Kiss and tell

Kiss and tell

different strokes

distinctive Lichtenstein’s ‘Drawing for Kiss V’.

Last month — on May 11 — 65 lots were offered at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Rockefeller Plaza, New York.  All except three lots got sold and the organisers proudly announced that over $301 million (including buyer’s premium) had been realised in the blockbuster auction.

On top of the heap was Andy Warhol’s Self-Portrait (acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, in four parts /1963-1964) which came with an estimate of $20,000,000 - $30,000,000 and went for an incredible $38,442,500.

Among other paintings which hogged the limelight were Mark Rothko’s Untitled No. 17 (1961) which sold at $33.7 million; another self-portrait of Warhol at $27.5 million; ‘Three Studies for Self-Portrait’ (1974) by Francis Bacon at $25.2 million, and an untitled work by Cy Twombly at $15.2 million.

Lot no. 21 comprising a tiny six inch by six inch paperwork had an interesting provenance. ‘Drawing for Kiss V’, made in 1964 by Roy Lichtenstein, which bore all the hallmarks of the artist’s distinctive working method, had been in private hands for nearly five decades.  

The Lot Notes by Christie’s revealed that the present owner, who did not want to be identified, had acquired it in a ‘lottery’ at one of the legendary ‘Happenings’ organised during the 1960s by the Artists’ Key Club.

Although the Club formed by artist Arman (1928 - 2005) to fight against increasing commercialisation of art world came and went in a flash, its 13 members (including Lichtenstein, Arman, Christo and Andy Warhol) did engage themselves lightheartedly in some unusual activities outside the then prevailing gallery system.

Inside a locker

This is how the story goes. In 1965, Penn Station (the major intercity train station and commuter rail hub in New York City) was undergoing renovations with large sections of wall space, including some banks of lockers, curtained off with painting drop cloth. When Arman and friends saw those lockers, they hit upon the idea of organising a unique event.  

The invitation to the ‘Happening’ read: “Pay $10 to enter a lottery for the chance to get a key to a Penn Station locker containing artwork.” This meant that any interested participant could go to Hotel Chelsea and hand over $10 in return for a key to one of the lockers at the station. Inside each of these lockers would be a work that was donated by one of the 13 artists. The interesting part was that none of the $10 donors would know in advance which locker they would be allocated, or whose artwork the locker contained.
The present owner, who then worked as a typist in a firm, attended the event, paid her $10, went up to Penn Station with her key, opened the locker and got the Lichtenstein’s work “Drawing for Kiss V”. She kept it in her private collection and only after five decades did she get its valuation done. She was pleasantly shocked to find out how much it was worth.

In 1965, the drawing would have probably been valued at $50, but at the Christie’s auction, “Drawing for Kiss V” came with a presale estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000 and was lapped up for a massive $2,098,500! Thus the one-time typist who had bought it for $10 became a millionaire overnight!

“Ohhhh... Alright”

One the most significant artists of the 20th century, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was intrinsically connected with American pop art. With their strong lines and vibrant if flat colours, many of his famous paintings seemed inspired by cartoon strips and comic books. What was really confounding was the way he could transform an everyday cartoon into a major work of art.

Lichtenstein who received MFA degree in 1949 and undertook several part-time jobs including window dressing, furniture designing, and painting on dials of instruments, began his first pop paintings in the very early 1960s using cartoon images as well as advertising imagery of consumer products.

When his one-man show was held at Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan in early 1962, the entire collection was bought by influential buyers before the show even opened. The same year, he was featured in Life magazine on the new art along with several other artists. Thus, Lichtenstein, who was a virtual nobody at 37, had become a celebrity at 40.

Many art critics of the time, however, challenged the originality of Lichtenstein’s work. In a teasingly titled article the Life magazine published on January 31, 1964 asked: “Is he the worst artist in the US?” Some agreed, others didn’t. The same article went on to explain: “Provocative though they are, Lichtenstein’s paintings have done more than stir up controversy. They have done something significant to art… A quiet, affable man of 40, he fully expected to be condemned for the subject matter as well as the style of his paintings. But little did he dream that within two years of his first pop exhibition, his canvases would be selling out at prices up to $4,000 and he himself would be a cause celebre of the art world...”

Among Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings during the period were ‘Whaam!’ (1963), a large diptych which had an image adapted from DC Comics’ All- American Men of War; ‘Torpedo...Los!’ (1963) which, in 1989, sold for $5.5 million and made him, at that time, one of only three living artists to have attracted such huge sums; and ‘In the Car’ (1963) which was sold in 2005 for a record $16.2million.

Last November, his ‘Ohhh … Alright’ (1964), a comic book image of a forlorn redhead with a telephone, created yet another auction record when an anonymous buyer bought it for $42.6 million at Christie’s.

Lichtenstein, who showed at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and had his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1969, is said to have been startled by his own success. By the late 1960s’ he had quit using comic-book sources and moved on to other areas.

He was once asked whether he was anti-experimental. “I think so,” he replied, “and anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle, anti-movement-and-light, anti-mystery, anti-paint-quality, anti-Zen, and anti all of those brilliant ideas of preceding movements which everyone understands so thoroughly.”

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