Friday, November 16, 2007

Phillips [London]: Nov 20 Preview

Before I get into the meat of the sale, I have to make sure one thing is clear. The absolute best picture in this sale is Lot #21, Helmut Newton's Jerry Hall Spitting (GBP8K). Nothing even comes close to it. Supermodel Jerry Hall is photographed spraying an arc of water on an unknown woman's bared breast. If I owned this piece, I'd make sure it was in a position of honor in the room, and I wouldn't take it down when the parents (or even grandparents!) came to visit.

But, for pure celebrity fun, it does have close competition from two more images. First off is Fergus Greer's Damien Hirst above Formaldehyde Tank (GBP7K). A naked Damien Hirst lies
above a tank of dead animals. No doubt he's not thinking about death. But he's probably thinking about the smell. Compositionally, it's tight and elegant; the board Hirst is lying on is a great contrast to the organic shapes both in the tank and the fetal position Hirst is in. Online, the color is not great, but it is hard to tell if that's a problem with the original or the reproduction. Second in the running is Steven Klein's David Beckham series. There are two lots in the sale, 156 and 157, (both GBP9K) but I'm only going to talk about 157, because it has the best view of Beckham's butt. It's also 50 x 55in, which means you can have a nearly life-size C-print of Becks in your very own home. The back-story on this print is probably impressive, given how down-market the bed and the chair are. And what's up with the tan line? Isn't he rich enough to be able to own an island where he and Posh can sun themsleves totally nude? But both of these are really just celebrity portraits. They might work well in a magazine, or (barely) a book, but it is hard to imagine, in twenty years, still learning something new from the image.

On the other hand, there are some items that even after fifty years, I can imagine learning something new from. Shimon Mizrahy's "Reflection" series (Waddesdon Manor, and Arbury Hall, both GBP2.5K) are those kinds of images. Especially Waddesdon Manor, with the hint of a statue, possibly a person through the window in the lower right; there are at least three entire worlds to contemplate in the image: modern, ecological Cool Britannia reflected in the window, the world of English Empire that built the window itself, and then the fleeting
hints of another world, still going on inside the building itself. With a high estimate of GBP2.5K, these are not horribly expensive. I've never heard of Mizrahy before these images, but I'd like to see a book of his. These two are an amazing start.

I'm going to group the next set of three works together because they seem to be cut from roughly the same fabric. There are important differences, but there also seem to be similarities: Muniz, Parkeharrison, and Beard. First, the Vik Muniz, Youth (Gaspar), from
the Pictures of Soil series. I promise I won't mention Muniz again for a while, unless the Elizabeth Taylor done in diamonds shows up. Again, technically, he's one of the most amazing artists I've seen recently (photographer or otherwise). And he manages to represent both
ephemerality and solidity so deftly: images of Brazilian youth done in dirt and twigs. A breath could destroy it. With a high estimate of GBP3K, it is well priced compared to the works in the Contemporary Art sale in New York. Next, another constructed photograph, Robert Parkeharrison's Breathing Machine. Parkeharrison greatly appeals to me, especially his (their?) images from the "Architect's Brother" series. They speak of a land where magic was possible, a land ravaged by that possibility, and the now muggle inhabitants are
struggling to understand the world. Unfortunately, this isn't one of his better images. It seems indistinct, and almost incomplete. The polish I associate with his work simply isn't there, and I wish there were a better example, especially with a GBP5K high estimate. Finally, the Peter Beard. He has a few pieces in this sale, but Giraffes in Mirage seems the best example. With his own annotations, paint, and ink it's a unique print, with three almost other-worldly giraffes floating across the Taru desert.

Finally, to wrap-up, a grab bag of images that also caught my eye. I continue to be entranced by Bien-u Bae's Pine Tree, this instance has a very subtle color to it that the web actually manages to show. I just wish it were not GBP50K. Kim Joon's We-BMW, has an erotic component is hard to ignore, but just as eagerly engages issues of commercialization, branding and commoditization. (Of course, it costs about as much as a used BMW at GBP7K.) A warning though, a male cannot hang it in his bedroom without essentially regressing back to age 16, so be careful. There's a nice Burtynsky, Manufacturing #16 (GBP5K) and an enigmatic
Sultan (is there any other kind?), Boxers. (GBP12K, which seems very high to me) Finally, just because I'm still learning here, another Brancusi, Femme se regardant dans un miroir, but nowhere near as impressive as the example at Sotheby's a few days ago (and more expensive at GBP15K). And, lastly, a bit of lesbian action from Newton in Paris, and some male action from Ritts, Tony with Rope (not a platinum print; now that I know he did them, I don't think a silver print would have the same impact.)

No plans to bid in this auction.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Phillips [New York]: Nov 15 / 16 Preview

Right after I complain about the selection modern photography at Sotheby's 12 November sale (and of Vik Muniz and Nan Goldin in particular) Phillips de Pury has a contemporary art sale that has an excellent selection of modern photography.

Most of the photography is in Part II, with an excellent Muniz piece (Mass from the Pictures of Chocolate series) I think the chocolate is some of his best work, both from a technical standpoint and as beautiful and interesting pieces. There's also Muniz's VJ Day, but from the on-line illustration, it is hard to tell what series it's from (possibly Drawn from Memory). A lot cheaper (USD15K versus USD60K at the high end), but no where near as nice. And, to continue the Muniz / Goldin theme, there's two stand-out Goldin prints: Nan and Dickie in the York Motel and Simon in the Snow. The "Nan and Dickie" is a vintage cibachrome, and a nice example of her early work. (Although, given where she is in the picture, the question arises of who actually took the picture. This may explain the relatively reasonable high estimate of USD7K). The "Simon in the Snow" is also a nice piece, although it is much more typical of late Goldin. The contrast of the overall blue tint with the warm colors of the face make it a very intimate piece for me. (I'm thinking about bidding on it; the high estimate is USD6K)

There seems to be a lot of Asian artists in this sale, and I'll be the first to admit, I know very little about modern Asian art. Two pieces by Bien-U Bae (Pine Tree and Sea, both USD60K on the high); Wang Qingsong's Three Graces (USD15K on the high); and two examples of Zhang Huang's To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond series (Untitled (USD45K) and Waterchild (USD20K) really stood out for me. Check back in a year or so, and I'll have a better sense of both what I like in Asian photography, and what's important.

And speaking of the difference between what I like and what's important, that brings up Ryan McGinley (Stairs and Tim and Dakota (both USD6K)), and Wolfgang Tillmans (Lutz and Alex (USD35K)). I mean, it's not that I don't like naked boys. I do. With a six pack, I could even like naked girls. But all of these leave me a little cold. Stairs is definitely the best of the lot. Again, give me another year to get used to both of them, and I might have a different impression.

Wrapping up this sale, there were a few other pieces that caught my eye, in particular, Crewdson's Hover (USD12K); Taylor-Wood's Pieta (USD40K); and Delvoye's Garbage (USD9K). I'm slowly warming up to Crewdson, and I think Fireflies was an important part of it. But the staged pictures are also quite good. Both the Taylor-Wood and the Delvoye were just nice pieces. Nothing more, nothing less. Which is what I want, long-term, from art.

Tomorrow, I'll try to tackle Phillip's Photography sale. Surprisingly, this wasn't one.

Sotheby's [London]: 12 November Results

I think the big surprise of the sale had to be Lot #26, Isambard Kingdom Brunel by the Launching Chains of The Great Eastern. When I saw it in the catalog, I was surprised by the estimate of GBP2,000-3,000. This has to be one of the iconic images of the 19th century: one of the great men of the century in front of one of the great feats of the century. (For more on the Great Eastern, the Wikipedia article is a good start: SS Great Eastern. Lot #26 is even used as an illustration in the wikipedia article.) The Great Eastern was instrumental in laying the first trans-atlantic telegraph cable, so this would be an ideal acquistion by a newly minted Web 2.0 zillionaire. As a work of art, I'm not sure if it holds up. I couldn't really imagine building an entire (small) exhibit around it. But as documentary evidence, as an embelmatic image of the era, it would be right up there with Matthew Brady's civil war images and early Fox-Talbot photographs. In the end, the crucial question is, of course, GBP34,100? It's an iconic image, in good shape, and one that could be displayed. More than likely, yes.

I thought the modern works (roughly post-1930) were weak. Of course, it didn't seem like recent photography was the focus of the auction, so there were not a lot of modern works, and the ones at auction were not necessarily great examples. For example, both the Vik Muniz and the Nan Goldin seemed like particularly middling efforts by these artists. Interestingly, neither of them sold.

But, there were also some nice surprises. A Gursky, used on the catalog cover, was impressive, although it hit only the middle of the estimate. I had no idea Brancusi had any significant photographic works, and this one is absolutely exquisite. The hammer price (GBP6,000) was well-earned. Finally, the Arbus of the triplets was another great piece, and also beat the estimate handily.

[Disclosure: I bid on lot 252 (Sternfeld), but did not win.]