromatic tides from spilling out beyond the confines of the composition. While alone these four monumental panels convey a powerful sense of presence, taken together, the compositional impact is awe-inspiring, as though coming in to contact with one of nature’s great formations. Abstrakte Bilder echoes Richter’s own statements regarding the conjuring up of nature in his painting: ‘The truth... When [the paintings] have a similar structure to and are organized in as truthful a way as nature. When I look out of the window, then truth for me is the way nature shows itself in its various tones, colours and proportions. That’s a truth and has its own correctness. This little slice of nature, and in fact any given piece of nature, represents to me an ongoing challenge, and is a model for my paintings’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Christiane Vielhaber, 1986’, in D. Elger and H. Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter TEXT: Writings, interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 189).
There is a palpable sense of movement and dynamism in this work, the horizontal and vertical striations intersecting as the paint is brushed, dragged, splattered and streaked across the canvas. Discussing the contrasting applications of paint in his pictures Richter has explained, ‘I think this comes from music. It would be like playing music with one instrument only. When you sound a note on the violin it sounds totally different than played on a trumpet, etc. It would be too boring to use only one instrument’ (G. Richter, quoted by S. Rainbird, ‘Variations on a Theme: The Painting of Gerhard Richter’, in Gerhard Richter, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 1991, p. 20). Indeed the staccatoed slippages offered in the painterly surface of Abstrakte Bilder coupled with the spaces between each panel creates a sense of presence and absence that not only chimes with Richter’s analogy of music but also plays into his larger concerns surrounding figuration and abstraction, representation and reality. In Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder, he usually disrupts any elements that are approaching recognisable forms, preferring instead to create an image which is the result only of the various movements of paint that have led to its creation. In Abstrakte Bilder the cumulative layers of non-representational paint in hues of blue and green, cannot help but evoke the lush green parkland or European pine forest drenched in rain or morning dew. Just as Claude Monet had done generations before him, Richter beautifully illuminates the shifting boundary between figuration and abstraction. Whilst Monet’s immersive, shimmering images of waterlilies and reflections on the quicksilver water of the pond at Giverny pushed figuration to the brink of abstraction, emphasising the illusory aspect of the lush, textured paint itself, in Abstrakte Bilder Richter has arrived at the same effect through different means.
In Abstrakte Bilder, Richter has fully embraced the contingency of his medium, enjoying the effects of his intuitive process. Richter has asserted, ‘I don’t have a specific picture in my mind’s eye... I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned. This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a pre-determined picture. Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of Nature (or a Readymade) always possesses’ (G. Richter, ‘Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990’, in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. 312). The use of the squeegee proved to be an important innovation for Richter, as it enabled him to surrender a certain element of artistic control whilst enhancing the physical qualities of the paint. To achieve the shimmering effect of Abstrakte Bilder, Richter lays down multiple thin strata of paint; then, as the pigment begins to dry, drags the squeegee across the surface, disrupting his freshly painted top stratum to reveal a kaleidoscope of previous layers. By utilizing these methods he slowly and systematically ekes out the painting’s final appearance in a gradual process that the artist has compared to a chess match.
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colours), signed, titled, numbered and dated ‘WV-Nr. 138 “15 FARBEN” Richter 1966/1996' (on the reverse); signed ‘Gerhard Richter’ (on a label affixed to the reverse), enamel paint on canvas, 78 ¾ x 51 1/8in. (200 x 130cm.). Painted in 1966–1996. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘Richter walked into the Düsseldorf paint store Sonnenherzog, where he normally bought his supplies. He had passed the racks of color charts dozens of times, but this time they caught his eye – all those colorful scientifically formulated and organized to capture the full chromatic spectrum. The charts had no message, no agenda; but they were vivid and they instantly inspired him’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. 148).
‘The charts provided an answer to a question that Richter already had in mind: not only how to dissociate color from its traditional descriptive, symbolic, or expressive ends, but also how to avoid the dogma that surrounded geometric abstraction’ (A. Temkin, Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008, p. 90).
Originating in the very first series of colour chart from 1966 and the fifth in sequence, Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colours) (138) stands two metres tall, human height, with its fifteen discrete blocks of colour, creating an extraordinary chromatic experience. This series was conceived for his second exhibition at Galerie Friedrich & Dahlem, Munich in 1966, entitled Gerhard Richter – Farbtafeln (Colour Charts), which consisted entirely of Colour Charts. The work was later exhibited in the now legendary Young German Artists: 14 x 14 – Living in the Museum,exhibition at Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, in 1968. Soon after, the work was acquired by Reinhard Onnash. Over a white background, the fifteen unique blocks of colour are executed in enamel paint which impacts a glossy sheen that makes them hover in front of the eyes, creating an optical illusion of black spots between the colour blocks. Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colors) brilliantly encapsulates the formal and conceptual themes that Gerhard Richter was investigating at the time. The inception of the series has been made the stuff of legend in Dietmar Elger’s biography of the artist: ‘Richter walked into the Düsseldorf paint store Sonnenherzog, where he normally bought his supplies. He had passed the racks of color charts dozens of times, but this time they caught his eye – all those colourful scientifically formulated and organized to capture the full chromatic spectrum. The charts had no message, no agenda; but they were vivid and they instantly inspired him’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. 148). This inspiration resulted in the Colour Chart series, his first sustained exploration of the role of colour in painting, and what proved to be one of the most seminal bodies of work in his career. Other examples from this early series of Colour Charts from 1966 are held in collections of the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein- Westfalen, Dusseldorf. Exhibited the same year as its execution Fünfzehn Farben was shown in the artist’s solo show at Galerie Friedrich und Dahlem, Munich.
The creation of the first Colour Chart paintings precipitated an intense period of experimentation, generally recognised as one of the most fruitful in Richter’s oeuvre. Created at a time when Richter was thinking of Duchamp, the series was conceived directly after Richter painted Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966, Museum Lugwig, Cologne, as a response to Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase No.2, 1912, which purported the limitations of painting. Continuing to comment on Duchamp’s legacy, just as the origins of Duchamp’s Apolinère Enameled, 1916-1917 was a modified readymade Sapolin Enamel paint advertisement, Richter’s Colour Charts are clearly a nod to Duchamp in the appropriation of colour paint samples. As such, Colour Charts represent a conceptual turn in Richter’s practice. Turning to the cool, colourful geometrical arrangements of colours was in many ways a sharp departure from the black and white photo-realist paintings that Richter had focused on in the early 60s. Indeed, in many ways, Richter’sColour Charts foreshadow his engagement with pure, arresting combinations of colour that was to come with his renowned Abstraktes Bild Paintings of the 1970s onwards.
Around this time in 1966, , Richter had begun to develop other models for the examination of visual perception alongside the photo-realist paintings: the slightly abstracted Cityscapes and Mountainscapes, the Panes of Glass, theMirrors, the Grey paintings and indeed the Colour Charts all represented, in their different ways, direct examinations of the mechanics of painting. From the initial Pop-influenced development of the Photo-realist paintings into otherwise unaltered, enlarged copies of paint sample cards, Richter began to remove the representational responsibilities of colour and instead began to investigate the relative roles of each and every colour. Starting with this first series of Colour Charts, Richter increasingly used colour without mediation, celebrating its autonomy and dissociating it from its traditional descriptive, symbolic and expressive tasks. As Ann Temkin has noted, ‘The charts provided an answer to a question that Richter already had in mind: not only how to dissociate color from its traditional descriptive, symbolic, or expressive ends, but also how to avoid the dogma that surrounded geometric abstraction’ (A. Temkin, Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008, p. 90).
In his Colour Charts, Richter experimented with a variety of formats for both the colour units and the overall paintings. His preparatory sketches for his 1966 series reveal his meticulous planning, whereby he chose specific colour combinations, and carefully removed the names of the colours as well as the paint manufacturers. And yet, the colour distribution into autonomous units maintain a distinctly arbitrary, anti-compositional feeling to it. Looking at these preparatory sketches, it is clear that proportion and scale were also fundamental concerns for Richter, evidenced by his placement of a human figure alongside his Colour Chart sketches. Colours are arranged as autonomous units, with subtle traces of Richter’s brushwork are still visible in the shiny enamel paint. Indeed it was not just what was on the canvas that concerned Richter, but how the colour and form reacted and interacted with its environment and the viewer. Although the cool, industrially-infected appearance of Fünfzehn Farben might seem to relate it to the new currents of Minimalist art, or to Ellsworth Kelly’s Colours for a Large Wall of the early 50s (which he claims not to have known at the time), Richter’s investigation of colour represent an independent and inventive, although highly complementary, exploration of the resonance of found colour and non-hierarchical compositional structures.
Working closely alongside friends such as Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo, whom he met while attending art school in Düsseldorf, together, they perused department stores and other shops in search of new, non-art, materials with which to experiment. Such shops were embodiments of the new post-war prosperity in West Germany, a far cry from East Germany, which Richter abandoned in 1961, shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected. A group of ‘likeminded painters as Richter described his relationship with Polke at that time, together staged action/exhibitions and wrote anti-historical/anti-ideological texts for their joint exhibition in 1966. They operated under the moniker, “Capital Realists,” a reference both to the East German Social Realist art movement and Pop Art in America, while critiquing West German consumerism in a burst of youthful anarchy (G. Richter quoted in D. Elger & H.U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 537). The furnishings and supplies they offered for a broad middle-class audience the opportunity to transform its environment, customizing their surroundings and possessions in response to their own desires. While Richter found himself drawn to the paint samples available in such shops, Polke and Palermo chose to experiment with ready-made textiles. Polke used inexpensive printed Art Decostyle fabrics as basis for some of his paintings, and Palermo stitched together coloured bolts of fabric to create abstract fields of colour.
With their conception rooted in his everyday existence, Richter’s Colour Charts are ready-made abstract paintings, offer in a witty retort to Pop. Indeed, Richter has described his series as primarily a response to Pop and to Warhol above all. Speaking to Robert Storr, Richter explained of his practice, ‘for me it was obvious that I had to wipe out the details. I was happy to have a method that was rather mechanical. In that regard I owe something to Warhol. He legitimized the mechanical. He showed me how it is done. It is a normal state of working, to eliminate things. But Warhol showed me this modern way of letting details disappear, or at least he validated its possibilities’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Gerhard Richter’, in R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting, New York 2003, p. 169). While the Colour Charts could certainly be read as magnifications of their source on a monumental scale, akin to the enlarging of everyday media imagery undertaken by Warhol and Lichtenstein, his choice to do away with the indexical characteristics of these objects completely detaches them from their humble origins.
A further important painting in the auction is by Frank Auerbach who in 1986 was selected to exhibit in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. There he displayed Primrose Hill, Autumn, 1931 (estimate: £1.2million - 1.8million) which reflects the artist’s profound connection with this pastoral North London park near his studio, along with Primrose Hill, Winter, which is now in the collection of the Israel Museum. The Venice Biennale awarded him the first ever Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement that year alongside Sigmar Polke.
Frank Auerbach (B. 1931), Primrose Hill, Autumn, signed, titled and dated 'FRANK AUERBACH "PRIMROSE HILL AUTUMN" 1979-80' (on the reverse), oil on board, 60 x 48in. (147.4 x 121.9cm.). Painted in 1979-1980. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘The rhythmic unity between earth and sky is prolonged… [the work’s] compass of forms moves with ease between grand events in the sky- like the bulging lobe of yellow, edged in greeny-black, that shoves its way into the top of Primrose Hill – and smaller incidents: rays of light, bend in the path, railings, dogs, a woman with a push chair, a running child’ (R. Hughes discussing the present work, in Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 212).
‘This part of London is my world... I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I have become attached to them, and as fond of them as people are of their pets’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (eds.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2001, p. 15).
From lustrous swathes of rich oil paint, Frank Auerbach conjures a vast and awe-inspiring vision of his beloved London. One of the largest and vibrant examples of the artist’s most important subjects, Primrose Hill, Autumn, 1979-1980, reflects a profound connection with his surroundings. Loading his brush with colour, Auerbach creates a topography of tactile peaks and ridges; the sumptuous sweeps of violet, mauve, ochre, and crimson cohere to form the sloping hills of the north London park near the artist’s studio in Mornington Crescent. The wealth of vibrant hues evoke the vividness of autumnal leaves at the height of the season. Auerbach’s expressionistic strokes pick out vignettes across the landscape, capturing the movement of figures. Robert Hughes describes the scene: ‘The rhythmic unity between earth and sky is prolonged… [the work’s] compass of forms moves with ease between grand events in the sky – like the bulging lobe of yellow, edged in greeny-black, that shoves its way into the top of Primrose Hill – and smaller incidents: rays of light, bend in the path, railings, dogs, a woman with a push chair, a running child’ (R. Hughes discussing the present work, in Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 212). Auerbach’s painterly explorations of the park began almost sixty years ago in 1954, and his depictions of Primrose Hill are included in such prestigious international collections as the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Tate, London, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. In 1986, Frank Auerbach was chosen to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. He showed 8 drawings and 32 paintings including Primrose Hill, Autumn and Primrose Hill, Winter, now in the collection of the Israel Museum. He was subsequently awarded the first ever Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.
The artist’s profound attachment to London is residually felt in the instinctiveness with which the artist crafts the landscape and in the care and extraordinary attention he takes to capture the details of the intimate world that he inhabits and loves. ‘This part of London is my world,’ Auerbach has mused, ‘I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I have become attached to them, and as fond of them as people are of their pets’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (eds.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2001, p. 15). In its very materiality, Primrose Hill, Autumn is a physical iteration of the reality that the artist experienced, with paint acting as the substantiative proof of his realisation. Setting out early in the morning, Auerbach would go to the park to complete rough sketches that he would later work up into paintings in his studio. Not completed en plein air, Auerbach’s process enables him to conflate his memory and experience of the landscape in his own time, capturing ‘what it was like to actually draw there that morning... what I see is what I was looking at when I did the drawing and it reminds me of it. That’s what it was for. I see the sunlight and the trees and the hill so I paint from these by looking at the drawing... I’m looking at black and white drawings and the lines signal colours to me’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ‘Frank Auerbach’, Frank Auerbach, exh. cat., The British Council, XLII Venice Biennale, London and Venice, 1986, p. 9).
The vastness of Primrose Hill, Autumn conveys a true sense of the space, movement, and openness of the park in the heart of the ever-changing metropolis. Furthering this idea of representing memory and experience, Primrose Hill, Autumn is evidence of the change Auerbach’s landscapes underwent after a rare foray outside of London to Tretire, Herefordshire in 1975 when the artist was captivated by a tree outside his bedroom window, which subsequently informed his more pronounced representation of trees in his landscapes. Using the painterly tradition to visually construct his momentary sensation, Auerbach worked and reworked the image’s surface, moving toward the gestural sweep that would ultimately signal the immortalisation of his experience. Scraping away the paint that did not achieve the representation of his vision, the surface would become marked with the residual manifestations of the artist’s process. With his successive sweeps of the palette knife and brush, Auerbach’s direct application of pure paint picks up flecks of other colours, producing a variegated surface suggestive of both the artist’s visual experience and the creative act. Constructed with a sumptuous density of paint, Auerbach’s gestural impasto emits the sensation of the softly glowing light of an autumnal evening while also retaining the essential qualities of the material itself. In topographical abundance of painterly peaks and valleys, the artist communicates the tension conveyed by the material as it was traversed across the work’s surface. Redolent of the artist’s hand, the gestural traces coalesce into an energetic composition that convey his experience and set the rhythm for the eye to cast around, unfolding the memories that have been rendered into the surface of the canvas. To this effect, Catherine Lampert remarks in the artist’s Royal Academy retrospective catalogue that ‘reading an Auerbach painting is an energetic experience, while colours prompt the unfolding of memories in the mind’s eye’ (C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (eds.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2001p. 100).
Ritually returning to his sanctuary in the heart of the city for the last fifty-odd years, Auerbach’s deeply personal observations of Primrose Hill reveal the poignant beauty of the everyday. Dutifully capturing the subtle changes to the quality of light and colours in his constant environment, this inquiry recalls the Impressionist investigations of the effects of light and shade on certain landscapes such as Monet’s views of London. Instilling within himself a sense paintings of the Old Masters to teach him how to almost alchemically transform an inert material into a convincing depiction of the real world. As such, the artist visited the National Gallery in London virtually every week from as early as the 1950s in order to make drawings of paintings there. In an interview in 1986 Auerbach listed artists whose work had influenced him, which included Turner, John Constable, André Derain and Claude Monet. Of this preoccupation with London as a subject, Auerbach explains: ‘I have a strong sense that London hasn’t been properly painted... Monet on the Thames, Derain at the docks; bits and pieces, rather spottily, by Whistler and Sickert. But it has always cried out to be painted, and not been’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 84). Furthering the time-honored classical motif of the changing seasons, Auerbach celebrates the allegorical Four Seasons with his own deeply personal rendition of his quotidian experience.
The auction also includes three works from one of contemporary art’s most iconoclastic figures, Albert Oehlen. Protégé of Sigmar Polke, comrade of Martin Kippenberger and enfant terrible of the 1980s, Oehlen, with his experimental impulse, was a trailblazing force of the Post-punk generation. His explosive dialogue with painting at a time when Minimalism and Conceptualism had declared it dead marked him out as a leading figure within the radical second wave of German Post-War art.
His Frühstück now (Self-Portrait), 1984 (estimate: £300,000 - 400,000) subverts the idea of the self-portrait, while his Ohne Titel (Untitled), 1988 (estimate: £220,000 - 280,000) moves away from the figurative canvases of his youth, ushering in the abstract idiom that defines some of his most captivating works.
Albert Oehlen (b. 1954), Frühstück now (Self-Portrait), signed and dated 'A. Oehlen 84' (lower right), oil and lacquer on canvas, 63 x 51 ¼in. (160 x 130.2cm.). Painted in 1984. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘I posed the self-portrait as a problem for myself in my search for new levels of difficulty, precisely because there’s a huge historical apparatus attached to it, and because it makes you think of art, of seriousness and meaning. Putting myself next to the masters’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 48).
‘In Oehlen’s self-portraits you can always tell that he’s thinking. He perfectly captures that transparent, blank moment right before the Eureka of epiphany’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Indulgences: 95 Theses or Bottles of Beer on the Wall’, in Parkett, no. 79, 2007, p. 38).
Executed in 1984, during the critical early stages of Oehlen’s career, Frühstück Now (Self-Portrait) is a compelling work from the select number of self-portraits that punctuate Oehlen’s diverse oeuvre. Witty, subversive and rich in historical allusion, the self-portraits occupy a rare and significant position within Oehlen’s radical reinvigoration of painting, representing unique statements that span the breadth of his practice. Dialectically engaging with one of art history’s most time-honoured traditions, the self-portraits of the early- to mid-1980s coincide with Oehlen’s explorations of fgural presence in his work. In the present work, amusingly titled Frühstück Now (‘Breakfast Now’), the artist has depicted himself as a marble bust, cryptically paired with the Albanian fag and three spring onions, in an exquisitely burnished palette of russet and gold. Art-historical mirages abound, from old master portraits to modernistnature mortes to Germanic expressionism, from Diego Velázquez to Giorgio de Chirico, via Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Ultimately, perhaps, we are reminded of Oehlen’s close relationship with Martin Kippenberger, whose own mocking self-presentations are echoed in Oehlen’s sardonic re-casting of himself in a heroic sculptural form. Yet for Oehlen, self-portraiture was less about self-analysis than about confronting painting at its most basic level. As the artist explains, ‘I posed the self-portrait as a problem for myself in my search for new levels of difficulty, precisely because there’s a huge historical apparatus attached to it, and because it makes you think of art, of seriousness and meaning. Putting myself next to the masters’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 48).
The self-portraits saw Oehlen experiment with new methods and techniques, adopting a more subtle approach to oil paint which he termed ‘glazing painting’. ‘You work with many layers of thin oil paint. You can model the subject of the painting by bringing it to where you want it very slowly, instead of putting down the right color at once with one brush stroke’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 46). In the present work, this use of paint results in an almost translucent quality, an exquisite layering effect that lends depth and radiance to the canvas. Oehlen allows delicate rivulets of paint to flow sideways across the picture plane in a manner that elegantly disrupts the vertical striations of the painting’s composition. There is a liquid, aqueous quality to the work, a palpable sense of fluidity; like the mirror paintings of 1980-1982, in which the viewer finds themselves intermittently reflected in fragments of glass, the portraits harbour a sense of impending revelation. As Glenn O’Brien has written, ‘In Oehlen’s self-portraits you can always tell that he’s thinking. He perfectly captures that transparent, blank moment right before the Eureka of epiphany’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Indulgences: 95 Theses or Bottles of Beer on the Wall’, in Parkett, no. 79, 2007, p. 38).
Determined to engage with self-portraiture from within the tradition itself, Oehlen painted his own visage directly from a mirror. ‘Somehow or other it’s fun’, the artist claimed, ‘but it’s very strange, because you don’t know your face in that way, you learn to define details. The curve of the bridge of the nose, you see if there’s a dent there or not. Suddenly you notice that they are rather small – these are things that don’t really tell you anything about yourself. You don’t ascribe meaning to them, but you define the face via wrinkles, the size of the ears, the curve of the nose, and such things. And in the end you know just those things about your face’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’,Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 78). The transformation of his face into a sculpture in the present work, however, allows us to see Oehlen’s ironic impulse at work, self-consciously deifying his features in silver and gold. ‘I was also making fun of myself a little bit’, Oehlen has said of this tendency in other self-portraits. ‘But probably it’s a less painful way than the way Kippenberger did it (A. Oehlen, quoted in in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 80).
Regarding the mysterious objects that loom in the background of the work, Oehlen has explained, ‘That’s the Albanian fag and spring onions. It probably refers to the half-hearted Maoism of my youth’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 58). The art historian Robert Ohrt provides a measure of insight into this reference in an account that brings to mind the sardonically-titled ‘League for the Prevention of Contradictory Behaviour’, founded by Oehlen and the artist Werner Büttner in their youth. ‘Faced with this prevailing terror of the innocuous and a subculture that cultivated it, Büttner and Oehlen in particular rebuilt an apparently outdated arsenal of sectarian Maoist slogans and directives and from their party headquarters attacked what remained of a lost radicalism. They carried on a “virtual Maoism” that promoted the language of consistency by taking the false example of art; they demanded that painting be taken up again like an abandoned historical project’ (R. Ohrt, ‘For the Life of Me, I can’t See any Swastikas’ in E. Gillen (ed.),German Art from Beckman to Richter: Images of a Divided Country, Berlin 1997, p. 342).
Albert Oehlen (b. 1954), Ohne Titel (Untitled), signed and dated ‘A. Oehlen 88’ (on the reverse), oil and silver spray enamel on canvas, 94 ½ x 78 ½in. (240.5 x 199.5cm.). Executed in 1988. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘Spain was extremely productive… totally extreme, for me it was the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 343).
Painted in 1988, Albert Oehlen’s Untitled is a mesmerizing work from one of the most pivotal moments in the artist’s career. It was during this year that Oehlen embarked upon his legendary trip to Spain with his great friend and comrade, Martin Kippenberger. Occupying a house in Andalusia, Oehlen made a significant move away from the figurative canvases of his youth, ushering in the unique abstract idiom that defines some of his most captivating works. As the artist recalls, ‘Spain was extremely productive … totally extreme, for me it was the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger,Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 343). Though Kippenberger continued to pursue figuration during this period, the two artists had a profound motivational effect on one another, and the present work was exhibited in their joint show of 1989 – an exhibition that showcased the fruitfulness of their Spanish sojourn. Within Oehlen’s celebrated overhaul of painting as a contemporary medium, the abstract works became a sophisticated forum for the artist’s unabashed fusion of stylistic elements, producing canvases that implode their art-historical lineage with the sweeping confidence typical of the 1980s post-Punk generation. Here, minimalistic geometric patterning collides with wild painterly gesture in a palette of rich earthy tones layered with blue and gold. A dramatic blend of rawness and opulence, the work has been exhibited in some of the artist’s most important retrospective shows, including those held at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (2006), the Kunstmuseum Bonn (2012) and the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, last year.
Like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke before them, Oehlen and Kippenberger cultivated a symbiotic relationship that spurred each other along their own creative pathways. Rebellious ringleaders to their unruly group of peers, the two shared exhibition spaces, co-authored publications and collaborated on a wide variety of creative projects from sculpture to music. ‘It was like we were engaged’, said Kippenberger, recalling their spontaneous year-long retreat to Spain (M. Kippenberger, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 276). Oehlen himself reflects upon the period as one of intense creative exchange. ‘It was meant to be a time to think and experiment and make something new. He came up with some extreme sculptures that followed the three “Peter” shows and also with his self-portraits, and I came up with the abstract paintings. We were working like that for the whole year and testing things out on each other, to see if he reacts by smiling or looks bored’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in E. Banks, ‘Albert Oehlen talks to Eric Banks’, in Artforum , April 2003).
A student of Polke’s subversive radicality, Oehlen marshalled his contemporaries into a euphoric assault on painting amidst the clinical purity espoused by the current trends of Minimalist and Conceptualist art. Through irreverent engagement with painting’s historical and technical clichés, Oehlen opened up startling new directions for its development. The abstract paintings played a distinctive and carefully-meditated role in this trajectory. ‘I always had a wish to become an abstract painter’, he has stated. ‘I wanted to reproduce in my own career the classical development in the history of art from figurative to abstract painting. But I wasn’t ready to make the change before 1988. In Spain I made myself free for the project’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in A. Stooke, ‘I Wanted My Paintings to Like Me’, in The Telegraph, 1 July 2006). The present work engages in vivid dialogue with the history of abstraction, referencing the gestural exuberance of the New York School alongside allusion to the geometric surface patterns of European Modernism, incongruously layered on top of one another with the conceptual wit of Kippenberger. In this regard, the work recalls Hamza Walker’s description of Oehlen’s canvases as ‘a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke, and a muddy mix of colours juxtaposed against vibrant pigment straight from the tube ... Oehlen’s paintings are always autonomous in so far as they have managed to eliminate through contradiction an allegiance to any particular style’ (H. Walker, ‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’, in Albert Oehlen: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Chicago, 1995, http://www.renaissancesociety.org/site/ Exhibitions/Essay.Albert-Oehlen-Recent-Paintings.88.html [accessed 26 May 2014]).
For Oehlen, the works produced in this focused period of creativity in Spain, away from the distractions of the city, represent a move towards artistic maturity. ‘In the late ‘80s, I started making an effort to be seen as a serious painter’, Oehlen has said (A. Oehlen, quoted in E. Banks, ‘Albert Oehlen talks to Eric Banks’, in Artforum, April 2003). The present work, rich in its gestural vocabulary, is a testament to this statement: the brashness of his youth is tempered by a keen critical eye and a true commitment to the continued exploration of expressive possibility in painting. Oehlen’s sharp intellect and experimental fair are brought to bear on a work that occupies an aesthetic category all of its own.
With its giant bold stacked letters, Christopher Wool’s Untitled, 1990 (estimate: £5.5million - 7.5million) confuses the senses with its confrontational urban poetry. Both nihilistic and witty in its tone, the colossal ‘HA AH’ gridded out over two rows nearly three metres high is at once the punch line of a joke, word play and a question. A friend of Oehlen and Kippenberger, Wool conceived this work at the end of a decade where painting’s right to exist had been questioned by Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘The Death of Painting’ in 1981. Untitled was exhibited at Wool’s first solo exhibition in Europe at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam in 1991, just before his showing at Documenta IX in 1992, and is at the origin of the artist’s important series.
Christopher Wool (B. 1955), Untitled, signed, numbered and dated ‘WOOL 1990 W3’ (on the reverse), enamel on aluminum, 108 x 72in. (274.3 x 182.8cm.). Executed in 1990. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘Sometimes, if you look at a word long enough, it’s stops making sense. And then you can start over again with it. We deconstruct the word and the letter and the phrase by contemplating it in skewed order, instinctively going for acrostic. Wool deconstructs words and decontextualizes phrases by stacking letters at faux random. The process generates calligraphic effects, acrostic reverb and a kind of Rubik’s cubism of meaning’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]).
‘His is a gangster aesthetic: grim, business-like, poker-faced, blunt. Yet… as if lurking behind their tight-lipped facades were something like a wink, a tip-off to viewers of some colossal unfolding scam. This is art with a gun in its back’ (C. Haye, ‘Myth and Man’, in Frieze, issue 20, January – February 1995).
‘The chosen words and phrases are All-American mantras, knucklehead koans, idiot ideograms. They are about conventional wisdom, common knowledge and default settings. They are compressed and concentrated like Alka Seltzer or Pez. They are bricks. Clunky, dangerous, mass-produced, but no two exactly alike and their composition on the canvas or page or slab puts them under a philological, microscope’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]).
‘He’s a connoisseur of chaos and a cartographer of disorder’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]).
‘The artwork tries to articulate some final observations on the current sorry state of consumer affairs. Its message seems heartfelt, the wording precise and deliberate - just two letters, each pronounced twice: ‘HA,’ then ‘AH’. Combined here are the simple sounds of human wonder and appreciation, the picture appearing to gasp in recognition and delight. And yet no matter how many times you read it, it fumbles its delivery of the line, choking on whatever emotion it’s trying to express, a grimace interrupting its look of surprise. It seems a joke has been played, a punchline reached. But the tension in the air only grows thicker. Confused, desperate, the painting in the end can’t make up its mind whether it should laugh or cry’ (C. Haye, ‘Myth and Man’, in Frieze, issue 20, January – February 1995).
ith its giant letters stacked and boldly writ, Untitled collides and confuses the senses with its confrontational urban poetry. Both nihilistic and witty in its tone, the colossal ‘HA AH’ gridded out over two rows extending nearly three metres high is at once the punch line of a joke and a questioning conversation, palindromic word-play and onomatopoeic reflex. Executed in 1990, it is perhaps no coincidence that its ambitious verbiage, ‘HA AH’ rhymes with ‘Dada’, since it is a work whose confident and bold execution, with its thick dripping black letters, overrides the apparent questioning sensitivity of its statement. But more than just a play on words, ‘HA AH’ captures the anti-rational aspects of Dada – its title embodying the multilingual, childish, and nonsensical connotations celebrated in the movement. Untitled was conceived at the end of a decade where painting’s right to exist had been deeply questioned by Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘The Death of Painting’ in 1981. Wool took the naysayers on by breathing new life into the medium, with his completely unique adaptation of the industrial materials of urban culture. Coming at the end of that decade, Wool sticks one finger up at Crimp, in a knowingly metaphorical phrase, ‘HA AH’ rather like Homer Simpson would say ‘Doh’! Clearly a play on letters, this palindrome is also a turn of phrase, both a hesitation within a discussion, and a discussion with a question at its heart. Exhibited at his first solo exhibition in Europe at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1991 and just before Documenta two years later, the work is situated at the origin of his profound and important series.
A Wool ‘word’ picture hits you like a sudden collision: the artist’s bold, edgy and uncompromising censure bursts out of its framing structure. The four large stencilled black letters of Untitled are staggered out across the expanse of the aluminium, and yet the message is tightly constrained within the edges of a large, flat aluminium support. Wool denies the letters space to breath, reducing the intervals necessary for our brains to discern words, and ultimately meaning. Loose paint drips from the edges, pushing each letter out of the already claustrophobic picture plane and into our own environment. As a result, the object feels closer than it appears. This sense of foreboding is heightened by the typeface: its utilitarian nature coupled with its physical size engenders a sense of stark authority. This tension between the physical properties of the work and its psychological effect lies at the heart of Wool’s artistic practice; he subverts the conventions of language to render his painting with a surreal sense of simplicity that belies its inward complexity.
With the outsized letters seemingly leaping from beyond the confines of the picture plane, Untitled appears to be barking its statement with an accusatory finger jab or poke. Yet while the aesthetics are clear and explicit, the work’s meaning remains ambiguous. Initially unable to digest the words, the viewer – seeing only letters – must methodically read through the painting in several streams of consciousness as the starts and stops of each word begin to materialize. The letters gain meaning as we recite the statement, digest it, and, in so doing, become part of the artistic process. Functioning at the edge of meaning, the statement – ‘HA AH’ – scrambles referents: are these the pithy retorts of one protagonist or two? Is it Wool speaking to his viewer or the viewer’s own response upon contemplating the work: ‘HA, how amusing… AH, I get it [or don’t] ’. Or is the referent, in fact, a more comprehensive concept, referring perhaps to the act of painting in general? After all, the moment of Wool’s emergence in the late 1980s was a time of divided understandings in terms of the relevance of painting to high art. Questions about painting’s viability, its pertinence, in the final decades of the 20th century were at the forefront of postmodernist theoretical discourse.
PAINTING AND WORDS
Indeed Wool’s emergence as a painter in the early 1980s coincides with a period of soul searching within the art world about the state of painting. It was in this environment that Wool began his exploration of the painterly process and the different techniques that could be utilized to expand its properties. Wool began using words as imagery as early as 1987 after seeing a brand new white truck with the words ‘SEX LUV’ hand-painted across it. This first collection of word paintings was created during an intensely creative period for the artist and focused on words or phrases with multiple meanings.
The word paintings demonstrate Wool’s ability to breathe new life into established modes of expression. ‘I always considered myself involved with painting I can’t imagine someone seeing one of those and not realizing it’s a painting. I think, the way I used text was not didactic. I was not speaking about art, I was just making paintings. The text was more subject than anything else’ (C. Wool, ‘Conversation with Christopher Wool with Martin Prinzhorn’, Museum in Progress, 1997, http://www.mip.at/attachments/222, [accessed 1 June 2014]). As Wool espouses, these works do not function as celebrations of linguistic power nor indeed as commentary on contemporary culture; rather, as demonstrated in Untitled, the word paintings undermine the communicative ability of language by collapsing it in on itself, displacing syntax and challenging legibility. Like telegrams gone awry with typographical malfunction, language implodes upon the page, forced to the very edges of the surface through Wool’s mutilating amputations. There is a sense in which Wool’s petition to reinstate painting comes at the cost of a brutal attack on literacy: if painting must go, the work seems to say, then it will not be before language. Wool’s work may therefore be understood as an act of defiance: in each instance, painting becomes the means of textual disfigurement. The deformation is complete, the damage is done. In Untitled, like a stifled punch line, Wool’s letters may be understood as straining to express this very predicament-‘HA AH’.
A NEW ARTISTIC LANGUAGE
The ‘word’ paintings are undoubtedly rooted in the aesthetic of factory-style reproduction espoused by Pop Art, in which uniformity became a means of expression in its own right, and minimal presentation worked in tandem with slogans lifted from everyday life. Indeed, as Madeleine Grynsztejn has written, ‘Wool’s work shares Pop Art’s affection for the vulgar and the vernacular, and in form it recalls Pop’s graphic economy of means, iconic images and depersonalized mechanical registration’ (M. Grynsztejn, ‘Unfinished Business’, in A. Goldstein, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Los Angeles Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 266). Ed Ruscha’s OOF, 1962, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (Soap Pads), 1964, and Robert Indiana’s Love, 1967 are certainly to be counted amongst Wool’s forebears with their aesthetic falling between the parameters of found and constructed image and between mundane reproof and absurd outburst. Yet in contrast to the clean-cut aesthetic of commercial advertising that had originally driven the development of Pop Art in the 1960s, Wool’s works are the product of the disjointed writings of the urban landscape: the warnings, boasts, insults and territorial markers represented in the scrawled markings of graffiti. Like his contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool’s artistic outlook was nourished by the street art ineffably scrawled around the city, punctuated by the cacophony of peeling posters and flyers that adorned abandoned buildings and billboards. This raw vibrancy is captured in the word paintings: executed with searing vitality, the block-like capital letters appear to shout at the viewer from the surface, their disjointed messages steeped in the coded poeticism of graffiti.
At the same time, the Spartan stencilling recalls Minimalism, especially the word works of Joseph Kosuth’s such asTitled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word ‘Definition’, 1966-1968. But where Kosuth’s works were deliberately self-contained and hermetically sealed by the words that they formed, Wool’s art is rogue: it is a disjointed phrase that points an accusatory finger at the ambiguity of language and syntax. But with the thick, somewhat loose, wide drips and smears, Untitled also partakes of the legacy of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. As O’Brien espouses, ‘Wool embraces and engages action painting as his primary source and he then manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a Pop artist or Dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined in technique and redolent of street vernacular, both high and low’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]). Here, Wool takes Duchamp’s colloquial play on words in L.H.O.O.Q. to a new level. While Duchamp coyly masks his reference of ‘Elle a chaud au cul’ or ‘She is hot in the arse’ through a series of letters, Wool’s attempt is not so sly. Instead, he employs extreme starkness of Richard Prince’s Joke paintings with the raw grit of Pollock or de Kooning’s painted surfaces.
Untitled is a powerful example of the art of its time, yet continues to be of paramount relevance today. Showcasing the ongoing debates that raged about the significance of painting, it also reflects the life experiences of a generation of artists who matured in the tough urban environment of the early 1990s. Untitled’s directness, both aesthetically and conceptually, stands as an exceptional example of Wool’s work from this important period. The ambiguity of the syntax is as uncanny as it is menacing, and allows Wool to fundamentally question the content of paintings and re-interpret the narrative elements of art in a thoroughly modern context. In its vernacular, geometric, yet painterly rendering, Wool treats materials and language as a dynamic ambiguity between sign and referent, conventional artmaking and a postmodern anti-aesthetic. Wool’s brash, explicit paintings were developed against the backdrop of inner city blight and urban deprivation that affected most large cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s; as such, Untitled, is intrinsically linked to the post-Punk scene of New York, its energy and attitude running through the very heart of the work. In his elevation of grit from the underbelly of the industrial urban environment into the expansive history of fine art, Wool’s iconic visual statements have generated new possibilities for painting in the post-Pop era.
ITALIAN POST-WAR MASTERPIECES
Following on the success of Christie’s Italian Sale in October 2013 – a record total for an auction of Italian art - and of the single owner Eyes Wide Open Auction in February 2014 that made 14 artist records, we are proud to be the market leaders in Post-War Italian art and to offer more exceptional works from this period. The decades following the Second World War in Italy, gave rise to the country’s rapidly changing socio-political and economic culture of the 1950s and 1960s that led to a rich period for art in which many artists explored and deconstructed simple materials, looked afresh at their world and created a new art of the everyday. Lucio Fontana explored ideas about space, both that of the canvas, which he poked holes in and slashed, as well as the new Space Age of the 1960s. Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1965 (estimate: £4million - 6million) is a lyrical example of his pioneering Spatialist aesthetic. One of the largest works to be made in pristine white, Concetto spaziale, Attese is the only work by the artist that includes ten perfected cuts (or ‘tagli’) on canvas within its original luminous lacquer frame. Each incision follows the intuitive rhythm and graceful, almost musical momentum of the artist’s hand as it scored the surface, making Concetto spaziale, Attese one of Fontana’s finest slash paintings and the quintessential embodiment of Spazialismo, a movement which took time, energy, space and matter as its fundamental elements. Considered one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century - and currently celebrated in a retrospective at Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris - Fontana exercised a profound influence on generations of artists, from Yves Klein to the present.
Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Concetto spaziale, Attese, signed, titled and inscribed 'l. Fontana "Concetto Spaziale" ATTESE Il mese di Febbraio inauguro una mostra a Parigi' (on the reverse), waterpaint on canvas and lacquered wood frame, 39 3/8 x 52in. (100 x 133.3cm.). Executed in 1965. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘I wanted to create a ‘spatial environment, by which I mean an environmental structure, a preliminary journey in which the twenty slits would be as if in a labyrinth containing blanks of the same shape and colour’ (L. Fontana, quoted in S. Whitfeld, Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., London, 1999, p. 200).
‘At the Venice Biennale in 1966 Fontana proposed a room in which were gathered together and disposed according to a particular architectural arrangement some exceedingly pure single tagli in a room which was also entirely white and in which the cuts were the only superficial “cracks” bearing an evident revealing conceptual and metaphysical significance (66 T 35...). White represented, as we know, for Fontana the “purest, least complicated, most understandable colour,” that which most immediately struck the note of “pure simplicity,” “pure philosophy,” “spatial philosophy,” “cosmic philosophy” to which Fontana more than ever aspired during the last years of his life’ (J. van der Marck & E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana, Vol. I, Brussels, 1974, p. 137).
Enveloping in scale, Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1965 is a pure and lyrical example of Lucio Fontana’s pioneering Spatialist aesthetic. As one of the largest works to be carried out in pristine white, Concetto spaziale, Attese is the only work conceived by the artist uniting ten perfected cuts on canvas within a luminous lacquer frame. Each incision follows the intuitive rhythm and graceful, almost balletic momentum of the artist’s hand as it scored the surface. With its crisp and elegant progression of almost calligraphic slashes traversing the canvas, Concetto spaziale, Attese becomes the quintessential embodiment of Spatialism. Resembling the jots of some strange language or the staccatoed musical notations across sheet music, the succession of cuts evokes the ballet-like performance of the artist’s process, which conceived this monumental work. A treasured part of a European private collection, this is the first time this majestic work has been seen by the public for almost fifty years.
This work presages Fontana’s Ambiente Spaziale, executed only a year later for which the artist was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the XXXIII Venice Biennale. This grand installation saw the artist taking his iconic gesture to a new level of ambition. Created in collaboration with the architect Carlo Scarpa, Fontana envisaged a white, luminous maze, filled with examples of his tagli. As Fontana explained to Pierre Restany: ‘I wanted to create a ‘spatial environment, by which I mean an environmental structure, a preliminary journey in which the twenty slits would be as if in a labyrinth containing blanks of the same shape and colour’ (L. Fontana, quoted in S. Whitfeld, Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., London, 1999, p. 200).
Fontana perceived space, movement and time to be the materials of this new art with his ‘cuts’ or tagli as the most elegant solution to his conceptual aims. Fontana’s solution created a three-dimensional object, existing in real space. As he once expounded, ‘what we want to do is to unchain art from matter, to unchain the sense of the eternal from the preoccupation with the immortal. And we don’t care if a gesture, once performed, lives a moment or a millennium, since we are truly convinced that once performed it is eternal’ (First Spatialist Manifesto, 1947, reproduced in E. Crispolti et al. (eds.), Lucio Fontana, Milan 1998, pp. 117-118). As the material realisation of his Spatialist theory, the present work contemplates infinity at the dawn of the Nuclear age. In 1947, Fontana returned to Italy from Argentina and emerged as a pioneer of the post- War avant-garde through the foundation of Spazialismo, a movement which took time, energy, space and matter as its fundamental elements. In articulating this radical vision, Fontana found white to be the ‘purest, least complicated, most understandable colour’, that which most immediately struck the note of ‘pure simplicity’, ‘pure philosophy’, ‘spatial philosophy’, ‘cosmic philosophy’ (J. van der Marck and E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana, vol. I, Brussels 1974, p. 137). The heightened sense of drama implied through the brilliant white surface draws parallels with the act of creation. It is in the striking contrast between the pristine white luminosity of the surface and the darkness of the multiple voids in Concetto spaziale, Attese, that Fontana’s Spatial concept finds its best expression.
The large format of Concetto spaziale, Attese invokes the mystical dimension that the vast void of Space presents to Man. Fontana avidly followed the progress of human spacefight and he endeavoured to conceptually address the philosophical implications of these developments in his art. Man’s awareness of the vastness of the cosmos, and indeed of the Earth’s position at the edge of the Milky Way, was a breakthrough that demanded attention just as Galileo’s discoveries had centuries earlier. While his output had, since the publication of the Manifesto blanco in Argentina some twenty years earlier, been concerned with the future, with gestures and with opening new dimensions to the possibilities of art in the modern age, it was the Space Age that truly made an impact on the artist. The artist conceived his ‘Spatialist’ theory as the new path art needed to take in light of the ground-breaking discoveries the world had witnessed. One of the first to appreciate the ramifications of such radical developments, he eagerly sought to find a means of expressing the complex scientific and philosophical concepts within art. As he wrote, ‘the discovery of new physical powers, the conquest of matter and space gradually impose on man conditions which have never existed before the application of these discoveries to the various forms of life brings about a substantial transformation in our way of thinking. The painted surface, the erected stone, no longer have a meaning’ (Technical Manifesto, J. van der Marck and E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana, vol. I, Brussels 1974, p. 15).
Pointing to the three-dimensional nature of the canvas, Fontana brings his earlier incarnation as a sculptor to the practice of painting, combining its different processes to forge a hybrid object that is no longer constrained by traditional classifications. In his Attese, Fontana sought to harness and portray space and energy, two invisible elements that were nonetheless crucial to all of life and all of art. Indeed, it is the spent energy of the artist himself that manifests itself in the slashes, in the cutting that we know took place in order to bring this work into existence. The link between light, energy, space and the infinity of outer space is clear from Fontana’s own words: ‘...beyond perspective... the discovery of the cosmos is a new dimension, it is infinity, so I make a hole in this canvas, which was at the basis of all the arts and I have created an infinite dimension... the idea is precisely that, it is a new dimension corresponding to the cosmos... The hole is, precisely, creating this void behind there... Einstein’s discovery of the cosmos is the infinite dimension, without end. And so here we have: foreground, middleground and background... to go further what do I have to do?...I make holes, infinity passes through them, light passes through them, there is no need to paint’ (L. Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti, ‘Spatialism and Informel. The Fifties’, in E. Crispolti & R. Siligato (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Milan, 1998, p. 146).
Fontana’s desire to create an art that remained relevant to the era of scientific discoveries in which he lived is evident in the gestures with which he created Concetto spaziale, Attese. These gestures capture the very essence of movement, the wake left by parting particles, the ripples in space and time. For the artist, the capturing of movement in art was the last frontier and one that had only become fully possible with recent scientific advancements. As Fontana noted in hisManifesto Blanco, ‘art continues to develop itself in the direction of movement the evolution of man is a march towards movement developed in time and space’ (L. Fontana, Manifesto Blanco, 1946, in R. Fuchs, Lucio Fontana: la cultura dell’occhio, exh. cat., Castello di Riovli, Rivoli, 1986, p. 79). The slashes, the movements of the arm and the knife, are themselves an artwork that exists not only in Space, but also in Time, a tribute to the world of science. The multiple cuts present here have a rhythm that hints at the artist’s energy, mirroring Man’s own interaction with space. In moving beyond the two-dimensions of the surface, Fontana allowed his materials to be integrated in to space itself. In this way, Fontana’s gesture captures the very essence of movement through the picture plane. The gesture, the opening of that space, is something that is not immortal but which, through its very irrevocability, is nonetheless eternal.
Following on the world record price Christie’s made for Michelangelo Pistoletto in February 2014 (where his double portrait Lui e Lei sold for £1,986,500 in Christie’s Eyes Wide Open auction, February 2014), we are delighted to offer the artist’s painted tissue-paper on stainless steel double portrait, Amanti, 1962-66 (estimate: £1million - 1.5million). Both romantic and enigmatic, this work invites the viewer into a voyeuristic interaction with two unidentified young lovers locked in a passionate embrace against a reflective stainless steel background. Created at a time when Pistoletto was expanding his artistic activities into an ever more interactive, open and communal direction, Amanti is both a charmingly complex mirror painting and a potent symbol of its time, bringing the viewer into the work as both a subject and a performer.
Michelangelo Pistoletto (B. 1933), Amanti (Lovers), signed and titled 'Pistoletto amanti' (on the reverse), painted tissue-paper on stainless steel, 90 ½ x 47 ¼in. (230 x 120cm.). Executed in 1962-1966. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘When I realized that someone like Pollock, although he attempted to transfer life onto canvas through action, did not succeed in taking possession of the work, which continued to escape him, remaining autonomous, and that the presence of the human figure in the painting of Bacon did not succeed in rendering a pathological vision of reality... I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in G. Celant, Identité Italienne, Paris 1981, p. 81).
‘The step from the mirror paintings to theatre – everything is theatre – seems simply natural... It is less a matter of involving the audience, of letting it participate, as to act on its freedom and on its imagination, to trigger similar liberation mechanisms in people’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in ‘Interview with G. Boursier’, in Sipario, April 1969, p. 17).
Comprising solely of a graphic representation of two, young lovers enclosed in a passionate embrace against an otherwise empty but reflective stainless steel background, Amanti is one of Michelangelo Pistolettto’s first series ofQuadri specchianti or ‘mirror paintings’. These are the works that formed the core of Pistoletto’s oeuvre in the 1960s and which since that time, have run, as the artist acknowledges, like ‘a golden line’ through his entire artistic career (M. Pistoletto, quoted in O. Ward, ‘Interview: Michelangelo Pistoletto,’ in Time Out, 12-18 December 2007, p. 48).
Executed in 1966, Amanti is an early mirror painting that invites the viewer into an almost uncomfortable voyeuristic interaction with two intertwined young lovers self-absorbed and self-enclosed in an intimate, unseen and ultimately unknowable world of their own. Created at a time when, in response to both the inherent nature of his work and also the rapidly changing socio-political culture of 1960s Italy, Pistoletto was expanding his artistic enterprises into an ever-more interactive, open and communal direction, Amanti is both a charmingly complex mirror painting and a potent symbol of its time.
Pistoletto’s first mirror-paintings had evolved out of a series of self-portrait studies that the artist had made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was ‘when I realized that someone like Pollock, although he attempted to transfer life onto canvas through action, did not succeed in taking possession of the work, which continued to escape him, remaining autonomous, and that the presence of the human figure in the painting of Bacon did not succeed in rendering a pathological vision of reality,’ Pistoletto recalled, that ‘I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in G. Celant, Identité Italienne, Paris 1981, p. 81). The solution to this problem, Pistoletto found, was to use the mimesis and reflectivity of the mirror as a way of letting reality and the life of the viewer enter into the painting as both a subject and a performer.
Pistoletto began his first mirror paintings in 1961, and until 1971 when he changed his method by beginning to silkscreen directly onto the mirrored surface, these first Quadri specchianti, as in Amanti, were made by the more complex and painstaking process of blowing up a photograph, cutting out the silhouette of the figure, and then tracing it onto a semi-transparent onion-skin paper with oils and pastels. This image was then glued directly onto the reflective metal surface.
Isolated against this reflective panel, the figures of Pistoletto’s subjects (usually friends, colleagues and other people he knew) began increasingly to assert and question the difference between the world of representation and the reflective ‘reality’ of the mirror. For, in looking at these works the viewer immediately enters into a paradoxical and problematic world, seemingly both participating within the often very intimate and private space of the subject – a mother nursing her child, an artist in the act of drawing or as in this work, two young lovers taking comfort in each other – and yet also remaining remote and separated in an alternate space and time that nevertheless simultaneously exists pictorially within the same frame. As is emphasized by the two lovers in this work, for example, where they themselves are visibly locked into a separate world of their own, Pistoletto’s subjects inhabit an entirely different world from that of the viewer. Static, representational images, they are frozen and isolated in a single moment taken from what is clearly the past. At the same time however, and seemingly within the same frame or dimension of the picture, the viewer’s reflected image interacts with this apparently separate moment. Standing within the work, it is able to participate and move within it and also to observe the real space and time of the gallery or whatever space within which the mirror painting has been placed. Appearing within the confines of the mirror-painting’s pictureplain, the viewer introduces an ever-changing present. In addition, it is only the viewer – whose image appears simultaneously inhabiting and interacting with both exterior and interior spaces and times – that functions as a bridge between these two seemingly separate worlds. The ‘true protagonist’ of these works therefore, Pistoletto later wrote, ‘was the relationship of instantaneousness that was created between the spectator, his own refection, and the painted figure, in an ever-present movement that concentrated the past and the figure in itself to such an extent as to cause one to call their very existence into doubt: it was the dimension of time itself’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in Minus Objects, exh. cat., Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa, 1966, unpaged).
Mirror paintings such as Amanti, whose self-absorbed and self-contained subject matter overtly emphasizes and plays with the intrusive presence of the viewer within the representational realm are highly symptomatic of Pistoletto’s developing practice at this time. It reflects the artist’s growing tendency, in the mid-1960s, to force the intrusive and yet collaborative presence of the viewer within his work (from the Minus Objects to his mirror paintings) into ever more specific roles that revealed to them their function as living participants within what he was increasingly coming to see as not just the ‘theatre’ of painting but as an entire world-theatre that embraced all aspects of life. Indeed, it would be as a similar pair of lovers that Pistoletto would depict himself and his lover and creative partner Maria Pioppi, just over one year later at the inauguration of his last mirror-painting show of the 1960s and the beginning of his community theatre-project Lo Zoo held at the L’Attico gallery in Rome at the beginning of 1968. ‘The mirror paintings could not live without an audience’ Pistoletto said in this respect, ‘They were created and re-created according to the movement and to the interventions they reproduced. The step from the mirror paintings to theatre – everything is theatre – seems simply natural... It is less a matter of involving the audience, of letting it participate, as to act on its freedom and on its imagination, to trigger similar liberation mechanisms in people’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in ‘Interview with G. Boursier’, in Sipario, April 1969, p. 17).
Other Post-War Italian works in the sale include Piero Manzoni’s Achrome, 1958-1959 (estimate: £1million - 1.5million), Enrico Castellani’s Superficie Bianca, 1963 (estimate: £300,000 - 500,000) and Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled, 1961 (estimate: £300,000 - 500,000).
Piero Manzoni (1933-1963), Achrome, kaolin on canvas, 31 ½ x 39 3/8in. (80 x 100cm.). Executed in 1958-1959. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: Executed between 1958 and 1959, Achrome is a rare example of Piero Manzoni’s Achromes on canvas, a career-defying series of purist, white works that, towards the end of the 1950s would assert the artist as one of the most important artistic figures of the Italian Post-war period. Within that series, Achrome belongs to a rare group of only seven examples in which the artist reduced the creases of the canvas to two single, adjacent folds. Through its simplicity, the single crease introduces Achromes a sense of primal balance and restrained visual expression, until then unprecedented in his work. Evoking the presence of a fissure or the infinite geometrical form of the line, in its specific form, the present work establishes significant connections with the art of its time – such as Lucio Fontana’s slashes – while also anticipating Manzoni’s own later, more conceptual works, such as his Linee.
Rigorously colourless and animated solely by the undulations and creases of the canvas, Manzoni’s Achromesestablished a crucial turning point in the artist’s career, breaking away from the Arte nucleare group with whom the young artist had until then associated himself. Manzoni started developing the idea of the Achromes in 1957, yet he only exhibited them for the first time in April 1958, in Bologna, as part of the exhibition ‘Fontana, Baj, Manzoni’. Like the rest of the Achromes on canvas, Achrome consists of an unpainted canvas, which the artist coated in kaolin – a soft china clay used to make porcelain – and folded, in this case, in its middle to form a wide, horizontal fissure. Denying any form of representation – be it realist or abstract – with the Achromes series Manzoni presented the canvas as a self-defined object, interacting with its materiality in a way that asserts this object’s presence in the world as substance, rather than as a vehicle of depiction.
Manzoni, alongside Yves Klein, Alberto Burri, and Lucio Fontana, is regarded as one of the foremost pioneers of the 1950s whose work laid the foundations for much of the conceptual art of the following decades. Embracing a unified white surface and challenging the materiality of the canvas cloth, works such as Achrome opened a dialogue with Klein and Burri’s works, while asserting Manzoni’s singular artistic voice. They embraced the value of the monochrome professed by Klein, but pushed its principle even further to a drastic total absence of colour. If they incorporated Burri’s revelation of the tactile presence of the canvas as a material, they did so with uncompromising rigour, relying entirely on the plastic potential of the unprimed canvas.
With its horizontal gash formed by the folds of the canvas, the present work establishes another bridge with the art of his time, echoing the slashes of Lucio Fontana. Fontana had looked at Manzoni’s art with great interest. On his part, Manzoni expressed great admiration for the older artist, declaring in 1959: ‘Fontana, who may be today the most interesting Italian artist, whose work has opened and continues to open new paths’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant,Piero Manzoni: catalogo generale, vol. I, Milan 2004, p. 124). In 1959 – around the time when Achrome was executed – Fontana had started his series of Attese, monochrome canvases with single or multiple slashes. Following the buchi (holes), a series of punctured canvases, the Attese aimed at underlying the spatial existence of the canvas, violently opening its surface to reveal the gaping void beneath it. Echoing Fontana’s work, Manzoni’s Achrome creates the illusion of a cut: as the canvas folds, the shadow created by the crinkles seemingly suggests the presence of a slash. Both works point at the materiality of painting, redefying it through a subversion of its very medium, the canvas. Yet, while Fontana still ascribed great power to the gesture of the artist through his slashes, Manzoni transferred all the attention to the material: his Achromes are created by letting two media interact, they are self-determined objects. While in Fontana’s works the canvas is liberated by the artist’s elastic cut, in Achrome the canvas is inversely stiffened and folded under the effect of the kaolin, caught up in its own material weight.
Expressing a zeitgeist also embodied in the works of Klein, Burri and Fontana, Manzoni’s Achromes are nevertheless the expression of the artist’s personal stance on painting. At the source of Manzoni’s Achromes lies the artist’s utter conviction that the canvas would cease to be a simple vehicle, the mere support to a pictorial illusion. In ‘Dimensione libera’, a statement published in 1960 in the second issue of Azimuth, the magazine Manzoni published together with Enrico Castellani, the artist questioned: ‘a surface of unlimited possibilities is now reduced to a kind of receptacle into which unnatural colours and artificial meanings are forced. Why shouldn’t this receptacle be emptied? Why shouldn’t this surface be freed?’ (Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 46). Manzoni’s Achromes are to be understood as the answer to the artist’s provocative questions, their emptiness being the essence of their message. In their sheer materiality, they assert painting as an object endowed with a poetic power independent from the act of painting. In their simplicity, works such as Achrome convey a sense of aesthetic achievement that is situated beyond representation and abstraction. Manzoni’s Achrome asserts the materiality of painting, while achieving a restrained, surprising elegance.
The title ‘Achrome’, which Manzoni repeated invariably throughout the series, called for an absolute absence of colour. With its uninterrupted white surface, for instance, Achrome eschews even monochromatism: its whiteness is not the product of the artist’s choice of painting the canvas white, but the inevitable result of the application of kaolin, a pure quality of the material with which the work was realised. In ‘Dimensione libera’, Manzoni was careful to detach the white of these works from any possible figurative interpretation, explaining: ‘the question as far as I am concerned is that of rendering a surface completely white (…) A white that is not a polar white, not a material in evolution or a beautiful material, not a sensation or a symbol or anything less: just a white surface that is simply a white surface and nothing else’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 47). As the structure of painting was reduced to its bare minimum through this drastic refusal of colours, painting itself could expand into an infinite realm. Manzoni explained: ‘Infinity is rigorously monochrome, or, better still, it has no colour’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat. London, 1974, p. 46). Devoid of all composition, forms and colours, works such as Achrome evoked a new spatial environment, conceptually boundless and abstract: ‘in total space form, colour and dimensions have no meaning. The artist has achieved integral freedom: pure material becomes pure energy’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 46).
Following a principle that could be extended to infinity, Manzoni’s series of Achromes – just like Fontana’s Attese – could thus be repeated by the artist endlessly, each time asserting the new dimension in which painting had entered. Expanding the range of the Achromes, Manzoni later experimented with new materials – cotton buds, polystyrene, fibreglass and even bread rolls – and with new ways to interact with the canvas – folds, stitches, square patches of cloth. In its specific form, however, the present work holds a particular significance: concentrating the tension of the surface onto a single central horizontal line, Achrome establishes a fascinating relationship with Manzoni’s next series of works, the Linee – ‘Lines’ – metres-long single lines, drawn on rolled up paper, subsequently enclosed in black tubes. Recognising the conceptual power of Manzoni’s Linee, Fontana was among the first buyers of those works. In the simplicity of its restrained linearity, the present Achrome appears as perhaps one of the most subtle, conceptually charged examples of Manzoni’s Achromes.
Jannis Kounellis (b. 1936), Untitled, signed, inscribed and dated ‘Kounellis Roma 61’ (on the reverse), oil on canvas, 44 7/8 x 49 ¼in. (114 x 125cm.). Painted in 1961. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘The work of a painter is to free something without imposing it’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in interview with C. Lonzi, inMarcartré, 1966, p. 134).
Painted in Rome in 1961, Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled was created during the period of his celebrated alphabet paintings in which he sought to free the canvas from what he regarded as the dominance of the gesture and infuse it with a purer form of artistic expression. Taking his cue from the formal qualities of the traffic signs and advertisements that he saw around him, Kounellis dissected the iconography of this language and reduced it to its most essential form, thus moving away from the emotion, action and energy of Abstract Expressionism. Born in Greece, Kounellis moved to Italy in 1956 and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti, where he was particularly influenced by the non-figurative paintings of Alberto Burri. By seeking to integrate real objects and real life into his alphabet paintings, he sought to continue the trajectory set in motion by Burri, Piero Manzoni and the Arte Povera movement in a bid to go beyond painting itself.
In Untitled, Kounellis arranges a series of seemingly arbitrary and incongruous letters and signs. Within this configuration, the Z, X, arrows and lines appear to form a code that invites further study in order to decipher it. But Kounellis’ work is not about the artifice of traditional painting; rather, its strict formality is railing against the prevailing gestures, drip and daub tendencies of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel where the action, emotion, material, touch and will of the artist is inextricably interwoven within both the medium and the form.
Just as the nascent Arte Povera movement incorporated the physical remnants of its surroundings into its works, Kounellis used the visual signifiers that he saw in his own urban environment to develop a new, more poetic discourse. To stress his removal of the artist’s hand, Kounellis rendered his forms using simple, utilitarian stencils similar to the industrial method of production used to produce the signage and advertising images that had inspired him. Kounellis also sought for his canvases to replicate not the traditional support of fine art paintings, but more utilitarian surfaces. ‘They were not pictures as such’, the artist recalled, ‘all the canvases derived from the measurements of a house in which I lived. They referred to the wall. In fact I used to stretch the canvas, or sheet, right up to the limits of the corners of the wall, the painting ended there … It was like taking off a fresco, since the canvases or sheets had the form and breadth of the walls of the room … The letters or painted signs, they came however, from forms which I prepared out of hard cardboard. They were printed, not calligraphic but structural’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in S. Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, p. 71).
Kounellis is one of the most widely exhibited Italian artists of the post-war period and his work has been included in exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Tate Modern in London and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. He has taken part in seven editions of the Venice Biennale since 1972, in addition to being featured at Documenta in Kassel in 1972 and 1982. Throughout his long and influential career he developed a language that embraced the archaic, the classic and the contemporary. Widely regarded as some of his most important works, the alphabet paintings stand out in their transcendence of traditional artistic vocabularies and their divorcing of painting from the shackles of the artist’s intention, thus allowing the medium to explore its full aesthetic potential.
THE ORIGINS OF STREET ART
Vast, exuberant and electrifying, Jean Dubuffet’s Le gai savoir, 1963 (estimate: £2.2million - 2.8million) is an outburst of pure joy that captures the intoxicating furore of the 1960’s Parisian heyday. With its two romantic lovers engaging in flirtatious dance, the work represents the birth of one of the first purely urban aesthetics, heralding the dawn of contemporary street art. Like Twombly’s deliberate un-training of his hand, Le gai savoir instigates a new artistic handwriting, equipped to translate sensory experience of the city. In this sense, Dubuffet operates as the leading urban artist of his time, and the influence of his work can be seen in the raw energy and graphic impulse of Basquiat. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Toxic, 1984 (estimate: £1.2million - 1.8million) is a dynamic portrait of fellow ‘Hollywood African’, the South Bronx graffiti artist, known as Toxic. A complex, multi-layered expression of creativity, Toxic was inspired by the bustling energy of the downtown Manhattan street scene that the two artists were part of. Bursting forth with an animation unique to the artist, Toxic exemplifies his visceral artistic energy and power to express the urban, everyday reality found around him.
Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), Le gai savoir, signed and dated ‘J. Dubuffet 63’ (lower right); signed, titled and dated ‘Le gai savoir J. Dubuffet juillet 63’ (on the reverse), oil on canvas, 59 x 76 ¾in. (150 x 195cm.). Painted in 1963. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘My desire is to make the site evoked by the picture something phatasmagoric, and that can be achieved only by jumbling together more or less veristic elements with interventions of arbitrary character aiming at unreality. I want my street to be crazy, my broad avenues, shops and buildings to join in a crazy dance, and that is why I deform and denature their contours and colours’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Franzke, Dubuffet, New York 1981, p. 148).
‘Both Dubuffet and Basquiat were engaged in a methodical exploration of states of perception, knowing, and being. They used the means that best suited their purpose, arriving at remarkably similar artistic forms’ (L. Rinder, quoted inDubuffet and Basquiat: Personal Histories, exh. cat., Pace Wildenstein, New York, 2006, http://www.pacegallery.com/newyork/exhibitions/11804/dubuffet-and-basquiat-personal-histories [accessed 3 June 2014]).
Vast, exuberant and electrifying, Jean Dubuffet’s Le gai savoir is an outburst of pure joy that captures the intoxicating furor of the 1960s Parisian heyday. With its two romantic lovers engaging in flirtatious fling, the work was executed in 1963 and represents the birth of one of the very first purely urban aesthetics, heralding the dawn of contemporary street art. As chalk-like scrawl surges forth amidst a vibrant explosion of thick impasto and schismatic gestural markings, mesmerizing optical depth emerges from a rich collision of colour and texture. The work pulsates with the same raw vitality that Cy Twombly was exploring among the ancient façades of Rome, and which Jean-Michel Basquiat was later to harness in the post-Punk chaos of 1980s New York. Eminently prophetic, Le gai savoir is one of the largest and most impressive canvases from Dubuffet’s greatest period: a period defined by a flourishing dialogue between the celebrated aesthetics of Paris Circus and l’Hourloupe. In Le gai savoir, the two come together to create an extraordinary display of joie de vivre. Background and foreground fluctuate in an undulating rhythm; we feel the energy of Dubuffet’s paintbrush and the visionary sweep of his eye, the life-force of the metropolis and the noise of the city. Dubuffet’s quixotic figures are carefree flâneurs in this heady cosmos, dancing through the streets of Paris. They are powerful symbols of a new generation swept along by the social euphoria of the 1960s – a mood that, in America, was driving the development of Pop Art. The work’s unbridled optimism is further evoked by its title Le gai savoir: a title shared with Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1882 treatise Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. According to Nietzsche, the phrase invokes the poetry of thirteenth-century Provence: ‘that unity of singer, knight and free spirit which distinguishes the wonderful early culture of the Provençals from all equivocal cultures’, elegiacally expressed in the book’s final poem – ‘an exuberant dancing song’ (F. Nietzsche, quoted in W. Kauffman (ed.), The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, New York 1968, p. 750). Evoking this ancient folk legacy, Dubuffet injects a thread of romanticism into his contemporaryzeitgeist, ushering in an untamed visual language for a new urban culture. A preparatory study for the work, La Gaya Scienza, was part of the artist’s gift to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris in 1968.
When Dubuffet left Paris for the countryside in 1955, it still bore the physical and associative scars of war. Yet by the time of his return in 1961, the city had been transformed into a thriving social and cultural epicentre. Emerging from the dark material aesthetic he had cultivated during the 1950s, Dubuffet lifted his eyes from the ground to the cosmopolitan splendour that surrounded him. Paris Circus was the celebrated series that emerged from this new stance. ‘My desire is to make the site evoked by the picture something phatasmagoric, and that can be achieved only by jumbling together more or less veristic elements with interventions of arbitrary character aiming at unreality. I want my street to be crazy, my broad avenues, shops and buildings to join in a crazy dance, and that is why I deform and denature their contours and colours’, Dubuffet has said of the series (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Franzke, Dubuffet, New York 1981, p. 148). The ebullient, almost hallucinogenic pictorial flair of these works fed into the burgeoning aesthetic of l’Hourloupe that developed from the artist’s distracted biro scrawling during a series of telephone calls. Over the course of the early 1960s, these twin styles nourished each other, forging a path of mutual enhancement that reaches an apotheosis in Le gai savoir. Two charismatic figures, curiously alien and yet strangely human, engage in a dynamic altercation. Dialogue strains to be heard; movement courses through high-heeled shoes and outstretched hands, and the couple dance their way through Dubuffet’s wild and effervescent infrastructure. This backdrop imports specific elements from Paris Circus, including the yellow and white circles that recall Dubuffet’s articulations of Parisian shop windows. At the same time, its rough-hewn multi-coloured markings recall chalk pavement drawings, feeding off the primitivistic energy of art brut and throwing the cellular figures into oscillating chaos. Mining the depths of his own artistic language to create a surging visceral mind-map, Dubuffet forges a new hyper-reality that immerses us in the ecstasy of his own vision.
Through his own stylistic transmutations, Dubuffet stakes a claim in the art-historical canon as the godfather of contemporary street art. With his unique collage of disparate painterly effects and twisted physical forms, Dubuffet constructs a script with the potential to overwrite the history of representation. His gestural vocabulary disables our spatial awareness to the point of psychedelic rapture. Like Twombly’s deliberate un-training of his hand, Le gai savoirinstigates a new artistic handwriting, equipped to translate sensory experience and, in doing so, to conjure new ways of seeing the world. In this sense, Dubuffet operates as the pre-eminent graffiti artist of his time, paving the way for the raw energy and graphic impulse of Basquiat. As Lawrence Rinder has written, ‘both Dubuffet and Basquiat were engaged in a methodical exploration of states of perception, knowing, and being. They used the means that best suited their purpose, arriving at remarkably similar artistic forms’ (L. Rinder, quoted in Dubuffet and Basquiat: Personal Histories, exh. cat., Pace Wildenstein, New York, 2006, http://www.pacegallery.com/newyork/exhibitions/11804/dubuffet-and-basquiat-personal-histories [accessed 3 June 2014]). Like a contemporary scribe, Dubuffet captures the city in its prime, daubing his impressions upon the canvas with an immediacy that radiates from every brushstroke. Like the street wall or pavement – the traditional locus of street art – the canvas becomes a mood-board – a sound-board, a blackboard – for his own lived experience. The work quivers as if newly created, haunted by its own zeitgeist.
During the 1960s a profound post-war energy swept the globe, in which everyday phenomena were seen through tinted lenses of celebration and desire. In America, Pop Art was born, unearthing the unique auras surrounding quotidian objects and confronting thorny questions of representation with fearless appropriation. An ocean apart in France, amid the throes of New Wave cinema and sexual revolution, Dubuffet created a new liberated language that sought to convey the unbounded joy of daily living – of walking in the city, of riding a bicycle through the countryside, of driving, of dancing and, ultimately, of simply being. In Le gai savoir, Dubuffet cultivates his own definite brand of European Pop Art. His stylistic fusion weaves a new reality – a parallel universe. Lifting elements both from his own practice and the physical world, Dubuffet transforms them into a vision that is disarmingly new, yet somehow more emotively real than any traditional representation. Like a piece of theatre, the scene becomes animated before our very eyes: the contagious energy of the city, the enchanting couple caught up in dance and the strains of music pulsing through the streets.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1987), Toxic, signed, titled and dated '"TOXIC" Jean-Michel Basquiat SEPT. 1984' (on the reverse), acrylic, oilstick and Xerox collage on canvas, 86 x 68 7/8in. (218.5 x 172.7cm.). Executed in 1984. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.
Notes: ‘The first time I met Jean was actually at the Roxy’s at a club, he treated me like a little kid and he was just kind of like a teacher to me, like a big mentor to me. Jean was probably like the first artist I’ve seen who worked on six or seven paintings at the same time. He would work on one, start something else. Jean constantly painted what was going on around him. A lot of his paintings were conversations he had with people or situations that happened that night. You became an active participant in his paintings... I remember someone who laughed a lot and smiled a lot and danced a lot. He was constantly moving in the studio, he would start dancing and he was just enjoying himself. If not, he wouldn’t have made all that art – not at all. He told me one thing I’ll never forget. He told me once, “If you sell cheap, you are cheap”’ (Toxic, quoted in Christies, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dustheads, Part 2’, May 2013, video reproduced on Christies.com/Basquiat).
An imposing, large-scale work, Toxic, 1984 is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s dynamic portrait of South Bronx graffiti artist, Toxic. Realised with raw adolescent vigour, Toxic is a complex, multi-layered expression of creativity, inspired by the riotous, bustling energy of the downtown Manhattan street scene that the two artists were members of. Bursting forth with a profound vibrancy and animation unique to the artist, Toxic demonstrates that the artist’s visceral artistic energy is defined by the very urban, quotidian reality he found around him. Indeed, at this moment in 1984, Basquiat had reached celebrity status in the New York art scene: enjoying recognition for his first solo exhibition at Mary Boone in May 1984 and his first one-man museum exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, which later travelled to Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam.
Drawing upon observations of the role of the young African American male in the urban politics of the time, Basquiat rendered the age-old trope of traditional portraiture in his own unique way. Toxic’s hands are thrown up in the air in an animated dance recreating Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three’s club shout-out to ‘wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care’ from their ’84 club hit, The Roof is on Fire. Part painting, part drawing, and part collage, Toxic is comprised of a densely gestural surface which draws upon a plethora of biographical, art historical and cultural sources intuitively brought together in the eddy of Basquiat’s subconscious. Adding a self-reflexive element, the backdrop of Toxic features numerous Xeroxes of Basquiat’s existing works overlaid with gestural swathes of turquoise and white paint. Distinguished by its rich iconography, this painting displays the array of symbols, words, and drawings that define the artist’s practice and have continued to make it so compelling today.
Evidence of their friendship, in late 1982, Basquiat travelled to Los Angeles with Toxic and fellow graffiti artist Rammellzee to prepare for his upcoming show at Larry Gagosian’s gallery space on Altmont Street. In light of their own experiences in the city and the socio-cultural landscape that had taken root in Hollywood, the trio dubbed themselves the ‘Hollywood Africans’ as a social and political comment on the immediate post-war period in Hollywood when African-American actors were only given racially stereotyped film roles. Toxic features in at least two works by Basquiat from this time, including Hollywood Africans, 1983, held in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Hollywood Africans in front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars, 1983, which also includes portraits of all three ‘Hollywood African- Americans’.
With the emergence of Hip-Hop and the rise of street art in the 1980s, New York became the heart of one of the most innovative periods in American cultural history. Having first emerged from the street art scene under the epithet SAMO, as Basquiat achieved acclaim, he continued to be a mentor to a small coterie of graffiti artists who hung out in his studio, subsisting on a steady stream of fast-food meals and odd-jobs. For a time Basquiat and Fab 5 Freddy organised trips to art museums such as the Metropolitan where they could see masterpieces from the Italian Renaissance, African tribal artwork, or Abstract Expressionism. Among them was Toxic, a.k.a. Torrick Ablack and A1, who has begun tagging at 13. Toxic recounts that the two met through fellow graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy at The Roxy, a popular Chelsea nightclub that was a major influence on the evolution of hip hop culture in the 1980s thanks to its sponsored MC battles, breakdancing competitions with the Rock Steady Crew and murals by graffiti artists. The year that Basquiat executed this portrait, Toxic himself found public recognition with a group exhibition at Fashion Moda in the Bronx and the Chicago International Art Exposition. Executed at a time when the city was the epicentre of an emergent global youth culture, with Basquiat at its heart, Toxic is charged with the raw energy of the New York street scene.
As an artist who revelled in the breakdown of artistic genres and the unrestricted nature of these new-found expressive forms such as graffiti and rap, Basquiat brought these same qualities to his visual art. Indeed the fragmented, disjointed, expressive, immediate and real qualities that define these street movements carry into the construction ofToxic. Surrounding the portrait of Toxic are a host of visual and textual references from cartoons (Warner Brothers, Merrie Melodies, Gumby, Krazy Kat, Porky Pig) to famous black musicians (Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Dr. Radium). Comprising Basquiat’s trademark vernacular of words and images, these references are ‘spat’ in paint, visually stuttered, repeated and crossed out, with passages of paint acting as pauses for thought and breath. As Franklin Sirmans notes, ‘It is Basquiat’s overall inventiveness in marrying text and image – with words cut, pasted, recycled, scratched out, and repeated – that speaks to the innovation inherent in the hip-hop moment of the late 1970s. When it was all about two turntables and a microphone, likewise Basquiat began with simple, readily available tools: paper, pens and a Xerox machine’ (F. Sirmans, ‘In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip- Hop Culture’, in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 94).
Recalling the work of Cy Twombly, this visual onslaught of words and figures depicts a number of familiar Basquiat motifs. Basquiat identified with Twombly’s art and it was through him that he began to see drawing as something more like an activity than a medium. Critics have argued that by looking at Twombly’s work, Basquiat gained permission to ‘draw in the raw’, producing paintings imbued with an intensity that has since become synonymous with Basquiat’s unique form of artistic expression.
The practice of collaging his own drawings and with colour photocopies of details of his other drawings as presented inToxic culminated in a group of works from 1984-85. Collaged surfaces had always appealed to Basquiat, and it was at this time that he incorporated pasted drawings and photocopies of his own work with great abandon, achieving a textured, thick, and tactile surface of wood, canvas, paint, oilstick, and paper. His impulse signature to combine a number of materials, elements, and subjects from made, found, constructed, and collaged artefacts was elemental to his works and represents the hybridity of his cultural repertoire with the references to graffiti and urban architecture fuse with art historical references such as Robert Rauschenberg. The fragmented assemblage of symbols, words, diagrams and images scattered throughout the composition collide to create a near-encyclopaedic canon of iconic works from Basquiat’s own oeuvre. The self-referential act of Xeroxing his own drawings, individualising them with oil stick acts as a metaphor for larger hybridised practice, blending modernist structure, traditional art historical references, and modern day street culture.
YOUNG BRITISH ARTISTS
The Evening Auction will offer an exceptional group of contemporary British Art from the established 1980s YBA artists. Building on Christie’s recent success with Sensation generation artists, including record prices for works by Jenny Saville and Gary Hume in the February 2014 Evening Auction (Gary Hume’s Vicious, 1994, sold for £410,500 and Jenny Saville’s Plan, 1993, sold for £2,098,500) and for a more recent work by Tracey Emin (To Meet My Past, 2002, which achieved a record price of £481,875) in Christie’s October 2013 Thinking Big auction of sculpture from the Saatchi Gallery Collection, Christie’s will offer works including Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled, 1992 (Concave and Convex Beds) (estimate: £250,000 - 350,000), Jenny Saville’s Shadow Study, 2006-2007 (estimate: £350,000 - 550,000), Glenn Brown’s Led Zeppelin, 2005 (estimate: £1million - 1.5million) and Damien Hirst’s Calcium Gluconate Injection, 1992 (estimate: £350,000 - 550,000). Executed in 1995, Martin Creed’s Work No. 127: The lights going on and off, 1995 (estimate: £50,000 - 70,000) is the precursor to Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, 2000, for which the artist was awarded the Turner Prize 2001.
A student of Peter Doig, Hurvin Anderson transforms the familiar fragments of the everyday into the colourful dissonance of a surreally illusory space in Afrosheen, 2009 (estimate: £300,000 - 400,000) which deconstructs the time-honoured ‘Black barbershop’ of his Jamaican-British roots, and in doing so exposes it as a social and culturally charged site. Indeed, Anderson’s envisioning of the barbershop is considered to be the artist’s most celebrated series, with another work from the Barbershop series, Jersey, 2008, in the collection of Tate, London. It is being sold in benefit of the Saatchi Gallery Foundation.