Contemporary Art

The Macklowe Collection: In Living Color


Our previous look at The Macklowe Collection, in the first catalogue of their works, began with a consideration of Sigmar Polke’s The Copyist. The 1982 painting presents a figure in the bottom left, the copyist of the title, drawing from a landscape. He, along with the landscape, are rendered in black sketchy contours. The gestural strokes are overlaid atop broad swaths of diluted color. The copyist evokes earlier Renaissance and Baroque depictions of St. Paul writing his epistles, hunched over, quill in hand.

“Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.”
Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863)

I proposed that The Copyist can stand in as a figurehead, even a talisman, for many of the themes within the works represented in the Macklowe Collection, a head-spinning array of landmark paintings and sculptures built up carefully, with intellect, attention, and passion, over a nearly five-decade period. Like many of these works, The Copyist was acquired soon after its creation, in this case from Charles Saatchi in 1989. This signals the pioneering vision that presided over the creation of the whole collection, as many major works were acquired soon after they were executed. The Copyist has been exhibited in major museum exhibitions over the last few decades and presents one of the twentieth-century’s titans operating at his best. It tangles with modern painting’s ambivalence vis-à-vis the history of art, the dialectical tensions between representation (the almost cartoonish scribbling that is nonetheless economically expressive) and abstraction (the nonrepresentational swathes of color that stand in for earth, forest, and sky).

Lot 25, Jeff Koons, New Hoover Convertibles, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10
Gallon Doubledecker; Lot 17, Jeff Koons, Popples; Lot 13, Sigmar Polke, The Copyist

These two vectors, representation and abstraction, or between the eternal and the ephemeral, and the modern artist’s pursuit of offsetting these tensions and hope to reconcile these, is what defines The Macklowe Collection. Baudelaire’s definition of modernity, quoted above, continues to speak to the essence of these phenomenal works. At their creation, they sat at the intersection of the new and the timeless. As mentioned, so many of these works were bought fresh from the studio, without the sanctification of the test of time. In the intervening years, they have endured and resoundingly passed that test, standing against the vicissitudes of taste and fashion. What can be said about Polke’s The Copyist—that it represents a rare opportunity to acquire a little-seen masterwork by a towering figure of twentieth-century art—could be said about a surprising number of the works within the collection.

“Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again.”
Willem de Kooning

In this second endeavor at taking measure of The Collection, however, I want to provide an alternative blueprint for looking at The Macklowe Collection’s works by exploring it through the lens of color. Color, wild color, erupts on the scene of modernism with Matisse and the Fauves (Wild Beasts) in 1905. Color is embedded in discussions of modernism, of formalist analyses of modern art, whether it be the white paintings of Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin, so well represented in the collection, or even the dark, at times even muddy, palettes of paintings by Gerhard Richter and Mark Rothko, to the full-on black drawing by Richard Serra: color, paradoxically, is everywhere in the thinking, in the making of these artists. The following simply represents an attempt at a Herculean feat: to give justice to these titanic works through a consideration not only of the general modernist themes on view but of these individual artists’ approaches to color—at times in surprising, unexpected, even provocative ways. This is a necessarily brief tour, for, considered alone, each work could spawn its own monograph, its own exhibition, its own universe. If one thinks of a collector as a custodian—a caretaker—for works at specific junctures in their existence (after all: ars longa, vita brevis), now is the time to meditate over a number of towering artistic achievements. These are works for eternity, still, but also works to be savored, experienced, in one’s own private, meditative time.

 Living with and in Color

Writing previously on Polke’s The Copyist, I observed “Nature is rendered as pure color, and the fidelity between what one observes and what one depicts is destabilized and eternalized.” This led to a discussion of representation and abstraction, one of the pivotal tensions in the history of 20th-century art. But beyond this opposition, what of pure color itself? In its installation in the Macklowe residence, The Copyist was cannily installed between two seemingly diametrically opposite works, produced a few years apart: Jeff Koons’s Popples (1988) and Brice Marden’s Elements IV (1983-1984). The playful sculpture is a porcelain cast after a children’s stuffed animal produced by Mattel beginning in 1986—toys that came with their own pockets in which the plush figures could be rolled into a ball. These popular items became the subject of a television show, and despite only a brief reign of popularity, were enshrined into the pop culture 80s zeitgeist, even revived in the 2000s for products and television. Koons created an uncanny simulacrum of the stuffed animal in porcelain for his Banality series, his epochal take on high vs. low cultural divisions and materials—a long entrenched divide between high cultural objects vs. low ranking popular culture. This became the arena where Koons unleashed his imaginary and creative forces. By rendering it in porcelain, Koons produced a collectible in a material that could border on “kitsch;” by presenting it alongside the other works in his series, he raised questions about what constitutes fine art, and ultimately whether the noble distinction between fine art and the multitudes of visual objects we fondly surround ourselves holds any ground..

What is perhaps most notable about Popples are its colors: bright, even cloying teals, pinks, and yellows against a stark white body. These colors seem to exist in a different color wheel altogether from the dark, sober, solidly-hued bars of painted canvas that make up Marden’s Elements IV. Painted but a few years before Koons’s Banality series, Marden’s work is from one of the artist’s most celebrated series. In these works, initially displayed in 1984 at Pace Gallery in New York, Marden adjoined eight individual canvases to form one vertical, rectangular unit.. Saturated red, green, yellow, and blue make up this work, assembled in a post-and-lintel construction. These colors were not incidental for Marden but resonated with years of intense reflection and research into alchemical recipes while preparing for an unrealized stained-glass commission. These four colors, as sourced back in alchemical philosophy from the Medieval period, stood in for earth, water, fire, and air. Marden took something quite earthbound, architectural in how the work was constructed, and entered the world of alchemy through his intense and novel experiment with color, conjuring, through it, a sense of mysticism, and transcendence, two notions that we are not accustomed with in the modernist vocabulary.

Lot 11, Brice Marden, Elements IV

The artificial, acidic colors of Popples contrast with the ruddier, earthier, serene makeup of the Marden. But in The Macklowe Collection, Polke’s Copyist acted as a bridge of sorts between these two riveting works. Polke’s painting addresses art’s fidelity to nature, the likeness of what an artist sees and what is put down on canvas. Many colors imbue the copyist’s environment, in swirling washes, diluted and saturated in varying measures. Thick smatterings of pigment refer to the natural world while also strongly resisting figuration. The tightly controlled colored portions of the Koons and Marden, even though wildly different, explode in a loose, swirling vortex of paint at the hands of Polke, and by extension his titular figure. Color can stand in for nature, one might conclude, but it can also stand outside of it, artificial, non-representational, and staunchly nonindexical. The gulf between the intrinsic absurdity of Popples and the sublime alchemy of Element IV is not necessarily insuperable; a bridge exists in the use of affective color.

“To any white body receiving the light from the sun, or the air, the shadows will be of a bluish cast.”
Leonardo da Vinci

As we just saw, a wide gamut of multifarious colors can belie a kinship in artistic expression while employed in vastly different ways. Conversely, the lack of color also provides an interesting entry point into reconsidering several important works in The Macklowe Collection. The group features multiple pieces by both Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, both revered masters of abstract painting often associated with minimalism. The Macklowe Collection housed no fewer than four works by Martin, acquired across three decades from 1974 until 2003, and three works by Ryman, also assembled across a broad span of time. The steadfast dedication to these two painters across decades mirrors the artists’ daunting agility at defining a fairly limited (“minimal”) chromatic vocabulary, while inflecting their oeuvres with unexpected diversity of ever renewed nuances and striking notes. Both painters worked largely in white (of course, each in his or her own inimitable idiom), though Martin did frequently incorporate other light, ever so discrete chromatic tones into her minimalist compositions.

“People think that painting is about color. It’s mostly composition. It’s composition that’s the whole thing. The classic image—two late Tang dishes, one with a flower image, one empty—the empty form goes all the way to heaven. It is the classic form – lighter weight.”
Agnes Martin, “The Untroubled Mind” (1971)

Take Martin’s Early Morning Happiness (2001), a sparse canvas of horizontal stripes of faint blue and yellow offset with a white ground. It is one of Martin’s late masterpieces, painted a few years before her death in 2004. Working in square format, as she mostly did, Martin conjured up here the exhilarating emotion of opening the door of her house, first thing in the morning and absorbing a bowl of intoxicatingly pristine and pure fresh air, while gazing at the wide expanse of plain space stretching out before her house in her beloved Taos. She evokes the feeling of pure emotion of the title, a transcendental blankness one might feel right when they awaken, before the world’s stresses and anxiety have had the chance to rush in and weigh a person down. As the artist once stated: “There is happiness that we feel without any material stimulation. We may wake up in the morning happy for no reason. Abstract or nonobjective feelings are a very important part of our lives.”

Inspired by decades spent exploring Taoism and Zen Buddhism in New Mexico, Martin’s practice unfolded, unceasing, consistent, ever fresh, always unexpected. A major Guggenheim exhibition in 2017 reaffirmed her irrefragable position in the pantheon of 20th-century painters. Similarly poised at the intersection of abstract expressionism and minimalism, Robert Ryman had an altogether different approach to exploring seemingly endless permutations of experimenting with paint, what can be achieved with white on white—although, like Martin, Ryman’s white surfaces often belie a bright color (blue, green) tucked in amidst different marks of white paint, and still visible. Two works in the present sale were created across several decades, one, Surface Veil #3 painted on fiberglass in 1970-71, the other, Swift, painted on canvas in 2002.

“Such a magnificent sky, and it’s nothing but white paper!”
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, quoted in Ambroise Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer

Lot 15, Robert Ryman, Surface Veil #3

Ryman was not interested in the transcendental quality a finished work could evoke, but rather the possibilities of what paint itself could do, in its own unpredictable process. For him, it is not a question of what his painting should look like, but what the paint application itself can lead to, in terms of its visual outcomes. The process, itself a source of uncontainable and palpable joy, is an end in itself. He used whites of all varieties, changing supports, varying sizes, declensing ad infinitum the permutations of marks of paint and layers of marks. Each painting has a unique texture, a unique facture. The unmistakable mark of the artist, of his paintbrush, is critical in reading these works. But, to begin, why white? Why this inexhaustible, indomitable insistence on white? Up until his death in 2019, Ryman’s pictorial horizon was filled with whiteness, ever varied in its identity. The artist once said, “The white is just a means of exposing other elements. White enables other things to become visible.” By keeping the color, or near absence of colors, constant, Ryman could focus on these other elements – gesture, texture, individual strokes building up to a singular universe, a microcosm all his own

Color Transcendent

If Martin and Ryman largely (but never quite) eschewed color, Willem de Kooning careened wholeheartedly towards its complete freewheeling expressionistic use, with visible hubris, and a Dionysian defiance. The painter is represented in The Macklowe Collection with two works, executed over two decades apart. These blazing canvases, in wide ranges of yellow and orange hues, present a vision of painting that lies at the nexus, surprisingly, of Martin’s and Ryman’s approaches. Indeed, these works too are about feeling, emotion, about transcending what is on the canvas to convey higher emotional sensations (in Martin’s case); but then, they are just as much about facture, paint strokes, movement, and accretion of medium on support as Ryman’s white symphonies. The first, Untitled of 1961, is a key work of one of the richest phases of de Kooning’s career. Sometimes deemed an “abstract pastoral landscape,” it came as the artist moved further away from representation (perhaps best embodied by his Women series of the 1950s) towards a more radical abstraction, although de Kooning even at his most abstract moments never entirely lets go of the temptation of the figure, always lurking in somehow enmeshed in networks of brush strokes. As the artist said in 1960, “I get freer. I feel I am getting more to myself in the sense of, I have all my forces… I have this sort of feeling that I am all there now.”[1] These works of the early 60’s are redolent with references to nature and landscape; this one displays blazing swathes of yellow, supernovas of orange, against a light blue backdrop. One might think of sun, sand, water, and indeed, the year this painting was completed was the year the artist began building his residence in East Hampton, soon to leave the dense streets of New York City behind.

“I'd like to get all the colors in the world into one painting.”
Willem de Kooning

Over twenty years later, de Kooning painted the second work in The Macklowe Collection, Untitled XIII, of 1984. This work epitomizes his hauntingly moving and difficult late career, where he developed a sparser, more controlled, more reduced gestural abstraction. De Kooning’s access to language was becoming more challenged as he suffered from Alzheimer’s beginning in the early 80s and would soon be struck with aphasia, just about at the time of this work. Working in similar hues of yellow, orange, and blue, de Kooning’s personal hardship is belied by the openness and elegance of this work, with more ample, negative space, and being simply radiant, though with a measured intensity. The open swathes of opalescent white brushwork are tinted with hues of orange, yellow and blue, a reminder of the rich subterranean palette beneath the crisp white surface. Painting appeared to the elderly de Kooning as an island of joy within a daily routine of debilitating pain and sufferance. The scholar John Elderfield has said of this period, “[de Kooning] had the confidence to give up the lush painterliness and visibly reworked appearance of his earlier works in favor of something more reductive; but they remain not only spatially complex, but also extremely physical pictures, both visually open and densely embodied.”[2]

Lot 19, Jean Dubuffet, Grand nu charbonneux; Lot 9, Willem de Kooning, Untitled

One of the seminal works in The Macklowe Collection is by one of de Kooning’s early peers in the Abstract Expressionist odyssey: Marth Rothko. Rothko’s Untitled, 1960 was painted during a breakthrough period for the artist, coming between two of his major commissions, his Seagram Murals of the late 1950s and the Houston chapel for John and Dominique de Menil, begun in 1965. Like all of his works unframed and painted in scale to relate to the human figure standing before it, Untitled was painted in moody, dark hues, in contrast to some of his earlier, brighter works. Its tonal range resonates with the artist’s own words: "Often, towards nightfall, there's a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration – all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments."[3]

Pop of Color

The representations of Pop in The Macklowe Collection appear to stand a universe away from the minimalist and Ab-Ex forays into the field of color. Yet, these works resort to color in just as significant and signifying ways. Three by Andy Warhol are particularly noteworthy: the blue and turquoise acrylic and silkscreen Blue Airmail Stamps of 1962, the vibrant red Hammer and Sickle of 1976, and the late camouflaged Self Portrait of 1986. The Hammer and Sickle stands out as part of one of the most intriguing series of Warhol’s career. While in Italy, Warhol noticed the hammer and sickle, emblem of the Russian revolution, had been coopted by Italian leftist labor movements and had sprawled around Rome as graffiti. Rather than simply copying these graffiti, Warhol (in a Duchampian move) bought actual tools, a real hammer and a real sickle, to set up his own still life, producing a work unique in its genre within his career: an actual still life of two objects (that happen to be overloaded with meaning). Of course, as with his images of Chairman Mao, the work appears political in content while also remaining utterly opaque, if not stubbornly silent, in terms of the artist’s own message. As is typical of Warhol, any symbolism behind his choice of the leftist insignia is nebulous and could be read one way and its opposite just as easily. In one interview, Warhol maintained he just went to the hardware store and bought the tools because Bob Colacello, editor of Interview Magazine, had a lawn that needed cutting. It is difficult to resist bursting into laughter as one reads such a jejune “explanation.” Indeed, this work also betrays an essential dimension in Warhol’s work at large: it is packed with incandescent humor. At any rate, his interest was likely piqued by how commonplace the symbol had become in Rome; its ubiquity transforming it into perfect pop logo, the contrast between these two prosaic tools vs. their huge political charge as a symbol could only arouse Warhol’s cynical curiosity. The Macklowe painting deploys a high-key red, with a complex interplay of shadows, layers, and phantom pentimenti. It is dedicated to the Italian art collector Carlo Bilotti, who would later commission Warhol to make a portrait of his wife and daughter[LK1] . Bilotti, the perfumier who would later donate his collection to the city of Rome to form the Museo Carlo Bilotti, often became close friends with artists he commissioned, including Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, and Warhol. The intimate portrait of Bilotti’s wife and daughter, created a few years after Hammer and Sickle in 1981, bespeaks their enduring friendship.

One of the most iconic works in The Macklowe Collection, and one of the only portraits, is Warhol’s Self Portrait of 1986, part of a series done right before the artist’s death in 1987. Against a dark black background, the artist’s face, shown in close up, with his eyes piercing the picture plane, is nonetheless largely obscured by a green and blue and yellow camouflage pattern. Despite his vast public persona, Warhol was a famously private, sibylline individual; here, in one from this series of self-portraits, he both presents an unvarnished look at himself while ultimately remaining obscure and impossible to fully “see.” In its bold use of color, the Self Portrait pulsates with an abstract, otherworldly aura, while remaining a deeply personal glimpse into the artist’s very human side. The use of camouflage, with its connotations of military combat, inject an undertone of confrontation, even bellicosity, to his visage.

Genres of Painting in the Twentieth Century

To conclude, let us look at works by two German masters who, interestingly, both came of age in the 1950s in East Germany, in a Communist society. Both artists, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, use color to tease out traditional categories of painting. As a result, both of them have pushed the boundaries of traditional academic artistic genres, and have contributed to critical ways to redefine the gamut of possibilities available in painting. Richter is represented by two seminal works, both commentaries on traditional landscape painting, one of the fields in which the artist was academically trained. Ohne Titel (Grün) of 1971 appears to be a transformed painted landscape in various keys of green—one can almost discern a darker terrestrial foreground, a lighter horizon line, and a faintly blue upper register suggesting a sky. But onto this carefully composed image the artist has deliberately obscured its figurative qualities by filling the surface with bold gestural smudges and strokes that drag the paint across the canvas.

Lot 5, Gerhard Richter, Seestück

A few years later, in 1975, he painted the important Seestück, one in his series of seascapes he had begun in the late 1960s and would evolve through the next decades. His seascapes were the subject of a 2019 exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao, for which the organizers described his crafting process, conjuring simulacra of nature, through an intense and carefully controlled construction process: “These paintings start from a collage of two different photographs, one of the sky and the other of the sea, from which the ideal image is created―an illusory composition where there is something in the perspective and the light that entraps us. The flat surface, similar to that of photographs, is achieved through a technique of smearing the painting with squeegees that enables to apply highly diluted pigment.” Thus what appears to be a beautiful sublime seascape in the mode of art historical forerunners like Turner or Constable is actually a destabilizing assemblage that resembles no reality at all, and pushes back against being a mere mirror to nature and is instead an act of painterly legerdemain. Through this artificial sublimity, Richter does create a moody, evocative canvas that also recalls the Romanticism of his forebearer Caspar David Friedrich, and it is the swirling pink clouds against the blue sky above a dark, foreboding sea that girds Richer firmly into this lineage of grand art historical predecessors. Nearly all the other works from this pivotal series of seascapes are now in the collections of major public institutions.

We began this excursion through some highlights of The Macklowe Collection by looking at Sigmar Polke’s Copyist in relation to some of the other works it resided alongside. I end now with a glimpse at the same artist’s earlier work Plastik-Wannen of 1964. Ostensibly a still life of plastic tubs or bowls, the painting is from one of the first stages in his career, when he began showing work in West Germany alongside other emerging painters, including Richter. Plastik-Wannen is a signature painting from this phase, a style deemed “Capitalist Realism,” meant to offer a resolutely European—and furthermore East European (as previously mentioned, Polke grew up in East Germany in a Communist regime)—to American Pop. Capitalist Realism offers a summation of the experience of the flow and abundance of all kinds of products, utensils from the perspective of an artist who grew up in the Communist world, mostly deprived of such choices and abundance of consumer goods. Polke’s painting presents images of tubs rendered three-dimensionally against flat planes of bright blues and pinks in a grid-like background against a white canvas. It suggests an academic exercise, or perhaps, a model for a display window: attempts at modeling and shadows are handled with care, but other aspects appear off, even unfinished. Like in so many of the paintings in The Macklowe Collection, there is a brilliant interplay between what is represented and its mode of representation, and color, ever unsubdued, plays a huge role in this tension. Polke’s Pepto Bismol pink, unnaturally-keyed blues serve to disarm the viewer, to emphasize the artifice behind this still life. These colors recall, in a twisted sense, the accents on Koons’s Popples, forming a continuum, a modernist vein inflecting, and pulsating, through the entire collection.

[1] Interview with David Sylvester, quote reproduced in

[2] Press release of “Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings,” Gagosian New York, 2013.

[3] Reproduced in David Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 88.

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