Auctions: The ever-expanding bubble of art

There is no public estimate for a 1959 abstract expressionist Jasper Johns of the number four over-painted in strokes of encaustic.

jaspar art 88 298 (photo credit: )
jaspar art 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Israel Museum is hoping to raise between $6m.-$8m. from the sale of an 1981 canvas by the sophisticated "primitive" painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988 aged only 28. The unplanned, ferociously painted acrylic and oilstick of an African fetish figure (perhaps a self-portrait?) is Lot 15 in Sotheby's evening sale of Contemporary Art in New York on May 15. It is being sold to create the Eugene and Barbara Schwartz Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund at the museum. The late minimalist Agnes Martin once wrote that art was about beauty. Tell that to Basquiat, who said that art for him is 80% violence. Today, Basquiat's raw but powerful works (no, I would not hang one in my home) go up in price from sale to sale, as do the works of other painters in this sale who have died: Bacon, Wesselmann, Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin and of course Rothko and Warhol. They have been priced out of the means of small collectors (and also of small dealers who can no longer afford to buy for stock), but they are being replaced by bankers and investment consultants whose huge bonuses have made them the nouveau riche of the moneyed world. There are hundreds, nay thousands of new collectors who think nothing of spending half a million dollars and more on a name painting to decorate their apartments. They would rather have an in-your-face Haring or a Basquiat than a Sisley. And why not? The 1962 Francis Bacon offered at Sotheby's is not the only one that does not have a public estimate; it will likely start at $20m. Inspired by Velazquez's Innocent X, only the treatment of the face is of interest. There are lots of Warhols, consigned in expectation of soaring prices. You may need to cough up $.4.5m. to get a Warhol soup can, a de Kooning woman, a shaped Wesselmann Smoker or an early Jackson Pollock. But a fetching pair of girl prostitutes, painted in monochrome 25 years ago by the still-living Gerhard Richter from a Spanish pornographic postcard, has an estimate of $9m.-$12m. And a 1959 Rauschenberg painted assemblage is listed at $10m.-$15m. It's one of his better ones. Three and four decades ago much American painting was both well done and attractive as well as completely original. The good news is that Sotheby's following morning sale on May 16 contains many lovely works by Sam Francis, Josef Albers, Alexander Calder, Franz Kline and Philip Guston that are simply a delight and which start at very reasonable prices. Several of the abstract Gustons are superb. AT CHRISTIE'S evening sale on May 15 a Warhol composed of repetitive images (Green Car Crash, 1963) starts at $25m. and has a top estimate of $35m., which I think is madness. Warhol's seminal Lemon Marylin, 1962, does not have a public estimate; will it go higher? Probably. A Warhol of his banal and over-exposed four flowers starts at $5m. A 1954 Rothko is hoped to go for $25m. A later Rothko may reach $18m. There is no public estimate for a 1959 abstract expressionist Jasper Johns of the number four overpainted in strokes of encaustic. Johns always was a real painter and this painted collage is a gem. The cover lot of this sale, a late (1981) abstract de Kooning, also has no disclosed estimate. It is a large and to my mind unresolved composition, but it should also prove a blockbuster. Tiers of boxes by minimalist prophet Donald Judd are hoped to bring $7m. An Eva Hesse mixed-media assemblage from 1967 has an estimate of $3m.-$4m.! A Damien Hirst starts at $2.5m. and a Lichtenstein at more. A lovely Agnes Martin from 1980 has an estimate of $1.5m.-$2m. and another from 1965 $4m.-$5m. No wonder that everyone is consigning. In fact paintings are now judged not just by their formal values, but by the amount of money they will bring both consignors and the auction houses. Christie's morning sale on May 16 also has some gems, notably a small and richly colorful de Kooning abstract from 1955 ($750,000-$950,000, Lot 160); a number of squares by Albers; fun paintings by Wesselmann and several rich early ones by Helen Frankenthaler and Franz Kline. An early Sam Francis starts at only $25,000. Small sculptures (not black ones) by Louise Nevelson, who is currently being honored with a retrospective at New York's Jewish Museum, start at just $8,000 and $15,000. Other cheapies are in the afternoon sales of both houses. In just three working days, the lots at both houses for Impressionist, Moderns and Post-War and Contemporary works amount to more than 2400. The great majority of these will sell. But how long will the bubble continue to expand?