Flash News: Robert Ryman – A female Old Master worth 7 million – George Michael’s collection

[15 Feb 2019]

Robert Ryman… the possibilities of white

A square canvas with white paint: in fact, Robert RYMAN’s radical minimalism is far more subtle than that… but it nevertheless became his trademark. The American artist, who died on 8 February at the age of 88, leaves behind an essential work whose humility is only matched by its intensity. An oeuvre whose abstraction is quite simply a gateway to the real since the artist – who called himself a “realist” painter – created living works in both tangible and mental spaces. The use of white made the variations of hues and textures of the various supports he used visible, including linen, aluminum and Plexiglas. And the works, conceived bearing in mind the actual spaces they would be shown in (the walls of the galleries and museums being generally white) never stop interacting with the infinite and subtle variations of light. The act of painting in white is not here a process of erasure or obliteration, but rather a revelation, a means (as he said), allowing other things to become visible: surfaces, textures, spaces, colour and light variations.

Robert Rymans work emerged in the early 1950s, shortly after American Expressionism, whose works he scrutinised intensely as a guard at the New York MoMA. In fact, he worked there for seven years (1953-1960) and he used the experience as an apprenticeship. Ryman did not go to art school. He was a pure autodidact who painted his first monochrome in 1955. Fifteen years later, the Guggenheim Museum of New York noticed his work gave him an exhibition in 1971. There followed major exhibitions at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (1981), the Tate Gallery in London (1992) and the MoMA (1993). His work conquered the hearts and minds of lots of major collectors and a number of his paintings changed hands publicly for over $10 million (including a record of $20.6 million hammered on 13 May 2015 at Christies New York for Bridge (1980)). But Ryman was not that interested in his market. He gave priority to his work, refusing to pander to auctioneers. In 2009 he accepted the only institutional order he ever accepted – for the DIA Foundation – before donating 21 works to the famous New York institution. Today, the DIA foundation provides a superb opportunity for fans to experience the intensity of his creations.

A female Old Master worth 7 million

In her 1971 article (since become famous), art historian Linda Nochlin asked Why have there not been any major female artists? Some fifty years later, the auction world is now paying tribute to women who have been as under-rated regarding the quality of their work and their relevance to art history as they have regarding their market value. Entitled The Female Triumphant, a section of Sotheby’s Master Paintings Evening Sale, itself part of Sotheby’s Masters Week in New York (25 January – 2 February 2019), the group of paintings showcased the works of women artists from the 15th to the 19th century. Having previously collaborated with Victoria Beckham, Sotheby’s again solicited her services to publicise the event by hanging a selection of paintings by Rosa Bonheur, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau and Virgine Demont-Breton at her very posh shop in Mayfair. The sale (as a whole) far exceeded expectations and generated a whole series of new records including a one for a drawing by Peter Paul Rubens, Nude Study of a Young Man with Raised Arms ($8.2 million), but, above all, lots of superb results for the female artists in the sale. No less than seven new records rewarded women, some completely forgotten like Giulia LAMA (1681-1747). Her large religious painting Joseph Interpreting the Eunuchs Dreams / Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar Consoling Job fetched nearly $500,000, burying the artist’s previous record.

An imposing diplomat attracted the most acquisitive attention: the Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan by Elisabeth VIGÉE-LEBRUN (1755-1842) (1755-1842) fetched just over $7 million, nearly $1 million above its high estimate, becoming the most expensive work for a woman artist from the pre-Modern era. A large canvas measuring 225 by 136 cm, the painting evokes the extraordinary visit of three ambassadors of the Indian Sultan of Mysore in July 1788, a year before the storming of the Bastille. The delegation clearly mobilised Parisian high society, with everyone wanting to see them and the three men enjoyed all the pleasures of Parisian life before reaching Versailles in a more formal disposition. The meeting between the young painter and her illustrious model is somewhat improbable: under normal circumstances a man of such high rank, a Muslim to boot, would not have accepted to be painted by a woman! But Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun was very highly regarded in the French royal court and, impressed by the exoticism of the man, used her connections with Queen Marie Antoinette herself, to obtain the favour. In her memoirs, she recalls that Dervish Kahn hated the final portrait, hid it under his bed and threatened to kill the valet who retrieved the portrait to return it to its author. The poor ambassador, having failed to obtain a military alliance from the King of France, was subsequently executed upon his return by the Sultan disappointed by his failure. A year later the portrait caused a sensation at the 1789 Salon that opened in August in the turbulent context of the Revolution. In October, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun fled Paris, leaving behind her studio and her works, which were subsequently were shown in the collection of her husband Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun. It has to be said that the Dervish Khan Portrait had lots of arguments in favour of an all-time record: prestigious provenance, rocambolesque creative conditions, tragic destiny and a hot market for female artists…

George Michael in the spotlight of upcoming London sales

George Michael, the pop singer who sold over 100 million albums, and who died in 2016, was also a collector of art. Being British, his choices were naturally steered towards his compatriots, especially the Young British Artists who emerged in the 1990s under the influence of Charles Saatchi. Works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Marc Quinn are part of a coherent collection that was in step with his era. During his lifetime, George Michael sang songs and collected art, but he was also engaged in philanthropic activities that he sincerely believed in. He supported several associations (including those helping people with HIV and the homeless) who will benefit from the sale of his collection that Christie’s is organising on 14 March in London.

A total of 200 works will be dispersed (including 75 on 14 March and the others online) at prices ranging from £400 to £1.5 million. Before the auction, Christie’s will promote the collection as part of a traveling exhibition that promises to attract fans of the pop icon as much as fans of Contemporary British art. The world tour started in New York and the works are currently visible in Los Angeles (11-16 February). They will then be flown to Hong Kong and Shanghai before their last exhibition in London, followed by the sale. The star lot of the collection is a dove suspended in full flight… fixed forever by formaldehyde. Entitled The Incomplete Truth (2006), this cynical and yet hopeful work is of course signed by Damien HIRST, the most famous and provocative of the YBAs. There are only three copies of this dove (plus an artists proof) and none have so far been sold at auction. It should reach safely its £1 1.5 million estimate easily and its provenance could take it to the higher end. Also anticipated is an important work by Tracey Emin (Drunk to the Bottom of My Soul, estimated £180,000 250,000) and a superb painting by Bridget Riley (Songbird estimated £400,000  600,000).