Property from the Estate of Elaine Lustig Cohen

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The pioneering painter, designer and collector Elaine Lustig Cohen (1927-2016) has been described as “the quintessential Modernist,” and her influential architectural signage, typefaces, book covers, and graphic design work helped to define the visual canon of the 1950s and 1960s. Synthesizing influences from the early 20th century avant-garde movements – especially Bauhaus, Constructivism and Dada – she created a vocabulary that exuberantly broke free of traditional design. Her fresh, spirited vision favoured geometry, bold colour, the appropriation of eclectic references and startling clarity. Sotheby’s annual various-owners auction of Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas in New York on 15 May, 2017 will include Property from the Estate of Elaine Lustig Cohen, an exemplary grouping of works from her collection of African, Oceanic and American Indian art. Click ahead to learn more about her incredible career, see inside her Upper East Side townhouse and preview works available in Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and into the season.

Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
15 May | New York

Property from the Estate of Elaine Lustig Cohen

  • Elaine Lustig Cohen in Her Library, the Figure for Malagan on the Right
    After the passing of her first husband, the legendary American modernist Alvin Lustig (1915–1955), Elaine Lustig Cohen found herself with the tall order of carrying on his design commissions, and in doing so unlocked an extraordinary talent. From the auspicious beginning of being tasked by Philip Johnson to create the iconic typeface and signage for his now-legendary Seagram building at 375 Park Avenue, she would go on to collaborate with many of the visionary pioneers of modernist architecture and design, including Johnson, Richard Meier and Eero Saarinen. Her patrons included John de Menil, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Primitive Art, General Motors and the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • Book Covers Designed by Elaine Lustig Cohen
    Beginning in the 1950s she earned considerable renown for her inventive book cover designs, which she created for New Directions and Meridian Books; she would go on to marry Meridian’s publisher Arthur A. Cohen, himself an influential author and scholar.

  • Elaine Lustig Cohen’s Dining Room with the Kwakwaka’wakw Raven Mask
    In their townhouse on east 70th street in Manhattan, Arthur and Elaine designed an interior which was not unlike Elaine’s fanciful book cover designs, using a collage of world art, synthesized with the same unique vision. Sculpture from Ancient Greece, Renaissance Europe, Imperial China and traditional cultures of Africa, North America, and the Pacific mingled together with Elaine’s own paintings – for which she would later gain significant critical acclaim - in elegant, minimal interiors. Far ahead of American collecting fashion, the couple acquired works from the pioneering dealers and collectors of the time: Klejman, Kamer, Simpson, Furman and Leff.

  • Elaine Lustig Cohen and Arthur Cohen in Their Upper East Side Townhouse Library
    The Cohens’ home would become a gathering place for influential artists, critics, scholars, and writers of the era. Among their frequent guests were Robert Motherwell, Michael Graves and Cynthia Ozick. The eclectic selection of works offered here are not only a time capsule of early post-war collecting in America, but also witnesses to an elite milieu of visionary artists and intellectuals. Above all they are a testament to the remarkable affinity that Elaine Lustig Cohen felt for the anonymous artists of cultures from vastly different times and places, and the creative energy that she drew from their work.

  • Kwakwaka’wakw Raven Mask, British Columbia, Canada. Estimate $120,000–180,000.
    This sculpturally dynamic raven mask was used in dance ceremonies of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia, and belonged to Cohen, who installed it prominently in her Upper East Side townhouse for over half a century. The mask has been attributed to famed sculptor Willie Seaweed, who helped to keep the artistic traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw alive during his bold and prolific career in the first half of the 20th century.

  • Figure for Malagan, New Ireland. Estimate $40,000–60,000.
    Among the most intricately carved sculptures in Oceania, malagan figures act as intermediaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. These sculptures, colourful and rich in anthropomorphic imagery, were integral to the successful realization of highly elaborate ceremonies that were held to commemorate one or more deceased members of a community.

  • Hopi Kachina Figure, Arizona, United States of America. Estimate $5,000–7,000.
    Carved out of dried cottonwood roots by initiated Hopi men, kachina figures represent different spirits that act as intermediaries between the supernatural and material worlds, which the Hopi believed to possess the power to bring rain to the parched desert landscape and to protect the overall well-being of Hopi villages. While this particular figure belonged to the distinguished collection of Cohen, others have found their way to the collections of surrealist artists like André Breton and Max Ernst.

  • An Etruscan Bronze Votive Figure, Circa 3rd/2nd Century B.C. Provenance: Mathias Komor, New York, 1969. On Offer in Antiquities, 2017.
    The sculptor of this graceful Etruscan figure has elongated the human form in an astonishing abstraction, predating by over two thousand years the similar formal inventions achieved by celebrated 20th century sculptors such as Alberto Giacometti.



  • Dogon or Mossi Mask, Mali. Estimate $15,000–20,000.
    Dogon/Mossi masks such as this generally depict humans and animal characters in totemic form. Here the animal is a large antelope, signified by the dramatic yet elegant superstructure that represents the antelope’s horns. On the face of the mask, traces remain of the emblematic red, white and black pigments that form striking geometric patterns and shapes. The arresting aesthetic of these masks is not confined to its origins in Africa, however, as its influence has also seeped into the cultural consciousness of Western artists. Along with many other key examples of African art, the Cohen Dogon/Mossi Mask was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal 1984 exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art.

  • Spirit Board, Kerewa, Paia'a Village, Kikori River Delta, Gulf of Papua, Papua New Guinea. Estimate $10,000–15,000.
    Powerful spirits known as imunu were at the centre of religious and artistic life in the Gulf of Papua. These spirits were associated with particular places in the landscape and were tied to the clans that lived there. To contain and honour these spirits, ‘spirit boards’ such as the present lot were created, and the striking, ‘dancing’ figure depicted here is the image of an individual imunu who had immense significance to a particular clan.

  • Greek Bronze Helmet of Corinthian Type, Circa 500 B.C. On Offer in Antiquities, 2017.
    This helmet, hammered from a single sheet of bronze, is of the finest workmanship, especially evident in the careful modelling of the rims of the eyes. The Greek letters Eta Iota are chased on the right cheek-guard. It was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Cohen from Mathias Komor in New York on 21 May, 1960, and is thought to have once been in the collection of Alphonse Kann.

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