In what has been a decade of unprecedented social reckoning, underrepresented artists are slowly but surely getting their due. Books, such as Mary Gabriel’s 2018 Ninth Street Women (Little, Brown and Company) shined a light on the female Abstract Expressionists who worked alongside their eminent male counterparts, and in this last year alone, major museums across the globe have spotlighted both post-war and contemporary women artists, including Julie Mehretu, Alice Neel, and Yayoi Kusama. As these trailblazers gain more recognition, their prices at auction continue to skyrocket.
For collectors seeking works by both blue-chip and lesser-known female artists, the Post-War to Present auction on 1 October at Christie’s New York presents an opportunity to acquire art of exceptional quality at accessible price points. Highlights include works by Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan, who was the subject of a selling exhibition at Christie’s in Southampton this summer, as well as a Joan Mitchell diptych closely related to her painting that sold for seven figures at Christie’s last May.
‘With Post-War to Present, we deliberately position certain artists alongside ones that the market already strongly recognizes in order to elevate them and have them become part of the conversation,’ explains Isabella Lauria, head of Post-War to Present. ‘For example, this season Dorothy Fratt comes between Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. Her work carries a more modest estimate, but she was undoubtedly an important figure of the Colour Field movement, she just hasn't yet recieved the global recognition she deserves.’
This summer Christie’s brought renewed attention to Grace Hartigan, arguably the most celebrated female artist of her day, in a Southampton selling exhibition called Grace Hartigan: No Rules. With works from the late 1950s to right before her passing in 2008, the exhibition reflected a talent who never compromised her artistic vision or creative intuition.
The Post-War to Present sale offers two paintings by Hartigan, each representing a different period in her career. Christie’s currently holds three out of the top five results for Hartigan at auction, including the world record for The Phoenix, which was set in May 2021.
New Yorkers still have a chance to see the blockbuster Kusama: Cosmic Nature exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through 31 October, however, admirers of her work—and one of its most prolific motifs—have multiple opportunities to acquire exceptional pieces. The painting Pumpkins (1987) is unique example of a lighter palette, as the artist typically demonstrates a preference for dark backgrounds. In featuring not only the pumpkin motif, but also her infinity nets and all-over polka dots, this singular canvas stands as a true trifecta of Kusama’s most iconic elements. With Pumpkin (1992) the same subject takes three-dimensional form.
Of her emblematic motif, Kusama mused, ‘The appearance of the pumpkin is too adorable... What attracts me to her is that she doesn't wear any cover-up, unashamed of her plump belly, and she has a tenacious spiritual power.’
While Alice Neel is most known for her portraits, Christie’s set her auction record last May with Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room, a 1966 non-portrait work. The rare and early painting Circus (1935), one of two works by Neel in Post-War to Present, further demonstrates the artist’s versatility as a painter. The work was one of Neel’s first submissions to the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which asked artists to submit works that represented all aspects of American society.
Neel responded by using a European expressionist vocabulary of cramped composition and darkly burlesque imagery to imbue a quintessentially American scene with a palpable tragedy. This brand of cynical honesty demonstrates Neel’s sharp and nuanced perception of modern life, as well as her emotive renderings of her subjects. Circus also anticipated the compressed picture plane that would later become Neel’s standard.
Known for her abstractions with inspiration rooted in art history, Julie Mehretu is one of today’s most celebrated artists. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a mid-career survey of her work, which specialist Isabella Lauria notes is very rare to come to auction, particularly large-scale works on paper, such as the 2006 graphite, watercolour, and ink on paper in Post-War to Present. ‘In this fully realized work on paper, you really get the scope of Mehretu as an artist and her gesture. It feels more like a painting than her traditional works on paper,’ says Lauria.
With each sale, Helen Frankenthaler shatters her own auction records and paves the way for more female artists to enter the blue-chip marketplace. Warming the Wires (1976) is from the crux of the artist’s career, nearly 20 years after she captivated critics with her ‘soak-stain’ technique in which she used thinned-down paint to create free-flowing abstractions.
‘The viewer sees the pouring and staining, as well as the more gestural brushstrokes,’ says Lauria, adding that the vibrant painting is in pristine condition. ‘The deliberate window in this picture and the wire at the top that flows through it reflects a further strengthening of Frankenthaler’s compositions. It feels very intentional.’
Elaine de Kooning
After visiting the Paleolithic caves in Lascaux, France, during the 1980s, Elaine de Kooning began her famed ‘Cave Walls’ series. Christie’s currently holds three of the artist’s top five auction results, including world record, which was set in the March 2021 Post-War to Present sale for a large-scale Cave painting.
From the same series, this sale’s work, Echo Wall (Cave #68), is particularly interesting, as it was originally conceived as a diptych titled Calcium Wall and widely exhibited. Eventually, de Kooning decided to separate the panels because she thought they were strong on their own. She also revisited and added to the panel that is currently on offer.
Christie’s holds eight of the top ten auction results for Joan Mitchell, including her world record at more than $16.6 million. Last May the monumental Rain diptych sold for $6.6 million, but for a tenth of that price, collectors can acquire a more intimately scaled iteration of the painting, also executed in 1989 at the height of Mitchell’s expressive powers.
Similar in composition and taking on the same subject matter, the aptly titled Little Rain is a sophisticated diptych that was gifted to the artist’s close friend, Hervé Chandès, now the General Director of the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, as a New Year’s blessing.
Coming directly from the artist’s estate, this painting represents the first time a work by Dorothy Fratt is being offered by a major auction house. Though she rejected labels, Fratt played a significant role in the Washington Color School and Color Field movement. In 1958, Fratt settled in Phoenix, Arizona, where she drew inspiration from the vast desert plains and heat of the Southwestern sun. While effectively distanced from the art world, Fratt offered private lessons in painting and colour field theory while continuing to develop her own artistic practice as a colourist in the purist sense.