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A New Kid in Town

Swann Galleries joins the contemporary art frenzy
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

In the red-hot auction arena of contemporary art, price is often a prohibitive factor for potential collectors. Last May in New York, for instance, a wax-and-resin effigy of a fully costumed Pope John Paul II by the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan fetched a record $886,000 at Christie's, and a rare Abstract Expressionist painting by Jackson Pollock sold for almost $8 million at rival Sotheby's. But now, a boutique-sized Manhattan auction house has entered the contemporary fray with decidedly lower-priced offerings and a strategy to draw in new buyers.

"We see ourselves as filling a market niche that is typical of what we do for prints and photographs," says Daile Kaplan, vice president and director of photographs for Swann Galleries, who has spearheaded the move to contemporary art with Todd Weyman, the director of works on paper. "We're looking at material that's going to sell in the $5,000 to $120,000 range instead of the half-million to six million dollar price range." The focus, says Kaplan, will be "multimedia and multifaceted," with photo-based artworks, individual photographs, lithographic multiples, drawings and sculpture by late-twentieth-century artists. "We're casting a wide net of what we mean by contemporary art," she notes.

While other artistic movements are well defined, contemporary art is "definitely a gray area," says Kaplan, who moonlights on the hit PBS television series "Antiques Road Show." "Everyone has a different idea of what they think it is, but I'd describe it as a style and a practice that is recognizable because of the tools, the subject matter and references employed. So looking at a date isn't as useful as drawing on these other attributes."

Nevertheless, the international art market generally pegs the time boundaries of contemporary art from 1945 forward, embracing both dead and living artists. The former category ranges from Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock to Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. The latter category includes painters, performance artists, photographers and sculptors, from American sensations, such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, to British imports Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. The definition debate swirls on as Christie's recently unveiled a selling category called Post-War art to include the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Artists while corralling contemporary art from roughly the mid-'60s onwards. Sotheby's also subscribes to the 1945-and-onward definition.

Swann's entry into the contemporary art world came on November 13, when it offered artworks ranging from Lichtenstein's circa 1965 Sunrise, a blue-pencil lithograph for New York's Castelli Gallery, to Cy Twombly's 1950 oil painting Portrait of Thomas Brown Wilber. Kaplan called the sale "a critical success" that attracted many new buyers, but admitted she was disappointed by the results. The auction generated a rather anemic $425,615 against pre-sale expectations of about $825,000 to $1.2 million.

The top-selling work was a large and gushingly decorative David Hockney lithograph from 1980, Afternoon Swimming, which sold for $34,500, which included the buyer's premium (estimate $40,000-$60,000). It instantly captures an idyllic L.A. day at poolside, lush with Southern California landscaping.

Another piece that drew attention was Francesca Woodman's evocative photographic montage from 1980, A Fashion Picture, which fetched $25,300 (est. $25,000-$30,000). Woodman committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, and her self-portrait-based works are increasingly sought after, having cracked $50,000 at previous auctions. Kaplan describes the blue-tinted montage as a "pictorial letter," representing a moment when the artist was trying to break into the fashion industry.

Traditional oil painting got its due with Twombly's dashing portrait of a young art student, which earned $29,900 (est. $40,000-$60,000). The fresh-to-market painting, a big plus in the collecting world, hailed from the estate of the sitter, who became an art historian and collector of Old Master prints. A number of other Twombly works from the early 1950s also attracted buyers. An untitled brush-and-ink work of plant forms on thin laid paper fetched $11,500, while Female Cat, executed in black crayon on cream wove paper, made $10,925. Twombly subsequently went on to great acclaim, and his later work has sold for more than $5 million at auction.

Another piece offered at the sale, which was one of Kaplan's favorite entries, was a Vik Muniz creation, an exquisitely detailed small drawing cleverly disguised as a photograph. The untitled graphite-and-colored-pencil drawing from 1995 is a trompe l'oeil impression of a family snapshot, circa 1950, portraying a housewife in a floral print dress, proudly holding her young daughter. The drawing realized $2,990, (est. $3,000-$5,000).

The Lichtenstein lithograph, pegged to sell for between $8,000 and $10,000, brought in $8,625.

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