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PROPERTY FROM THE PRIVATE COLLECTION OF SARAH WITTENBORN MILLER

Lee Krasner
THE EYE IS THE FIRST CIRCLE
Estimation
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Lots with this symbol indicate that a party has provided Sotheby’s with an irrevocable bid on the lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures that the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event he or she is not the successful bidder or may receive a fixed fee in the event he or she is the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, the fixed fee (if applicable) for providing the irrevocable bid may be netted against the irrevocable bidder’s obligation to pay the full purchase price for the lot and the purchase price reported for the lot shall be net of such fixed fee. If the irrevocable bid is not secured until after the printing of the auction catalogue, a pre-lot announcement will be made indicating that there is an irrevocable bid on the lot. If the irrevocable bidder is advising anyone with respect to the lot, Sotheby’s requires the irrevocable bidder to disclose his or her financial interest in the lot. If an agent is advising you or bidding on your behalf with respect to a lot identified as being subject to an irrevocable bid, you should request that the agent disclose whether or not he or she has a financial interest in the lot.
Guaranteed Property
Guaranteed Property. The seller of lots with this symbol has been guaranteed a minimum price from one auction or a series of auctions. If every lot in a catalogue is guaranteed, the Conditions of Sale will so state and this symbol will not be used for each lot.
10 000 00015 000 000
Lot. Vendu 11,654,000 USD (Prix d’adjudication avec commission acheteur)
ACCÉDER AU LOT
29

PROPERTY FROM THE PRIVATE COLLECTION OF SARAH WITTENBORN MILLER

Lee Krasner
THE EYE IS THE FIRST CIRCLE
Estimation
Irrevocable Bids
Lots with this symbol indicate that a party has provided Sotheby’s with an irrevocable bid on the lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures that the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event he or she is not the successful bidder or may receive a fixed fee in the event he or she is the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, the fixed fee (if applicable) for providing the irrevocable bid may be netted against the irrevocable bidder’s obligation to pay the full purchase price for the lot and the purchase price reported for the lot shall be net of such fixed fee. If the irrevocable bid is not secured until after the printing of the auction catalogue, a pre-lot announcement will be made indicating that there is an irrevocable bid on the lot. If the irrevocable bidder is advising anyone with respect to the lot, Sotheby’s requires the irrevocable bidder to disclose his or her financial interest in the lot. If an agent is advising you or bidding on your behalf with respect to a lot identified as being subject to an irrevocable bid, you should request that the agent disclose whether or not he or she has a financial interest in the lot.
Guaranteed Property
Guaranteed Property. The seller of lots with this symbol has been guaranteed a minimum price from one auction or a series of auctions. If every lot in a catalogue is guaranteed, the Conditions of Sale will so state and this symbol will not be used for each lot.
10 000 00015 000 000
Lot. Vendu 11,654,000 USD (Prix d’adjudication avec commission acheteur)
ACCÉDER AU LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

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New York

Lee Krasner
1908 - 1984
THE EYE IS THE FIRST CIRCLE
signed and dated '60
oil on canvas
92 3/4 by 191 7/8 in. 235.5 by 487.3 cm.
Lire le rapport d'état Lire le rapport d'état

Please note the loan of this work has been requested for the forthcoming 2019-2020 retrospective exhibition Lee Krasner: In Living Colour, organized by the Barbican Art Gallery in London and travelling to the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Zentrum Paul Klee/Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern; and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

Provenance

The artist
Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1996

Exposition

New York, Howard Wise Gallery, Exhibition of Recent Paintings by Lee Krasner, November - December 1960, n.p., illustrated
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Contemporary Paintings Selected from 1960-1961 New York Gallery Exhibitions, December 1961 - February 1962, no. 35 (text)
London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; York, City Art Gallery; Hull, Ferens Art Gallery; Nottingham; Victoria Street Gallery; Manchester, City Art Gallery; and Cardiff, Arts Council Gallery, Lee Krasner, Paintings, Drawings and Collages, September 1965 - October 1966, p. 43, no. 44, illustrated, and p. 23 (text)
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, November 1973 - January 1974, p. 23, no. 6, illustrated, and p. 15 (text) 
New York, The Pace Gallery, Lee Krasner Paintings 1959-1962, February - March 1979, n.p., illustrated
Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts; San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Norfolk, Chrysler Museum; Phoenix, Phoenix Art Museum, and New York, Museum of Modern Art, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, November 1983 - October 1984, p. 125 (text)
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Lee Krasner Collages, October 1986, n.p., illustrated
Roslyn Harbor, New York, Nassau County Museum of Art, Intimates and Confidants in Art: Husbands, Wives, Lovers and Friends, February - May 1993, p. 38, illustrated in color
East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Lee Krasner: The Nature of the Body, Works from 1933 to 1984, August - October 1995, n.p., illustrated in color, and n.p. (text)
Los Angeles, Tasende Gallery; and La Jolla, Tasende Gallery, Lee Krasner: Collages and Paintings, January - April 1998, pp. 24-25, no. 9, illustrated in color 
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Des Moines, Des Moines Arts Center; Akron, Akron Art Museum; and Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Lee Krasner, October 1999 - January 2001, pp. 160-161, no. 72, illustrated in color, and p. 155 (text)
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Dialogue: Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, December 2005 - January 2006, n.p., no. 30, illustrated in color
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Lee Krasner, April - June 2016
London, Royal Academy of Arts; and Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum, Abstract Expressionism, September 2016 - June 2017, pp. 244-245, no. 100, illustrated in color, p. 18 (text) and p. 47 (text) (London); and pp. 214-215, no. 76, illustrated in color (Bilbao)

Bibliographie

Emily Genauer, "Artists Turning to Dark Myths," New York Herald Tribune, November 20, 1960, p. 21 (text)
Emily Wasserman, "Lee Krasner," Artforum, March 1968, p. 42, illustrated
Cindy Nemser, "A Conversation with Lee Krasner," Arts Magazine, April 1973, p. 43, illustrated in color (in installation)
Charles Moritz, ed., "Krasner, Lee," Current Biography, New York, 1974, p. 23
Roberta Smith, "Lee Krasner," Artforum, March 1974, p. 73 (text)
Elsa Honig Fine, Women & Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from Renaissance to the 20th Century, Montclair, New Jersey and London, 1978, p. 209 (text)
Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists, New York, 1975, p. 100 (text)
Phyllis Braff, "From the Studio," East Hampton Star, March 1, 1979 (text)
Eric Gibson, "New York," Art International, April, 1979, p. 47, illustrated
Barbara Cavaliere, "Lee Krasner," Arts Magazine, April 1979, p. 24 (text)
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists, Boston, 1982, p. 271, no. 7-1, illustrated, and p. 274 (text)
Amei Wallach, "Krasner on View: A Rage to Paint," Newsday, November 13, 1983, p. 20 (text)
Susie Kalil, "Lee Krasner: A Life's Work," Artweek, December 10, 1983, p. 20 (text)
Ellen Landau, "Lee Krasner's Past Continuous," ARTnews, February, 1984, pp. 74-75, illustrated in color
Charles V. Bagli, "'Tis the Season for N.Y. Art Thieves: Paintings Worth Millions Are Stolen," The New York Observer, January 7, 1991, p. 2 (illustrated)
Sheridan Sansegundo, "At the Galleries," East Hampton Star, January 10, 1991
Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Umber Paintings 1959-1962, 1993, n.p.,  no. 10, illustrated in color
Phyllis Braff, "What Togetherness in Studio Produces," The New York Times (Long Island Edition), April 18, 1993, p. 14 (text)
Robert Hobbs, Lee Krasner, New York, 1993, pp. 73-74, no. 61, illustrated
Ellen Landau, Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1995, p. 186, no. 350, illustrated in color, and p. 104 (text)
Ellen Landau, Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, New Haven, 2005, n.p., no. 27, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Denver, Denver Art Museum (and travelling), Women of Abstract Expressionism, 2016, p. 59, no. 45, illustrated in color, and p. 61 (text)
Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings 1959-1962, 2017, p. 12, no. 6, illustrated in color, p. 13, illustrated in color (installed at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2016-17), pp. 38-39, illustrated in color, pp. 40-41, illustrated (installed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1983), pp. 42-43, illustrated in color, and p. 121, illustrated (in installation)

Description

“The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Essays: First Series, 1841, n.p.)

“I wondered how it would cope with the contenders on the other walls? This huge space included Mural and Pollock's crackling envoi, Blue Poles (1954). The answer was that The Eye is the First Circle held its own and more. At once in dialogue with the Pollocks yet altogether distinct, Krasner’s painting did in a single act what the rest of the Umbers do supremely as an ensemble. Pretty explosive, in fact.” (David Anfam, “Mood Umber,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 2018, p. 14)

 

Surging across the monumental canvas in a riotous tumult of gesture, pigment, and mark, The Eye is the First Circle triumphantly declares Lee Krasner’s supremacy among the celebrated icons of Abstract Expressionism in twentieth century art. At once unruly and lyrical, combative and delicate, utterly expansive and intensely intimate, Krasner’s soaring masterwork hums with the irrepressible energy of wind-whipped storms and apocalyptic events, her gestural ferocity bridled only by the specificity of her virtuosic painterly touch. Painted in 1960, the present work is the crowning embodiment of Krasner’s Umber paintings, the highly lauded series of twenty-four works that, in recent years, have risen to acclaim as the creative pinnacle of her celebrated oeuvre. Created in the years following the sudden and tragic death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, the Umbers are defined by a gestural intensity and ambition of scale unprecedented in Krasner’s earlier output; serving both as testament to and catharsis of the intensive emotional turmoil which fueled her practice at this crucial nexus, these extraordinary paintings remain the most compelling and psychologically evocative compositions of Krasner’s career. An unparalleled masterwork within this already rarified group, the immense surface of The Eye is the First Circle invokes the legacy of her late husband’s action painting as elegiac foil to Krasner’s own, fiercely distinctive brushwork and refined palette of umber and cream hues. Testifying to the significance of the present work, The Eye is the First Circle has been featured in virtually every major survey of Krasner’s work since its execution, including the 1983-1984 exhibition Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and travelling to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the 1999-2001 survey Lee Krasner, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and travelling to the Des Moines Art Center, Akron Art Center, and Brooklyn Museum of Art, amongst numerous others. Most recently, curator David Anfam selected the present work to represent Lee Krasner in his widely acclaimed exhibition Abstract Expressionism, organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2016—2017; of installing the present work alongside several masterpieces by Pollock at the Royal Academy of Arts, Anfam reflects: “I wondered how it would cope with the contenders on the other walls? This huge space included Mural and Pollock's crackling envoi, Blue Poles (1954). The answer was that The Eye is the First Circle held its own and more. At once in dialogue with the Pollocks yet altogether distinct, Krasner’s painting did in a single at what the rest of the Umbers do supremely as an ensemble. Pretty explosive, in fact.” (David Anfam, “Mood Umber,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 2018, p. 14) Held in same distinguished private collection for over two decades, The Eye is the First Circle emerges as a singular and defining masterpiece, of not only Krasner’s oeuvre, but of the Abstract Expressionist era.

In its unavoidable psychic urgency, The Eye is the First Circle speaks to the pivotal juncture at which Krasner found herself at the end of 1950s; still reeling in the wake of Pollock’s fatal car crash in 1956, followed closely by her mother’s passing in 1959 and the cancellation of a planned exhibition at French & Co. that same year, Krasner plunged into a new series of paintings, her emotional turmoil serving as crucial catalyst for the first, monumental Umber paintings. Amongst the earliest works in the series, the present work was painted in Springs, East Hampton, where Krasner had moved her practice into Pollock’s former studio in the barn, the larger space enabling her to experiment on canvases far more massive than any she had used before. These new paintings, in their monumental scale, invoke the largest of Pollock, Kline, and Still’s mural-like masterworks: like those paintings, they cannot be absorbed from a single glance, instead encompassing the viewer within their massive surface. Scholar Barbara Rose describes: “One is ‘in’ them, as one is ‘in’ Claude Monet’s huge pools of Water Lilies, paintings both Krasner and Pollock admired…There is no way in or out of a painting like The Eye is the First Circle, a nearly sixteen-foot long oil on canvas. The painting has become a place rather than an object.” (Exh. Cat. Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, 1983, p. 125) Upon the monumental canvas of the present work, Krasner’s psychic angst is translated in arcs of pigment which writhe, splatter, and dip across the canvas with a sense of untempered motion and force. Describing the emotive intensity of the Umbers in a conversation with the artist, critic Richard Howard noted: “It seems to me that the fact that the pictures were so big suggests a willingness to project movement and even agony in its literal sense, the sense of struggle, on a very considerable scale; that you were aware that the content required such an…”, to which the artist supplied the term: “Arena.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Lee Krasner: Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 1993, n.p.) Krasner’s emotional turmoil at the time was such that, many nights, she found herself unable to sleep. The artist reflects: “I was going deep down into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant. In fact I painted a great many of them because I couldn’t sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead.” (The artist cited in Robert Hobbs, Lee Krasner, New York, 1993, p. 151) Without daylight to illuminate her canvas as she worked, Krasner began to eliminate color from her palette, working instead within the nuanced range of amber, cream, and umber tones used in the present work; in the years since their creation, Krasner came to refer to the resulting Umber paintings as the Night Journeys. The title of the present work, The Eye is the First Circle, came to Krasner as, surveying the completed painting, she was struck by the myriad hooded and half-lidded eyes which seemed to peer out from the dense thicket of pigment. The phrase is drawn from the first line of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay ‘Circles,’ which begins: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Essays: First Series, 1841, n.p.) Indeed, within the seemingly frenzied melee of The Eye is the First Circle, essential forms and gestures appear repeatedly to create a coherent and compelling pictorial structure. Despite their raw intensity, each gestural spray of pigment is balanced and counter-balanced by its echo, testifying to the deliberateness and fierce intention with which Krasner built her triumphant masterpiece.

Executed with virtuosic certainty and vigor, The Eye is the First Circle declares the painterly confidence and technical sophistication of Krasner at the singular peak of her powers. Anfam describes: “With the twenty-four works collectively described as The Umber Paintings (1959-62), Lee Krasner’s art came decisively into its own…in the Umbers, various forces coalesced. They exemplified Krasner’s most outstanding achievement to date, a crucial nexus, and overall high-point of her career.” (David Anfam, “Mood Umber,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959-1962, 2018, p. 9) Amongst the most formative forces behind the Umbers was, without question, Krasner’s confrontation of Pollock’s legacy as figurehead of the action painters and larger New York school. In its explosive physicality, The Eye is the First Circle summons elegiac references to the full-bodied abstraction of such works as Pollock’s One: Number 31 and Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) – paintings created in the same studio in which Krasner now worked. Here, however, the spontaneity and combative force of Pollock’s signature mode is refined within the exacting terms of Krasner’s own, distinctive style; Anfam describes: “this is not Pollock’s ventriloquism as it were… but sovereign Lee Krasner at last speaking loud, clear, and often with anger.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 2018, p. 10) Within Krasner’s refined painterly vocabulary, every bold action and delicate touch is tempered by a fluid grace that unifies the dynamism of the overall composition. At once unruly and lyrical, her powerful gesture advances with rhythmic certainty across the canvas, the great arcs of umber pigment interwoven with sprays of cream and earth-toned pigment to create a singular, captivating image. Describing the confident authority with which Krasner absorbed and manifested Pollock’s legacy in her large-scale masterworks, critic Hilton Kramer described: “This is Abstract Expressionist painting of the ‘classic’ type—all energy and struggle and outsize gesture—finally resolved in a pattern of hard-won coherence.” (Hilton Kramer cited in Exh. Cat. Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, 1983, p. 130) Perhaps heralding the interwoven referential and regenerative modes of the Umbers, Emerson’s essay, which begins with the title of the present work, continues: “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile…New arts destroy the old.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Essays: First Series, 1841, n.p.) Indeed, rather than invoke emotions of grief or loss, the radical exuberance of The Eye is the First Circle insists emphatically upon the vitality and primacy of the living; Anfam describes, “the final impact is electric, tonic, and thus life-affirming.” (Ibid., n.p)

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

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