Hail Mary

Newport Beach, CA
05.26.07

Left: Mary Heilmann. (Photo: Carla Rhea) Right: Paul McCarthy. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)


Say you are invited to Mary Heilmann’s first traveling retrospective, debuting at the Orange County Museum of Art. Naturally, you want to travel, too. Heilmann is a stunning colorist, modest yet buoyant. Her abstract paintings of cityscapes and seasides exude the force of nature with uncommon delicacy. She may be the most important underrecognized artist in America, and it’s about time she had a museum show in the US. Where better to start than her home state of California? Paul McCarthy will be there. Christopher Williams will be there. So will LA MoCA’s Jeremy Strick and Ann Goldstein and the Hammer’s Gary Garrels. To be Mary Heilmann is to be someone—that’s the title of her show, “To Be Someone”—so you have to go, even if you live in New York.

Say that getting there means driving on the 405 Freeway from Los Angeles at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Here’s my advice: Do it in a brand-new Lexus on loan from the carmaker, lately a player in corporate arts sponsorship. It is a tank, so spacious that six-foot-four art dealer Curt Marcus can stretch out in the backseat and have a nap and so classy it can make this driver and the fabulous LA architect Miggi Hood feel like princesses on the way to a ball.

That illusion shatters the moment we walk into the museum and are offered green-apple martinis. You know you’re in the provinces when they offer you green martinis. And you really begin to doubt you’re in the right place when the dinner menu lists surf and turf as the main course. Then again, it is not every day you see people from the New York art world try not to laugh at their food. Rarer still is to find the subject of a retrospective organizing a concurrent show of artists whose work she has influenced. It’s called “Something About Mary,” and introducing it in the lobby as an aperitif to the survey was a brilliant stroke on the part of OCMA curator Elizabeth Armstrong. Amazing no one has ever tried it before (to my knowledge, anyway). The catalog offers something different, too: It is available in a two-hundred-dollar limited-edition version—only 398 were printed—with each cover featuring a beautiful sample fabric from an edition Heilmann made at the Fabric Workshop.

Left: OCMA curator Aimee Chang. Right: Artist Christopher Williams and LA MoCA curator Ann Goldstein. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)


Not only were guests treated to a well-paced overview of Heilmann’s development, from her student days at Berkeley to Surfing on Acid, a recent “wave” painting in saturated red, yellow, and pink that OCMA bought from 303 Gallery. We could see Heilmann’s hand in artworks by Laura Owens, Monique Prieto, Ingrid Calame, Kim Fisher, Don Christensen, Mary Weatherford, Stanley Whitney, and Taro Suzuki, among others. “When was the last time you saw anything by Taro Suzuki?” Marcus marveled. “Just trying to give my old pals a boost,” said Heilmann, beaming in a borrowed jadelike necklace and silvery gray duster.

Indeed, with Robert Hudson and Jim Melchert—Heilmann’s teachers at Berkeley—on hand, and some high school chums and a New York contingent that included Jack Pierson, Marilyn Minter, Billy Sullivan, Manuel Gonzalez, Johanna Burton, Lisa Phillips, Mari Spirito, and Lisa Spellman, the event felt more like a family reunion than an opening. “I’m seeing my whole life flash before my eyes,” Heilmann said to the crowd seated for dinner at tables on the museum’s patio. “Only it doesn't flash,” she added. “It stays there.” Clearly, the generous Heilmann doesn’t just inspire artists. She’s a champ at instigating friendships, too.

Left: 303 Gallery owner Lisa Spellman. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Mary Heilmann, OCMA director Dennis Szakacs, and Liane Thatcher. (Photo: Carla Rhea)


At my table, the vivacious collector Carol Appel left the side of her husband, David, to spend the meal chatting with Pierson, but not before letting on that Annie Leibovitz was about to photograph Heilmann for an upcoming profile by Dodie Kazanjian in the August issue of Vogue. That’s the hefty, all-important back-to-school issue. “Isn’t it great?” Heilmann enthused, when I asked about it. She didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the prospect of becoming fashionable at age sixty-seven. Why should Brice Marden be the only grayhead to turn people on?

The real party began when guests started gathering around Heilmann to say good night, the New York contingent mixing with Jennifer Bolande, Cannon Hudson, Shaun Caley Regen, and Tom Solomon from LA; Ivan Wirth from Zurich; and Sherri Geldin from the Wexner Center in Columbus (another stop for the retrospective, which is also going to Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum and the new New Museum in New York).

“No one paints like Mary,” OCMA director Dennis Szakacs told guests at dinner. “I can’t believe I never knew about her before,” said my architect friend. “She’s so good.” There are many reasons for museum retrospectives, but when the artist is a woman deserving far greater attention, none are more satisfying than watching the chickens come home to roost. “Hanging this show has been very emotional for me,” Heilmann agreed. “When we were done, I went back to the house where I'm staying and saw the gray fog off the California coast and remembered what it was like as a teenager to feel not someone. And now I know it's not true.”

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artist Mary Weatherford and Hauser & Wirth's Alex Israel. (Photo: Carla Rhea) Right: New Museum director Lisa Phillips. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)


High Life, Low Life

New York
05.24.07

Left: Thurston Moore. (Photo: Zach Baron) Right: Laurie Anderson. (Photo: Brian Sholis)


Two days before the end of the first-annual H&M High Line Festival, performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson stood onstage at the Highline Ballroom and asked, “Don’t you love whores?” The festival’s producers, Josh Wood and David Binder, and its curator, David Bowie, surely would have rather avoided the question. But Anderson has a knack for this sort of persistent fragment—what novelist Jonathan Lethem once called “an itchy or gummy phrase”—and so it stuck.

Money for trade: The High Line’s relation to the festival that bears its name had been explained in articles leading up to the ten-day-long series of events. Bowie, according to the New York Times, had never been up on the tracks of the now-abandoned elevated rail line—scheduled to be turned into a Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed public park open to the public later this year—and had “no particular feelings about it.” To justify sharing the name, the festival was chipping in 5 percent of its profits toward the park’s establishment. What united them (and the likewise-unaffiliated Highline Ballroom), according to the baffled press, was a shared interest in, depending on whom you asked, the neighborhood, real estate development opportunities, a common interest in “aesthetics and design,” raising “awareness,” and, of course, the prospect of the park itself, which will eventually run north-south from roughly Thirty-third to Gansevoort Street. Until then, as Anderson put it, “here we are in the heart of the meat market, right next to Western Beef.”

Left: “No Fun Fest” organizer Carlos Giffoni. Right: Prurient's Dominic Fernow. (Photos: Zach Baron)


The programming hinted at the glossed-over emptiness of the festival’s basic concept. Anderson’s New Agey persona, and her blousy outfit with its long white bird-wing cuffs, matched with precision her NPR-calibrated politics: “Give me all your oil, what else do you have?” she sang. “I’m a very baaaaad man.” Behind her were projected bits of text, hieroglyphics, and satellite photographs. A live projection of a lightbulb flew in circles to her right. Her band—a second violinist, bassist Skuli Sverrisson, and keyboard player Peter Scherer—channeled world-music doyenne Enya alongside bits of Anderson’s signature, sticky violin pulse. Even her more successfully quirky moments, such as when she slowed down her enunciation to the pace of her longtime partner Lou Reed’s laconic delivery, failed to register in the antiseptic confines of the new Highline Ballroom.

A trip up Ninth Avenue to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church to see the nominally Bowie-curated installation of noted French Surrealist Claude Cahun’s photographs only added to the pervasive, unreal atmosphere. A 9 PM visit (the show was to run from dusk till midnight) found a frantic scramble to put the finishing touches on the installation in the garden. We were led to a second-story chapel-like space full of alcohol. There, an unmanned slideshow desultorily turned through a few Cahun photographs. It was an opening without new work, a living artist, or a curator anywhere in sight—Bowie, presumably, had actual things to do.

There is, of course, always another New York. A call Friday morning opened the doors to the fourth year of No Fun Fest, musician Carlos Giffoni’s annual barrage of extreme music, hosted this year by Brooklyn venue The Hook. If the High Line Festival had proven anything, it was that setting sets the tone, and the relatively unwanted wastelands of Red Hook were the perfect retreat from the anxious salesmanship of the previous evening.

Left: Anti-Freedom in performance. Right: Sissy Spacek's John Wiese. (Photos: Zach Baron)


Four nights of sold-out shows were only the most visible token of Giffoni’s success as a curator. Take, for instance, the Friday-night presence of Japan’s Incapacitants—legendary survivors of that country’s first wave of early-’80s noise, along with Merzbow (who played Saturday night) and Yoshimi, of the Boredoms and OOIOO (she played as a duo with Kim Gordon on Thursday). In the crowd Friday night, you could spot nearly every important noise musician from the region, including Prurient’s Dominic Fernow and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

Where else would German duo Raionbashi & Kutzkelina gleefully interpolate Swiss yodeling with guttural, unnatural power electronics? As the night progressed, the coruscating, bassy tones of Giffoni’s analog-synth set made way for the Incapacitants; my view of their postmidnight performance was obscured by hundreds of arms waving cameras. A personal highlight: the ramshackle flailings of Anti-Freedom, a skate-thrash quartet with John Olson (of the Ann Arbor noise-rock trio Wolf Eyes) on drums. “Put your hands in the air if you’re against freedom,” Olson screamed. Well, more than I’m for Anderson’s professed love of whores. My hand went up.

Lost Waltz

New York
05.22.07

Left: Jay-Z with musician Chrisette Michele. Right: MoMA director Glenn Lowry, Martin Scorsese, and Helen Morris. (Photos: Stephanie Berger)


When the Museum of Modern Art sends out a separate press release just to announce the possible attendance of one guest at a party, it had better be someone special. We already knew that Tuesday night’s annual black-tie Party in the Garden was honoring collectors Debra and Leon Black and recently anointed Oscar royalty Martin Scorsese and that Richard Serra would also be on hand to keep an eye on his newly installed sculptures, so it seemed that someone with serious cultural chops must have been added to the door list. The man of the hour? One Justin Timberlake. Mike Bloomberg, Glenn Lowry, and Richard Meier may be powerful figures, but they’re hardly ringing in “Summer Love.”

Arriving at 7 PM for predinner cocktails, I made my way into the sculpture garden hoping for an early glimpse of the heartthrob but noted only a couple of white-suited look-alikes. Amazonian actress Sonja Francis, on the other hand, was practically ubiquitous, to the point of being in the way, while more predictable attendees Jeff and Justine Koons, Chuck Close, and Doug Aitken mingled as discreetly as they could. Scanning the crowd for friendly faces, I spotted Lombard-Freid Projects director Cristian Alexa and artist Anne Collier. The latter was on the lookout for a flighty Trisha Donnelly, who had already ducked out to restyle her hair. Roni Horn and White Columns director Matthew Higgs were both in a mellow mood, while Liam Gillick offered a typically wry take on the Serras: “They could crush 150 rich people. It adds a certain tension.”

Around 8 PM, a trumpeter sounded the call for dinner, prompting a gradual drift inside. Discussion of seating resembled real estate chitchat: “We’re somewhere in the fifties.” “Oh, we’re way downtown.” Unfortunately, the failure of no less than three last-minute bids for a table left me rootless for an hour in uptown’s culinary no-man’s land. I headed back to the museum to rejoin the fray at 10 PM. By all accounts, I missed a short but intelligent speech by Scorsese concerning film’s place in the history of art—and in MoMA’s collection—and a long, boring speech by Mr. Black, the thrust of which no one seemed able to recall.

Left: Collectors Leon and Debra Black. (Photo: Stephanie Berger) Right: Ada and Alex Katz. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)


While festivities wound down inside, the garden began to hop with a distinctly younger crowd, notably uninterested in the Serras but very much interested in one another. (Overheard from a dolled-up pack of junior associates on the make: “This is where all the single men are!”) Most of the art-world faces I’d clocked earlier in the evening had departed, though I did bump into Frieze copublisher Matthew Slotover and jocular London dealer Paul Hedge, the latter in town to oversee the installation of flight-phobic artist Tomoko Takahashi’s project at P. S. 1. “You know what they call the Serra in London, right?” he asked (referring to Broadgate’s Fulcrum). “The Hedge Fund Latrine.”

After about half an hour of our idle banter, a rush toward the marquee at the far end of the garden heralded the onstage appearance of Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, there to introduce (in the cheesiest manner imaginable) the evening’s entertainment, “a real work of art, Ms. Chrisette Michele!” Cue some smooth but forgettable warbling followed by an anonymous DJ spinning school-dance favorites. Those who stuck it out gyrated contentedly, but the elusive JT was conspicuously not among them.

Michael Wilson

Left: MoMA president Marie Josée Kravis with Henry Kravis. Right: Actress Sonja Francis. (Photos: Stephanie Berger)


Garden of Eatin'

Los Angeles
05.20.07

Left: Right: Artist Anna Sew Hoy with Hammer Projects curator James Elaine. Right: Hammer chief curator Gary Garrels. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)


Last weekend, I visited the Hammer Museum three times in thirty-three hours to check out “Eden’s Edge: Fifteen LA Artists,” the Hammer’s fourth invitational and Gary Garrels’s first major exhibition since taking the position of chief curator and deputy director of exhibitions and public programs. First, I attended a press preview early Friday morning. Participating artist Matt Greene, with whom I’d been snowboarding the previous three days (Mammoth Mountain, with its perfect mid-May snow), graciously drove. Garrels gave what the professionals call a “walk-through” for the assembled journos with the participating artists (just in case he needed backup). Greene, who was born in Georgia, was bracing himself for the dreaded what-does-it-mean-to-be-an-LA-artist question, but no one ventured a query in his—or any other artist’s—direction. A local radio critic asked Garrels why he didn’t mix ‘n’ match the artists’ work, instead of giving each artist his or her own room, then looked around for support. He faced a heavy wave of eye rolls from his fellow scribes.

Seven hours later, it was dusk, and the Hammer’s courtyard, with its thirty-foot-tall bamboo trees, was filled with tangy margaritas, killer Mexican food, and multiple Eves. There was white-haired, Edenesque Sharon Ellis, whose saturated landscapes offered an energizing jolt of color after the claustrophobic, gray-gloom-sexy watercolor figures pleasuring themselves with gas masks and snorkels in Monica Majoli’s room. And Stanya Kahn, participating with her partner, Harry Dodge, was a commando Viking Eve distinguished by golden ringlets. Dodge & Kahn’s two video pieces were balls-out adrenaline rushes at the outermost edge of Garrels’s reconfigured Eden. All told, the exhibition reads like a deep, multigenerational novel about human consciousness, optical pleasure, unconventional beauty, voluptuous decoration, solitude, sex, drugs, strategies for survival, organic mutation . . . all quintessentially Los Angeles.

Left: ACME director Dean Anes, artist Monica Majoli, and curator Jarrett Gregory. Right: Artist Harry Dodge.


There was something shockingly beautiful, poetic, and moving about Rebecca Morales’s gouaches on calf vellum. Morales, a relative unknown, floored many people with these vivid drawings of mossy grass and tiny flowers sprouting out of braided hair. The undertow of “Eden’s Edge” was in part the presence and loaded absence of the human. When figures were physically present, they were struggling, aggressive, bugged out, at the end of their rope; when there was no trace of the human, nature sang a lullaby or a subtle, abstract requiem. With dozens of orange extension cords running from floor to ceiling like some gothic bloody curtain or wailing wall, the late Jason Rhoades’s Twelve-Wheel Waggon Wheel Chandelier, a hysterical meditation on the vagina’s endless vocabulary play, reads like a self-memorial—and, in the context of Eden, a pornographer’s electric dream.

After dinner, Garrels addressed the audience, giving props to several key Los Angeles curators, including MoCA’s Paul Schimmel, who curated “Helter Skelter,” the landmark/watershed 1992 exhibition of LA art. He then cited the Walker’s Kathy Halbreich, his mentor, and began to weep gently. A touching moment, and I fell for it. A quiet sigh was heard throughout the room, and for a moment, everyone seemed closer.

Left: MoCA director Jeremy Strick with Wendy Strick. Right: Artist Lari Pittman.


The Hammer, located on a former orange grove at the intersection of two of the busiest corners on LA’s west side, is one of the more artist-friendly institutions I’ve visited. Annie Philbin, the museum’s director, was ever-present in her stylish high collars, adroitly navigating various factions with her wise curatorial mate, James Elaine (best mispronounced Élan), who emigrated with her from New York’s Drawing Center less than a decade ago. The city would be bereft without them.

Saturday night’s director’s opening featured a Hammer constant: the world’s largest breadsticks, which people carried like monks’ staffs. There was hardened molten cheddar running down their sides, and after several bites, eaters gestured with them like symphony conductors. Artist Ingrid Calame, whose huge, densely dreadlocked hair is like the Fort Knox of beehives, wore a wrappy skirt that seemed to have maps of medieval cities printed on it. There was Francesca Gabbianni and her husband, Eddie Ruscha, who, as DJ, spun simply the best music ever recorded. People almost danced. Frank Gehry was in attendance, as well as MoCA’s rock-of-Gibraltar curator, the elegant, pale-skinned Ann Goldstein, and her brilliant betrothed, Christopher Williams. Several sparkly drag queens sauntered about, sometimes galumphing, with big chunks of stained glass, green leaves, anvils, and ropy gold chains clanking in the moonlight.

I usually don’t do this, but I stayed until they blinked the lights and security approached me with a subtle smile.

Benjamin Weissman

Left: Artist Sharon Ellis. Right: Leonard and Susan Bay Nimoy with MoCA curator Ann Goldstein.


High Times

New York
05.17.07

Left: Tobey Maguire. Right: Christie's Brett Gorvy with Christopher Burge. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco)


Tobey Maguire was wearing a gray baseball cap. As he took his seat in the tenth row next to LA collector Stavros Merjos, John McEnroe peered out from the box of dealer William Acquavella. François Pinault, Christie’s owner, stood omnisciently behind the glass in his own lofty lodge. Slinky Stephanie Seymour attracted appreciative looks as she entered the salesroom with collector Peter Brant. Larry Gagosian dropped down into his usual seat on the center aisle. At five past seven, the auction still hadn’t started. Perhaps the rain had delayed someone expected to bid during the first few rounds? Auctioneer Christopher Burge surveyed the crowd with an avuncular smile, then began: “Ladies and gentlemen . . .”

The first fourteen lots chugged slowly but smoothly beyond their high estimates. The market was so “deep” with aggressive buyers that Burge had to perform gymnastic swivels to field the bids. Lots 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 11, and 13 set new worldwide auction records for their respective artists. They included a luminous blue Judd stack that went for $9.8 million (over double the artist’s previous record) and a black-on-cream text painting by John Baldessari titled Quality Material—-…, 1967–68. The new consensus is that the LA guru has been undervalued, and this artwork went for $4.4 million, more than quadruple his recently established record. (As one Christie’s specialist put it, “Baldessari is so fresh and historical. He can be Minimal, Pop, Conceptual. You can hang that painting anywhere.”)

The night’s highlight, Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963, rolled in at lot 15. Presale prattle had been concerned with how green was a “difficult color.” As Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international cohead of contemporary art, told me, “At the end of the '80s, the commodity artist in Europe was Lucio Fontana. Putting aside gold and silver because they were rare, the grading from most to least salable was: red, white, blue, yellow, green, black. Of course, there are some artists for whom black is the color, but generally speaking that is the ranking.” When it comes to Warhol, however, one must remember that green is the color of money.

Burge opened the bidding on Green Car Crash at $17 million, the highest sum ever previously paid for a Warhol (Mao, 1972, bought last November by Hong Kong–based Joseph Lau). Five or six bidders raised the price in clean million-dollar increments. At $35 million, there was a pause. Only two suitors seemed to remain—one was on the phone with Christie’s president Marc Porter, the other was bidding through Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia. Yeh, who deals with the growing number of billionaire collectors in the Pacific Rim, bid by raising one of the two phones he had pressed tightly to either side of his head. Porter, on behalf of his client, “split” the bids, then batted back every price so quickly that the effect was comic. The price escalated by five hundred thousand dollars at a time. . . all the way to $61 million, when the auctioneer raised his gavel and said, “Fair warning and selling…” Burge was about to give the emerald disaster to Yeh’s man. But then, from the floor, with a dramatic finger jolt, Larry Gagosian yelled an urgent “Bidding!” The crowd gasped and laughed. Eyes widened. Larry was on a Christie’s wireless landline to hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen (as the Baer Faxt has it) because cellular reception in the salesroom is nerve-rackingly patchy. When the lot finally sold to Yeh’s bidder for sixty-four million dollars hammer, the audience burst into authentic applause.

Left: Dealer David Zwirner. Right: Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie's Asia.


The next twenty works mostly flew off the block, with worldwide auction records set for Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Richard Diebenkorn, and Gerhard Richter. By lot 36, not a single piece had gone unsold, and the crowd started to entertain fantasies of a “white glove” sale (in which there are no “buy-ins.”) But then, a scribble on paper by Arshile Gorky failed to reach its low estimate. Sad sighs followed, accompanied by asides of “What’s that doing in an evening sale?”

Similar grumbles about “day-sale lots” in evening auctions were made by primary dealers irritated that Charles Saatchi was turfing recent work by Wilhem Sasnal, Matthias Weischer, Cecily Brown, and Thomas Scheibitz. Although the first three made record prices, one has to wonder whether Saatchi’s provenance might leave a brighter mark if he could muster the willpower to hang on to his art a little longer.

In the end, the $384,654,400 total smashed all records. It was the highest total ever for a contemporary art sale and the second highest for any kind of art auction. A whopping 95 percent of the lots sold, 74 percent of them above their high estimates. Thirty-six percent of the night’s proceeds came from Warhol works. After the auction, Burge claimed that he was “stunned, exhausted, and thrilled,” while Robert Manley, Christie’s young head of the Evening Sale, admitted, “I’d like to say that we knew this was going to happen, but fuck no. We dreamed of the three-hundred-million mark, but. . .” Manley’s favorite work of the night was Eva Hesse’s Untitled (“Bochner Compart”), 1966—a grey double-D-cup coil on a papier-mâché square—which she gave to fellow artist Mel Bochner in 1966. (It sold for three million dollars with the buyer’s premium.) “Mel held onto that work for forty years,” said Manley. “Now he’s going to buy an apartment. Tonight, we all went from one to three bedrooms.”

Rockefeller Record

New York
05.16.07

Left: Dealer Irving Blum with Jacqueline Blum. Right: Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer. (Photos: David Velasco)


Just before 7 PM yesterday, Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s leading man, rose before the six hundred people gathered for the latest installment of his Contemporary Art Evening variety show. He wore a tuxedo and a black bow tie. In his German accent, he mumbled the usual legal disclaimers and then plunged into his dry-as-dust stand-up routine. With a gesture to the left and a straight arm to the right, he sold the first fourteen lots without a hitch. Many works edged over their previous records by a bid or two. Richard Prince’s mainstream hit Dude Ranch Nurse #2, 2002–2003, for example, a “midsize” red painting featuring a girl-next-door blonde complete with surgical face mask, sold for $2.5 million, beating the artist’s previous record by nearly a quarter-million dollars. The prices were strong but hardly big news, so the press pack chatted about the week’s other spectacles and the debut appearance of the ruble on the salesroom’s currency-exchange board.

Lot 15, an untitled 1981 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting being deaccessioned by the Israel Museum to create a contemporary-art-acquisition endowment fund, was the first lot to command respectful silence. 1981 is generally considered Basquiat’s “best year,” and the painting’s provenance—it was bought directly out of the studio by Eugene and Barbara Schwartz, who gifted it to the museum four years later—is unquestionably kosher. Isolated claps punctuated the chatter when the picture went for $14.6 million, nearly triple the artist’s previous auction record. Basquiat remains the only black artist to sell for over a million dollars at auction.

After a series of successful Pop numbers came the cover lot, Francis Bacon’s Study from Innocent X, 1962. Four or five bidders raced the price up to $35 million, when it became a relaxed call-and-response double act, the price rising in steady million-dollar increments between someone on the phone and someone in the room. The Bacon eventually sold for $52.7 million, almost double the artist’s recent record (set in February in London).

Left: Dealer James Cohan. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Rachel Mauro, Dickinson's Bona Montagu, and Sotheby's Cheyenne Westphal. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)


The most inspired performance of the evening was the “Rockefeller Rothko.” Meyer introduced lot 31 dramatically. “And now . . .” he said, with genuine sparkle and a long pause. The audience tittered. At an event where most works of art are identified by lot number and artist name alone, the auctioneer took the time to pronounce every word of the title, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, and spell out the painting’s mesmerizingly moneyed, power-patron provenance, “From the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller.” Prior to the sale, disbelievers grumbled. Sotheby’s had guaranteed the work for $46 million, over double the artist’s previous highest price at auction, and many naysayers saw it as a desperate act on the part of the auction house to garner attention and market share. But after what was perhaps the most intense marketing campaign for an individual work ever undertaken (“These guys can convince you to buy anything,” said one dealer), the risk paid off. The Rockefellers sat in a skybox, laughing gaily with each bid. It sold for $72,840,000, the highest price ever paid for a work of contemporary art at auction.

Another ongoing Sotheby’s success story relates to the work of Peter Doig, whose canvas The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, 1991, sold for a healthy $3.6 million. Sotheby’s London crew, which includes canny team leader Cheyenne Westphal and long-standing Doig supporter Francis Outred, bought seven paintings by the artist from Charles Saatchi for $11 million last September. They could have sold them privately “in five minutes,” but instead they held back and launched the series with White Canoe, 1990–91, last February in London. That painting sold for $11.3 million, making Doig the second-most-expensive living artist at auction (after Jasper Johns). With last night’s sale, the work of the Scottish-born Canadian who lives in Trinidad started to bring in pure profit for the auction house. Moreover, with Doig’s low output and broad international appeal (stretching from Impressionist through to emergent-art collectors), the market looks rosy for the remaining works owned by the auction house.

Of the seventy-four lots, only nine were bought in—among them three “ridiculously overpriced” Pollocks. The sale surpassed a quarter of a billion dollars, making it the house's highest contemporary total ever, but the crowd was blasé. As one long-standing auction goer commented, “It wasn’t a great night at the theater. They haven’t replaced the cast in years; even most of the extras are familiar faces. I’d like to see a British woman do the lead part, or a very angry black man. That would spice things up!”