Artnet’s second auction dedicated to Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting opened today. Curated by Dakota Sica, an avid collector and partner at New York’s Leslie Feely Gallery, the sale highlights a diverse list of artists from the post-war period, with an emphasis on New York-based abstraction and a growing circle of historically overlooked practitioners.
Gems: Collecting Post-War Abstraction presents paintings and works on paper by Friedel Dzubas, Larry Poons, Lynne Mapp Drexler, Adolph Gottlieb, Vivian Springford, and many other artists who shaped the movement.
On the occasion of this sale, we spoke with Sica, the show’s co-curator, about the history of the AbEx movement, the importance of provenance, and much more. Read on or watch below, and be sure to place your bid now through September 14th.
Can you tell us a brief history of the AbEx movement? When did it start, who are the key players, and what led to this artistic development?
The birth of Abstract Expressionism took place in New York City in the 1940s, and picked up speed in the 1950s. The artists most central to the movement are Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, to name a few. These artists are known for their expressive, gestural works.
However, the narrative as we know it is slightly flawed, and new names are being ushered into the canon year after year. Recently, greater attention has been paid to the women of the movement, such as Hedda Sterne, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. When you reconsider the story, it becomes clear that history was not so fixed. There are so many interesting characters and brilliant artists in collaboration with the greats we already know. This creates a much richer narrative history. Lynne Mapp Drexler is a perfect example of one of these exciting new discoveries.
Can you talk about some of the painting techniques associated with the AbEx and Color Field movements?
The hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism are bold, gestural, painterly marks, and the works in this sale are expressive and bold. At the same time that New York’s AbEx scene was flourishing, the Gutai movement was unfolding in Japan, with artists such as Kazuo Shiraga exploring similar strangeness.
The touchstones of Color Field painting are flatness and hue. Unlike their predecessors, these artists sought to find purity by distilling painting to its simplest form. The artists strove to create a flat color field, using acrylic paint soaked directly into the fabric of the unprimed canvas.
It’s debatable, but I see Mark Rothko as the bridge between the AbEx and Color Field movements. His paintings combined the gestural brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism with the sublime color of the Color Field painters.
How did you become interested in this movement in particular?
I have always been drawn to non-representational art because I believe it connects us all, transcends cultural boundaries and personal narratives. I find it very intriguing to unpack how painting expanded from purely representational styles to abstract art as we know it.
For me, abstract works come closer to the spiritual, natural and human experience. We can all relate to the visceral feeling of paint on canvas. It is primitive in a way, but always in fashion.
Do you have a favorite work offered in this sale? Can you tell us more about the artist, provenance and the techniques used?
One of the stars in this sale is Friedel Dzubas’s Wendover (1974). This painting was acquired by its previous owner just after Dzubas painted it, and it lived in the same collection for nearly 40 years. The work is a quintessential example of Dzubas’ signature style, and at 6 feet tall, it boasts an impressive scale.
Dzubas shared a studio with Helen Frankenthaler early in their career, and there is a lot of crossover in their work. A Frankenthaler on this scale is valued at several million, while this Dzubas is estimated at $150,000 to $180,000—a tremendous value by comparison.
What elements should one look for when collecting their first piece of Color Field art?
I believe that Color Field painting continues to be one of the most under-appreciated subgroups of post-war art, making it possible to find high-quality works of art for incredible values. My advice would be to purchase pieces that are indicative of the movement. These examples are not only beautiful, but they represent a seismic shift in the history of art and painting. In addition, the basics cannot be underestimated: Look for examples with good color, scale and composition, paired with historically significant motifs.
For example, I would encourage someone interested in collecting Helen Frankenthaler paintings to look for a 1960s stain painting. Her pioneering technique of watering down and pouring acrylic paint was earth-shaking for artists of the era, and greatly influenced fellow painters such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.
How can one be sure of an artwork’s condition when bidding online?
First things first: Read the condition report. These reports are typically prepared by specialists at the auction house who cataloged and handled the work. Second, I always request additional iPhone images. These less staged photos tend to give an honest look at the artwork’s true look and feel. Finally, when in doubt, ask questions! At any reputable auction house, the specialists will be aware of the artwork’s condition.
What is provenance in a work of art, and how do you measure or qualify it?
Provenance is the history of ownership of a work of art. A full provenance means you can trace the history of ownership from the time the work was created in the studio to the present day. For the sake of authenticity, it is crucial to establish a clear history of ownership when buying and selling artwork.
An artwork’s provenance can also add a certain amount of cachet. When a work comes from a prestigious collection – such as the Rockefellers’ for example – it adds a premium to its price. On the other hand, if the provenance lists many owners in a short period of time, it may reflect the work as a “hot potato” that collectors haven’t latched on to. Most collectors prefer works that have been in collections for a significant period of time because when they become available, they can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy.
Gems: Collecting Post-War Abstraction is now live on Artnet Auctions until September 14th.
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