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Contemporary Art

Drawings by Sculptors from the Betsy Witten Collection

Sotheby’s is honored to present Another Kind of Language: Drawings by Sculptors from the Betsy Witten Collection as a highlight of our Contemporary Curated sale on 2 March in New York. Immediate, cerebral, and refined, the collection of Betsy Witten comprises drawings and works on paper by preeminent minimalist and conceptual artists, such as Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse and Agnes Martin, among others. Ranging from fascinating preparatory drawings that document some of the 20th century's most influential artistic ideas, to stand-alone works that serve as consummate examples of these formal concepts, the landmark collection of drawings embodies the uninhibited experimentation and intimate expression afforded by the medium.

Works from the group will be on view in Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries from 23 February, alongside our 21 February – 6 March Contemporary Art Online sale, which also features pieces from the collection.

Originally assembled under the patronage of the Seagram Company, the collection was formed together by Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of legendary Seagram’s founder, Samuel Bronfman, and David Bellman, once the Chief Curator of the McCord Museum in Montreal, before it was acquired by Mrs. Witten directly from the corporation in 2003. It was through her unique vision and renewed spirit of discovery that the group evolved to encompass works by additional leading Minimalists of the day.

The collection is led by Ellsworth Kelly’s Study for Curve II (estimate $350,000–450,000) – a discerning exploration of form that utilizes basic gestures to describe complex spatial relationships. The drawing’s graceful diagonal symmetry is exhibited through the straight lines that align with the edges of the picture plane, and the curving segment that bends away from the border, drawing attention to the negative space between the edge of the line and the corner. The momentum of Kelly’s gesture is captured where each line meets, forever recorded in the sweeps made by the graphite as they lifted off of the page.

The work is a study for Kelly’s important realized sculpture Curve II, which was donated by Philip Johnson to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Johnson, who designed the interior of the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram building, was instrumental to the formation of the Seagram collection, and Kelly’s drawing stands as a testament to the pioneering contemporary vision that is present throughout.

Study for Flat Rock, Richard Serra’s early work on paper from 1981, unlocks the sculptural quality of drawing, communicating a surface and weight that transcends the medium (estimate $200,000–300,000). Serra deftly employs textural and tonal variation using a paintstick, creating a form that takes on a dimensional surface and mass. Despite its darkness, the work balances the black form with an almost equal amount of white space, creating a sense of equilibrium and lightness in contrast. Study for Flat Rock inspired his cor-ten steel sculpture, Bilbao, and the original drawing endures as a composition on paper that defies the limits of its medium.

Offering an intimate, unmediated view into Eva Hesse’s conceptual process, Study for Schema (estimate $100,000–150,000) signifies a benchmark artistic and material development in her career. Drawn with Hesse’s distinct open-ended style, the present work documents her plans for the groundbreaking sculpture Schema, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was one of her earliest pieces fully made of latex, which would become a signature material for the artist. Study for Schema memorializes that development, providing insight into Hesse’s creative process through the copious notes communicating the excitement and importance in her use of the material. The ink on tracing paper also serves as a powerful aesthetic statement; each line is somehow wavering and sure, allusive yet instructional.

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