The secret stories that works of art can tell
Our selection of pieces with back stories that add interest as well as value
By Gareth Harris and Julia Michalska. From Art Basel Miami Beach daily edition
Published online: 07 December 2013
Even though we are at an art fair, there is more to the works on show here than their price tags. There are many personal stories behind the paintings, sculptures and photographs on sale. Art historians are often interested in these stories, as they can reveal telling details about artists’ lives and ways of working, and about the history of the collectors, museums and institutions that owned the works.
A good back story can, of course, be gold dust: take, for instance, the provenance of “La Peregrina” (the wanderer), a pearl once worn by the 16th-century English monarch Queen Mary I, and later by Elisabeth of France and Mariana of Austria, the wives of Philip IV of Spain. Its fame was boosted when Richard Burton gave the jewel to Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift. The pearl sold at Christie’s New York in 2011 for $11.8m, more than three times its upper estimate; its colourful history shows how provenance more than pays off.
1. Frank Walter, Frank Walter’s house, 1980-2009, Ingleby Gallery (L1)
Artists’ work is often inextricably linked to where they lived. Few artists embody this better than Frank Walter (1926-2009), who lived as a recluse on an Antiguan hillside for the last 25 years of his life. An acute schizophrenic, Walter called himself the Seventh Prince of the West Indies, Lord of the Follies and the Ding-a-Ding Nook. He believed he was a Scottish aristocrat and a descendant of Charles II of England. Edinburgh-based Ingleby Gallery is, therefore, an apt home for the artist’s estate.
The gallery has transported Walter’s Antiguan house to its stand at the fair. Four months ago, when the gallery’s staff travelled to the island, they found that it was the home of “a group of Rastafarians with guns”, says Richard Ingleby, the gallery’s co-director. “There were some negotiations on the island; some money exchanged hands,” he says. The Rastas eventually left. The house is available for $400,000 to “the right institution”, Ingleby says.
2. James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg, Waiting for Bob, 1979, Sperone Westwater (F8)
Two titans of 20th-century art collaborated on this trompe l’oeil painting, which reflects the affinity felt between the pair on a professional and personal level. “They were very good friends, and spent a lot of time together in Captiva, Florida, where Bob lived,” says David Leiber, the director of New York’s Sperone Westwater gallery, who explains how the stark and striking painting came together. “Rosenquist started it, and Rauschenberg finished it, painting the centre part, or glass area.” There is speculation that the doorframe may be based on ones in Rauschenberg’s former home and studio on Lafayette Street in Manhattan. The piece has been consigned for sale by the New York-based Rauschenberg Foundation.
The work is signed only by Rosenquist, who also devised the title (the informal reference to “Bob” reflects the pair’s close relationship). The foundation stresses, however, that this “nuts’n’bolts” picture, priced at $250,000, was very much a joint effort.
3. Robert Motherwell, Untitled (New England Elegy #5), 1967, Edward Tyler Nahem (H6)
This dramatic large-scale painting, priced at $5.5m, has special historic resonance, having been painted in memory of John F. Kennedy (the 50th anniversary of the charismatic US president’s assassination was marked last month). In 1965, the General Services Administration, a government agency, and the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius commissioned Motherwell to create a mural for the new John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston. The artist subsequently made two pieces; the related painting New England Elegy, 1966, is permanently installed in the Boston building.
The painting on show in Miami hung in the lobby of the IBM building in New York in the early 1990s; it was on loan from the New York dealer Edward Tyler Nahem. “I then sold it to a private entity and got it back,” he says. Motherwell eventually made a series of five pieces using the same compositional motifs, eloquently describing the works as “a representation of an emotion of grief”.
4. Robert Mapplethorpe, Jamie, 1974, Xavier Hufkens (C13)
“It’s not often that you come across a Polaroid of yourself by Robert Mapplethorpe,” says Jaime Riestra of Galería OMR, Mexico City (B19). The dealer was strolling through Art Basel Miami Beach this week when a Polaroid taken by the late photographer entitled Jamie, and dated 1974, caught his eye on the stand of the Brussels dealer Xavier Hufkens. “There I was!” he says. “It was really amazing.”
Riestra moved to New York in 1969 and rented a loft in the Bowery, next door to Mapplethorpe and fellow artist Robert Indiana. “I lived there for five years and we became friends. We had a lot of fun.” The image, which he bought from Hufkens for $5,700, is a preparatory photograph for a larger work, which Riestra bought from a London dealer a few years ago.
Given that Riestra had left New York by 1974, the Polaroid was probably taken the previous year. The gallery says it will contact the Mapplethorpe Foundation to amend this information and to correct the spelling of Jaime’s name.
5. Gunther Gerzso, Aparición, 1960, Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art (D4)
Gene Gerzso, the late wife of the Mexican artist Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000), was nothing if not canny. Her business acumen was clearly in evidence when she insisted that Gunther sell this vivid, meticulously structured painting to her. “She wrote him a cheque in the 1960s, possibly for around $2,000, to try to save him from awkward situations in the future. In other words, she didn’t want to see him bullied by individuals desperate to acquire the piece,” says the New York-based dealer Mary-Anne Martin, who adds that she hopes to sell the work for around $1m.
Between 1941 and the early 1960s, Gunther Gerzso designed more than 150 film sets. He also travelled around Mexico, researching the country’s Pre-Columbian heritage. Aparición was displayed among ancient artefacts at the couple’s home in Mexico City. Gene Gerzso died in 1999 and the work formed part of her estate.
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