Phillips’ Contemporary Art Evening Sale Captures $134.6 Million, Breaks House Records

Nazia Safi
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Several Emerging Artists Set New Benchmarks, Including Amy Sherald, Titus Kaphar, and Matthew Wong

Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art evening sale came to a magnificent end on December 7th, 2020, raising a record USD 134.6 million. The figure showed a nearly 25% increase from the same auction last winter with an 89% sell-through rate. The auction house estimated a sale total of $110 million to $160 million.

“We are thrilled to be ending an unprecedented year so strongly; nine months after the initial shut down that threw the live auction world into uncertainty we have just had one of the strongest sales in Phillips’ history,” Phillips’ Worldwide Co-Heads of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Jean-Paul Engelen and Robert Manley, said in a joint statement.

David Hockney, Nichols Canyon (1980). Sold for $41,067,500. Image from Phillips.
David Hockney, Nichols Canyon (1980). Sold for $41,067,500. Image from Phillips.

David Hockney’s Los Angeles landscape titled Nichols Canyon (1980) highlighted the evening sale. Starting at an unpublished estimate of around $35,000,000, the painting achieved $41,067,500, setting the world record for the artist’s landscape.

The monumental seven-by-five-foot canvas was executed in 1980 following Hockney’s move to Los Angeles two years prior. The work depicts a scene glimpsed along Hockney’s drive from his home in the Hollywood Hills to his studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. Nichols Canyon is considered his first mature landscape that depicts modern Los Angeles. Describing the process of painting, Hockney stated: “…..I began Nichols Canyon. I took a large canvas and drew a wiggly line down the middle which is what the roads seem to be. I was living up the hills and painting in my studio down the hills, so I was traveling back and forth every day, often two, three, four times a day. I actually felt those wiggly lines.”

Clyfford Still, PH-407 (1964). Sold for $18,442,500. Image from Phillips.
Clyfford Still, PH-407 (1964). Sold for $18,442,500. Image from Phillips.

A rare painting by Clyfford Still, a pioneer in abstract art, was also among the highlights of the evening. PH-407 (1964) previously belonged to the German collector Frieder Burda and was bought shortly after Burda’s death. Carrying an unpublished estimate, the work was hammered down for $18,442,500.

Known as one of the fathers of Abstract Expressionism, Still executed this large scale work in 1964 after relocating to the Maryland countryside, where he kept his art out of public view. “Only 30 to 40 [Still paintings] are estimated to remain in private hands, with the vast majority held in The Clyfford Still Museum and other institutional collections around the globe,” said Miety Heiden, the auction house’s Deputy Chairwoman and Head of Private Sales. One other painting from Still’s time in Maryland hit the auction block in 2013, fetching $20,885,000.

The 1964 abstract painting sold this December features a blood-red expanse with jagged black and blue shapes. “While the blood red field [that] composes much of PH-407 may appear monochromatic at first glance, upon further inspection the tonal nuances and brushstrokes begin to reveal themselves,” the auction house wrote in the painting’s lot essay.

Amy Sherald, The Bathers (2015), Sold for $4,265,000. Image from Phillips.
Amy Sherald, The Bathers (2015), Sold for $4,265,000. Image from Phillips.

Setting a new auction record was an oil on canvas piece by Amy Sherald. Titled The Bathers, the painting came to auction with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 and sold nearly 20 times its high estimate at $4,265,000 within 15 minutes of bidding.

The contemporary portrait artist is well-known for her presidential portrait of Michelle Obama. Sherald also paints imaginary portraits of Black Americans she encounters on the streets – men, women, and children. She paints her subjects’ complexions in signature grisaille, or grayscale, to bring out their individuality rather than their color. According to Sherald, her works are reflective of reality and history. “My paintings hold up a mirror to the present and reflect real experiences of blackness today and historically,” Sherald stated, “in everyday life and within the historical art canon.”

Sherald debuted at auction in 2019 when her painting Innocent You, Innocent Me (2016) sold for $350,000 at Christie’s. Sharing the same title as Paul Cezanne’s The Bathers (1898-1905), Sherald’s 2015 painting portrays two young bathers wearing brightly colored swimsuits. Standing side-by-side, the bathers hold hands and gaze directly at the viewer.

Other record-smashing lots from the contemporary art evening sale included a Jadé Fadojutimi painting that fetched $378,000, well above its estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote (2017) set a new world record for the artist, achieving $378,000 while shattering an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

Looking for more record-breaking auction prices? Read Auction Daily’s results coverage of Christie’s 20th Century: Hong Kong to New York Auction.

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