Surrealist pioneer Max Ernst’s desert-inspired landscape from 1962 is among the top offerings currently available through Christie’s private sales department. The work comes from the prolific artist’s late career during his days based in Sedona, Arizona with his wife and fellow avant-garde artist, Dorothea Tanning.
Ernst’s later work displays the artist’s commitment to experimentation, a signature of Surrealist practice. By the 1960s, Ernst’s approach to painting was to combine naturalism with abstraction occurring by chance. “He is based in romanticism,” Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Specialist and Surrealist expert, Olivier Camu says, referring to painters like Caspar David Frederich. “The difference between him and the romantics is that he used chance.”
At this point in his career, Ernst was employing decalcomania, transferring pigment pressed between sheet and surface to yield a deep saturation of color without much control over form. The element of chance brought Ernst back to the intuitive process of Dada era, a key touchstone for the artist and his peers.
Camu notes that even as the Surrealist market has felt a rise in recent auction seasons—seeing high returns in the consistently well-performing annual sale dedicated to the movement— figures for Ernst’s works remain conservative. “He is still undervalued and one of the reasons is because he was prolific” said Camu who noted that Ernst made around 4,000 works throughout his decades-long career. “The great thing about Ernst is that he is always good from the beginning to the end,” Camu said—a nod to Ernst’s long and active practice that spanned from the early 1900s to 1970s.
But in Color embodies Ernst’s shift away from the obsessively constructed motifs and figures of his peak period in the 1940s. The piece also shows that Ernst was “a master of color,” even going so far as to use color as provocation.
“He is going into an abstracted surreality in his later works,” notes Camu. The landscape scene, lit with an incandescent glow resembles a desert mountain. Its “disorganized language” explains Camu is suggestive of an irreality that recalls something present in the unconscious. Ernst once famously described painting as a “plastic invention of felt reality.”
Connected for decades to the prominent Houston oil industrialist and Surrealism collecting family, the de Menils, Ernst’s legacy is bound to Surrealism’s deep roots in the American South. The family’s matriarch, Dominique de Menil established a close friendship with Ernst while amassing her collection, and she was instrumental in helping to bring his first solo exhibition to New York. De Menil once owned the piece on offer, which adds a solid provenance to the small scale of the oil-on-panel work.
But in Color was last sold publicly three years ago in a Sotheby’s London surrealist evening sale for $291,635 in March 2017, meeting is high estimate.
A 2011 impressionist and modern art evening sale at Christie’s brought the artist’s standing auction record to $16 million for his 1941 The stolen mirror achieving four times its low estimate of $4 million. The work holds a golden provenance: it came from the collection of the artist’s descendant Dallas Ernst. First shown at a solo exhibition for Ernst at New York’s historic Valentine Gallery in 1942. The dealer from whom iconic collectors like Ernst’s ex-wife Peggy Guggenheim, Albert C. Barnes and Joseph Pulitzer began to amass their seminal modern art holdings. The sale moved Ernst up the ranks in the auction echelon for top selling modern masters.