On 15 May, the 21st Century Evening Sale achieved a total of $98,802,500, selling 96 per cent by lot and 123 per cent hammer against the low estimate. With auctioneer Georgina Hilton at the rostrum, the sale was led by the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cecily Brown and Yayoi Kusama. Nine artists set records and more than 50 per cent of the lots were by women artists.
The leading lot, not only of this sale but of the 20th and 21st Century marquee week, was Basquiat’s El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile). One of the most important paintings of his career, this ground-breaking work is one of three large-scale canvases he made in 1983. Combining ancient and modern symbols, it is Basquiat’s quintessential history painting.
The monumental painting has been featured in major retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1992 and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2006. Fetching $67,110,000, it achieved the highest price of the night following five minutes of competitive bidding.
The sale opened with Ice Queen by the Brooklyn-based painter Robin F. Williams. Showing a nude woman posing on her back, her mouth curled in an unsettling grin, the painting upends the historical tradition of the female nude as a passive subject of the male gaze. Here, both artist and subject take charge. The painting, which achieved $428,400 — an artist record — set the tone for the rest of the auction: the evening repeatedly demonstrated the market’s enthusiasm for contemporary women artists.
The second highest price of the sale was brought in by Brown’s Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) at $6,705,000. Brown’s current survey exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, affirms her status as one of the most important artists working today. This immersive, mural-like painting, which depicts a flurry of moving, life-size figures, is a study of her masterful brushwork and sumptuous use of colour.
The third highest price was achieved by Kusama’s Pumpkin, which garnered $4,890,000. Kusama has also received a surge of international attention this year, having worked with a major fashion house in what has been called the biggest fashion collaboration of the year. Pumpkin was painted at a pivotal time for the artist in 1993, when she was chosen as the first single artist to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale. The centrepiece of her exhibit was a large yellow pumpkin installed in one of her signature mirrored Infinity Rooms, and the pumpkin remains one of her most well-known motifs.
Women artists and artists of colour were highlighted throughout the evening, including Simone Leigh. Her monumental sculpture Stick set a new world record price, fetching $2,712,000. The first Black woman to be awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, Leigh has changed the face of contemporary sculpture and is currently the focus of a museum survey exhibition at ICA Boston.
Stick is one of her most important works: executed in an edition of just three plus one artist’s proof, another example was shown at the 2019 Whitney Biennale and is now a promised gift to the museum’s permanent collection.
Image on top : Jean-Michel Basquiat, El Gran Espectaculo (The History of Black People), 1983.COURTESY CHRISTIE'S
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