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A Big Year for the Big Guns at Auction

Mon, 05/09/2022 - 14:14
Jackson Pollock's "Number 31" will be on the block tonight at Christie's with an estimate exceeding $45 million along with Willem de Kooning's 1977 painting "Untitled XXI."
© Christie's Images Ltd. 2022 Photos

After an Andy Warhol "Marilyn" painting sold on Monday night for a record-breaking $195, paintings by some of the mid-20th century's most illustrious South Fork resident artists will be on offer Thursday night at Christie's auction house in New York. 

The evening sale features an uncharacteristically small (only 31 by 22 inches) Jackson Pollock drip painting of oil, enamel, aluminum paint, and gesso on paper mounted on Masonite from 1949. Although Christie's opted to share the estimate only upon request by potential bidders, they did reveal in a press release that it was in excess of $45 million. 

In November, a 1951 black painting by Pollock fetched $61 million during Sotheby's sale of the Macklowe collection. Made as he moved away from his signature style, it measured 51 by 51 inches and had an estimate of $25 million to $35 million. The most expensive Pollock sale to date was the private $140 million sale of "No. 5" painted in 1948 from the collection of David Geffen.

The last time the painting in tonight's auction exchanged hands was in 2006, and the last time it sold at auction was in 1988. It has been in several important exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art's two retrospectives of the artist in 1967 and 1998.

From the Christie's press release: "Pollock executed 'Number 31' during a flurry of brilliant artistic activity during the end of 1949. The work was subsequently exhibited with Pollock's new dealer Betty Parsons later that year where critics described the exhibition as 'the best painting he has yet done.' "

According to Alex Rotter, Christie's chairman of 20th and 21st-century art, "In the late 1940s, Pollock's drip paintings categorically redefined how we understand art. This moment saw the art world's center of gravity shift for the first time away from the museums and galleries of Paris and into the streets of New York." He added that true drip paintings come up rarely in the secondary market. 

Another significant painting in the sale comes decades later from Willem de Kooning. The 1977 "Untitled XXI" was completed when he was 74. In its essay for the lot, Christie's noted, "This was a profound moment of creativity for the artist." In the biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning said of the time: "I couldn't miss. It's strange. It's like a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can't lose."

Christie's further notes that the artist had begun a relationship with Mimi Kilgore, a member of New York society who had a place in East Hampton. "He seems to have found a measure of peace. Some critics have noted the liquid quality of his paint in this period. In 'Untitled XXI,' his winding strokes at times appear so fresh that the surface actually glistens, as if the painting were still wet or completed just last week."

The estimate for this painting, while not included with the lot information provided by Christie's, is in excess of $20 million. It has been in the same collection for 35 years. 

An Andy Warhol "Skull" from 1976 has an estimate of $25 million to $35 million. It was part of a recent Whitney Museum retrospective as well as a Tate Modern show in 2020. It was acquired by the present owner from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Vija Celmins, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell are some of the other South Fork artists with lots in this sale, which begins at 8 p.m.

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