Bound to Fail

Seven rule-breaking artists who have redefined the meaning of art, ahead of a special curated sale on 8 May

Bound To Fail is a curated capsule sale of Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art that explores the theme of failure, with the understanding that failure for any artist is the risk that they take when pushing boundaries and challenging the concept of fine art and commercial success.

Comprised of 39 works by major artists including Maurizo Cattelan, Jeff Koons, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Marcel Duchamp, Martin Kippenberger, Mike Kelley and Richard Prince, the sale focuses on artists who are known for having pursued a singular creative vision, which sometimes comes at the expense of critical acclaim or commercial success.

Conceived by Christie’s Loic Gouzer, the sale takes its name from the Bruce Nauman sculpture Henry Moore, Bound To Fail, a cast of the artist’s bound hands that channels the anxiety of constrained artistic expression. ‘So much has been written about the commercial success of the auction market in recent years, we felt it was time to explore the flip side of that from a curatorial standpoint,’ says Gouzer. ‘Taken together, this capsule auction shines a spotlight on works that have purposefully pushed the envelope of what the art market would be willing to call ‘successful’ in the pursuit of creating something new and ground-breaking.’

Below, we look at seven artists featured in the sale who broke the rules to redefine the meaning of art.

1. Maurizio Cattelan

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Maurizio Cattelan (b.1960), Him, 2001. Wax, human hair, suit, polyester resin and pigment. Estimate: $10,000,000-15,000,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

Whenever they have been unveiled, works by Maurizio Cattelan have captured the art world’s attention. Ambitious in subject matter, they confront without fear themes including death, religion and history with wit and technical aplomb. One of Cattelan’s most significant sculptures, asking challenging questions about action and absolution, Him is approached from behind to reveal an eerily realistic, child-sized Adolf Hitler kneeling in prayer.

2. Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Air de Paris, conceived in 1919, 1964. Glass ampoule with artist’s wooden storage case. Estimate: $300,000-400,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1964. Graphite and gouache over offset lithograph in colours on paper. Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

The inventor of what he called the ‘readymade’ — a commonplace object that could be transformed into a work of art — Marcel Duchamp redefined what art means in the 20th century. Works such as Fountain, the urinal he submitted for exhibition in 1917, shocked the establishment, yet have since come to be recognised as landmarks in art history. Conceived in 1919, Air de Paris is is a glass pharmaceutical ampoule said to contain 50 cubic centimetres of Parisian air — immortalising the French capital as only Duchamp could.

Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., which was executed in 1964, rejected the conservative aesthetics of the past — the artist boldly pencilling a moustache and goatee over a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. The impact of Duchamp’s humorously altered readymade was emphasised by its title, a phonetic pun for the French ‘Elle a chaud au cul’ — delicately translated by Duchamp as, ‘There is a fire down below’.

3. David Hammons

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David Hammons, Throwing up a Brick, 1998. Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

‘I feel it is my moral obligation to try to graphically document what I feel socially,’ David Hammons has said of his work. Renowned for its technical innovation, Hammons’ astutely political art explores what it means to be black in contemporary America, shaped by the artist’s ongoing engagement with civil rights and Black Power movements.

At 10 feet high, Throwing up a Brick is the same height as a regulation basketball hoop, the title referencing the term for a shallow or forceful shot that collides, brick-like, into the rim or backboard. The work is one of a series made by repeatedly bouncing a basketball, caked in detritus from Harlem sidewalks, across paper, the act embodying what Hammons believes to be the futility of sports-star dreams for the majority of black urban youth.

David Hammons, Close Your Eyes and See Black, 1969. Body print, ink and graphite on paperboard. Estimate: $350,000-450,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

David Hammons, Stone Head, 2005. Stone and hair. Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

Similarly, Stone Head embodies Hammons’ transformative power: hair trimmings from a barbershop in Harlem are applied to a stone, wittily transforming the object into a ‘head’ that, for all its durability, appears uncannily human. Echoing African sculptures and masks, Stone Head is compounded with deep socio-historical associations as well as the personal histories of those the hair was taken from. ‘You’ve got tons of people’s spirits when you handle that stuff,’ Hammons has said. ‘You have to be very, very careful’.

Created at the height of the 1960s Black Power movement, Close Your Eyes and See Black is a haunting example of Hammons’ seminal ‘body print’ series. To make the work, the artist coated his body, clothes and hair in grease, pressing himself against paper, and coating the impression in black pigment powder. The result is a shadowy yet sharply detailed record of Hammons’ presence, his eyes hidden by his hands — placing the black body at the centre of the picture, while questioning the validity of racial signifiers.

4. Martin Kippenberger

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Martin Kippenberger, Zuerst die Füße, 1990. Carved wood, motor-car lacquer and steel nails. Estimate: $700,000-900,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

Created in 1990, Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) hails from one of Martin Kippenberger’s most important and controversial series. Sculpted in Austria by a traditional carver of religious effigies, the work depicts a cartoonish frog hanging from a cross, its wooden structure reminiscent of the artist’s easel.

Adopting ‘Fred the Frog’ as his alter ego, Kippenberger crucifies himself before he can be crucified by viewers — pre-empting the shock waves Feet First would later provoke, while exploring the notion of the artist as martyr. A symbol of fertility and life, an egg prefigures the artist’s later incarnation as the Eiermann, or ‘Eggman’, while a beer tankard alludes to Kippenberger’s battle with alcoholism, which he lost in 1997. Since his death at the age of 43, Kippenberger has come to be recognised as one of the giants of the post-war era — his output remaining hugely influential to a host of artists.

5. Jeff Koons

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Jeff Koons, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series), 1985. Estimate on request. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

‘You know, the reason that I used a basketball over another object is really probably for the purity of it,’ explained Jeff Koons of One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, one of the defining artworks of the late 20th century. ‘As it’s inflatable, it relates to our experience of being alive and having to breathe. It’s a symbol of life.’

A lone basketball floats implausibly in the middle of a tank filled with water. At once mystical and planetary, the basketball is also ordinary, evocative of childhood memories of playing in the backyard. Created in 1985, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank epitomised a new direction in art — one that directly addressed the socio-economic realities of 1980s, late-capitalist consumer culture. It is the first and finest masterpiece of the new and distinctly post-modernist generation.

6. Bruce Nauman

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Bruce Nauman, Henry Moore Bound to Fail, conceived in 1967 and executed in 1970. Estimate: $6,000,000-8,000,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

When Henry Moore’s sculptures were first displayed, they were deemed so shocking that opponents decapitated them and daubed them with paint. In 1938, the notorious director of the Tate, J.B. Manson, declared that the British sculptor’s work would only enter the gallery over his dead body.

Years later however, Moore experienced a significant turn of fate, emerging as Britain’s unchallenged representative of Modern art. Bruce Nauman’s Henry Moore Bound to Fail, made in 1967, addresses the attacks on Moore through Nauman’s own witty brand of inquiry. Formed from a truncated sculpture of Nauman’s own bound torso, it is a reference both to Moore’s struggles and the artist’s literal restraint.

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Bruce Nauman, No, No, New Museum, 1987. Videotape (colour, sound, 62 mins). Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

In Nauman’s No, No, New Museum, the actor Vandi Snyder, made up in bright red and green jester regalia, repeatedly — and violently — jumps up and down while shouting ‘No, no, no, no, no!!’ at the top of her lungs. Originally displayed in the window of New York’s New Museum, the work taps into our neuroses — capturing the panic of a racing mind late at night, and suggesting that a frenzied child always seethes beneath the surface of polite, adult behaviour.

7. Cindy Sherman

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#175), 1987. Estimate: $350,000-450,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

‘There have been times when I made work in response to what was going on, when I began to feel like I was the flavour of the month… in the early ’80s,’ Cindy Sherman once explained of her work. ‘That’s what inspired the pictures with vomit and all that. Because I thought to myself, “Well, they think it’s all cute with the costumes and make-up. Let’s see if they put this above their couch.” ’

Feeling pigeonholed by her growing market, as well as the feminist discourse surrounding her works of the late 1970s and early 80s, Sherman gradually dispensed with representations of women in favour of increasingly grotesque and macabre scenes. Using vomit, blood, hair and body parts, she created lurid tableaux that came to be known as her Fairy Tale and Disaster series.

‘I wanted something visually offensive, but seductive, beautiful and textural as well, to suck you up and then repulse you,’ the artist explained. One of the only works from the late 1980s to feature the artist’s iconic face, Untitled #175 is a visually rich landscape of decay, at once disconcerting and attractive, breaking down the socially manufactured components of ‘womanhood’.

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