20th Century Works of Art on Paper
Bloomsbury Auctions, New York
June 3rd, 2009, 2:00 p.m.
tel +1 (212) 719-1000
Next month Bloomsbury will offer an extraordinary breadth of material, mostly prints, but also a few drawings, as well as a decorative object (Picasso is the culprit, of course.), and some photographs. The largest part of this “American Art,” amounts to no less than a comprehensive survey of American printmaking in the earlier twentieth century. “Modern Prints,” “Contemporary Prints,” and “Pop Art” carry this up to the century’s end. If these sections are less encyclopedic, there are first-rate pieces to be had. There is also an especially appealing section devoted to Mexican prints, including a spectacular group by Rufino Tamayo. The sale contains no end of 20th century classics. An active print collector will have seen many of them with dealers and in museum exhibitions over the years, but I can’t quite remember seeing so many of them concentrated in one place. Without a doubt, a beginning collector could form the torso, if not a good part of the limbs of a serious collection of American prints at this sale.
As the gritty world of 1920’s and 1930’s America recedes into the past, people seem keener than ever to visit it through the vast legacy of fiction, reportage, theater, movies, music, and art it created, seemingly at fever pitch. Along with Dreiser, Steinbeck, and Dos Passos, O’Neill, Copland, and Harris, museums like the Whitney and MoMA offer an opportunity to connect with the brave experimentalism of the time, from the Ashcan School to Abstraction. This was a great period in printmaking, above all in the intaglio processes, and a number of Americans, partially inspired by a love of painstaking technique and small scale, and partially impelled by left-leaning political feelings to make affordable art available to wider audience, if not quite to the masses. The Great Depression, played its role, making it more difficult than ever for artists to prosper. Organizations like Associated American Artists and the federal government, largely through the WPA, to remedy the situation, through public art projects as well as the publication of prints. Print clubs, many of them associated with museums, also fueled the initiative through their annual print subscriptions, which commissioned work from both important and popular artists. The medium suited the economic situation, middle-class taste, as well as populist ideals and aesthetics, and it was enormously successful in its time, before the marketing of late-twentieth-century galleries created a demand for ever larger and more expensive multiples. Today the ongoing activity of print clubs may seem quaint, but the pungent aura of that intense period of creativity and the eloquent technique of a Martin Lewis, a Reginald Marsh or an Edward Hopper in etching, and a Thomas Hart Benton or a Grant Wood in lithography will, I believe, never cease to excite collectors. One shouldn’t assume that these artists, with the possible exception of Hopper, are less appreciated outside the US. I once had the pleasure of organizing the sale of a collection formed by a French publisher, who lived here for a number of years and acquired a taste for them.
In intaglio, the father figure was James A. M. Whistler. Bloomsbury is offering some superb examples of his work towards the end of the American section. I have not seen the originals, only a .pdf file of the catalogue, so I can really only comment on the interest of the subject, but even in reproduction, “The Kitche”n (108), “Rotherhithe” (113), and above all “Bibi Lalouette” (112) seem rich and appealing. A note to fledgling collectors… Bloomsbury’s expert, Christine Berlane, adopts quite a conservative policy in describing condition, rarely venturing beyond the adjective “good.” I must say I find the absence of superlatives refreshing. Some retail dealers resort to more precise language, for example the famously reliable William Weston, but most tend to be rather more optimistic. In the context of an auction, “good” covers a wide, but estimable range, and the buyer must really see the impression for himself. It is essential to talk to the expert in detail, to look the print up in the catalogue raisonné, and to examine other examples in museum print rooms. Perhaps a friendly curator may offer advice. Quality of impression and condition, above all in respect to the possible trimming of the sheet, are important in the print world and a print collector must always pay attention to these issues. A print which is trimmed beyond the plate mark may be anathema to serious collectors and difficult to sell, if one wishes to do that, but it can mean a bargain for someone on a limited budget who loves the image and is unconcerned with the future value of his purchase. This is the beginning of a long, but endlessly fascinating education in the connoisseurship of prints.
All the great figures of American printmaking, Edward Hopper, Martin Lewis, John Sloan, and Reginald Marsh, are abundantly present in the Bloomsbury sale, with a good number of their most compelling subjects. Edward Hopper’s most famous print, “Night Shadows” of 1921 (36), is estimated at $20,000-30,000. It was published in an edition of 500 (a large one) by the New Republic. In a similar, if more descriptive vein, there is an extensive series of some of Martin Lewis’ classic subjects, like “Relics (Speakeasy Corner)” of 1928, also estimated at $20,000-30,000, “Rain on Murray Hill”, drypoint, 1928, and “Quarter of Nine, Saturday’s Children,” drypoint, 1929, $15,000-20,000. These and other compelling subjects, like “Corner Shadows” (57), published by the Print Club of Cleveland in 1930, and “Shadow Dance” of the same year, evoke the mood and atmosphere of the streets of New York, when American cities were still in their adolescence.
Stow Wengenroth, who favored lithography, also had a vivid sense of New York Streets, as well as the Maine Seacoast. The nighttime snow scenes show his virtuosic, if understated technique at its best. A range of important artists appear in a complete 12 volume set of “American Etchers,” published by the Crafton Collection between 1929 and 1931 (101): Martin Lewis, Childe Hassam, John Taylor Arms, Frank Benson, Ernest D. Roth, George Elbert Burr, Kerr Eby, Alfred Hutty, Philip Kappel, Arthur William Heintzelman, Troy Kinney And Louis C. Rosenberg.
There is a satisfying range of John Sloan and Reginald Marsh. One of the Sloans brings an amusing bit of documentation with it, his “Arch Conspirators” of 1917 (87). The print comes with a hand-written letter dated May 3, 1965, from Helen Sloan, the artist’s wife, in which she thanks the recipient and writes “It (the etching) shows Sloan at night, Marcel Duchamp standing at left. A Tea Party held on top of Washington Arch—to promote the Independence of Greenwich Village—inspired by Wilson’s 14 points.” Mainstream collectors, however, will be immediately drawn to “Turning Out the Light” (80/1905), “Copyist at the Metropolitan Museum ” (83), and above all “Night Windows” (84/1910). Of Marsh, there is the portfolio of “Thirty Etchings and Engravings” (1969) comprising 30 etchings and engravings, each print numbered 13/100 (the total edition was 114), printed by the Anderson-Lamb Photogravure Corporation, Brooklyn, published by the Whitney Museum of Art, New York, estimated at $10,000 to 15,000.
“Modern Prints” offers a splendid selection of Miró and Marini, as well as the usual assortment of Chagall, Dalí, and minor Picasso.
George Tooker, known primarily for his meticulous tempera technique and recently exhibited at the National Academy Museum, is a marvelous artist, and I am delighted to see a selection of his most striking images, some reproductive lithographs after paintings (94-98), including “The Mirror,” “Self Portrait,” two versions of “The Embrace,” and “Un Ballo in Maschera,” published by the Metropolitan Opera.
You’ll also find Ben Shahn and Romare Bearden, including two very appealing watercolors of biblical scenes by the latter. These aren’t the only unique works in the sale. There is also a watercolor by Milton Avery and a charcoal drawing by Robert Blackburn.
By far the most important of these, however, is Andy Warhol’s graphite drawing for his silkscreen print, “Mammy” (1981), in his “Myths” portfolio. This very large sheet (795 x 590 mm; 31 x 23 inches.), estimated at $55,000-65,000, is an example of Warhol’s draftsmanship at its studiedly ingenuous, but eloquent best. It should attract a great deal of interest.
The contemporary and pop art sections abound with familiar names, Rauschenberg, Calder, Christo, Close, Francis, Frankenthaler, Johns (including his marvelous lithograph, “0 through 9,” published in 1967 to benefit the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, as lot 191, and his aquatint, “Green Angel,” as lot 192, both estimated at $12,000-18,000), Judd, Mangold, Motherwell, Haring, Hockney, Indiana, Ruscha, Sultan, and Wesselman. Most of these works, if not always the most familiar of the artists’ oeuvre, show aspects of their work which wear well today. There was a time when many of us thought the art of this period, especially the multiples, would vaporize in a decade or two, but not so: the art and our taste for it seem to be maturing in the new century.