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  • London Frieze Week 2017 - an auction review

    Lucio Fontana (1899-1968)

    Concetto Spaziale, In Piazza San Marco di Notte con Teresita

    Acrylic and coloured glass stones on canvas,
    150 by 150 cm - 59 by 59 in.

    Photo credit: Christie's

    Esthatic, mesmerised, puzzled, disappointed, enthusiastic, doubtful , frustrated…counting the expressions on the numerous faces we encountered during Frieze Week - at the fair, at the endless events squeezed in a very few days, in the auction salerooms etc - was simply impossible…as always, once the big circus settles in town the whole industry is turned upside down and at the end of this frenzy turbillon some extra days are needed to fully recover (at least for us!).

    With too many things to keep in mind, we deliberately decided to write about what fascinates us the most: auctions! It was in fact a long, packed week of high-profile sales and strong results, with an unexpected end…consiering just the respective Evening Sales (with the dedicated 20th Century Italian Art sections at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s) nearly £220m – including fees - were raised.

    Sotheby’s started first this time and while their Italian Sale suffered (the overall results were in line with the declining figures of last year, less than £20m), with no real prize lot on offer, the Contemporary Evening auction was definitely much more vibrant. With only five unsold lots – which in the end decreased to four since Basquiat’s Bronze was re-offered in the Day auction as a consequence of an initial, alleged problem to connect with a high-profile bidder over the phone during the sale, and sold for more than £5m overall – it had reassuring responses from the most sought-after names.

    A very good Hockney was among the starts of the night. His 15 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1998) in fact turned out to be the second most expensive piece on offer, £6m with fees. Immersive and chromatically intoxicating, this grand view by the contemporary English master is a result of a careful meditation and analysis of art history (see 19th Century panoramas or Monet’s Nympheas) as well as a homage to one of America’s iconic sites, Hockney’s adpoted country.

    Divided into 15 parts, it is as majestic as the vast landscape paintings the artist had produced in his native Yorkshire for most of 1997, and the present work actually bears a direct link to them. The large landscapes belonging to the two different series are indeed often interpreted by critics as the painter’s new spirituality as well as his possibly instictive need to find shelter in the overwhelming magnificence of nature, after the death of several friends at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and then 90s.

    Christie’s then followed the day after. Prior to the actual sale days, it had been already clear from the viewings that their auctions would be the strongest ones of the whole week. And the results subsequently confirmed the impression, with a rather disappointing end note though…

    The Italian Sale was smaller than Sotheby’s (31 lots) and the selection, much higher in quality, was led by the sublime Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale. In Piazza San Marco con Teresita, which sold for a comprehensive £10m. Belonging to the super rare, limited series of works conceived in 1961 and totally inspired by the theme of Venice. Deeply spiritual and methaphysical, the work also bears a precise architectural implication: the pattern followed by the holes resemble that of the colonnade in the city’s main square and most visited place.

    Executed in the artist’s Milan studio, it has also other relevant meanings attached to it: the idea of Romanticism that Venice has almost instinctively represented throughout the centuries (sometimes becoming kitsch, if one especially thinks about nowadays standardised tourism) and the autobiographical reference (Venice was the city where Fontana and his wife Teresita had their honeymoon, where he became famous as a Spatialist at the numerous Biennales he attended and where he made several friends among dealers, collectors and gallerists). One of the very first Venezie produced and presented to the public, it is a complex, multi-layered, experimental piece placing itself at the very pinnacle of the artist’s whole production.

    The evening procedeed well into the subsequent Contemporary Art Evening auction, up until Frieze Week’s star lot and the very last lot – an imposing Francis Bacon, Study of the Red Pope 1962. 2nd version 1971 – was opened for bidding. Estimated (on request) between £60 – 80m, if sold it would have become the priciest artwork ever sold at auction in Europe. Unseen for 45 years and bearing a rather macabre past reference (beside the main figure, the Pope, there is a second person painted - George Dyer, Bacon’s partner, who died by drug overdose two days before the picture was exhibited in Paris), it saw the bidding activity stopping at £58m, just slightly below the minimum amount agreed with the consignor, and hence passed.

    Also on the 6th but only a few hourse earlier, Phillips had held their Evening Sale in their Berkeley Sq headquarters. The grand total reached £19m and the auction had its highlight in Sigmar Polke’s Tänzerin. Painted in 1994, it is a rare work celebrating the artist’s mastery of colour experimentation (as deeply and analitically as a chemist/alchemist would do – a clear legacy of the training undertaken as a glass artisan in his youth) and his invention of Raster print-reproducing, hand-painted technique. Offered with an estimate set between £2,5 and 3,5m, it sold for £3,3 (fees inclued).

    With the show now wrapped up completely as quickly as it had been installed – a big praise must go to the brilliant ‘unseen angels’, the tireless army of technicians, hangers and porters operating at art fairs, auction houses and galleries – all eyes are already directed towards the Big Apple, where the next Contemporary sales will take place in mid-November, accompanied this time round by unusual companions (an F1 Ferrari, a da Vinci rediscovery)…stay tuned!

    Author: Enrico Cavaliere |Date: November 10, 2017