It will be on view for only three days, but “Faces in Art — Iconic Portraiture” at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center is meant to offer a different point of view on the frenzied art world. “When our clients put their collections together, this is what they’re looking at in their living rooms,” the head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art department and the organizer of this show, Guy Bennett, said. “They’re not looking at the numbers.”
A week before the November auctions — which may prove to be among the biggest ever — this Christie’s show is a reminder of the art history that is meant to drive this form of conspicuous consumption. “Faces in Art” brings together works from five upcoming sales (Old Masters, Impressionist and Modern, Postwar and Contemporary, Latin American, and Chinese Contemporary) around the theme of portraiture. It has the added benefit of giving those of us who aren’t top-tier art collectors the chance to see how the most accomplished collectors approach their art. Mr. Bennett has put aside both his salesman’s role and scholar’s eye to assemble a fantasy collection — a sort of Rotisserie-league art collection — that a wealthy patron might have put together if they could wander around in Christie’s vaults for a few weeks.
The show highlights two important trends in art collecting. The first is the great number of collectors today, and their even greater geographical diversity. The second trend is the broad range of art that these collectors will buy. Russians have made Modiglian
i their own; Warhol plays well everywhere, and Europeans and Americans are hankering after Chinese Contemporary. Art collecting today is a truly global endeavor. And collectors are more involved in assembling their art than ever before.
So hanging works ranging from Basquiat to Cezanne to Matisse to Tamayo and back to Rubens in close proximity on the walls isn’t eclectic or idiosyncratic: It’s symptomatic. Collectors want more than depth in a school of painting or a single movement. They want the best-of-breed pictures across genres. The market is driven by collectors who need to have A-plus paintings at any price. And they want to use those pictures to tell a story of how they see the art.
“Now that the 20th century is over,” Mr. Bennett said, “the story is easier to tell.”
“Faces in Art” narrates the shifting tale of portraiture in the 20th century. Preparing the way with a handful of Old Masters, Mr. Bennett’s first big statement is Cezanne’s “Portrait de Vallier,” estimated at between $15 million and $25 million. “This is where abstraction begins,” he said.
Modigliani comes next. Many of the artist’s portraits have a mask-like quality. But “Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Miestchaninoff,” estimated at between $18 and $25 million, is intimate and alive. Seeing Modigliani hard by Lucian Freud’s “Ib and Her Husband” is one of the pleasures of this approach. Both artists work hard to incorporate texture in the color of skin tones and backgrounds, but each in ways that echo and oppose the other.
Shifting back to Picasso’s “Dora Maar,” estimated at between $6.5 million and $8.5 million, the brushwork imparts yet another discovery. Though dwarfed by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Sugar Ray Robinson,” it’s hard not to enjoy the way these two complicated pictures confront each other.
Perhaps more striking is the way Andy Warhol’s paintings — here it is “Liz,” estimated at between $25 million and $35 million, as well as “Double Elvis,” estimated at between $15 million and $20 million — link Basquiat together with the Chinese superstars Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang. Warhol and Basquiat depict heroic figures while Messrs. Yue and Zhang make heroes of their friends and family. Yet all of their pictures fit together in a natural and sympathetic way.
In the end, all that Mr. Bennett has done with “Faces in Art” is to suggest a way of seeing. A collector with the means — a conservative estimate would put the total cost at more than $150 million — to assemble these particular pictures might have found another story to tell. Whether this show represents a real collector’s vision is less important than our having the opportunity to imagine what happens to so much of this multi-million-dollar art after the gavel falls. Long after the hammer price thrills the audience, the paintings continue to try to tell their stories. But they are only as good as the person who puts it all together.
“To me, a good collection is like good art,” the artist Richard Prince said. “It’s someone’s idea of expressing themselves.”
But Mr. Prince warns that self-expression has no guarantee of success: “There are as many good collectors as good artists. I mean, there’s just not that many.”