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Not Yours! WHAT? A report on Frieze and the Contemporary Art Auctions

The Gagosian Gallery kicked off the week on Saturday October 10th at its new white box in sleepy Grosvenor Hill, inaugurated with a powerful, collector-friendly exhibition of works by Cy Twombly. The artist’s visually strong, but slightly redundant, Bacchus paintings were overshadowed in my opinion by his exciting Bolsena pictures, crisp and meticulously executed. An engineer friend spent a good hour staring at them, repeatedly readjusting his glasses. Later at the Savile Club, Larry’s striking large white head presided over a luscious banquet that brought together a highbrow crowd, from the curator of the Museum Brandhorst’s recent exhibition CY TWOMBLY IN CONVERSATION WITH FRANZ WEST to the self-effacing and charming Anish Kapoor. A few more twenty-something pretty young things would have certainly livened up the empty dance floor.

Sotheby’s certainly did not miss the memo and its galleries were teeming with dancing things of every kind the following Monday for its phenomenal Contemporary Art Party, Tommy Hilfiger beaming as he greeted guests in front of a true standout piece from Lucio Fontana; the blackest most stirring Fine di Dio I have ever seen. Sotheby’s had high hopes and at £15 million it underperformed – Tornabuoni Gallery’s exceptional white work from the same series might have something to do with it. As the Florentine gallerist ominously anticipated at Frieze Masters on Tuesday, forse gli daremo un po’ fastidio, maybe we’ll trouble them a bit. In its polished spaces the New Bond Street institution brandished a number of blue-chip works, modern and impressionist, though the highly affected hang looked better suited to a department store than an auction house. I’m sure poor Taubman wouldn’t have minded the reference.

Frieze is the place to go for the good, the bad, and the ugly. This year seems to have been rather mean to the Deutsche sponsored fair, with a fascist restriction on VIP cars and the usual five-hundred page catalogue replaced by an amateurish booklet titled something to the effect of ‘the London Frieze week guide.’ Some of the good included Thomas Bayrie’s I-PHONE MEETS CARAVAGGIO, a true-to-the-original rendition of Caravaggio’s St. Matthew and the Angel made by a stylized collaging of puzzle pieces which upon closer inspection revealed themselves to be iPhone 3s’. Also remarkable was Doug Aitken’s 2015 Earth Plane at 303 Gallery New York, an eloquent and mysterious light box that pushes the medium of photography intelligently and powerfully. Quite charming were Francis Alÿs’ studies for Don’t Cross the Bridge Before you Get to the River at David Zwirner, and Tacita Dean’s photographs for the Frith Street Gallery, which had already sold minutes into the coveted 11 o-clock preview time.

Christie’s, as a rule of thumb, has slightly duller parties than Sotheby’s and slightly better auctions. This year, the party was only a tiny bit worse and the auction astoundingly better. The strongest Italian Sale since the annual auction’s fortunate inception brought together pieces of impeccable quality and provenance, like Enrico Castellani’s Superficie Bianca (1973), Pistoletto’s Donna Seduta. The two star lots of the evening were, Morandi’s Natura morta (1939) and Burri’s explosive early Rosso Plastica M1, an otherworldly landscape exuding an unsolvable tension between sex and death. Coinciding with the large Guggenheim retrospective in New York and London’s own small but exquisite show at Mazzoleni Gallery on Albemarle street, the sale of this monumental piece is sure to bring a lot of attention to the Città di Castello born artist, especially from far east.

Meanwhile Phillips, though not yet hosting parties on the scale of its two big sisters, mounts significantly greater sales every season and is growing steadily in the contemporary art market. For example, an attractive work by Cory Arcangel was sold on October 15th at £158,000, a result comparable to Sotheby’s own piece by the Internet artist, which went for £137,000. Arcangel is a terrific American young man whose value have been rising firmly in the past five years, and Phillips has always been at the forefront of the secondary market for his works. Another very solid lot was Sterling Ruby’s 2009 SP60, a large and lyrical canvas which brought in £482,000 against its £400,000 – 600,000 estimate.

In the room behind Picasso’s Gommeuse at Sotheby’s was another work on paper made by the Spanish artist in Barcelona in 1903, a Nu au jambes croisées from the collection of Louis and Evelyn Franck, to be auctioned in New York on November 5th. I looked at it for a very long time, longer than any other piece that week. The model’s right leg, forcefully establishing itself as the dominant feature in the composition, was painted a precious shade of turquoise, rhyming with the background. It brought to mind a little known 1972 film by Polanski, What? in which Sydne Rome’s ravishing left leg undergoes a similar treatment. Incidentally, in his book on the filmmaker, James Morrison claims Rome’s character has ‘painted one of her legs blue in a bid to turn herself into art and escape her status as object.’ I like to think that from her gilded cage, alongside Vlamincks, Van Dongens and Van Goghs, Picasso’s muse, like Rome, has insolently painted her right leg blue for the same reason.

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