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Exceptional British art selection highlights Sotheby's contemporary art evening auction
Peter Doig, Bellevarde. Oil on canvas, 200 by 275cm. 78 3/4 by 108 1/4 in. Estimate: 1,500,000-2,000,000 GBP. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Sotheby’s forthcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction on Thursday, October 13, 2011, which coincides with London’s Frieze Art Fair, will be led by an exceptionally strong section of British Art that is highlighted by Lucian Freud’s Boy’s Head of 1952. The British Art section also includes important pieces by Peter Doig, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Marc Quinn and Glenn Brown. The auction will also feature works by established greats such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Miquel Barceló and Sigmar Polke as well as an offering of artworks by younger artists including Jacob Kassay. The 47-lot auction is estimated at in excess of £19 million.

Discussing the forthcoming auction, Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art Europe, commented: “Sotheby’s established the record for an auction of Contemporary Art staged in Europe with our Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London just three months ago, which is resounding testimony to the buoyancy of this market sector. The sale we have assembled this season features works by established titans such as Warhol and Basquiat, as well as art by the young and upcoming generation of artists such as Jacob Kassay. The focus of this year’s October Auction is our exceptionally strong offering of British Art, led by the outstanding portrait ‘Boy’s Head’ by Lucian Freud, an indisputable masterpiece by the great legend of the London School.”

The sale will be headlined by Boy's Head of 1952 by Lucian Freud (1922-2011), depicting Charlie Lumley, one of Freud's most immediately recognisable subjects from this seminal early period in his oeuvre. This oil on canvas transmits a remarkable psychological intensity that is exemplary of the artist's sensational powers of observation and is estimated at £3-4 million. The work measures 21.6cm by 15.9cm and comes to market from a private collection. Enclosed within the glassy marbles of the boy's eyes, his depthless black pupils and serene grey-blue irises emit a hypnotic intensity that pierces out to confront and transfix the viewer. The features of the boy are physically and compositionally held in place by the palm of his left hand, which buttresses against his cheek and jaw bones. The drooping flesh of the boy's ample cheek is pulled taught by his hand, stretching the mouth open to bare the pearly young teeth below. This remarkably observed detail accentuates dramatically the psychosomatic character of the sitter. The artist's careful selection of a focused scale, consistent with works of this period, is here fundamental to its impact as it enables the maximum exertion of control over the subject**.

Head of Helen Gillespie II by Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) was forged in the artist’s Camden studio during the same crescendo of creativity that witnessed the execution of Head of Helen Gillespie, which achieved the record price of £1.9 million at Sotheby’s London in July 2008. The present work is in the highest tier of early paintings by Auerbach ever to be offered at auction and represents the pinnacle of his artistic achievements during the mid-1960s. The gestural energy that comprises Head of Helen Gillespie II is palpable on the surface in the cascading folds and burrowed troughs of the artist’s extraordinary mark-making. It is a distillation of Auerbach's thoroughly inimitable, emotionally urgent and psychologically compelling portraiture. Held within the swathes of impasto, the character of Auerbach's subject emerges. As is so characteristic of early works from this period, the palette is derived from deep red and brown ochres, whites and blacks. The focused range of hues forces the viewer to address both the presence of the sitter and the physical substance of the paint material itself. This remarkable portrait, a crystallisation of Auerbach's very best work, is estimated at £800,000-1,200,000.

A Street in Willesden by Leon Kossoff (b. 1926) was executed in 1985 and is an outstanding example of the artist’s lifelong dedication to transposing into paint the rich phenomenological sensation of vision. Defined in the 1996 Tate Retrospective catalogue as the most important work from this salient series, the present work emerged during a particularly fertile period of production between 1985 and 1988 and it synthesises a translation of North London, where the artist has always lived and worked. At once psychologically intimate and atmospherically evocative, this painting is a celebration of both the urban environment and the human condition. With a dramatic mastery of impasto paint, Kossoff triumphs in elevating the everyday into the grand realm of epic painting. A Street in Willesden represents a significant contribution to Kossoff's lifelong artistic engagement with London's urban landscape. Like his contemporaries Auerbach, Freud and Bacon, Kossoff painted that which he knew best; in limiting his subject to the immediate vicinity of his neighbourhood, the anonymous people that passed through these places, and the friends that posed for his portraits, Kossoff transformed the everyday into the extraordinary. A culmination of Kossoff's highest achievement, this work places him within the canon of great 20th century artists and comes to the market with an estimate of £350,000-450,000.

Marc Quinn succinctly summed up the appeal of the series embodied in Microcosmos (Siren) in an interview he did with Will Self for the catalogue to his British Museum exhibition: "It's called Siren, because in a sense it represents everything that lures people to wreck themselves on the rocks: money, perfection, unattainable images – all these things." Comprised of 10kg of 18 carat gold, the sculpture depicts Kate Moss in a yoga pose and is a spectacular apex of the artist's output: the definitive contemporary Venus. Executed in 2008, the iconic subject of the world's most famous supermodel struck in the ultimate material of prosperity and affluence, this work is in the highest tier of the artist's prestigious oeuvre. One of the most consciously iconic sculptures of this century, it is estimated at £500,000-700,000.

Monumental in scale and eliciting a velvety texture seemingly imbued with the very texture of snow itself, Peter Doig’s Bellevarde of 1995, illustrated on page one, represents a consummate example of the artist’s snowscapes, among the most renowned and desirable within his oeuvre. Portraying the base of the Bellevarde peak within the Val d'Isère ski resort in the French Alps – the Face de Bellevarde was the location of the men's downhill race as part of the 1992 Winter Olympics – the present work simultaneously evokes both the artist’s Canadian youth as an avid skier and his uniquely painterly technique and knowledge of art history which have brought a completely fresh and invigorated perspective to landscape painting. The work carries an estimate of £1.5-2 million.

Estimated at £1.4-1.8 million is Miquel Barceló’s Pluja Contracorrent, which narrates a richly textured swell of dark water crashing against a crowded river boat in an archetypical masterpiece of his oeuvre. Inspired by the artist’s travels down the river Niger in 1991 during a period of political unrest in Mali, it contemplates the historically specific realities of society in turmoil, while aesthetically capturing the atemporal and Romantic ideals recalled from J.M.W. Turner’s reverence for the elemental power of the seas. The immaterial and the tangible collide as masterful manipulation of light and shadows combine with the sculptural frothing of waves and violent incisions of rain. This monumental tableau is emblematic of the impact of Barceló’s nomadic lifestyle on his art: "Wherever he may be, Miquel Barceló surely seems to be embarked on a voyage without an end. Behind him he leaves a wake of fragmented visions, sparkles that gleam in the night” (Francisco Calvo Serraller, Miquel Barceló: Paintings from 1983 to 1985).

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s powerful Spike from 1984 almost certainly depicts the film director Spike Lee with bared teeth and outstretched arms against a vast field of cadmium yellow and carries an estimate of £1.1-1.6 million. Created around the time that Lee was starting what would become his first major film “She's Gotta Have It”, Basquiat’s image uses his characteristic conflation of African ritualism with Christian iconography to present Lee as an archetypal figure which faces the viewer replete with commanding symbolic authority. Basquiat and Lee were near contemporaries and both were from Brooklyn; the artist’s choice of subject advances his canonization of a pantheon of heroes of black culture including jazz musicians, boxers and baseball players.

Elizabeth Peyton’s oil on canvas Liam + Noel (Gallagher), estimated at £350,000-450,000, is one of the largest portraits the American artist painted of the front men of the epoch-defining Brit Pop band Oasis between 1996 and 1997, another of which is today housed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. At the time, Oasis was conquering the international music scene – topping the charts in the UK and the US - while Damien Hirst and the YBAs were the rising stars of the British Art scene. In her departure from the source image, a photographic image culled from a glossy music magazine, Peyton’s delicate, deceptively spontaneous brushstrokes achieve the effect of making the viewer feel as though they are looking at a candid snapshot from the Gallagher family's photo album. The painting bypasses the aura surrounding their fame and public life, tapping into their personal histories in a portrait which is devoid of the voyeurism and the intrusive gaze of the media.

Sigmar Polke’s images of the opium dens of Quetta, Pakistan are among his most important works of the 1970s. His interest in photochemical exploration in the darkroom went hand in hand with experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs and a passion for exotic experiences and travel. His trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1974 witnessed a highpoint of this adventure and Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan: Tea Ceremony, estimated at £200,000-£250,000, of 1974/1978 powerfully reflects his heightened visual and spiritual awareness during this period. Polke photographed the opium dens and painstakingly hand coloured the prints and overlaid the images with lyrical linear schema in silver and gold paint to convey the mind-expanding experiences he found there. These images show the full gamut of Polke's fully evolved photographic practise which revolutionised the medium's painterly capacity.

An exciting paradigm defining a new generation of up-and-coming talent is Untitled, a shimmering acrylic and silver deposit work on canvas of 2009 by American artist Jacob Kassay. Heralded as a rising star, Kassay’s first solo institutional exhibition opens at the ICA in London in October. The work is estimated at £50,000-£70,000.

Sothebys | British art |

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September 26, 2011

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