LOS ANGELES — In its Post-War and Contemporary Art + Design sale taking place on Tuesday, June 21, John Moran Auctioneers will offer more than 250 lots including paintings, prints, sculptures, works on paper, midcentury furniture and modern design by many leading artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. A major highlight of the sale is an untitled welded scrap iron sculpture by Richard Diebenkorn, produced by the artist when he was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This work is one of two known sculptures that the artist designed, and it is without a doubt the most accomplished example of Diebenkorn’s three-dimensional works to have survived since its creation in 1951. It carries an estimate of $70,000-$90,000. Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.
Diebenkorn’s Untitled has been held in a private collection since 1981, and its appearance in the June 21 sale may be the only opportunity that collectors have to acquire the one sculpture confirmed to have survived from the artist’s Albuquerque Period. Considering that this work has been in a private collection for the last 40 years, it is hard to say if or when there will ever be another opportunity to acquire a Diebenkorn sculpture. This truly is a singular work.
Richard Diebenkorn (American, 1922-1993) is an artist who defies easy classification. He is often associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, which emerged in New York City during the mid-1940s and consisted of artists such Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner. Diebenkorn, however, never lived in New York City. After serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, Diebenkorn studied painting at the California School of Fine Art. A few years later, he enrolled in a master’s degree program at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where he produced Untitled, the sculpture featured in this sale. He later worked in Urbana, Illinois, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Santa Monica, where he would produce his highly acclaimed Ocean Park series before dying in Healdsburg, California on March 30, 1993.
As an artist, Diebenkorn was very spontaneous. He sought to bypass aspects of the conscious mind while searching for unrecognized forms and emotions which would inform his work. For his master’s degree exhibition, Diebenkorn selected pieces made during the 17 months of his residency in New Mexico, and included Untitled in the show.
Having no prior experience with the medium but wanting to try his hand at creating sculptures from recycled metal, Diebenkorn sought the help of a fellow graduate assistant, Herb Goldman, to teach him the fundamentals of welding. His contribution to the graduate students’ exhibition would comprise a total of 16 paintings, six drawings and at least two welded metal sculptures – Untitled being one of them. The other sculpture has presumably been lost and its current whereabouts remain unknown.
After the master’s degree exhibition closed on May 5, 1951, Diebenkorn’s scrap metal sculpture disappeared into a private collection for the next 38 years. In 1978, the art historian Mark Lavatelli managed to trace the whereabouts of the work to a modest home located on the outskirts of Albuquerque, where the insect-like piece had spent several decades affixed to an exterior wall. As Lavatelli would later recall, the sculpture’s owner at the time had to use a large stick to pry it off the wall for a closer look.
For the last 41 years, Diebenkorn’s Untitled has resided in the private collection of Los Angeles-based collectors who acquired the work at auction in 1981. In the years since its acquisition, the metal sculpture has been included in several museum exhibitions. From October 2007 through most of 2008, the piece was part of a touring exhibit, Diebenkorn in New Mexico, which was sponsored by The Hartwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico. The exhibition then traveled to the San Jose Museum of Art in Northern California before appearing at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. At the time of the exhibition, the Director of the Phillips Collection, Jay Gates, noted, “This important exhibition makes clear that Richard Diebenkorn’s story has not been fully told until now. The works stand as powerful evidence that he indeed found his artistic voice while in New Mexico.”
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