DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       November 2004  





Mike Kelley Ahh... Youth (1991)
Eight cibachrome prints, each 24-3/8 x 17 inches
COVER November 21, 2004: Cindy Sherman Untitled #92 [Centerfold] (1981)
Color coupler print, 24 x 48 inches
All illustrations courtesy Phillips de Pury & Company

Back in the spring, in a timely move by the head of the third largest auction house in New York, Simon de Pury at Phillips in Chelsea secured what is said to be the first ever single-owner sale of contemporary photography. Monday evening and Tuesday morning [November 8th and 9th, 2004], the two part, 180 lot collection enjoyed a rare, 100% sell-through that brought in just shy of twelve and a half million dollars – almost four million dollars over the auction house's own high estimate.

Falling on the heels of their successful photography auction on the 13th and 14th of October, and coming just three days before the contemporary art auctions on November 11 and 12th, Phillips made available this significant and innovative collection of photo-based artworks that "...question the myth of photography as an instrument of truth, realism and objectivity". The cognoscente who packed into the newly red-carpeted salesroom concurred, spontaneously bursting into applause at the conclusion of Monday evening's sale.

For the first time at auction, the focus here was on artists who use the camera because the medium best perpetuates their concepts as opposed to the more traditional, "pre-conceptual" photographers, who use the camera as a reference point to a literal description of how a camera sees a piece of time and space. The intriguing title of this collection of contemporary photography was dreamed up by the collection's curator and owner, the Baroness Marion Lambert whose husband, Baron Phillipe Lambert is chairman of the Banque Bruxelles Lambert. Referring to the first recorded instance of image transfer [where Berenice, a by-stander to Jesus's march to Calvary used a cloth to wipe the sweat off Jesus's brow and this cloth was said to retain the image of his face], in a play on words, using "vera icon" (real image) the Baroness renames Berenice, Veronica. The "revenge" of Veronica is photography, as used by contemporary artists. According to the catalogue's prologue, this photography is "...not about dealing with the TRUE IMAGE or a representation of reality, but used in a different way..." and, "...as the result of this new use of an OLD medium, images become not just well composed – artistic or documentary -- testimonies, but cultural messages".

Richard Prince Untitled [Girlfriend on Motorcycle] (1983)
Ektacolor print, 64-3/8 x 44 inches

Influenced by its conceptual and pop art predecessors, this was an important auction for the entire photography market – contemporary or otherwise. Ten records were shattered opening the gate for the medium to "break on through" to levels reached by contemporary painting and sculpture. The "ghetto" of photography became porous with the timing of this sale, and the Baroness Lambert and Phillips de Pury & Company should be commended for this opportune event.

Larry Clark's "Tulsa", (1971), Lot #19, a portfolio of ten selected gelatin silver prints of teens playing with guns and shooting amphetamine brought in forty-two thousand dollars breaking its previous record set at Sotheby's in November of 2003 by fifteen thousand. Roni Horn's "Still Water [The River Thames, For Example]", (1999), Lot #27, a portfolio of fifteen offset lithographs on paper of variations of water patterns reached ninety-six thousand, thirty-three thousand above her previous record at auction at Sotheby's in November, 1991. Nan Goldin's "Cookie Mueller Portfolio", (1989), Lot #33, a fifteen cibachrome print record of the artist's friendship surpassed her November '99 record at Christie's by over thirty-seven thousand landing in at just over one hundred five thousand. Nobuyoshi Araki's "Tokoyo Cube", (1994), Lot # 36, a thirty-six piece, black and white photographic diary of sorts smashed the previous record at Sotheby's in June of '03 by over forty-one thousand to bring in fifty thousand, four hundred. Cindy Sherman's "Untitled No. 92 [Centerfold]", (1981), Lot #37, a work commissioned and ultimately rejected by ARTFORUM magazine brought in a whooping $478,400, $142 thousand over her previous Christie's record in May, '01. Mike Kelley's "Ah... Youth", (1991), Lot #43, eight cibachromes of stuffed dolls surrounding a self-portrait hit $411,200, $200 thousand over his June, '04 previous record at Phillips. Louise Lawler's "Monogram", (1994), Lot #51, a cibachrome of a perfectly made bed with a Jasper John's "White Flag" painting above it, brought in $69 thousand more than her May, 2000 record at Christie's hitting $125,600. Peter Fischli & David Weiss's "Stiller Nachmittag [Quiet Afternoon]", (1984-1986), Lot #56, a portfolio of eleven photographic works brought in $243,200, just over $78 thousand beyond their previous May, '04 Phillips record. Sam Taylor-Wood's "Wrecked", (1996), Lot #63, a 156 inch c-print of "The Last Supper", toppled her November, 2000 Phillips record of $32 thousand, landing in at $142,400. And last, but not least, Barbara Kruger's "Untitled [I Shop Therefore I Am]", (1983), Lot #65, an iconic work of feminism and consumerism brought in $493,600 more than her Sotheby's previous record in November '03 at $601,630.

Richard Prince, Matthew Barney, Charles Ray, Andreas Gurskey, Gabriel Orozco, Jeff Wall, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Thomas Schutte, Gilbert and George and Andy Warhol, all artists who innovatively use the medium, brought in hammer prices well above their high estimates.

You could say that, with the advent of digital photography, the artist no longer has to wait for the "perfect moment" to snap the picture. You could also say, that it's not the medium that makes these works of art spectacular. In fact, what we have here is a brilliant individual collector who anticipated the greater critical acceptance of these works well before the curve of art history.

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