The Triumph of Taste

Launch Slideshow

Collectors bid with confidence at this evening’s auction of Contemporary Art, a strong sale in which $276.6 million of art traded hands in just over two hours. All but 4 of the 64 lots offered found buyers in an auction dominated by the spectacular array of 25 paintings collected by Steven and Ann Ames over the course of an equal number of years. That Gerhard Richter reigns supreme as the most sought-after living artist was confirmed tonight – five of his canvases in the Ames collection brought a total of $75.6 million; another $25 million was attributable to a group of heroic abstractions by Richter’s forerunner, Willem de Kooning, which also adorned the Ames’ spectacular Manhattan apartment. Click through to see the top 10 highlights from the sale, including two Andy Warhols and a David Hockney.

The Triumph of Taste

  • Gerhard Richter, A B, Still, 1986. Sold for $33,987,500.
    Within Richter's immense abstract corpus, the definitive compartmentalization of works into a discreet series is extremely rare. Whilst the artist meticulously catalogues his works and labels with successive numbers to indicate the temporal sequence of production, few are adorned with unique titles; the majority fall under the moniker of Abstraktes Bild. The present work however is part of a minority of select works in which a specific title is linked to a particular emotive evocation. Furthermore, the use of the A B prefix abbreviation marks it as an important precursor to the seminal series of fourteen London Paintings created in response to a trip Richter  made to London in 1987 and which were shown at Anthony d'Offay Gallery in 1988 ­ his first major commercial exhibition in London.

  • Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986. Sold for $24,425,000.
    The remarkable exposure of Warhol's ageing features comes as a result of his undeniable mastery of the silkscreen method ­ his greatest technical gift to the art of portraiture. In Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) the expressionistic surfaces of his 1970s portraits is abandoned in favor of ineluctable flatness and perfected clarity of the silkscreen; an open window onto the subject. Whilst the enlargement of the original Polaroid image to this scale gives a wonderfully ethereal effect, the flawlessly slick print shows Warhol as absolute technical master of the technique that he pioneered. Most crucially, for the first time the artist is allowing us to look plainly upon his face.  

  • Gerhard Richter, A B, St. James, 1988. Sold for $22,737,500.
    Possessing an atmospheric power connected to famous British architectural monuments and generating a viewing experience that evokes the atmospheric effects of Claude Monet, A B, St. James sublimely registers beyond our sphere of cognition to deliver a rich poetic riposte to the sights and sounds of historic  London. The painting references a direct geographic connection in alluding to the central district in the City of Westminster. As with the extant thirteen works in this groundbreaking series, each follows a particular quality which is enforced by Richter's subsequent titling. Each work from the series is named after the various towers of the Tower of London and the chapels of Westminster Abbey, providing a sense of place that roots the abstract handling of paint in the real world. Alongside other works in this corpus, Richter conjures a mixture of evocations that complexly negotiate ecclesiastical and cultural references whilst at the same time eschewing literal interpretation. Indeed, far from performing a narrative function, these names operate within an intensely imaginative dimension rooted in Richter¹s experience and anticipation of his London exhibition.

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Brother's Sausage, 1983. Sold for $18,650,000.
    From the think impasto of luscious  gestural brushwork and the strident graphic demarcation of oil stick, to the layering of collage, washes of abstract effervescence and the timely introduction of his drawings through Xerox copies, Brother's Sausage unequivocally demonstrates the revolutionary strides and unmistakable bravado that afforded Basquiat unprecedented international acclaim at this time. The work is part of a limited series of monumental paintings that witness Basquiat hinging multiple canvases together with a deliberately hand-crafted sensibility that recalls his earlier reliance on ad-hoc surfaces.

  • David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006, 2006. Sold for $11,712,500.
    An extraordinary feat of painterly triumph, David Hockney's Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 is remarkably vast in its ambition and purely resplendent in execution. Here, Hockney tranforms the bucolic North of England into something visionary: an Edenic panorama of chromatic wonder that radiates with pure ebullience. Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 belongs to a group of nine monumental six-panel paintings of the same vista, captured in its varied appearance over the course of the changing seasons. The Wolds is a vast pocket of agricultural land between
    York and the seaside town of Bridlington; not obtruded by industry or development, and always used exclusively as farmland, Hockney refers to this landscape as "the least changed bit of England that I know."

  • Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1976–­77. Sold for $10,362,500.
    While the animated vigor of the artist's earlier Montauk series testifies to de Kooning's mastery of abstraction throughout the 1960s, the paintings of the 1970s thrum with a new and powerful physical immediacy. The gestural abandon and striking tactility of these works, exemplified in the glistening surface of Untitled , stem from de Kooning's reinvigoration of painting in 1975, which followed more than six years of intense engagement with the medium of clay. Throughout the 1970s, de Kooning amplified the texture of his paintings by thinning oil paint with water and adding kerosene, benzene or safflower oil as a binding agent to thicken his paint to a clay-like viscosity. In the riotous surface of Untitled , areas of pliable oil paint have been smeared, scraped, and spattered to create a luscious all-over impasto that recalls the lifelike immediacy of de Kooning¹s fleshy bronzes.

  • Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXXIX, 1983. Sold for $9,800,000.
    Untitled XXXIX is a truly superb exemplar of the unique painterly method de Kooning applied to his compositions of the 1980s. While at first glance the lyrical red, blue, and yellow zones appear to be floating upon a pristine white ground, their indomitable elegance and ethereal lightness was in fact achieved through de Kooning's judicious application of cool white oil pigment atop a churning surface of chromatic intensity. As such, the graceful organization of hued forms in Untitled XXXIX was revealed by way of excavation as opposed to accumulation, the result being one of profound aesthetic and technical innovation from an artist in the final decades of his prodigious career.

  • Gerhard Richter, Ziege, 1984. Sold for $8,986,000.
    An electrifying example of masterful coloration and superb painterly ingenuity, Ziege is archetypal of a vital moment of conceptual transition in Gerhard Richter's inimitable career. For more than fifty years, Richter has persistently and deliberately reinvented the terms by which we define, absorb, and experience painting as a contemporary medium. Following two decades of acclaim as a skilled photorealist painter, in the early 1980s he embarked upon an unprecedented investigation into a new frontier of abstraction, focusing his formidable talent upon a vibrant series of
    canvases that radically reached new heights of innovation. Captivating in their dynamic juxtaposition of vibrant colour, complex space, and explosive mark-making, these works are strident affirmations of their creator's technical abilities as a master painter. Executed in 1984, the chronological apex of the seven year period in which Richter's iconic abstract lexicon began to principally occupy his creative energies, Ziege is exemplary of a moment of profound visionary breakthrough in Richter's prodigious career.

  • Frank Stella, Pratfall, 1974. Sold for $8,900,000.
    Frank Stella’s Pratfall from 1974 is one of only two monumental black, white, and grey compositions from Stella’s series of Diderot paintings, among the largest format examples of the artist’s beloved Concentric Squares. Utterly enveloping in scale and reverberating with optical rhythm, Pratfall marks the culmination of the Concentric Square paintings initiated by Stella in 1962. The painting is sophisticated in its palette and utterly vertiginous in effect – truly a phenomenal testament to Stella’s mastery over his medium. The painting’s significance is further attested to by its prominent inclusion in the recent retrospective of the artist’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where Pratfall was in fact the very first work seen upon the entrance to the exhibition.

  • Andy Warhol, Lenin, 1986. Sold for $8,112,500.
    Incontrovertibly arresting in its stunning immediacy and indelibly charged imagery, Andy Warhol’s 1986 masterwork Lenin commands our full attention with the sheer weight of its historic import and art historical potency. As conceptual successor to the artist’s earlier Hammer and Sickle and Mao series of the 1970s, the present work persists as an icon of one of the more fascinating pivots in Warhol’s prodigious career. By first appropriating and then subsuming symbols of Communist ideology – both physical as in his interpretations of the hammer and sickle icons, or metaphorical as in his renderings of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin – into his legendary Pop Art pantheon of mass-consumer commodities and silver screen celebrities, Warhol effectively refocused his groundbreaking aesthetic energies on the political realities of his time.


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