Art at Auction by Walter Robinson

BOMB 2 Winter 1982
002 Fall 1982

“…for the erstwhile minister, since his entry into politics, had contracted the mania for collecting things of beauty, no doubt as a reaction against the political mentality which produces a secret collection of ugly deeds.”

—Balzac, Cousin Pons

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Bernard Buffet, Torreador, 1958, 63 × 19 ½ inches.

The Bullfighter

1. Bernard Buffet, Toreador (1958, 83 × 19½’’, oil on canvas), sold for $12,000 (est. $15–20,000). The bullfighter, a classically popular subject familiar to everyone, is here rendered near life-size by one of our most successful masters of popular taste. The appeal of this subject to the folk imagination is explained by the Spanish translation of “toreador”: “he who kills.” It is interesting to note that the $12,000 paid for this work (not including the auction house’s 10% commission) by an unnamed buyer (buyers at art auctions almost always remain unidentified, for sinister ends you can well understand) is equal to the cost, for police overtime, special sharpshooters and helicopters, of protecting Prince Charles for one hour of his NYC visit this summer.

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Marie Laurencin, Head of a Young Girl with a Scarf, nd, oil on canvas, 18 × 15 inches.

The Pretty Girl

2. Marie Laurencin, Head of a Young Girl with a Scarf (nd, ca. 18 × 15 inches, oil on canvas), $29,000 (est. $25–30,000). La jeune fille is of course without parallel among artists’ subjects (save possibly for the vase of flowers, see elsewhere), though few artists treated it as consistently as Laurencin, a compatriot of all the Parisian myths-to-be before WWI, whose work was placed by Apollinaire somewhere between Picasso and Rousseau. Her manner is basic and much-copied in the delicate pastel coloring and almond doe-eyes of her females, about which you can draw your own conclusions. If you agree with the sentiment of the Phaidon Encyclopedia of Art and Artists (1978), which omits Laurencin entirely, you may be interested to know that the $29,000 paid for this example of her work would just about cover the cost of three TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) antitank missiles.

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Mane-Katz, Head of a Clown, nd, oil on canvas, 12 × 10 inches.

Circus Subjects

3. Mane-Katz, Head of a Clown (nd, 12 × 10 inches, oil on canvas), $5,500 (est. $6–8,000). This ancestor of Ronald McDonald, painted in a semi-expressionistic naive style more than suitable to the subject, is a rare example of non-bidding clowns-at-auction—a venerable unsophisticated art subject nonetheless. It is interesting to note that the price, so low due to the obscurity of the artist, is in the range of the official poverty-level annual income for a family of four.

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Moise Kisling, Flowers, nd, oil on canvas, 22 × 16 inches.

The Flower in a Pot

4. Moise Kisling, Flowers, (nd, ca. 22 × 16 inches, oil on canvas), $15,000 (est. $15–20,000). Again, the flower-in-a-pot is such a popular subject, among museum-level as well as schlock masters, that the choice of this Kisling is a reflection of his position at the pinnacle of common taste, which will always draw high bids from the perspicacious Japanese (whose wisdom exceeds ours in a number of areas, not least being opposition to the big bomb). Indeed, in a sale during the same week, some fool paid $700,000 for a picture of some jonquils and irises painted by Picasso when he was 19 years old. If it’s true that the rich rule because they got brains, it doesn’t show here.

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Maurice de Vlaminck, Country Road in the Snow, ca. 1935–40, oil on canvas, 29 × 36 inches.

Country Views

5. Maurice de Vlaminck, Country Road in the Snow (ca. 1935–40, ca. 29 × 36 inches, oil on canvas), $50,000 (est. $40–50,000). This absolutely typical country scene is distinguished not only by its view, which approaches Zen-like perfection in its lack of notable incident, but also by the artist’s manner, which (hard to tell from the reproduction) included a heavy white impasto to represent the snow, apparently applied with a palette knife or some kind of stick—a premier technique of the schlock artist. Vlaminck, known as the wildest and most spontaneous of the Fauves during his youth, became a classic “burnout,” returned to a version of “traditional” style in his disillusioned later years that produced unheralded amateur masterworks like this one (he painted a lot of flowers in pots during this period too). Note: $50,000 paid for this picture equals the production cost of about five minutes of the 20-year-old television cartoon series, The Flintstones.

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Nicolai Fechin, Indian Woman with Children, nd, oil on canvas, 36 × 30”.

Mother and Child

6. Nkolai Fechin, Indian Woman with Children (nd, 36 × 30 inches, oil on canvas), $140,000 (est. $30–40,000). Though the price paid for this work tops all others quoted here, the painter is as obscure as they come (or at least was, before this sale). To some degree, the price is explained by the inclusion of the work in a section of western paintings in a NYC auction right when Southwestern bidders were feeling their oats; otherwise, besides irrationality (always present), the price reflects the subject––the ever-popular mother–and–child, plus the attraction to the wealthy of harmless visions of the oppressed. Especially notable to connoisseurs of commercial art is the use of the palette knife. And finally, for $140,000, the buyer of this picture could have purchase 1,028 one-way plane fares to Taos, New Mexico.

Portfolio by Walter Robinson
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Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982

Tim Burns & Jim Jarmusch, No Rio, Charles Ludlam & Christopher Scott, Jacki Ochs, Michael Smith, Mirielle Cervenka, Gary Indiana, Sonia Delauney, and Phillipe Demontaut.

Read the issue
002 Fall 1982