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What else besides that $200 million Warhol?

May 8, 2022

Lot 36A – ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987), Shot Sage Blue Marilyn
signed and dated ‘Andy Warhol / 64’ (on the overlap)
acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1964.
Est. in the region of $200 million This lot sold for a hammer price of $170 million ($195,040,000 with fees)

The potential for Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn to sell for more than $200 million in Christie’s May 9, 2022, sale of “The Collection of Works from Thomas and Doris Ammann” has generated headlines globally and resurrected the deliciously peculiar story behind the painting’s title (more on that later).

But there are two other works in the sale that are noteworthy – a pair of paintings from 1961 by the American artist Robert Ryman, the jazz aficionado and one-time guard at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, whose “white paintings” dare, challenge, enthrall, and seduce human perception much like Donald Judd’s sculptures.

The two works, both untitled, are comprised of Ryman’s characteristic jumble of thickly painted narrow and short squiggly white lines. Peeking out under some of these white strokes are hints of underpaint in shades of green and ochre, a colorful foundation obscured through an evolutionary path to the white surface. 

Surprisingly, the compositions don’t seem chaotic; indeed, the aggregation of agitated brushstrokes is suggestive of a colony of bees moving about in a putatively random fashion but ultimately with a shared goal. An equilibrium for the chaos/calm. Another giveaway of the artist’s control and deliberate intent is the precision of the rendering and placement of his signature, which both identifies the author and is a functional element in the overall composition.

Lot 6A – ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019), Untitled
signed and dated ‘RRyman 61’ (lower center)
oil on Bristol board, 12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Est: $1.5 – 2.5 million This lot sold for a hammer price of $3.2 million ($3.7 million with fees)

The first of the two works is intimate in scale – 12 x 12 inches. The oil on Bristol Board composition could be mistaken for an aerial image of a coastline.  More than 85% of the board is covered with overlapping brushstrokes, nearly all white, but hints of the board and green underpaint peek through, and there are discreet passages in taupe, including the artist’s “RRyman61” signature. The composition (landmass) is bulbous and the pigments’ oils bleed into the board along the vertical border of the painted and unpainted areas. The oil-soaked passages suggest coastal shallows that presage the deep end.

Ryman’s career began in the late 1950s and by 1961 the foundation of his vision and path had been established with small scale works that juxtaposed paint, support, textures, volume, and void. While I don’t find this painting among the strongest from that era (there are several superb examples from the artist’s collection featured in the 1993 exhibition organized by the Tate and MoMA), it is solidly representative and authoritative in its own right. It carries an estimate of $1.5 – 2.0 million.

Lot 12A – ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019), Untitled
signed ‘Ryman’ (lower left)
oil on linen, 66 1⁄2 x 66 3⁄4 in. (169 x 169.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1961.
Est. $15 – 20 million This lot sold for a hammer price of $17.25 million ($20,141,250 with fees)

The second work is an oil on linen that measures roughly 5.5 feet by 5.5 feet. The composition is small square of vigorous white brushstrokes within a larger square of nearly imperceptible and wide white brushwork. The smaller square is lodged in the upper right corner of the work and occupies perhaps 40-45% of the overall composition. There are hints of green and ochre underpaint, and portions of the linen support poke through in places. It’s a masterful contrasting of paint textures, volume and void, and the precise “Ryman” signature at lower left completes the composition and brilliantly counterbalances the writhing network of paint in the upper right. The painting is estimated at $15 – 20 million.

As for Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, here’s the story behind its title as recounted in the sale catalogue

This paintings (sic) also enters ‘Warhol-lore’ as one of the famous Shot Marilyns, a group of four paintings involved in an infamous event that took place at the Factory in the fall of 1964. Warhol had just completed a set of five 40 x 40 inch canvases of Marilyn (the four Shot Marilyns plus Turquoise Marilyn) using his new screening process, when he was visited by his friend Ray Johnson and a woman named Dorothy Podber. She was a sometime performance artist and the owner of outlandish pets including an ocelot which she took for walks around New York’s Central Park. She was also known as a photographer and when she entered the Factory and saw Andy silkscreening, she asked if she could shoot them. Assuming that she meant photograph his latest work, Warhol agreed. Podber promptly took a gun from purse and fired a single shot at the canvases leant up against the wall. She then put the gun back in her purse and left.

The sale takes place at Christie’s offices in New York. It should be entertaining.

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