Haggling Hopper: “Chop Suey” Sets American Modern Art Auction Record

Those of you who are regular subscribers may recall that, back in September, I mentioned that one of the last great masterpieces by the American Modern artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) not already part of a permanent museum collection was coming up for sale. You may also recall my prediction that the pre-sale estimate of $70 million seemed rather low, particularly given both popular interest in Hopper, and the fame of the painting in question. “Chop Suey” (1929) is one of the artist’s best-known works, and has been used on everything from book covers to commercial animation shorts.

So it comes as no surprise to this scrivener that “Chop Suey” sold at Christie’s in New York last night for $91.9 million, more than double the previous record for a Hopper work sold at auction. Not only did the painting sell for well over its estimate, but the final result isn’t too far off the $100 million price tag I put on it. In fact, the final price would have been $95.9 million, except that Christie’s had to pay a third-party bidder $4 million in fees.

There’s no word yet on who bought the picture, or where it will end up next, but one suspects that at some point after the dust settles, it’s going to go on long-term loan to a museum. This is the sort of astronomically pricey bauble that, if you hang it above the living room fireplace, will cause your homeowner’s insurance premium to go through the roof. An interesting aspect of the bizarre times in which we live is that you could be fortunate enough to have a dining room full of great paintings by an Old Master, like these, but your household insurance assessment will be less than if your dining room only had a single work by a Modern or Contemporary artist on display.

Of course, this begs the question of whether “Chop Suey” *should* be valued at $100 million, as noted in The New York Times’ reporting on this story:

“Really, $100 million for a Hopper? I don’t know how they come up with these valuations,” said Howard Rehs, a New York gallerist specializing in American art, who, like other dealers, expressed incredulity at some of the estimates put on works in a “gigaweek” of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips art auctions that could raise at least $1.8 billion.

Of course, I’ve already explained how I guessed at an $100 million valuation when “Chop Suey” was announced for sale: it comes down to a combination of fame, rarity, marketing, and at least two very large egos with wallets to match. In a free market, as the Da Vinci “Salvator Mundi” sale showed, if two such mega-egos with significant funds at their disposal wish to jack up the price on a work of art by bidding against one another until one or the other gives up, then there’s nothing to stop them from doing so. We may not like it, and think it rather tacky or a waste of resources, but more fool they.

Lest one think that the dealers are innocents in all of this, as if they were merely people who just hang a picture on a wall or put a statue on a plinth, then stand back in amazement at the actions of the very wealthy, consider the dual nature of the Rehs Gallery itself, whose founder is quoted in the Times piece above. One incarnation of the gallery sells American bourgeois paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries, featuring the sort of images that are easy to like: romantic streetscapes of Paris in the rain, beautiful women and children playing with puppies, etc. But turn to their Contemporary Art entity and you’ll find a weird mixture of exactly the same sort of images, albeit 21st century versions of them, with plenty of porn and $4,000 graffiti “art” thrown in: just perfect for that little breakfast room in a Westchester County Mock Tudor.

That being said, everyone – not just dealers – working in or following the art market knows that there’s a bubble in the sale prices for Modern and Contemporary Art. It’s mentioned so often in the art press, that it’s practically become conventional wisdom at this point. Everyone is waiting for a crash to happen, and the only question seems to be, when will it arrive and how bad will it be? While there is evidence of price declines here and there with the work of individual artists, there hasn’t yet been the kind of catastrophic implosion, à la tulip fever back in the 17th century, that could restore some semblance of reasonableness to the market.

This then causes me to wonder: well, *IS* there, in fact, a bubble in the art market? The Hopper sale seems to belie that there is, and his coattails may well bring a lot of other representational (i.e., non-abstract) American artists from the first half of the 20th century along with him into the world of even higher sales prices, including Georgia O’Keeffe, George Bellows, and others. In the meantime, we shall just have to keep our eyes open, and see what happens.

subas

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Thought-Pourri: Gone Fishing Edition

Tomorrow I’m headed out on vacation, so chances are you won’t be seeing a new post for at least a couple of weeks. During my absence, you can follow my Instagram and Twitter postings, if you’re interested in seeing what I’m up to. Rest assured, I’m anticipating that there will be plenty of art and architecture posts, not just images of beaches and food (although there will be plenty of that as well, naturally enough.)

And now, on to some art news.

Fishers Of Compliments

One would think that, after the blasphemy and sacrilege on display at the Met Ball and the associated “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition – and do read this excellent editorial in The Art Newspaper condemning the show, which is a solid piece of writing and a rare instance of a secular art outlet getting it right when it comes to understanding Catholicism – the exhibition’s greenlighter, Cardinal Ravasi, would have done quite enough for one lifetime to bring scandal to the Church. Apparently, that is not to be the case. His Eminence likes being quoted in the art press saying thoughtless things, as well as having his picture taken with celebrities who despise Catholicism and the Faith, so his latest effort is really all of a piece.

For the first time, the Vatican will be participating in the Venice Architecture Biennale, sponsoring a group of ten chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon. As reported in The Art Newspaper, the starchitects involved in the project aren’t exactly following the example of Bernini, Borromini, or Bramante when it comes to their ecclesiastical designs:

They need contain no reference to the Christian Church except for a pulpit and an altar, because, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “These are the expression of the Holy Word that is proclaimed and the Eucharistic Supper that is celebrated by the assembly of believers.”

A bizarre enough statement, but then His Eminence goes on to further muddy the waters, as he is quoted here in Architecture Daily:

A visit to the ten Vatican Chapels is a sort of pilgrimage that is not only religious but also secular. It is a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland where one can experience the rustle of nature which is like a cosmic temple.

To my mind, a “cosmic temple” sounds like a place where one undergoes the Klingon Rite of Succession, or where Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson have a confab, but be that as it may. Still, I suppose that there is at least one lasting element of intellectual value to this project. The fact that these structures are little more than flimsy, empty spaces means that they are an all the more appropriate metaphor for the mind of the man who commissioned them.

Venice

Salute Campari

It’s fairly well known in my social circles that Campari, the syrupy, extremely bitter Italian liqueur, is one of my favorite tipples, even though more often than not, when I get someone to try it for the first time they find it one of the most awful drinks they’ve ever tasted. For my part, I like it in warm weather with soda on the rocks and a slice of orange. I also like it in any weather as part of a cocktail that I accidentally invented, along with some help from a clueless French waiter on the Upper East Side, a Dominican priest, and my closest friend.

However, I must confess that I wasn’t quite so aware of the really interesting Italian art dedicated to this beverage over the years. This summer, the Estorick Collection in London is mounting a show to showcase these images, which ranges from the languid ladies of the Gilded Age to Italian Futurism to Mid-Century Minimalism. I likely won’t be able to get there myself, but am definitely going to keep an eye out for the exhibition catalogue. “The Art of Campari” opens on July 4th, and runs through September 16th.

Campari

Dreaming The Future

Speaking of 20th century Italian art, another show on that subject which I doubt that I’ll get to this summer – ah the woes of being an art writer who can’t go see all of the things one would like to see – has just opened at the Ateneum in Helsinki. “Fantastico! Italian Art from the 1920s and 1930s” looks at the concept of Magical Realism in Italian art during this period, as represented most famously by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), and some of the interesting, often strange works of art that came out of this exploration of things such as dreams with hidden meanings, and the relationship of the individual to the anonymous state of urban society. The figure in this 1931 painting of “Woman at the Café” by Antonio Donghi (1897-1963) looks quite modern, in a Greta Garbo or Myrna Loy sort of way. Yet at the same time, Donghi is undeniably looking back to those similarly flat portraits of Florentine matrons and maidens that characterized the earlier part of the Italian Renaissance. “Fantastico!” runs through August 19th.

Donghi

 

​Painting Snow: A Swiss Master In Russia

Next month Sotheby’s will be auctioning a particularly beautiful painting by a Swiss artist of the late 19th/early 20th century, whom you are probably unfamiliar with. Although not as famous or well-known in this country as some of his contemporaries and colleagues, like his friends Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who are well-represented in many American art museums, nevertheless his work is worth getting to know. It evokes that period from the end of the Victorian era up through World War I in a dreamy, introspective way, but with a modern point of view that should give us pause, when we assume that people of that time could not see the world in the same way that we do.

Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) worked in a variety of styles over his long career, and as a result the contrast between his earlier and later works can be quite astounding. It’s hard to believe that the artist who created this beautiful, highly realistic still life of fruit and flowers here in the National Gallery for example, is the same artist who created this Symbolist image of the Moon glowing through the clouds of a night sky, which is now in the Orsay. He was also quite prolific, so that you would probably never run out of works by him to look at and think about.

In 1913 Vallotton visited Moscow and St. Petersburg on a sketching holiday, looking for new artistic inspiration, and created a series of landscapes when he returned home. As you might imagine, a Swiss artist will generally have a pretty good idea of how best to go about painting snow, and Russia certainly offered Vallotton plenty of it. One of the paintings resulting from his trip, “La Néva, brume légère” (“The Neva, Light Mist”), is the highlight of Sotheby’s “Swiss Art/Swiss Made” sale in Zurich on June 27th. In this picture, Vallotton depicts a winter scene along the river Neva, which runs through the then-Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

While bleak and heavily atmospheric, there is nevertheless something hauntingly beautiful about this snow scene. There is a stillness to it, which will be familiar to anyone who has gone on a walk just after a snowfall, while the sky is still thick with clouds. What keeps it from being dull is the fact that Vallotton creates the monochrome image of a city in winter by, paradoxically, not using a monochrome palette. The foreground is all grays, blacks, and whites, but the background is a mixture of mauves, greens, and blues, which trick the eye into seeing them as a single color. In addition, as one’s eye makes its way down the picture, color gradually disappears entirely.

In this painting Vallotton also displays a masterful sense of how to compose a picture. Notice how there is a sharp division of the painting into three horizontal strips: sky, cityscape, and promenade. These strips are intersected by the bell tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which juts up into the top 1/3 of the picture. This pulls the eye down toward the foreground figures of the lamp post and man in the hat, who stand parallel to each other and to the distant bell tower, while the buildings in the middle of the picture seem to almost skim across the top of the snow-covered wall, drawing the eye left-to-right and exiting the frame. The design is deceptively simple, made up of just a few basic forms and lines, but it is enormously effective.

When this picture was painted, World War I had not yet broken out, and Tsar Nicholas II was still on the throne. Within a few years, the elegance of St. Petersburg would be besmirched with the ugliness of leftism for decades to come. As a relic of a lost age then, Vallotton’s picture shows us Imperial Russia as it once was, which will no doubt draw the attention of private Russian buyers to this sale.

At the same time however, this picture is more than just a Swiss artist of the Gilded Age depicting a scene from old Mother Russia. In his representation of the sobriety of winter in a cityscape, Vallotton created a work of art that goes beyond specificity of time and place. Form and color are daringly but realistically simplified, almost to the point of abstraction, allowing the viewer’s eye to do all of the work, as would be true when out for a stroll on a snowy winter’s evening. It shows a modern understanding of light, landscape, and urbanism, and as a result, I think this piece has a broad, timeless, appeal. 

Hopefully, the end result will be that this painting becomes part of a permanent, public museum collection, for all to enjoy.