This report on Phillips’s 2020 New Now mid-season Contemporary sale is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscriptions begin with a free month for the curious. Feel free to subscribe for the first month and cancel before you are billed.
Phillips New York edition of its Mid-season New Now sale of contemporary art saw staggering results with a 92% sell-through rate, achieving a total of $7.9 million. That’s the the highest grossing Spring midseason yet auction at Phillips. That $7.9m figure is up substantially from the previous year’s comparable sale, which achieved $5.2 million. Although the previous year’s sale had a smaller group of lots, 168 last year compared to this year’s 195, the increase in value was not a function of the rise in lots offered or sold. With only one work withdrawn before bidding began, the auction sustained high interest across a majority of its varied lots and a strong performance among key works.
The “New Now” leading lot was Noah Davis’s In Search of Gallerius Maximumianus, which sold for $400,000 for more than six times its low estimate of $60,000, setting a new record for the artist. Peter Halley’s colossal grey geometric painting Nowhere also reached $400,000 solidly above its estimate of $250,000-$350,000. Among the other highlights, Ed Clark’s 1978 teal and brown abstract, Untitled (Acrylic #1) from the series Louisiana met its high estimate expectation selling for $462,000 and doubling its low estimate of $200,000. Bidding for KAWS UNTITLED (KIMPSONS), from the package painting series saw aggressive initial bidding with a Hong Kong online buyer winning the work at $280,000, a stunning result against its high estimate of $150,000. The sale’s first lot, a figurative portrait with floral emblems by Chicago-based artist Jonathan Gardner went for $125,000, selling for six times its low estimate of $20,000.
Pat Steir’s Wave a sprawling oil on linen abstract carried an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000 and felt steady bidding finally reaching its high sale estimate of $180,000 and jumping to $200,000 after some pause. The painting reached its ultimate selling price of $275,000, more than doubling its low estimate, a feat for the well-priced sale highlight. A Nicolas Party hot pink landscape reached $237,500, more than doubling its high estimate of $80,000, followed by Day sale staple Alex Katz‘s still life, which initially saw a high level of interest landing well above its low estimate of $50,000 and selling for $87,500.
Among the works by postwar mainstays familiar to the Evening sales, were by Richard Prince, whose Untitled paperback book illustration of his iconic nurse doubled its high estimate of $150,000, selling for a staggering $300,000. Warhol, whose market share has increased in the Evening sales this season was also featured. His Diamond Candy Box screen-print made with diamond dust also reached above its high estimate and sold for $81,250.
Surprisingly, emerging figurative painter Tschabala Self’s work only hammered at its $70,000 low estimate despite the artist’s record-breaking figurative painting Princess (2017) selling for $567,736 in the Phillips London February Evening sale. Kara Walker’s 1996 cut out Forging Freedoms felt a strong wave of bidding quickly surpassing its high estimate of $30,000 and ultimately selling for $65,000. Walker’s silhouettes have garnered status in the institutional sphere for their cunning critical commentary. Kehinde Wiley’s graphite and oil on paper portrait Passing/Posing: Lady Innes Study opened with a high level of interest, quickly doubling its high estimate of $20,000 with emboldened bidding. The work eventually sold for four times its low estimate at 60,000. Last year, Wiley’s paintings saw success in the March sales with two paintings ranking in the top ten highest-selling lots.
One unexpected performance was Ab-Ex Spanish painter Luis Feito’s Untitled oil and sand on canvas selling for $56,250 against its conservative estimate of $5,000-7,000. A similar work by Feito titled No 226-B sold at John Moran Auctioneers in mid-February for $35,000. Sourced from the collection of American architect and modernist designer, Florence Knoll Bassett, the neutral abstract painting gave some weight to this group of vibrantly variegated works.
Among the works in the lower priced echelon were Eddie Martinez’s Untitled (2008), a work on paper in his signature figurative-expressionistic style saw significant advance interest noted by the auctioneer who moved swiftly between competitive bidding in the sale room and online. After the initial frenzy, the work eventually sold for $18,750, more than doubling its high estimate of $7,000. Recently, Martinez has been subject to heightened interest and a burgeoning market with paintings featured in the February Contemporary sales in London. His painting EMPIRICAL MIND STATE (2009) sold in the Sotheby’s Evening sale for $795,910 at nearly eight times its low estimate of $100,000.
Notably, the first eight works in the sale were figurative and outperformed expectations with works by emerging artists Derrick Adams and Jonathan Lyndon Chase each tripling their low estimates. The figurative craze has kept its stamina from 2019. Last year, the leading lot in the New York mid-season contemporary sale was Jenny Holzer’s neo-conceptual Truisms bench which sold for $312,000. Mary Weatherford, Sam Francis and Sam Gilliam each had abstract lots in last year’s sale that sold in the six-figure range. Comparatively, the most striking difference in the aesthetic range between 2019 to 2020 can be seen in this year’s monopoly of figurative subject matter. The trend has persisted at the highest peak of the market in the recent Modern and Contemporary sales as well. With two major sales at Christie’s including Hockney’s record-setting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which achieved $90.3 million in November 2019, or the recent sale of Magritte’s 1962 painting A la rencontre du plaisir, a night scene with his signature faceless protagonist which sold for $24.6 million — these cases provide insight into the impact of figuration on new movements in the contemporary sphere.
Running concurrently with New York’s Armory Show the March contemporary auctions this week provide another chance for emerging works to outperform their estimate ranges. This sale proved the continuing presence of an active and highly engaged collector base looking for the next top auction contenders. With an increase in these core sale totals from year to year, Phillips’s strength in the middle market continues to surpass its markers.