Alexandra Peers delivers her weekly column for Art in America

Phillips de Pury isn’t subtle in the recession-era marketing for its London sales of contemporary art. “That was then This is Now” reads a stripe wrapping the fat auction catalog; (It’s the title of an Edward Ruscha picture for sale). Inside, the artworks to be offered June 29 and 30 carry bids as eye-blinkingly low as 2,000 pounds.
The 229-lot catalog is a global crazy-quilt of works made by artists, famous and obscure, that have nothing in common other than that Phillips hopes they’re saleable in this market and they were born in the shank of the 20th century, from 1911 (Louise Bourgeois) to 1977 (Kehinde Wiley).

There’s a lot of suspense surrounding this particular auction. The house had made a habit of selling works by young artists who later become stars – but collectors lately have had no appetite for betting on the future. Art worlders can take some comfort in the results for the Impressionist and Modern art sales in London earlier this week. Sotheby’s sold about 80% of the lots at its tiny, 27-lot sale, while Christie’s sold two out of three works offered at its larger auction. So maybe Phillips has luck, and bargain-hunters, on its side. 
For art lovers who scan catalogs like tea leaves, looking for a read on who’s hot and not, here’s a few trends:

-- Kehinde Wiley uncharacteristically gets evening-sale endorsement; his “Passing/Posing St. Helena,” a renaissance-style religious portrait of a Black man in a football jersey is on sale for about 50,000 pounds.

-- Sell works by Wim Delvoye. Everyone else is, apparently, as five of the Belgian’s works are on the block at Phillips.

-- In a market where there’s no trade at all in some artists whose fame hit relatively late in the boom, it clearly helped to have had a show at the Museum of Modern Art (a woodcut by Gert and Uwe Tobias starts at 20,000 pounds) or to have Gagosian as one of your dealers (Mark Grotjahn has a 2004 work starting at a lofty 70,000).

-- The auctioneers are indulging in a rewriting art-history. The catalog notes for some paintings and sculptures argue that they are direct descendants of masterworks. The Ruscha gets a very hard sell; four pages in the catalog are devoted to it, and comparisons are made to Nauman and Picasso. A Thomas Schutte sculpture is clearly descended from a Francis Bacon, so the pitch goes, and so on. Be skeptical.

-- One last note: Ashley Bickerton is back. The artist, a mainstay of late 1980s-early 1990s auctions but invisible afterward, is given notable treatment as the final lot. Given Phillips’ proven ability to start art fads rolling (or re-rolling, in Bickerton’s case), don’t forget that name.


Demand is up sharply for Pollock-Krasner Foundation grants. The New York based foundation, started by painter Lee Krasner in memory of her husband Jackson, annually makes about 150 to 180 grants to artists and institutions.  So far this year, the foundation has received 536 applications, up 27% from the 393 they got in the same period last year. Those with “recognizable artistic merit and financial need” (they’re even willing to consider medical expenses) are welcome to apply, as long as they’ve been working as artists “for some time.

Over the years, the foundation has given away about $50 million. This year, Charles Bergman, CEO and Chairman of the foundation, asks artists to ‘keep the economy in mind” when choosing their requested amounts. Past winners include Diana Al-Hadid, Kurt Kauper and Dorothea Rockburne.


One market escaping the worst of the recession: fine wine. Sotheby’s Wine department reported that all nine sales it help in the first half of the year exceeded their high estimates. It’s debut wine sale in Hong Kong was 100% sold, raising $6.4 million – more than was raised at its five London wine auctions combined so far this year. The company credited a new option: online bidding, for some of the strength.