The Heroes of Abstraction
Phillips offers two works by 20th Century giants—Gerhard Richter and Willem de Kooning—in London sale on March 2nd.
Phillips announced today that it would offer two more works from the collection of Marcel Brient, the French collector known for his association with prominent contemporary artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres (who is currently the subject of a show at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea. The two abstract paintings on offer come from Gerhard Richter and Willem de Kooning, two artists inextricably linked to the history of abstract art but in different moments.
The works on offer, Mathis from 1983 by Richter, and, an untitled de Kooning from 1984, were painted in adjacent calendar years—and neither has been to auction before—but represent markedly different moments in the history of art. One of the two high priests of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning inherited the mantle of the movement after Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956. The high point of his artist career had already been achieved but his fame would grow over the following years.
By the 1980s, de Kooning had become afflicted with cognitive decline which would eventually become dementia. The dividing line between the robust painter stripping his art down to the barest essentials in his late work and the aged man painting as a tether to retain his grip on reality is a subject for scholars. The de Kooning estate offered one of the latest works, from 1987, to sell above $10 million in the Fall. That vivid work still bore some of the empty spaces and that characterized de Kooning’s final works.
Brient’s untitled work from 1984 comes from an earlier period and carries a £7 million estimate. Two works from 1984 and 1985 have sold at that level. Both were auctioned last year. Untitled XIII from 1984 made $8.9 million at Sotheby’s in May. And an untitled work from 1985 in the same red-and-blue color scheme as Brient’s work made $9.3 million at Christie’s.
Richter’s Mathis, on the other hand, comes from an earlier period in his long exploration of abstraction. Estimated at £10 million, Brient’s work is priced in the same band as other works from the same period, size and style. In Hong Kong just last May, a similar work sold for $10.1 million.
Sotheby’s has a larger Richter abstract painting from 1986 on offer with a whisper number of £20 million or twice as high as Brient’s work. Sotheby’s painting was bought at auction in November of 2007 for $9.7 million during the run-up in prices for the large Richter abstract paintings egged on by then head of Contemporary art Tobias Meyer.
Christie’s has their own much smaller abstract work from 1989 that is estimated at £2.5 million. A work exactly this size has sold for $4.1 million in 2020. A high quality image, the Christie’s work may have more room to rise above the estimates than the works that are already estimated at the level of recent sales. Neither of the big Richter works on offer has a guarantee at this point. How the auction opportunities will play out presents an interesting moment for the Richter market.