An upcoming sale of prints and multiples spans 20th-century art history, from Matisse to El Lissitzky to Agnes Martin
Collectors, take note: one of the most significant collections of prints and multiples to ever come to auction will be offered at Christie’s in New York from 18-19 April.
The Sale of the Century: An Important Corporate Collection of Prints and Multiples comprises 392 lots across a series of live and online sales. The collection includes an unprecedented selection of complete portfolios, including Barnett Newman’s 18 Cantos, David Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress, and Andy Warhol’s Flowers.
As Lindsay Griffith, Head of Department in New York for Christie’s Prints and Multiples department, explains, ‘This sale features a print from nearly every year of the 20th century. It’s one of the most diverse and extensive collections of prints and multiples to ever come to market, with examples of the best prints from every art historical movement.’
Mapping the history of 20th-century art, the heavyweights are all here: Constructivists like El Lissitzky, Modernists like Matisse and Picasso, Abstract Expressionists like Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Neo-Dadaists like Jasper Johns and Minimalists like Agnes Martin.
‘This sale shows the greatest artists of the century exploring the print medium at the highest possible level’, Griffith says. ‘Their visual languages are instantly recognisable, but these prints allow us to see them through a new lens.’
Take for example an exceptionally rare set of Newman’s 18 Cantos. The artist didn’t produce many prints, but in 1963 he went to the famous printmaking studio Universal Limited Art Editions, on Long Island, to complete his first print project. The result was the 18 Cantos, a suite of 18 lithographs.
By exploiting accidents in the print-making process, Newman was able to create the same sense of floating luminosity with ink and paper found in his monumental canvases. ‘The Cantos portfolio finds him translating his artistic sensibility in the print medium,’ says Griffith. ‘We have this beautiful diaphanous image floating on paper, so we immediately know it’s Newman, but the lithographic technique offers a totally new way to engage.’
Today 12 of the small edition of 18 portfolios are held in major museums, and an example has not appeared at auction in 15 years.
The artists represented in this sale contributed to printmaking by bringing their own visual language to the medium. Matisse, for example, had spent his career as a colourist and draughtsman trying to close the gap between line, colour and form. Guided by this principle, he established his own method of printmaking using the ‘pochoir’ stencil technique. This linked ‘drawing and colour in a single movement’ so successfully that he gradually abandoned painting entirely in favour of his new method of image-making.
He insisted on printing Jazz (1947) using the same Linel gouache paints he had used for his paper cut-out maquettes. His characteristic saturated, jewel-like shades, combined with his playful pochoir forms, resulted in a joyous riot of colour, a celebration of life, and one of the most influential print series of the 20th century.
Similarly, Agnes Martin created her print series On a Clear Day (1973) towards the end of a seven-year period (1967-1974) during which she made no paintings. She was drawn to screen-printing for the ability to render the sharp corners and straight lines she had reached for throughout her career. In this set of screenprints, she finally had the tools to unleash a new Minimalist language of sharp marks, graphic grids and serial projects, which would become the trademarks of her ensuing second phase of work.
The artists in this sale used printmaking deliberately, to enhance and drive their respective movements forward. Warhol’s quick and efficient screen-printing technique realised the Pop Art ethos that art was ‘for everyone’. He could take images from popular mass media, reinterpret them and then redistribute them to a wider audience than ever before. The technique became central to pop iconography, from Warhol’s Soup Cans and Flowers to Roy Lichtenstein’s Haystacks.
Prints also offered 20th-century artists a different, liberating method of mark-making that gave them the power to revise and collaborate in a new way.
As Griffith notes, ‘Jasper Johns has talked about how printmaking’s flexibility and ability to repeat and change images changed his practice’: he plays with replication, reversals, layering and different proofs throughout his oeuvre. These processes appear in his Color Numeral series (1969) which he worked on with master printers at Gemini in Los Angeles.
Prints fundamentally changed the way that contemporary artists thought about mark-making. Many of the artists in the Sale of the Century adapted the techniques they learned from printmaking to other mediums.
As a result of these extensive technical possibilities, ‘an artist’s graphic work often has an additional layer of complexity beyond their paintings and drawings,’ notes Richard Lloyd, International Head of the Christie’s Prints and Multiples department.
He adds, ‘This collection is filled with examples of artists working hand-in-glove with master printers, and together creating works that delight and challenge not just because of the imagery, but also how that imagery was created.’
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