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Still the one: Phillips to offer fresh-to-market Clyfford Still canvas

Oct 25, 2016

by SARAH P. HANSON

Phillips has revealed a highlight of its forthcoming 20th-century and contemporary art sale in New York on 16 November: a seldom seen, never before auctioned canvas by Clyfford Still. Estimated to make between $12m-$18m, the untitled painting from 1948-49 was acquired from the artist by the painter Edward Dugmore, his student at the California School of Fine Arts, and also passed through the hands of the Texas collector Edward Kitchen, before entering an East Coast collection about 20 years ago. 

Clyfford Still, Untitled (1948-49), estimate $12m-$18<br />
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Permission for the use of any image is granted for timely reporting and auction review purposes only.<br />
Image courtesy of Phillips / Phillips.com<br />
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Clyfford Still, Untitled (1948-49), estimate $12m-$18

“Inch for inch, it’s about as great as any Still that has come up,” says Phillips’ new deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art, Robert Manley, who is behind notable Still sales at Christie’s in recent years, including 1947-R-no. 1 (1947), which made $21.3m in November 2006. The timing is opportune, as a room of Still’s paintings in the Royal Academy’s survey of Abstract Expressionism (through 2 January) has impressed London critics, who have had little exposure to the artist’s rarely loaned work.

The 4.5ft-tall picture is dominated by smouldering reds and golds with white accents, a desirable palette, as many of the artist’s works edge into more sombre territory. “People like the red because they associate it with fire and drama, but to me it’s more the surface, this beautiful complexity” that makes this canvas special, Manley says. “The littlest gestures can just transform the whole painting.”

The bulk of Still’s works are held by his museum in Denver, and only 13 works have come to auction since 2011, when Sotheby’s scored a record price of $61.7m for the monumental canvas 1949-A-No. 1 (1949, est $25m-$35m), which was one of four paintings put up by the artist’s family to fund the museum. A similarly sized painting from the collection of Alfred Taubman, PH-218 (1947), sold for $14.8m at Sotheby’s New York last fall (est $10m-$15m). Ironically, the artist himself was so allergic to the art market that he stopped working with commercial galleries almost completely by the 1950s.

The Still—which carries a guarantee and already has one bid on the books—will be among the most expensive Abstract Expressionist paintings Phillips has sold, alongside Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXVIII (1977), which made $11.4m last November, underscoring the house’s play for a slice of the masterwork market. “Phillips was never just younger contemporary art, though that’s how people pigeonhole us,” notes Manley, adding that the November sale will “be dominated by art made before 1970”.