As a Junior Specialist for the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, my job at Christie’s is to document and research every work that comes in for the auction. With the help of expert conservators, artists, their studios, estates, galleries, consignors and of course, libraries, I trace the comings and goings of these WORKS OF ART, exhausting every thinkable resource in order to copiously prepare the work for the catalogue and ultimately, auction.
This journey usually begins with the objects themselves- labels on backing boards can tell the story of their exhibition history and provenance, while the materials and methods give me insight to what these objects actually are. The process of writing the condition report (where we inspect the art for anomalies and flaws and make detailed notations of their composition and structure) can be particularly insightful in regards to the often untold stories of a work of art.
We black light every painted work that comes through our sales, and will sometimes discover the remains of old conservation- for better or worse. This time around, my black light yielded alarming results…though not in the traditional sense! Instead, what I found demonstrated the thrilling abandon with which many contemporary artists are approaching their work. The phosphorescent paint applied to the “Prince” panel in Chris Ofili’s Untitled Diptych, 1999 reveals a “hidden” painting under black light and remains glowing even when the lights are switched back on. The clarity of composition, which works in both versions of this painting, attest to the artist’s masterful grasp of detail and surface, encrusting his canvases in tiny printed paper cut outs, glitter and intricately applied dots of paint that contribute to the effervescence of their jewel-toned surfaces.
Barnaby Furnas’s Hamburger Hill also beams under black light. The bright yellow painted areas comprised of visible fluorescent paint that is applied in thin veils to the surface and perfectly convey the explosions of gunpowder bursting forth from whizzing bullets in this masterpiece from his most famed series. The vivacity of his colors and clarity of his composition result in a work that is the perfect balance between dynamism and two-dimension. He explains to Carroll Dunham that he split his time in graduate school “studying French Romantic painting…and going to action movies like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, so I decided to combine the two, take what I loved about action movies, which is all the shit flying around, and subjecting it to what I love about painting, which is the stillness and silence.”
Anselm Kiefer’s Dem Unbekannten Maler (To the Unknown Painter) is a large scale canvas depicting the courtyard of Hitler’s since destroyed Berlin chancellery intended as a tomb to the Unknown Soldier and where his body was also purportedly burned. Kiefer’s work is most often examined as a sociological reckoning through painting that seeks an elucidation of German history- the torrid legacy of National Socialist party and the rebuilding of national identity that has occurred over the course of the 20th century. His works are resultant elegies to memory and loss- as are his surfaces which reveal the physicality of his struggle, carefully built up and embellished with straw and heavy impastos of paint, but also violently scraped away in areas and torn in others. The shellacked areas radiate a warm orange glow under black light, revealing carefully preserved and encased regions, while the stripped areas in the sky fluoresce, showing the highly variant surface, part and parcel to the artist’s dramatic working method.
Other revelations become apparent from close inspection, sometimes without the aid of UV light. When conditioning the work, I made note of two tiny paw prints in the lower left corner of Andy Warhol’s last masterpiece- the large scale red Fright-Wig self-portrait completed just months before his tragic and untimely death in February of 1987. They are pug paw prints, and are not uncommon vestiges of the artist’s studio where he notoriously allowed his pugs to roam (some of these belonged to his longtime friend and factory fixture Brigid Berlin). When works were damaged by art handlers or studio assistants, the typically nonchalant artist could become incensed. However, when his pugs urinated or imprinted his surfaces, he is known to have proclaimed “its art!” Indeed, the tiny little prints that are barely visible even in extreme raking light, remind us of the life of this work, created on the floor of the factory and in the midst of the action of its hand-selected inhabitants. Often viewed like a death mask, a prophetic foretelling of his demise, we are reminded that this work once lived at the Factory- its eeriness enhanced by this tiny trace of its place within the great legacy of Andy Warhol.
When REAL condition issues rear their ugly heads, the best of the best are called in to consult- and usually alongside the careful guidance and experienced wisdom of artist studios and sometimes the artists themselves. Artists have become, aware of the tenuous materials often used, increasingly helpful when it comes to restoration and repair. The Calder Foundation has newly released the approved paints (original paints are out of stock!) which can be used to repaint or touch up the pieces whose painted surfaces can easily become dislodged from their steel structures especially in the case of outdoor works which brave the elements and face repeated installation and breakdown.
Urs Fischer’s mechanical robot self-portrait, Airports are like Nightclubs, 2005, has a computer lodged in the pedestal which activates the motorized arm which runs its silicone and highly lifelike fingers through its Duchampian blonde wig every two minutes. Written on the computer is an inscription from the technician which provides an email address to contact should the computer malfunction.
Robert Ryman similarly has pasted explicit installation and hanging instructions for his pristine 1989 meditation on painting titled Match. Raised peaks of heavily impastoed white paint rise up from the smooth, painted white gatorboard support. This support, mounted to aluminum, is mounted to a 1 inch thick recessed metal backing which, when installed, gives the appearance that the work is floating just in front of the wall. The shadows from the paint crests are further dramatized by the clean shadow cast by the support on the wall.
All in all, this season’s sale is rich with the best material from classic 60s Warhols and an early Bacon to contemporary masterworks from Richard Prince and Mark Bradford. Please be sure to swing by and visit Urs Fischer’s Untitled (Lamp/Bear) (installed on the plaza of the Seagram Building) whose massive gas lamp illuminates Park Avenue by night! It is not to be missed, so please be sure to visit us during the view and ask for me, it will be my pleasure to share the rest of the sale in person with anyone!
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