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Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Sale to Debut Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower Seeds' at Auction
A woman lies over renowned Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei's porcelain sunflower seeds at the unveiling of his exhibit 'Sunflower Seeds' at the Tate Modern. The commission of The Unilever Series is a sculptural installation of a landscape of porcelain sunflower seeds which covers the entire east end of the Turbine Hall. Each ceramic seed was molded, fired at 1300 degrees centigrade, hand painted and then fired again at 800 degrees. Over the course of two years, over 100 million were made forming a mass of seeds that weighs over 150 tones, and covers 1000 square meters of the hall. EPA/ANDY RAIN.

LONDON.- In the wake of Sotheby’s third most successful year ever (2010) for sales of Contemporary Art, the company presents its forthcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction, which will take place on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011. The sale will feature major pieces by established Post-War and Contemporary artists as well as cutting-edge works of art and installations by the younger generation of artists practising today, including: Lucio Fontana, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, Juan Muñoz, Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Chris Ofili, Ged Quinn and Ai Weiwei. The Evening Auction is estimated to realise in excess of £30* million, bringing the total value of Contemporary Art to be offered by Sotheby’s this February to more than £56 million**.

Commenting on the forthcoming sales, Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s Chairman of Contemporary Art Europe, said: “2010 was an extremely healthy year for Sotheby’s global Contemporary Art department. Last year we generated a worldwide annual total of $854 million, the third-highest ever achieved by the company in this field, and as a result of the masterworks and collections we were able to bring to the market, and the strong prices achieved, we have seen both consignors’ and collectors’ confidence continue to grow. With the various owners Evening Auction, our aim was to assemble a sale which would complement the single owner auction ‘Looking Closely’. Combining all three Contemporary Art sales, the estimate represents the second-highest for a February sales series of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s London.”

To coincide with Tate Modern’s 11th Unilever Turbine Hall commission, the first lot of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction will be one hundred kilograms of Ai Weiwei’s handmade porcelain Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds). Kui Hua Zi, which was executed in 2010 and is from an edition of ten unique variants, draws together many of the themes and formal concerns of Weiwei’s work to date, in a sculptural piece which is at once singular and complex in form and meaning. This quiet sculpture can be installed either in a corner, as a carpet or as a mound. While the quantity and scale echoes the scale of industrial mass production, referencing the cheap goods consumed by the West and fabricated cheaply in China, the precious nature of the material and its status as fine art remind us of China’s rich artistic legacy. In China, the sunflower seed is loaded with symbolism: first and foremost a tasty street snack, something to be enjoyed with friends and offered to guests; but seen here as a giant pile, measured by weight, the Kui Hua Zi allude to the unattainable agricultural quotas of Mao's regime which saw much needed agricultural goods shipped outside China's borders at unfathomable human cost. Kui Hua Zi is an incredibly stirring sculpture and one which has already become an icon of this important sculptor's oeuvre. Ai Weiwei is the most important conceptual artist of his generation in China and the inclusion of this work in the upcoming sale represents the first time ever that the artist’s Sunflower Seeds have been offered at auction. It is estimated at £80,000-120,000.

Headlining the auction will be Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, executed in 1990. It is a breathtaking masterwork of this epic cycle, belonging to the concise 725 series of just five works, which includes examples currently housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (725-3) and Kunstmuseum Bonn (725-5). This museum-quality work, which measures a monumental 225cm by 200cm, is a paragon of the artist's most arresting and seductive language of abstraction and is one of Richter's most stylistically stunning works. To create this masterpiece Richter used his unique, highly-sophisticated method. Conducted through an extensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive process, he began by using several colours to blend a light ground, then he would alternate between brush, palette knife and squeegee to generate a vibrant concoction of effects. Abstraktes Bild is an exquisite demonstration of Richter's employment of the squeegee, which during the late 1980s became his principal and most highly valued tool with which to create abstract paintings. Richter is celebrated as a pioneer of abstract art and Abstraktes Bild is arguably the most visually impressive of a number of large abstracts that he produced around the same date, several of which, born of the same techniques, share chromatic schemes. It is estimated at £5-7 million.

Highlighting the three works in the sale by Frank Auerbach is his oil on canvas To The Studios IV. To The Studios IV was executed in 1983 during a particularly sought-after period in Frank Auerbach's oeuvre when the artist's career had reached a peak in terms of both international acclaim and painterly expertise. Over six decades the artist has repeatedly produced landscapes that demonstrate his profound connection to London, and the present work, in its size and execution, is among the greatest of these. The artist began painting his 'To The Studios' works in 1977 and the first of these works, from a cycle of four, is now in Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, while a 1985 example is housed in the Saint Louis Art Museum, and another from 1990-91 is in the Tate Collection. Frank Auerbach fled his native Germany and arrived in London in 1939 just before his eighth birthday. He proceeded to develop an intense attachment to the city that offered him and the other Jewish children that he travelled with refuge during World War II. The present work is a direct reference to the journey that Auerbach has regularly made to his studio for over 50 years, and the view of the winding steps is one that he has revisited for several decades. The studio is in the area between Mornington Crescent and the park of Primrose Hill. The works that depict Auerbach's daily route to the studio collectively represent a vital strand in the artist's output. To The Studios IV is estimated at £900,000-1.2 million.

The sale also includes Auerbach’s oil on double panel Head of Gerda Boehm II, which is among the most psychologically arresting portraits of the artist’s prodigious output (est. £500,000-700,000), and his 1987 oil on canvas Portrait of Catherine Lampert, the Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery from 1988 to 2001 (est. £500,000-700,000).

Executed at a critical moment in the development of David Hockney's remarkable career, Hotel L'Arbois, Sainte- Maxime of 1968 is a work of major significance that brilliantly embodies the artist's masterful synthesis of photography, painting and drawing. As if in anticipation of the artist's important later artwork for the theatre, Hotel L'Arbois acts like a silent stage or film set, awaiting the human presence of the spectator to serve as actor and explore the location constructed before us. Painted shortly after the success of Hockney's celebrated run of five solo exhibitions in 1966, Hotel L'Arbois, Sainte-Maxime belongs to an era of burgeoning popularity for the young English artist. The original source for this work is a developed photograph squared up for ease of transition to canvas, reminiscent of the working processes of the Old Masters in which a cartoon drawing would be transferred to canvas by blowing charcoal through pinholes in the paper sheet. The work is estimate at £1-1.5 million.

The auction is also set to include three works by Juan Muñoz (1953-2001) which come from a private European collection. Muñoz’s polyester resin Conversation Piece, in three parts, was executed in 1993 and is unique. Widely exhibited and having been on permanent loan to Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen and the Hamburg Kunsthalle since its execution in 1993, the sculpture is a pristine example of one of the artist's most popular series and, in conjunction with the bronze Conversation Piece being offered in this sale, is one of the most important works by the artist ever to come up at auction. Fascinated throughout his oeuvre by the tripartite relationship that exists between figurative sculpture, the architectural environment in which they are placed and the transitory viewer, Muñoz orchestrates the scene of the present work with a masterful theatricality that oscillates between dramatic explosion and contemplative implosion. Conversation Piece is estimated at £800,000-1.2 million. From the same collection, Juan Muñoz’s 1993 two-part bronze Conversation Piece is estimated at £600,000-800,000 and his six-part Two Sentries in iron, executed in 1989, is estimated at £300,000-400,000.

Highlighting the works in the sale by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) is his acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas Nine Multicoloured Marilyns, which is a rare masterpiece from the artist’s hugely important Reversals series. Signaling a new period of productivity in the artist's work, the Reversals alongside the contemporaneous Retrospectives introduced a new conceptual vigour to Warhol's artistic practice. Nine Multicoloured Marilyns is one of the best examples from this powerfully post-modern body of work, which pivots on the Duchampian notion of the readymade. In this work, the emphasis is less on the celebrity of the sitter and more on that of the artist himself, less a depiction of the starlet and more a reflection on Warhol's own artistic past. The present work stands at the pinnacle of Warhol's appropriation based paintings and is important not only because it questions the notions of authorship, authenticity and originality in art but also because it probes the legitimacy of Warhol's own artistic code. It is estimated at £2-3 million.

A further work in the British Art component of the auction is the remarkable work Persephone 1 by Bridget Riley, executed in 1969, culminating the decade in which Bridget Riley had acquired international recognition for her experiments in Optical Art. It was painted two years after Riley had first introduced colour into her work, and the year following her sensational success at the thirty-fourth Venice Biennale in 1968 where the presentation of her three initial colour works - Cataract 3, Late Morning, and Chant II - ensured she became the first British contemporary painter and the first woman ever to win the International Prize for painting. In her experiments with colour, Riley discovered that the same colour can be read differently by the eye depending on the adjacent colour. This discovery is best explained in Persephone I, a rigidly structured arrangement of narrow horizontal stripes made up of three pastel shades of blue, pink and green. Riley was fascinated by colour from an early age and throughout the 1950s she made numerous studies from Georges Seurat, seeking to understand the mechanics behind the colour theory of the master of Pointillism. In her earlier works of the 1960s, however, she eradicated colour from her palette as she explored the fertile binary dialect of high-contrast black and white. Persephone 1 demonstrates the artist's early experimentation with the interaction between specific colours in which she achieved astonishing effects. The vast dimensions and astutely accomplished colour combinations of Persephone 1 position it as an iconic work within a crucial period of Bridget Riley's historic oeuvre and it is estimated at £600,000-800,000.

Glenn Brown's oil Declining Nude from 2006 is the largest work on panel by the artist to appear at auction and a masterly display of Brown's technical ability with the brush to create a sculptural illusion of depth by means of a perfectly flat painted surface. In Declining Nude from a distance, the viewer recognises the bearded features of Camille Pissarro's Self Portrait from 1873, which has been enlarged and amplified by the younger artist. It is not Pissaro’s painting itself, housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which Brown uses as a source image but rather a reproduction of the painting. Brown's artistic process today involves scouring the internet for source images. Taking his cue from the founders of Appropriation Art, his quintessentially post-modern approach to painting borrows images from two extremes of visual culture: masters of painting canonised by art history and low-brow, sci-fi illustration which in Brown's pantheon is awarded equal status. This work, which has been exhibited and discussed in the literature, has never before been offered at auction and is estimated at £600,000-800,000.

Following the record prices achieved by Sotheby’s New York in November 2010 for a work by Julie Mehretu, the forthcoming sale will feature the artist’s Ruffian Logistics. Showcased in the critically-acclaimed 2004-07 exhibition Africa Remix held at the Hayward Gallery in London and in the Centre Pompidou in Paris as well other locations, Mehretu's Ruffian Logistics, which is estimated at £700,000-1 million, is a dynamically iconic painting from the artist's intricate and energetic oeuvre. Mehretu's paintings portray a compression of time, space and location. Executed with a frenetic and highly-worked mark making, the artist creates a sophisticated means of abstraction that relates to structures of aesthetics and invites contemplation on the structures and societies we inhabit. Mehretu's paintings depart from the inspirations of cities, architecture, and urban planning designs and focus on dense and frenzied contemporary urban environments. Her brushwork recalls the techniques of Chinese calligraphy yet whereas with the traditional techniques characters are literally representational, Mehretu's mark making serves to connote the essence of the forms and ideas.

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium
**The low estimate of £56 million for the Contemporary Art Sales Series this February includes both the Evening and Day various owners auctions and the contemporary component of the Evening ‘Looking Closely’ single owner sale.

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