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Bacon and Rothko Propel Contemporary Art Auction to $341.8 Million

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T he Contemporary Art Evening Auction totaled $341.8 million on the strength of outstanding prices for Mark Rothko's untitled masterwork and two paintings by Francis Bacon.

Bacon’s Study for a Head, 1952, achieved $50.4 million while Study for a Portrait, 1981, realized $14.5 million. The visceral Study for a Head presents Bacon’s most celebrated iconography, marking the inauguration of the artist’s major subject matter – his widely revered Pope series. Monumental in scale, Study for Portrait, reveals both Bacon’s painterly force and his devotion to his former lover and muse, George Dyer. His portrayal of Dyer uncovers a full range of emotions; the figure is simultaneously vulnerable, romantic and tortured. Study for Portrait is the final painting of Dyer that Bacon ever executed.

Rothko’s Untitled, 1960, sold on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), will benefit the institution’s Acquisitions Fund. A paradigm of Rothko’s creative apotheosis, Untitled is one of nineteen paintings completed by the artist in 1960. Rothko’s success was threefold – from the eminent Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection, Untitled (Red on Red) and Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue), both from 1969, reached $10.5 million and $8.2 million, respectively.

Also painted in 1960, Lee Krasner’s colossal The Eye is The First Circle, achieved an artist record at $11.7 million, eclipsing her previous record of $5.5 million. The work was painted at the apogee of her highly-lauded Umber series – a collection of twenty-four works that, in recent years, have risen to acclaim as the creative summit of her 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 unparalleled in Krasner’s earlier artistic output. Exceptional prices were also realized for female artists Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, Julie Mehretu, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jenny Saville, Dana Schutz and Yayoi Kusama.

An additional record-breaker, Kenneth Noland’s energetic painting, Blue, 1960, reached $3.5 million. Two years prior to the creation of Blue, Noland unveiled his breakthrough series, entitled Targets – an assembly of vibrant artworks that feature concentric circles. With Blue, Noland charges the target with vivid hues, resulting in a dynamic composition that extends beyond the canvas.

The night proved to be momentous for African American artists, with auction records achieved for Barkley L Hendricks, Charles Gaines and Rashid Johnson. Portraitist Hendricks earned the record with his masterwork Yocks from 1975, receiving $3.7 million at auction. Exemplary of Hendricks’s distinct style, Yocks demonstrates the artist’s familiarity with the art historical canon, as well as his means of reclaiming portraiture by elevating minority figures. Additionally, Gaines’s Numbers and Trees: Central Park Series IV: Tree #6, Carmichael, 2019, realized $475,000, while Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Escape Collage, fetched $1.2 million, both sold to benefit the Hammer Museum.

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