Phillips Closes Auction Season on a Quietly Upbeat Note

Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange),” 1955.
(Courtesy Phillips )

Phillips’ season-ending contemporary art evening sale on Thursday delivered $130,905,000, making it the Russian-owned auction house’s biggest sale to date. It easily trumped last May’s $78.6 million result for 30 lots sold — as compared to 37 on Thursday — and it even eclipsed the one-off “Carte Blanche” auction organized at the boutique house by Philippe Segalot in November 2010, which made $117 million.

Nine of the 46 lots offered on Thursday failed to sell, for a respectable buy-in rate by lot of 20 percent and ten percent by value. The tally, including commissions, nicked the low-end of pre-sale expectations, which were pegged at $126,200,000- 181,150,000 — though the $114,110,000 hammer total came up shy. (Estimates do not reflect commission charges.)

Sixteen of the lots that sold hurdled the million-dollar mark, and of those, three vaulted past $10 million and one painting exceeded $50 million. Three artist records were set.

Eleven of the offerings this round carried pre-arranged third party guarantees, assuring the sale of those lots no matter how they performed.

The auction got off to a spirited start with auction newbie Alex Israel’s 96-inch-high, pink-hued abstraction “Untitled (Flat)” from 2013, comprised of acrylic on stucco, wood and aluminum frame and ceramic tiles, which fetched $581,000(est. $200-300,000). Los Angeles dealer Stavros Merjos was one of the posse of underbidders.

The work was made at the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank , as attested to by a stamp on the back. Israel’s conceptual style and penchant for bespoke construction have captured the fancy of the market.

The Israel was guaranteed, as was Nate Lowman’s shaped bullet hole painting, “Skidmark Altima” from 2005, which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $485,000 (est. $300-400,000).

The guarantee trail for relatively low-priced lots continued with Joe Bradley’s totemic shaped and pink “Standing Nude” from 2007, a vinyl on canvas in four parts that brought $581,000 (est. $200-300,000) and Dan Colen’s “Untitled” oil on canvas in five splattered parts from 2006-07, a multi-panel example of his “Bird shit painting” series, which sold to New York dealer David Mugrabi for $545,000 (est. $400-600,000).

Later in the sale, freshly minted stars Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo made hay with Smith’s “Double Date,” from his rainmaking series in acrylic on unprimed canvas from 2011, which sold for $137,000 (est. $100-150,000) and Murillo’s [lot 50] “Untitled” oilstick, spray paint, oil dirt on canvas composition, with the Spanish word Pollo painted at the bottom, which went for $389,000 (est. $100-150,000).

It was a big New York night for Smith, whose exhibition of new paintings, “Tigris,” was opening at the same time at the Skarstedt Gallery on East 79th Street.

There was greater interest in Tauba Auerbach’s “Untitled (Fold)” abstraction from 2011, which sold to New York dealer Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery for a record $1,805,000 (est. $800,000-1.2 million).

Wade Guyton’s Epson UltraChrome inject on linen abstraction, “Untitled” from 2006 and comprised of large ‘X’ letters scrolling across the 80 by 69 inch canvas sold to New York/London dealer Daniella Luxembourg for $2,165,000 (Est. $1.5-2 million).

An impressively wacky “Cartoon Abstraction” from 2010 by George Condo — a elder to this young bunch — by Hanna-Barbera animated cartoon characters, squeaked by at $305,000 (est. $300-400,000), while one of Jeff Koons’s Banality series sculptures, the plush toy figure “Poppies” cast in porcelain from 1988, got away at $4,645,000 (est. $4-6 million).

Works by market workhorses Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol were sprinkled throughout the sale, with Basquiat’s early and mostly text-free “Untitled” from 1981, in acrylic and oil stick on canvas, selling to a telephone bidder for a solid $11,365,000 (est. $8-12 million). The painting was included in the artist’s most recent traveling retrospective held at the Fondation Beyeler in 2010.

A later and even sparser Basquiat, “Rodo” from 1984, depicting a blue skinned super-hero posed in a bare room containing a single unoccupied chair, surged to $3,021,000 (est. $2-3 million). Connecticut collector David Rogath was the underbidder.

Then came a billboard scaled collaboration between Basquiat and Warhol, “Zenith” from 1985, titled after the electronics brand. It set a record for that artist duo of $11,365,000 (est. $10-15 million). The painting combines Basquiat’s primitive-style figures with Warhol’s advertising logos and large skull and cross bones.

A mournful, 20-by-16-inch Warhol “Jackie” from 1964, portraying the grieving first lady, sold to New York dealer Nathan Bernstein for $3,077,000 (est. $1.2-1.8 million), while the larger scaled, 48-by-48-inch Warhol “Flowers” from the same year, stamped twice by the Estate of Andy Warhol and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, sold to Stavros Merjos for $10,245,000 (est. $10-15 million). This Warhol also carried a third party guarantee.

While Phillips is best known for offering cutting-edge contemporary works, often for the first time at auction, the house appears to be expanding its mission by offering more blue chip works.

That was evident as the bold yet sublimely luminous Mark Rothko abstraction“Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange)” from 1955, bolstered in part by a separate 53 page catalogue devoted to the painting and the artist, went for the top-lot price of $56,165,000 (unpublished estimate). Bidding opened at $30 million and tentatively crawled along until an actual phone bidder came in to play.

“It’s a great price for a painting of that scale,” said Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s world-wide head of contemporary art, who was part of the small group of telephone underbidders.

The Rothko had last sold at Christie’s New York in November 2007, a date considered by some to be the apex of that decade’s art boom, for $34,201,000.

On Thursday, not surprisingly, it came to market with a third party guarantee.

Another blue-chip name, Gerhard Richter, was represented by the evening’s cover lot, “Madchen Im sessel (Lila)” from 1965-66, infused with an all-over shade of violet and based on an out-of-focus photograph of a reclining woman. It sparked enthusiastic bidding and sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $8,005,000 (est. $6-8 million).

It had last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2004 to New York dealer Jack Tilton for $1,464,000.

Fellow German artist Sigmar Polke, currently the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, was represented by “Untitled” from 1994, a dispersion-and-pigment-on-canvas composition swirling with Benday dots, which sold to New York private dealer Leslie Rankow. “I bought it for a client and I’m very pleased,” said the dealer as she searched for her driver outside Phillips’s Park Avenue headquarters.

Jack Tilton was in the salesroom on Thursday, too, and characterized the evening this way: “The young stuff is going through the roof, some of the classics did OK, and some struggled. All this young abstraction stuff is going for $200,000 to half a million. It looks like a shift in the market. Let’s see if it lasts for more than fifteen minutes.”

Other blue-chip contenders included Alexander Calder’s 76-inch-high, late but still playful stabile, “Crag With White Flower and White Discs” from 1974, which brought $2,965,000 (est. $2.5-3.5 million), and Vija Celmins’s “Night Sky #3” from 1991, in oil on canvas laid on wood panel, which fetched $2,405,000 (est. $2-3 million). Both works carried third party guarantees.

The evening made for a pleasant though hardly super-charged end to the marathon auction week.

“It was a solid sale,” opined London dealer Fernando Mignoni, who bought the Donald Judd six-part stack “Untitled (88-27 Menziken),” from 1988, in anodized aluminum and green Plexiglas, for $2,165,000 (est. $2-3 million).

“It’s not something that will fit over the sofa, but it’s a beautiful thing to behold.”

Returning to the 21st century, a widely exhibited and mightily scaled collage and mixed-media abstraction by Mark Bradford from 2003 made $1,205,000 (est. $1-1.5 million). Dana Schutz’s wildly figurative “Reformers” from 2004, also large scaled, sold to a telephone bidder for a record $605,000 (est. $200-300,000).

Together, the four evening auctions, starting with Christie’s one-off “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday” sale on Monday, brought a cumulative and unprecedented $1,373,858,000.

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