Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Words in Art

February 14, 2019

A surge in linguistic philosophy that explored the ways in which languages affect their broader cultural systems led to the proliferation of text-heavy throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Many modern and conceptual artists began performing practical analyses of those effects by representing the intersections of text and visual languages in their works. While an earlier generation of Cubists had also included text in their work to emphasize the flat plane on which their two dimensional images existed, artists such as Emerson Woelffer, Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, and Mel Bochner showcase the nature of ‘meaning-making’ rather than their own artistic processes.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)
Emerson Woelffer, Forio #1, 1957
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

As one of Emerson Woelffer’s Forio paintings, Forio #1 (1957), takes its name from the island off the coast of Naples, where the artist lived during the late 1950’s. The work is composed with rich, rugged layers of paint that interpret the anthropological layering of the island, and brightly colored shapes that recall the structural qualities of its Roman ruins. Like others from Woelffer’s informal series of this period, Forio #1 features a band of scrawled pictographs across the top that synthesizes both primitive and contemporary mark-making. Woelffer is said to used have the surrealist method of “automatic writing” to fabricate these symbols by mobilizing subconscious and unfiltered transcription. In concert with the very deliberate notation of the work’s title at the center of the painting, this pictographic band functions as an intuitive bridge between linguistic script and Woelffer’s abstract visual forms.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA
Ed Ruscha, Mocha Standard, 1969
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

As a seminal member of the Pop Art movement, Ed Ruscha seeks to elevate the humdrum and often discounted elements of modern life. Like many of his contemporaries, the artist is highly influenced by advertising culture and has explored its characteristics throughout his practice. Early in his career, Ruscha adopted a particular interest in painting and printing phrases as he found that they retained a consistent realism regardless of their visual representation. Ruscha employs what he calls “found words,” plucked from “the noise of everyday life.” Moving from works such as Mocha Standard (1969) in which words aid their figurative scenes, Stranger (1983) and Vowel #77 (E) (1996) prioritize text and cast their pictorial backgrounds as visual “elevator music.” Ruscha’s increasing emphasis on his found words heightens the deadpan quality of his style.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)
Ed Kienholz, For 2 Phony Rocks and a Snag, 1971
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

Known for his satirical and anti-establishment sentiment, Ed Kienholz developed his series of stamped watercolor works in 1969. After stumbling upon material restraints while working on a project, Kienholz considered his bartering options. This inspired Kienholz to present a series of watercolor paintings, that featured their desired trade-costs as subjects (ranging from $1 to a designer coat), at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles. In transforming his artwork into a pseudo-currency, Kienholz mocked the instability and sometimes meaningless nature of the art market. He explicitly illustrated the illogical monetization of his work and reclaimed the sovereignty of his practice. This experiment complexly commingled the abstract and physical meanings of Kienholz’s works by foregrounding the linguistic translation of their worth.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)
Mel Bochner, Head Honcho, 2012
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

A leading American conceptualist, Mel Bochner challenges established semiotic assumptions through his investigations of the visual experiences inherent to linguistic encounters. He attempts to divorce reading from hearing and instead emphasizes its relationship to seeing. His practice is deeply theoretical and rigorously participates in the critical dialogue surrounding linguistic expression. Bochner’s ‘thesaurus paintings,’ such as Head Honcho (2012), feature a single expression and its many synonyms. As the lines of seemingly similar words descend the picture plain, they become subtely more aggressive or subversive. This progression is accompanied by stark shifts in color that pace the changing nature the text’s meaning. This material analysis highlights the malleability of linguistic representation and casts doubt on its superior objectivity.


Lot 236
Emerson Woelffer
Forio #1
Oil on canvas
Signed lower right; titled in composition; signed, titled, and dated verso; retains Manny Silverman Gallery and Riverside Art Museum labels frame verso
Canvas: 39.5″ x 27.625″; Frame: 41.75″ x 30″; (Canvas: 100 x 70 cm)
Provenance: Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist); Private Collection, Maryland (acquired directly from the above); Private Collection, Portland, Oregon
Exhibited: Paul Kantor Gallery, Beverly Hills, January 11-February 11, 1960; “Driven to Abstraction: Southern California and the Non-Objective World, 1950-1980,” Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, August 26-October 4, 2006; “Emerson Woelffer: Classic Works, 1947-1962,” Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles, September 12-October 31, 2009
Illustrated: Driven to Abstraction: Southern California and the Non-Objective World, 1950-1980. Riverside Art Museum exh. cat. 2006. 33.

Estimate: $10,000 – $15,000
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 143
Ed Ruscha
Mocha Standard
8-color screenprint on paper
#70 of 100
Published by the artist; printed by Jean Milant and Daniel Socha, Hollywood
Signed and dated with edition in graphite lower left margin beneath image
Image: 19.625″ x 37″; Sheet: 25.625″ x 40″; Frame: 26.25″ x 40.625″; (Image: 50 x 94 cm)
Literature: Edward Ruscha: Editions, 1959-1999: Catalogue Raisonné. 1st ed. Vol. II. S. Engberg and C. Phillpot. 1999. #30.

Estimate: $80,000 – $120,000
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 149
Ed Kienholz
For 2 Phony Rocks and a Snag
Watercolor and ink stamp on paper in artist’s frame
Signed and dated in graphite with artist’s thumbprint lower right edge of sheet
Sheet (vis.): 11.75″ x 15.75″; Frame: 12.375″ x 16.25″; (Sheet: 30 x 40 cm)

Estimate: $5,000 – $7,000
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 186
Mel Bochner
Head Honcho
Monoprint with collage, engraving, and embossment on hand-dyed Twinrocker handmade paper
Published by Two Palms, New York
Signed and dated in graphite lower center edge of sheet; retains Two Palms label frame verso
Image/sheet: 63″ x 43″; Frame: 67.625″ x 47.75″; (Image/sheet: 160 x 109 cm)
Provenance: Two Palms, New York, New York; Galerie Maurice, Palm Beach, Florida; Private Collection (acquired directly from the above, 2012); Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the above through Sotheby’s, New York, New York, March 5, 2015, lot 320)

Estimate: $35,000 – $45,000
February 17, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

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