"Reichstag," an oil painting by leading contemporary artist Frank Stella, sold here tonight at auction at Christie's for $420,000, tying the record price for a work by a living American artist and reassuring market followers that the recession in the art market may be short-lived. It matches the price Andrew Wyeth's "Marsh Hawk," brought at Sotheby's New York in December.
Record prices for single artists set tonight included $270,000 for Mark Rothko's "No. 1--1962," and $200,000 for Robert Motherwell's 1955 "Je T'aime, No. III, With Loaf of Bread." It was sold by Clement Greenberg, the art critic who wrote extensively and with great impact about the abstract expressionist painters, and his wife Janice.
Doubts about the strengths of the contemporary art market raised last night at Sotheby's sale seem to have been squelched tonight. Christie's sales total--$3.5 million--was a world-record for a contemporary art sale. (The previous record was $3.3 million, set at Sotheby's in May 1981.) Thirteen record prices were set for individual artists, ranging from familiar art stars such as Motherwell and Rothko to up-and-coming young artists such as Nathan Olivera and Nancy Graves. According to Martha Baer, head of the contemporary art department, "the sale was a rousing success. It just goes to show the good material always sells well."
Purchased by an anonymous bidder, the Stella, one of the earliest paintings by the artist, was one of the controversial and critically acclaimed "black" paintings, as they are commonly called, from his series begun in 1958 when the artist was 23 years old.
According to Leo Castelli, the New York art dealer who has represented Stella for over 20 years, "The black paintings are the most important and rarest Stellas. Only 23 were executed and, in the late 1950s when they first appeared, they sold for only $700--and they were hard to sell. Mostly, museums bought them."
Although there was speculation earlier in the day that the National Gallery of Art, which does not own a black Stella, might buy tonight, it was later learned that the museum's policy prohibits purchasing a painting by a living artist. Several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, already own black Stellas.
With more than 1,000 people, the largest crowd ever at Christie's, crammed into the salesroom and other rooms, there was much excitement, anticipation and speculation over who bought what. Evening spring contemporary sales are usually exciting, and this one was particularly so.
After last night's unsuccessful sale, in which a Morris Louis failed to sell, the Washington Color School artists rebounded. Louis' "Aleph Series II," a floral painting executed in 1960, brought $200,000. It was bought by Brooke Alexander, a New York dealer, on behalf of a client he refused to identify.
Paintings by Kenneth Noland, the other key Washington Color School painter, fared well, too. Noland's "April's Equal" dated 1971 brought $15,000. "Cadmium Radiance," from 1963, fetched $30,000.
A record price was also set for a Nancy Graves, whose work has never come up at auction before. "TLIK," a 1977 oil on canvas, fetched $13,000.
Confusion over the identity of the bidders reached the point where David Bathurst, president of Christie's and tonight's auctioneer, resorted to physical descriptions, calling out, "The man with the mustache," "the man without the mustache," "The man with the glasses," "the man without the glasses," "the man with the mustache and with the glasses."