Saturday, March 3, 2007

Born to Be Late -- to the bittersweet end

26 February 2007 (~10:30-11 p.m.--continued)

Miraculously, a cab materializes. The driver is great. “Can you get me to Rockefeller Center in five minutes.” “Sure.” And after a sequence of turns – “Is bad street…. Is bad street….. Is bad street.” (I’ll say they are) – negotiating our way across what seems like a barricade of traffic across Broadway, he manages to more or less do this. Not quite Christie’s – but I know where to find it – through the NBC Building, a building I know in my DNA – down the long corridor and past the elevator banks and out the south entrance on 50th, et me voici. No one needs to tell me the auction has already begun – no one lingers on the ground floor or in the corridors where some of the auction offerings are hanging. The C-prints are just a bright blur as I dash up the staircase. The entrance to the auction room is crowded with spectators and I can barely get through to the press reps. I can’t see him, but Christopher Burge’s distinctively civilized arbitrator’s voice and manner are perfectly audible over the crowd. I’m wondering if this is all I’ll see, although people seem to be randomly wending in and out of the doorway, when Christie’s unflappable and fabulous PR representative (have I EVER said that about a PR person?), Bendetta Roux appears, and with absolute assurance and grace places a program in my hand and steers me to a place with a perfect view of the room. The French journalist whom I can’t help jostling past loaded down as I am with all my gear is none too thrilled to see me and shoots me a “must you REALLY?” look; and although my inclination would ordinarily be to shoot back a verbalized “YES, I REALLY MUST,” Roux’s and Burge’s dulcet and diplomatic manners have a soothing and civilizing effect on my stressed-out temper. I half-smile and whisper apologies and she seems placated. In the meantime, a fellow in an orange corduroy suit offers to share his notated program with me. Color coordinated with the Mike Kelley painting hanging front and center in front of the room. I could kick myself. There have already been a couple of impressive (and not so) sales, including the Steven Parrino (whose work I LOVE – maybe one of the few enthusiasms I have in common with dealer/collector Huber. And I thought I was the only one!) – which went for more than triple its high estimate. It kills me that I just missed this auction. Sherri Levine, Cady Noland and Fischli & Weiss also pick up tripled or near tripled prices on their pre-auction estimates. The Ruff I notice went only at its low estimate – not bad of course – but it sort of confirms what seemed evident from the fairs where his work was a drug on the market – cropping up everywhere (from Park Avenue & 67th to Pier 94 anyway). After an unusual Judd goes in the middle of its range, an On Kawara calendar suite (selected panels from various of her quasi-conceptual canvas/box “Today Series”) is hammered down at an impressive $1.7 million. The high estimate is actually over $2 million – there are 10 panels in the lot – but the sale sets an auction record for Kawara. The market falls for others: Two Carl Andres come up next, one the very impressively installed “Bar” (1981) I just walked past on my way in here, and neither of them fetches even their low estimate. One of the Franz Wests also fails to meet low estimate. (What would Carlee Fernandez think?). Finally the orange (but still classic) Mike Kelley comes up, an extraordinary work. I’m guessing it will go for anywhere between $10,000 and $60,000 over its estimate and boy am I wrong. It just barely meets its low estimate; and suddenly I wonder why those Mike Kelley drawings were still at Patrick Painter Friday afternoon at the Pier. Next up is a Jim Shaw ‘backdrop’ painting– but it’s not just any Jim Shaw and it’s not just any backdrop. The backdrop is the American West, and perhaps Western civilization itself – with the point of departure being, in addition to the Donner party itself, the Judy Chicago magnum opus, The Dinner Party.

I have no use for a lot of Jim Shaw’s work, whatever the scale. I can admit to having been entertained from time to time; but so much of it seems utterly dismissible to me. That said, The Donner Party is an AMAZING work – and perhaps one of the best things Shaw has ever done. It deserves to be seen much more widely – at least as much as Chicago’s Dinner Party. No no no – a LOT MORE than The Dinner Party. Oh – did I mention – I HATE THE DINNER PARTY?? The bidding is spirited and I’m trying to figure out what institutions are in the room (I saw Paul Schimmel at the Pier, of course; but I don’t see him in the room – or anyone else from MOCA). MOCA (not the Hammer) is really the place for it and I’m hoping they have someone on the phone. Burge gavels it down at $550,000 -- $50K under its high estimate – but a world auction record for Shaw. The excitement abates a bit when a lot of 20 of his drawings fails (as it should) to sell at even $50K UNDER its low estimate.

And so it goes. I recognize very few of the bidders; and I’m thinking most of the institutional bidders were on the phones. Max Falkenstein (of Gladstone) walks out right after the last Prince is auctioned which makes me wonder if he was just there to make sure they went at the right price point. (Former L.A. councilman Joel Wachs walks out shortly after the Rhoades is auctioned and I wonder about that, too.) The star of the evening, Paul McCarthy’s 1992 “Bear and Rabbit On A Rock” (and given a star-treatment installation right beneath John Amleder’s glittering mirror balls) goes for a record-setting $1.3 million. Mike Kelley’s famous “Test Room” of 1999 (which Huber personally – and rather bravely – commissioned) fetches almost $1 million. The Kader Attia pigeon installation goes for a respectable $75,000. (WHO bought it???) But I think I’m happiest with the healthy sales of a couple of what are now recognizably classic Albert Oehlens, “Grazie” (1982) and “Born to Be Late” (2001) which seem a kind of benediction on my zig-zag path here tonight – and perhaps my New York fair assignment overall. I’m chronically late; and between technical and logistical problems, I’ve been consistently posting late this trip.

After the auction, Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo (Co-Chair of the Post-War & Contemporary department) and Huber come out to take a few questions. They both seem elated by the auction results and they should be. How many buyers are there for room-sized installations of balloons, pigeons or mysterious quasi-geometric assemblages and or bricolages? The beautiful installation of the auction lots – really almost a museum quality show – is a coup unto itself and – after the Chinati Foundation Judd auction of last year – the Haunch of Venison move seems almost seamlessly logical. Cappellazzo seems to have real enthusiasm for the work and she clearly knows the market. Huber’s next move is anyone’s guess; he’s a seriously competitive character. From Basel, he’s moving on to start an international art fair in Shanghai; and judging from the explosion of Chinese production, it may be the next Basel Miami.

I’m almost sorry to miss the rest of the week’s auctions – to say nothing of all the museum and gallery shows I would have loved to take in. (My only remaining tasks here are to take my hosts’ dogs (I call them canine nieces) on a long walk and to find a new toy or souvenir for my nephew.) But it’s back to L.A. tomorrow – and another raft of openings for the following week-end – to say nothing of my feline daughters, Stella and (Kim) Stanley – who will turn ten next month. I’m too often late for them, too; and, like me, they have no patience for waiting.

Ezrha Jean Black, New York

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