Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Sun Rises on Contemporary Art

Judd and Lichtenstein works are set to make auction history

After the largest collection of Donald Judd's works ever offered at auction is sold by the Judd Foundation at Christie's New York, Roy Lichtenstein's iconic Sinking Sun is set to make auction history at Sotheby's.

Competition is fierce in the art world, especially when it involves masterworks by the modern sculptor Donald Judd and the Pop art painter Roy Lichtenstein. Rival auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's will present important works by both artists this month in their quest to achieve coveted market share in the Contemporary Art collecting field.

The action will begin May 9th at Christie's evening sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art. A group of important Judd works consigned by the late artist's foundation is a controversial coup for the auction house's Contemporary specialists.

The collection is the largest presentation of Judd works in the United States after the 1988 Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective on the artist. Judd's minimalist sculpture, fashioned from industrial materials like metal, Plexiglas and plywood, often incorporating bold colors, and are a marvel of symmetry, classical beauty and craftsmanship. Spanning the range of Judd's entire career, these pieces come, as they say in the trade, fresh to the market. There is no question that their quality and range are extraordinary, making them appealing to serious collectors; however, art world insiders question the decision by the Judd Foundation to offer so many works at once, virtually flooding the market. However, Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman Christie's Americas and International cohead of the Post-War and Contemporary Art department, feels confident that the strength of the market, as witnessed over the past several years, is exceptionally strong. "Works by Donald Judd have appeared at auction only on rare occasions and his oeuvre is relatively undiscovered," he said. The selection for sale not only comes with the best of provenances but also offers an extraordinary overview of the artist's career which will provide new and established collectors a unique opportunity to acquire key pieces at a range of price levels."

As provenance plays a huge part in desirability to collectors, it is interesting to note that several pieces offered in the sale were part of the Tate Modern's traveling survey of Judd's work in 2004-2005. The most impressive individual lot, Untitled 1993, is a six-part Douglas fir plywood and colored, transparent Plexiglas wall piece executed the year before to Judd's untimely death. If all goes as planned, that piece will achieve a price in the range of $2 to $3 million and the collection as a whole could collectively achieve in excess of $20 million. Proceeds will go to create an endowment to support the Judd Foundation's existing installations, the Judd archives, a catalogue raisonné and other Judd Foundation publications.

Collectors will be waiting for another sun to set when Roy Lichtenstein's profound Pop era painting, Sinking Sun, is offered at Sotheby's evening sale of Contemporary Art. Estimated to fetch as much as $20 million, this modern icon will surely evoke a bidding war among top collectors in the field.

After chasing the work over the course of almost five years, Tobias Meyer, chief auctioneer and worldwide head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's, was able to persuade Joe Helman, a collector and art dealer, to put the work in the May sale at Sotheby's. Highly desirable to collectors for several reasons, the painting is large in scale (68 by 80 inches), a rarity for the artist at that time, and was executed at a turning point in Lichtenstein's career when he was consciously making a transition from his comicbook iconography to an Op-art style. Sinking Sun's appealing composition is a masterpiece of graphic design painted in a schematic arrangement of flat lines and Benday dots of red and blue. The final rays of the sun shoot out behind puffy clouds that anchor a yellow and red slash representing the horizon. According to Mr. Meyer, "the great thing about this painting is that it is in a sense Lichtenstein's swansong to his comic strip paintings, as many comic strips traditionally end with a sunset, so it really can be seen as the last frame in an American love story, as told by one of the most important painters of our time."

Executed in 1964, one year after the assassination of President John F.Kennedy, the painting can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the end to America's period of Post World War II optimism. Acquired by Dennis and Brooke Hopper after its debut in the 1964 Landscapes exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery, Sinking Sun hung in the couple's Los Angeles home until it became part of the current owner's collection in New York.

Although in past years there have been several good Lichtenstein paintings sold at auction, there has been nothing of this caliber for top collectors to acquire. This means that followers of Contemporary art sales can expect to witness history with a new world auction record for Lichtenstein when the painting is offered on the open market May. For over 30 years, artists, collectors, critics and curators have acknowledged Sinking Sun as one of the most important paintings in the field of Pop American Contemporary Art and its presentation on the auction block is without doubt the most exciting individual lot being offered in May Contemporary art auctions.

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