Flash News: Susan Rothenberg has left us – works by Judy Chicago acquired by museums – and, where are the masterpieces we usually see in May?

[05/06/2020]

Tribute to Susan Rothenberg

Susan ROTHENBERG passed away on 18 May 18 at the age of 75. She substantially contributed to a revival of American figurative painting as far back as the 1970s, freeing it from the rules of composition, focusing on the essential while maintaining a subtle emotional quality. Her work was well received at the Venice Biennale in 1980 and subsequently in various American exhibitions over the following years. She also received the Skowhegan Medal for Painting in 1998 and her work, appreciated by Barack Obama, entered the White House Treaty Room during his tenure as President of the United States.

Susan Rothenberg began to make a name for herself in 1975, the year of her exhibition at 112 Greene Street with a semi-minimalist painting based on a horse pattern. Over the following five years, she focused on the equestrian motif “as a way of not painting people, but as a symbol of people”. A pretext, she said, “to invent a new painting that denies illusionism, like the flag for Jasper Johns”.

Rothenberg’s iconic works from this period can fetch over a million dollars in public sales. This has happened twice; the first time in 2003 and the second time in 2007 when her auction record was hammered at just under $1.5 million for a work titled Diagonal. That result brought Susan Rothenberg into the 1,000 most important and best-selling artists on the global Contemporary art auction market.

Judy Chicago… in the news twice

American museums have decided to elevate the art historical status of Judy Chicago, aged 81. First there was the announcement of a first major retrospective planned by the De Young Museum in San Francisco, an exhibition postponed because of the coronavirus crisis. Then the Nevada Museum of Art announced it has just acquired all of the artist’s “fireworks” archives (essentially thousands of documents including photographs, films and drawings) linked to her in situ works involving colored smoke and fireworks since the 1960s.

Already highly reputed for its collection of thousands of landscape photographs (The Altered Landscape Photography Collection), the De Young Museum has decided to develop its collection by feminizing the history of Land Art. This latest acquisition consecrates an icon of American feminist art since Judy Chicago was lnked to the notorious Guerrilla Girls, founded the first feminist artistic education program in the United States and co-founded the Feminist Studio Workshop and the Woman’s Building. Indeed, her work greatly contributed to the recognition of female artists throughout the world.

Her photographs of colored smoke taken in the Californian desert will be shown by the Nevada Museum in October 2021, as part of the exhibition On Fire: Judy Chicago’s Atmospheres Archive.

chicago Judy Chicago, « Immolation », 1972. Fireworks performance; performed in California desert. Courtesy of the artist; Photograph courtesy of Through the Flower Archives.

Without the usual May sales…

Spring usually is the most profitable period for the art auction market, but that is unlikely to be the case this year with everything upset by the Covid pandemic. Christie’s and Sotheby’s nevertheless played the game by taking their May online sales further ‘upmarket’, although the results were somewhat disappointing.

In fact a number of the most expensive works offered in the mid-May sales failed to sell, including two paintings by Richard Prince, each expected to fetch around $500,000 (3 Jokes Painted to Death or 3 Jokes Really Painted and Untitled (Protest Painting)). Roy Lichtenstein’s Roommates, from Nude Series, estimated at over $150,000, also remained unsold, as did an important work by Damien HIRST, Dark Acheron, estimated $500,000 – 700,000. There was also a small acrylic by Andy Warhol titled Jack Nicklauss that failed to sell against Christie’s low estimate of $500,000. Overall, last week’s six-figure estimates produced almost no results except for a superb Josef Albers work estimated $200,000 – 300,000 which fetched $495,000 (Study to Homage to the Square: Bronzed).

These unavoidable artists are still in demand, but buyers decided to focus on cheaper works costing several thousands of dollars and if possible not exceeding $50,000. We were a long way from the multi-million-dollar results usually hammered during the New York spring sales. A year ago, in May 2019, the combined turnover of Christie’s and Sotheby’s reached $1.63 billion from three days of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary sessions. Several works crossed the 50 million dollars threshold including one, Meules (1890) by Claude Monet, at $110 million. We are clearly not going to get such results this year. While the market is not completely paralyzed thanks to online sales, the price levels are not even comparable to those recorded during physical sales in auction rooms.

In this unfavourable context, Christie’s has decided to reserve its masterpieces for the month of July, with paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and Pablo Picasso expected to fetch several tens of millions of dollars each. They will be auctioned on 10 July in a new sales format entitled – ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century – whose four components will take us to Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York.