D uring an exhilarating week of auctions in New York this May that realized a staggering $1.09 billion — marking the third-highest week in Sotheby’s illustrious 278-year history — the modern and contemporary art on offer featured a more comprehensive roster of artists than ever before. For the first time, works by iconic American artists were sold among their contemporaries, presenting a more thoughtful, holistic and art historically accurate reflection of art that was often in dialogue with European and global movements. This framework provides new insights on some of the most talented American artists of the last century while also contextualizing their work and signaling its importance within the larger art historical canon.
“Last November, Sotheby’s debuted a new approach to modern art that focuses on larger themes of the time period and narratives that emerge when looking at disparate works alongside each other,” says Charlotte Mitchell, a specialist in Sotheby’s American Art Department. Previously, some Sotheby’s auctions were divided by geographies and time periods that often had little bearing on the realities of artistic influence. A mainstay of contemporary art auctions, Alexander Calder found inspiration and support among close friends Joan Miró, Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian — artists whose work resided in Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department. “After the recent restructuring of these sales, it was a natural progression to integrate American art,” says Mitchell.
Last spring season’s New York Sales expanded those dialogues, with American artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton and Maurice Prendergast taking their place alongside their European peers such as Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. The move also complements a similar and equally successful integration of Latin American art that began with the 2017 autumn marquee sales.
In a market that continues to reward quality, especially at the high end, this strategy found an eager audience. Among the American artworks that headlined the Modern Evening Auction, Milton Avery’s The Letter and Jared French’s The Double soared past their high estimates to set new auction records at $6.1 million and $1.1 million respectively. Avery’s quiet interior scene depicting March, his daughter, marks a productive period for the artist in the 1940s, when the prestigious art dealer Paul Rosenberg introduced him to an exemplary group of European artists that included Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse. Avery’s faceless, psychologically complex figures echo the work of Matisse especially, as does his vibrant and intelligent arrangement of color. The Letter also directly recalls his French counterpart’s Interior, Nice, 1919, a similar composition of a woman reading near a window, its curtains drawn to display a view of the ocean.
“Bringing the art to a wider audience is not only beneficial to the sellers, it gives American art the global platform it deserves.”
All told, Sotheby’s May auctions welcomed a robust group of fifty-four American artworks that collectively realized $17.9 million. Arthur Garfield Dove’s Abstraction No. 6 ($100,800), an inventive early example of nonrepresentational imagery from 1910–11, joined works on paper by Wassily Kandinsky. Influenced in part by Kandinsky’s art and theory, Dove depicted the local landscape in organic shapes and pure color, anticipating the rise of Abstract Expressionism — a movement well-represented in May by artists including Elaine de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Joan Mitchell. French’s surreal Woman and Boys (Four Figures), a dream-like beach scene inspired by New York’s Fire Island, nearly doubled its high estimate at $453,600. The imaginative vision with a statuesque gravity sold alongside two works by his friend and lover, Paul Cadmus (with whom he traveled Europe), as well as Piazza d’Italia by Giorgio de Chirico — an artist who, like French, looked to early Renaissance masters for influence.
The best collections are full of such fascinating juxtapositions, and Sotheby’s decision to integrate American works allows the auction house to maintain the creativity and curatorial ethos that collectors cultivate. A focused group of fifteen artworks from a Boston collector opened the Modern Day Auction. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Feather with Bird’s Bone ($1.3 million), Marsden Hartley’s Songs of Winter ($277,200) and Stuart Davis’s Skip Trace ($252,000) remained part of the cohesive, 100-percent-sold series that saw spirited bidding from thirteen countries. Not only were these artists exhibited among European modernists like Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers, but, according to Mitchell, previous seasons would have seen these works further divided across multiple auctions. “It speaks wonders to see exactly what works collectors were drawn to and the fascinating dialogues that exist between these artists,” she says.
Notably, presenting modern and contemporary artworks within a global context benefits collectors who might be unaccustomed to looking for those works in an auction dedicated to American art. In May’s two modern art sales, nearly one third of bidders were brand new buyers of American art. In turn, this buoyed level of participation contributed to significantly more artworks outperforming their estimates: half of all American lots went home above their high estimate.
Mitchell notes that some areas of art — American and otherwise — merit dedicated sales, as in the case of a live auction of 19th-century American art and Western art planned for January to coincide with Sotheby’s Americana Week and the Winter Show at the Park Avenue Armory. Moving forward, however, the department will integrate examples of Impressionism, regionalism, modernism and illustration into Sotheby’s modern and contemporary auctions. “We were thrilled with the overall results, which affirms this new strategy is the correct one,” Mitchell says. “Bringing the art to a wider audience is not only beneficial to the sellers, it gives American art the global platform it deserves.”