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How to Understand New York's Gazillion-Dollar Auction Week

How to Understand New York's Gazillion-Dollar Auction Week
A still from Christie's skateboarding promo video for its "If I Live I'll See You Tuesday" auction (the Dan Colen painting pictured sold for a record $3,077,000)

The contemporary art auctions in New York minted $1.5 billion in real American dollars last week, and if that number makes you gasp you haven't been following the mounting prices fetched by the category as the wealthiest investors start viewing recent artworks as the equivalent of Alibaba stock you can hang above your couch. Instead, the most interesting development of the week may have been signaled by the sale that kicked things off on Monday night, the "If I Live I'll See You Tuesday" auction at Christie's

Slyly assembled by specialist Loic Gouzer, the sale used the umbrella concept of "edgy art" to bring together darkly provocative pieces by established market stars—like a Warhol electric chair, and Richard Prince's too-edgy-to-be-shown-in-the-salesroom Spiritual America—with work by dewey-eyed young artists rendered edgy by their barely legal market status. After all, dealers and artists alike used to consider premature auction-market debuts a terrifying prospect for emerging talent, because it can either spike their primary market prices to a height that can't be sustained over time by still-immature work, or worse, present an opportunity for an embarrassingly public flop. 

Gouzer, at 33 years old, is a Millennial, if you go by that generation's starting date as 1980, and perhaps in producing the sale exhibited the tendency toward hierarchy-flattening and the dismissal of traditional routes of advancement that his cohort is known for. But there's no denying that the flipping of work by young artists has become one of the hottest sectors of the market recently, and that was extremely apparent both in the "If I Live" auction, the Sotheby's and Christie's day sales, and both Phillips auctions. In many cases, year-old paintings by artists born after 1980 were sold for huge margins, often hurtling their estimates by multiples.   

To take the temperature of the market for young art, and see how the newest stars are faring, we dug into the results for work by Millennials in the week's auctions. (NB: all figures include both hammer prices and buyers' premiums.) 


The splashiest market debut of the week was Alex Israel (b. 1982), whose Sky Backdrop painting from 2012—a series of pleasantly generic skyskapes colored by cotton-candy clouds—more than tripled its estimate to fetch just over $1 million. A Los Angeles artist who makes works lionizing Tinseltown in the manner of a smitten court painter, and who makes a point of primarily selling to celebrities, Israel also saw another sky canvas from 2013 lead off the Phillips evening sale to the tune of $581,000 (est. $200,000-300,000). 

Another artist of no relation, Israel Lund (b. 1980), a painter of decidedly Richter-esque abstractions, went under the hammer repeatedly: his auction debut consisted of four canvases being sold over the course of the week, with one fetching $125,000 (est. $30,000-40,000), two nabbing $100,000, and one getting $50,000 (est. $5,000-7,000). All of these paintings were made last year, and the record-setting painting had already been flipped once before heading to auction. 

A member of Brooklyn's buzzy Still House Group artist consortium and the son of Tom Ford muse Lisa Eisner, the painter Louis Eisner (b. 1988) premiered on the auction stage with the $137,000 sale of a 2012 painting (est. $40,000-60,000) at the "If I Live" sale. Another one of the canvases, both so-called "Void" paintings that are doppelgängers of Jacob Kassay's mirror paintings, was sold by collector Adam Sender in the Sotheby's day sale for $53,125 (est. $8,000-12,000). Again, the priciest painting had already been flipped once prior to the sale.

Another artist collected and now deaccessioned by Sender, Tony Lewis (b. 1986) had a boffo debut in the Sotheby's day sale when one of his large, spare graphite-on-paper text works from 2012 overshoot an $8,000 to $12,000 estimate to take in $93,750. He is in the currently concluding Whitney Biennial. One more artist pushed into the auction sphere by the Sender trove, N. Dash (b. 1980) had one of her elegant cloth-and-painting-and-sculpture composites—which had been included in Nicolas Trembley's excellent recent "Mingei" show at Pace—go for $37,500 (est. $12,000-18,000). Finally, the rock-star Thai brothers Korakrit and Korapat Arunanondchai (b. 1986), who earlier this year had a solo show of their flaming denim paintings go on view at MoMA PS1, saw one of their pieces net $53,125 (est. $12,000-18,000).


The reigning princess of the Millennial market, Tauba Auerbach (b. 1981) notched a new record this week when one of her 2008 trompe l'oeil "crumple" paintings sold for $1,061,000 at "If I Live"—only to vault that benchmark when a 2011 "fold" painting brought in $1.8 million (est. $800,000-1,200,000) at the Phillips evening sale. A four-part drawing by Auerbach also scored, fetching $137,000 in the Sotheby's day sale against an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.

Javier Peres-repped David Ostrowski (b. 1981), a new favorite of collectors for his spartan abstractions of squares offset within the picture plane, gained a new record when one of his paintings in less-than-ideal yellow lured $245,000 (est. $40,000-60,000)—then he, too, broke it again in the Phillips evening sale when another abstraction fetched $281,000 (est. $50,000-70,000).  

Parker Ito (b. 1986), like Israel Lund, watched as four of his paintings appeared in swift succession under the gavel: the top performer was an inkjet abstraction that made $87,500 (est. $20,000-30,000). Three of the paintings were from last year, one from 2012. Then a brand-new Jordan Wolfson (b. 1980) painting from this year was sold by the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, for $125,000 (est. $20,000-30,000), and Sam Moyer received a new record when a 2011 compassion of bleach and ink on canvas got $56,250 (est. $10,000-15,000).


Julian Schnabel, paradigmatic star of 1980s Neo-Expressionism, at long last crossed the million-dollar threshold when a triptych plate painting from 1983 brought in $1.2 million (est. $1,000,000-1,500,000). 

– Earlier this year, in January, two auctions of Old Master paintings at Christie's flagship salesroom made just over $18 million, despite featuring examples by Tiepolo, Panini, Guido Reni, Agostino Carracci, Gainsborough, Greuze, and Turner. Conversely, Christopher Wool's aptly titled painting If You Can't Take a Joke You Can Get the Fuck Out of My House (1992) fetched $23.7 million at Christie's. 

– A widespread trend in recent painting that can be gleaned from the examples making their way to auction is that artists are embracing strategies of minimalistic decor, creating tasteful compositions unburdened by content that could fall neatly within the precincts of applied art. This trend is currently epitomized by the new show at Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld's Upper East Side gallery, where Hugo McCloud—an industrial designer by training—has made decorative paintings that fix exactly into the moldings of the prewar gallery.

Joseph Cornell was the secret star of the week, with 19 of the wizard of Utopia Parkway's creations selling for a total of $26.9 million.

– The market repeatedly knocked down records for women artists at the sales, with a Joan Mitchell painting setting a new bar for the priciest work by a woman when it sold for $11.9 million, and new high prices notched for Rosemarie Trockel ($5 million), Sarah Lucas ($905,000), Elizabeth Peyton ($1.7 million), Dana Schutz ($605,000), and Auerbach. Guess what: the higher that prices go for work by women, the more often you'll see it included in shows.   


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