Elena Platonova is an art advisor, curator, and artist liaison in New York and London. Her Instagram handle is @ElenasArtAdventures.
This auction season, the art world talk revolves around a few typical speculations: the gold Stingels—the six-panel one at Sotheby’s and the one in four parts at Christie’s— and the potential records they might break; Phillips’ push to match the other two rivals in the pricey-masterpieces arena; and the guaranteed Basquiat skull painting at Sotheby’s. The sensationalism of the Evening Sales left aside, most artists’ output goes beyond large-scale, multimillion-dollar canvases and monumental sculptures.
Works on paper, for example, often constitute an integral part of an artistic production. They serve as a working laboratory where ideas and themes are developed or form an independent oeuvre in its own right. Thus, buying works on paper allows for a thoughtful and more affordable way to form a collection and to complement a selection of pieces in other media. To illustrate this premise, I highlight six contemporary works on paper—two at each house—coming up for sale this week. These pieces are mostly included in the less publicized Day, or Morning, Sales—the ones that rarely make newspaper headlines but still present ample opportunities to spot a masterpiece and to acquire a slice of history.
With its dynamism and technical bravura, this Sam Francis watercolor is strikingly similar to the artist’s larger, highly coveted, and often record-breaking, canvases of the late 1950s. Resembling a sensual, otherworldly flower sprinkling drips of color in the infinite space, the work amalgamates the effects of some major formative experiences in Francis’s career: the time the artist spent in Tokyo and his interest in Japanese calligraphy, his fascination with compositions resembling aerial views as a one-time pilot and his studies of botany as a Berkeley student. It is probable that the tremendous impression that Monet’s Water Lilies made on Sam Francis during an exhibition in Paris in 1956 also has reverberations in this work.
As the opening lot of Christie’s Morning Sale, this set of pastels by Joan Mitchell is positioned to sell above its estimate. At first sight, these works are nearly too decorative and serene to be by the artist, with just a few black scratch-like interventions betraying her signature emotional style. Upon closer observation, however, the viewer is confronted with the typical gestural elegance of lines with unexpected beginnings and abrupt endings, tormented overpainting and the obvious enjoyment of attacking the paper with forceful rubbings of pastel crayons. A leading artist of her generation, although still behind her male counterparts as far as museum exposure and market appreciation are concerned, Mitchell is gradually assuming her rightful position in history. Following her recent retrospective in Germany and her inclusion in the major abstract expressionist shows across the world, the market for her work should continue its upward trajectory.
Did you miss on Warhol’s eight-figure paintings of Coca-Cola bottles? Here is a much more attainable, collective image of all the world’s soft drinks, as long as they come in canned diet versions.
Andy Warhol’s critique of American rampant consumption usually consisted of simply portraying the object of consumerist desire with the help of screen printing and adding a few of his signature outlines to complete the picture. However, this rich-with-meaning and finely executed drawing offers direct evidence of the artist’s insightful reflections about the market trends. With a diagram depicting a meteoric rise of the sales of diet soft drinks and their share in the 1970s, it could be interpreted as a wry commentary on the marketing ingenuity of major corporations, allowing them to ever increase profits by manipulating consumer perception. Next time you witness someone order a Diet Pepsi to complement their oversized meal high on empty calories, remember this Warhol. Some things have not changed since the 1970s.
Technically, this Basquiat not a straightforward work on paper. It is made of Xeroxed sheets attached to canvas and a wooden support put together by the artist. But this exact process, prefiguring digital manipulations so common today, makes it especially precocious. Collaged Xeroxed drawings lie smoothly upon the artist’s stream-of-consciousness technique, allowing him to compositionally highlight several sets of themes poignantly united in one work. From Basquiat’s signature references to Gray’s Anatomy to allusions to Greek mythology, Christianity, consumerism, violence and celebrity culture—this work is an amalgamation of topics as relevant in America today as they were in Basquiat’s time.
Yayoi Kusama’s My Hart, 1953, is another opening lot, this time of Sotheby’s Day Sale. It is a very early work by the Japanese eighty-eight-year old whose Infinity Nets, Pumpkin and Dot paintings are conquering the world by storm, and I mean the whole wide world, not just the art one. Major exhibitions of Kusama’s work attract crowds of curious city dwellers from Finland to Singapore and from Moscow to Washington, DC. Kusama’s dots and nets grace not only an endless array of popular merchandise—like pillows, lingerie, purses and even mobile phones—but also some of her most expensive paintings. Essentially a large ellipse, pierced by what could be a network of blood vessels, My Hart is suggested in the Sotheby’s catalogue to be an early work already showing signs of dots and infinity nets, which would certainly impart gravitas to this powerful, delicately meditative piece.
Painted in 1968, this charcoal drawing by Willem de Kooning has everything going for it. It is about women, the artist’s most celebrated subject. It is emblematic of the time, when the position of women in society, as well as the American society itself, was undergoing dramatic changes. The high-heeled beauties depicted here are as likely to be burgeoning hippies basking in the light of newly obtained sexual liberation, as they are to be ardent feminists provocatively protesting against the commodification of the female body. The work is brimming with wit, and whether it is a critical satire of the artist’s female contemporaries or a loving jest, de Kooning’s women put him on the map in the 1950s and women in his work—on canvas, paper or in bronze—should be celebrated today.