A Bacon and SFMOMA's Rothko Boost Sotheby's $341.9 Million Contemporary Art Sale

  • May 19, 2019 19:23

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Mark Rothko’s Untitled, 1960, sold for $50.1 million.
Sotheby's

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction wrapped in New York with a total of $341.9 million, with a strong sell-through rate of 88.9% by lot. Of the 63 lots offered in the May 16 evening sale, more than three-quarters made their auction debut. Seven artist records were set.

Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head achieved $50.4 million following a four-minute battle between five bidders –well-exceeding its $30 million high estimate. An outstanding example of Bacon’s most celebrated and
recognizable iconography, the work powerfully captures the silent scream of his iconic Popes. On offer from the collection of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, Study for a Head from 1952 belongs to a series of six small paintings in the head-and-shoulders portrait format completed by Bacon that year, which advanced both his suited businessmen as well as the Papal imagery he began in the late-1940s.

Competition among at least four bidders drove Mark Rothko’s Untitled, 1960 to sell for $50.1 million (estimate $35/50 million). The painting was offered on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), sold to benefit the institution’s Acquisitions Fund. An important work completed at the apex of Rothko’s artistic powers, Untitled, 1960 is one of just 19 paintings completed by the artist in 1960. That year marked a critical juncture in the iconic Abstract Expressionist’s career, following his defining commission of the Seagram Murals (1958-59) and his representation of the United States in the XXIX Venice Biennale (1958) – organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which would subsequently hold Rothko’s first and only major lifetime retrospective in 1961.

Also painted in 1960, Lee Krasner’s colossal The Eye is The First Circle, achieved an artist record at $11.7 million, eclipsing her previous record of $5.5 million. The work was painted at the apogee of her highly-lauded Umber series – a collection of twenty-four works that, in recent years, have risen to acclaim as the creative summit of her oeuvre. Created in the years following the sudden and tragic death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, the Umbers are defined by a gestural intensity and ambition of scale unparalleled in Krasner’s earlier artistic output. Exceptional prices were also realized for female artists Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, Julie Mehretu, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jenny Saville, Dana Schutz and Yayoi Kusama.

An additional record-breaker, Kenneth Noland’s energetic painting, Blue, 1960, reached $3.5 million. 

The night proved to be momentous for African American artists, with auction records achieved for Barkley L Hendricks, Charles Gaines and Rashid Johnson. Portraitist Hendricks earned the record with his masterwork Yocks from 1975, receiving $3.7 million at auction. Exemplary of Hendricks’s distinct style, Yocks demonstrates the artist’s familiarity with the art historical canon, as well as his means of reclaiming portraiture by elevating minority figures. Additionally, Gaines’s Numbers and Trees: Central Park Series IV: Tree #6, Carmichael, 2019, realized $475,000, while Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Escape Collage, fetched $1.2 million, both sold to benefit the Hammer Museum.

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