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Private Collection: From an Important American Collection

Is art a symptom or a cause? Does it simply reflect the morals and values of a society, or is it a catalyst in bringing them about? This chicken-and-egg conundrum is best left to historians and philosophers, but one thing is certain: artistic trends and styles evolve with society, not apart from it.

There is nothing that changes a country and its people quite like war. The United States that emerged from World War II was, in many ways, fundamentally different from the one that entered it. And postwar American art mirrored that metamorphosis. So, to fully appreciate postwar American art and the pieces in the collection offered by Sotheby’s Home, it is vital to understand the impact that World War II had on the country as a whole.

A Changing Nation

For a full decade after the stock market crash of 1929, America slogged through the Great Depression — arguably the most catastrophic and devastating economic crisis in the country’s history. But entry into the war slammed the crippled economy into overdrive. Almost overnight, the nation’s factories were mobilized to churn out everything from rifles and airplanes to binoculars and canteen kits in support of the war effort. Women left the home and joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers. The soaring unemployment rate of the 1930s plummeted, and the emaciated economy quickly rebounded. The war also had an important psychological effect on the nation: after 10 years of soup lines and joblessness, Americans found an important cause to believe in, rally behind and cheer for: the defeat of Fascism.

The war transformed the nation in multiple ways, and things would never again be the same. The rapid technological and industrial advancements made necessary by the war would otherwise have taken a good decade or two. Entirely new technologies and industries had been created in just a few short years, and the country emerged from the maelstrom as the world’s leading industrial, economic and military power. America was on the winning side, and her proud children felt they had good reason to see themselves as second-to-none. Cultural trends, including art, reflected this newfound brashness, pride and confidence.

Different Perspectives

Before the war, Americans never questioned the idea that the culture of Europe — with its centuries-old traditions, cities, monarchies and art — was superior in every way. But the war hadn’t been just a military victory. In the nation’s collective consciousness, it was also a cultural one. And American culture had gained a legitimate place on the world stage. This new level of self-confidence was subsequently absorbed by many postwar artists. They eschewed traditional realism, scene painting and illustration — which had long been revered European traditions — and opted for work that expressed America metaphorically through sheer size or dynamic symbols. To them, it was more important to communicate a concept than to simply produce something attractive and eye-pleasing.

The postwar period thus saw the emergence of new styles such as abstract expressionism, neo-Dada, pop, minimalism, photorealism, conceptual art, op art, post-modernism and other movements that developed in decades following World War II. Many notable artists were working in those years. Here are a few who were in the vanguard during the postwar period.

Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989)

De Kooning learned from — and later married — renowned Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning. She was one of only a few women accepted into the abstract expressionist movement, and she subsequently became very much a part of the halcyon days of the bohemian West Village in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She worked confidently and quickly, once saying, “A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun.”

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008)

Rauschenberg was active for more than six decades, producing an impressive body of work that included paintings, sculpture, silkscreens, magazine and album covers and much more. After moving to New York, he became part of the neo-Dadaist movement and was perhaps most famous for his “combines,” where he incorporated objects he found — newspapers, clothing, trash and even taxidermy — into his paintings and sculptures.

Garry Winogrand (1928–1984)

There were many “street photographers” working in the ‘60s and ‘70s whose goal was to document simple, everyday life in American cities. Winogrand is generally acknowledged as being one of the very best. The son of working-class Jewish immigrants shot more than a million pictures during his lifetime and was known for his keen eye in capturing candid — but seemingly choreographed — images of unvarnished life among both celebrities and common workaday folks.

Bruce Nauman (1941)

Born in Fort Wayne, Ind., Bruce moved to San Francisco and opened his own studio when he was still in his 20s. He has created conceptual work in drawing, neon, performance, photography, printmaking, sculpture, sound, videography and other genres. Nauman’s work isn’t always meant to be beautiful or aesthetically pleasing; to him, art is more about the activity than the actual end result or product. He now lives in New Mexico, where he continues to work along with his wife, painter Susan Rothenberg.

Jeff Koons (1965)

Believing that balloon animals are more than just an ephemeral part of a child’s birthday party, Koons has raised them to objets d’art. His stainless steel creations command millions of dollars. Two of his works have the distinction of garnering record auction prices for works by a living artist; in May 2019, his sculpture, Rabbit, sold for a cool $91.1 million. Blending pop art and surrealism, he sometimes turns common household items into wall art. Since coming to prominence in the 1980s, Koons has created several series along with many individual works.

The American Collection

This private collection of postwar American art offered by Sotheby’s Home is comprised of more than 160 works by some of the most renowned artists of the past seven decades. Paintings and photographs from dozens of artists are available. Here are a few examples:

-“Cowboy Diptych” by Judy Rifka. The set of two pictures, done in acrylic on paper, feature bull riders rendered in black, blue, orange and red.

-“Judy on the Beach” by Kenny Scharf. This brightly-colored numbered serigraph depicts Judy Jetson from The Jetsons cartoon in a futuristic beach scene.

-“The Gardens at Giverny Portfolio” by Stephen Shore. The set of seven color photos, mounted in whitewashed wood frames, are of Claude Monet’s famous gardens in Giverny, France.

-“Nelson Rockefeller, Republican Headquarters On Election Night Of Nixon Landslide, New York City_,_ 1968” by Garry Winogrand. The gelatin silver print is edition 13 of 100 and depicts the politician as he delivers an impassioned speech.

In 1945, after the war, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “America at this moment stands at the summit of the world.” The sweeping cultural changes that took place in the world’s new superpower and economic leader were evident in the new styles of art that began to emerge. This private collection features excellent examples of such remarkable postwar American art.