On 15 November Christie’s presents the first comprehensive collection of American Abstract Expressionism to come to market in half a decade — featuring masterworks by Franz Kline, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder and more
Upon learning that collectors Heinz and Ruthe Eppler had purchased Franz Kline’s seminal painting, Light Mechanic, in 1985, Edward B. Henning, Chief Curator of Modern Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, wrote to express his congratulations. ‘You now have an excellent, representative collection of American Abstract Expressionist art,’ he said, calling that movement ‘the most important art of the 20th century and the most important of all American art.’
Executed in 1960, Light Mechanic (above left) is a consummate work by the artist whose paintings have come to be regarded as the embodiment of Abstract Expressionism. At nearly eight feet high, it belongs to a group of monumental canvases Franz Kline (1910-62) painted between 1950 and the early 1960s. Deliberate imperfections, irregularities and imbalances in its composition give life to its architectural geometry; broad sweeps of black and white paint evoke the dynamism of New York City. In both physical size and artistic scope, Light Mechanic captures the raw energy that epitomised Abstract Expressionism.
On 15 November, Light Mechanic will be offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York alongside other key pieces from the Epplers’ private collection. Comprising works by many of the 20th century’s leading artists, this single-owner section, The Defining Gesture: Modern Masters from the Eppler Family Collection, includes standout works by Kline, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky, among others.
‘We have not seen a comprehensive collection of American Abstract Expressionism come to market since 2012,’ says Sara Friedlander, Head of Department, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘We are particularly excited about a collection formed so thoughtfully with an eye towards the revolutionary spirit of art in the 20th century.’
As the Epplers began to collect art in the 1980s, they formed a close friendship with Edward B. Henning, who went to great lengths to commend the art-historical significance of the Abstract Expressionists. Of their purchase of Robert Motherwell’s Je t’aime No. III with Loaf of Bread, Henning noted, ‘My feeling is that it is very important as well as being beautiful.’ He also praised their choice of a ‘superb’ painting by William Baziotes.
Drawing from African sculpture, cast-off industrial materials and totemic imagery, David Smith shared some symbology with his Abstract Expressionist colleagues. While Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb were experimenting with pictorial forms, Smith often commented that he was more akin to these painters than he was to traditional sculptors.
Smith became the pre-eminent sculptor of Abstract Expressionism, transforming industrial materials into elegant elegies of balance and composition. Indicative of his mature style and inspired by a hugely productive stay in the Italian town of Voltri near Genoa in 1962, Voltron XXIV (above), which is offered from the collection, exhibits the artist’s interest in geometric abstraction on a large scale.
Other key acquisitions made by the Epplers include Willem de Kooning’s Composition I (1955), a pivotal work for the artist. Already heralded, along with Jackson Pollock, as one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement, de Kooning continued to push himself to innovate, transform and adapt his artistic practice. Composition I finds de Kooning in the process of navigating from his bold, frenetic ‘Woman’ paintings to a style more closely resembling that of landscape. Fleshy pinks mix with supple blues and delicate yellows, resulting in a work that is at once wholly abstract yet curiously representational.
Distinguished by a kaleidoscopic array of enigmatic forms, Arshile Gorky’s Composition I is one of his finest works on paper, having featured in nearly every major retrospective devoted to his oeuvre. Taking its cues from the natural world, the work illustrates the indefinable yet compelling imagery that Gorky developed during the summer of 1943 while living in rural Virginia with his wife and daughter. This watershed period witnessed a flourishing of breakthrough works — such as the present example — in which the artist unfurled a new pictorial language inspired by the natural world and infused with childhood memories of his Armenian birthplace.
In Calderoulette (1940-45), a standing mobile by Alexander Calder, an open water lily is positioned below a floating butterfly, a small buzzing insect, and a dragonfly.
But as is often the case with Calder’s work, there is more to the piece than first meets the eye. Mimicking the design of a roulette wheel, each of the lily's open petals has been marked with a digit, inviting the viewer to guess which petal an insect will land on first. Encompassing many of the qualities that make Calder’s work so iconic, Calderoulette combines the magical suspension of the artist’s mobiles with the balance of his later stabiles.
Leading the Eppler collection’s Modern Art selection is Pablo Picasso’s 1943 Buste de femme au chapeau (Dora Maar), a portrait of one of the artist’s most influential muses, Dora Maar. In contrast to the tension that so often infuses Picasso’s other wartime images of Maar, this portrait seems to convey a measure of humour. The work will be included in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York.