A rare canvas by Barnett Newman (1905-1970) fetched a record $1.59 million tonight at an auction at Sotheby's. The sale of 80 works totaled a record $12.05 million, knocking down the mark of $6.7 million set last May at Christie's for an auction of contemporary art.
"Ulysses," the only one of four monochromatic canvases completed in 1952 in private hands, toppled the Newman record of $275,000 for "Primordial Light" in May 1980 at Christie's. It was purchased by an unidentified bidder in the room.
The painting, consigned by Christophe de Menil, was exhibited last year with her Texas family's collection at the Galleries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris. The other three in the series -- intentionally painted too big (132 by 50 inches) for his dealer Betty Parson's gallery as a comment on the limits of art dealing -- are owned by the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum Folkwang in Essen, West Germany.
" 'Ulysses,' " wrote the late critic Thomas B. Hess, "refers to the sea journey, to the hero's endless search" and to "Newman's own long quest for his image and identity in art."
Newman, a New Yorker who wore a monocle and a walrus mustache, spoke with equal eloquence about baseball and Jewish mysticism and encouraged other artists to "break with Europe and create out of nothing." In 1948 he made a red painting split by a single orange line.
Although "Onement I" shocked many, it helped inspire the move from the anguished Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1950s to cooler 1960s art. Shortly after he completed the seminal "Stations of the Cross," shown at the opening of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in 1978, he said that to paint or sculpt is "the highest role a man could achieve."
"It seems strange," the artist's widow, Analee Newman, said before the sale, "to be talking about his work in market terms. I don't believe art should be bought and sold. I believe it should be owned by museums where everyone can see them."
Among the paintings sold tonight were 26 from the estate of Thomas Hess. A 1957 Willem de Kooning abstract landscape led the Hess collection and took second place in the price contest, selling for $1.54 million. "Ruth's Zowie," titled after the response of the artist's friend, Ruth Kligman, to its vigorous blue, green and yellow brushstrokes, was bought by New York dealer Alan Stone.
Third place went to Clyfford Still's "Untitled," a 1954 yellow, blue and black abstract that brought $797,500, almost five times the $165,000 previous record for the New York School artist. It was consigned by oil heir Franc,ois de Menil and purchased by an unidentified American collector.
Stephen Swid, the "21" club coowner who once made a bid for Sotheby's itself, walked away with Still's "1948-A" for $577,500.
Mark Rothko's "Untitled," an orange, pink and yellow 1960 abstract, was auctioned for $715,000. It was sold to an anonymous client bidding by telephone.
A notable record was set for Roy Lichtenstein. The pop artist's "Reclining Nude," a large 84-by-120-inch 1977 homage to the artists Moore, Arp, Kandinsky and Magritte, brought $522,500, more than double the prior $231,000 record for the artist.
Ellsworth Kelly's undated "White Diamond," at $115,000, set a record for the artist. Ed Ruscha's "Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights" more than doubled the California pop artist's record, at $137,500.