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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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The ancient Turkic land of Azerbaijan might not be first on the places-to-visit list of many art collectors, but that isn't stopping Phillips de Pury & Company. "Fly to Baku: Contemporary Art from Azerbaijan," a special selling exhibition, opens at the firm's Howick Place galleries in London on Jan. 17-29, 2012.

The show features works by 21 artists selected by Hervé Mikaeloff, an independent art consultant who recently organized an exhibition of emerging Indonesian artists at the Louis Vuitton Espace Culturel in Paris. About three-quarters of the works on view at Phillips were made specifically for the exhibition, and prices range from £1,400 to £27,000.

Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country that regained independence in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Socialist Realism was the only type of art endorsed by the Soviet Union, and it was only after 1991 that artists were allowed to publicly work in other styles.

Though many of the artists are unfamiliar to Western audiences, the works are varied and reflect a sophisticated sensibility that fits into the global art market without difficulty.

Azeri art made waves last year at the Venice Biennale, when the government got into a pickle after it censored a pair of racy sculptures by Aidan Salakhova, the chic artist and dealer who has operated one of the top Moscow galleries for almost 20 years. One work showed the Black Stone, an Islamic relic, in a marble frame shaped like female genitalia. While some of the works at Phillips contains religious or political themes, nothing on view is likely to upset Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president and the rumored instigator of the biennale scrap.

Salakhova is not included in "Fly to Baku," but several other artists who have shown at the biennale are. Altai Sadiqzadeh contributes The Thinker (£14,700), an imaginative blue- and black-painted figurative iron sculpture -- rather reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s Memorial to Apollinaire -- covered in contemplative quotes from Hippocrates, Rumi -- and Ray Bradbury. Sadiqzadeh was instrumental in designing Baku’s right-angle-free Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 2009 and focuses on Azeri art of the last 50 years.

Also at Phillips is a witty pair of large, white minimalist sculptures by Faig Ahmed (b. 1982), who gives his works a native spin by attaching traditional Azeri rugs to one of their surfaces (£5,400 and £4,000). Ahmed showed a series of prints called Toys for Terrorists at the 2007 Venice Biennale -- the first Azerbaijan participated in.

Oil exports are an important factor in the Azeri economy, a fact that is reflected on the cover of the show’s catalogue. Splash, a Plexiglas wall hanging by Orkhan Huseynov (b. 1978), shows a stylized raised fist clenching a splash of oil. The price is £8,000. Huseynov also makes video art, including Oil Drinking, in which two men in bright orange jumpsuits apparently drink oil as if it were coffee (£2,700).

Most of the artists included in the exhibition studied art at the university level, but a few are self-taught. Rashad Babayev (b. 1979) has a degree in law from the Azerbaijan State University and has been painting since 2000. His black-and-white, expressionist painting, St. Sebastian, updates the Christian story by superimposing a Johnsian target on a roughly painted figure that could be a civilian in a war zone or a prisoner about to be executed. The work is not for sale.

Farid Rasulov (b. 1985) was pursing a career in medicine before turning to art. His immense triptych shows a realistically painted collection of medical tools, citrus fruits and doll heads on what looks like a green fabric ground (£20,000). Niyaz Najafov (b. 1968) is a professional sports player who took up painting in 2003, and the color red figures prominently in his work -- more in his titles than on the canvas. There is The Red Shoes (£6,000), The Red Cockerels (£9,400), The Nights of the Red Hen (£6,700), Roses (£5,400), and Rose Room (£8,700).

“Fly to Baku: Contemporary Art from Azerbaijan” is the latest show at Phillips of art from emerging markets made in the last few years. Last year the firm presented shows of art from Chile and Turkey.

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Across the pond, Phillips de Pury in New York is holding its 269-lot “Editions” auction on Jan. 25, 2012. The top lot is Andy Warhol’s Flash – November 22, 1963, the evocative set of 11 varied screenprints of images relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy (est. $40,000-$60,000). The condition of the Plexiglas case holding the prints is central to the value; here, it is described as “broken.” The record for this work, $103,000, came for a mint-condition set in May 2008 at the height of the art boom.

On the front cover of the catalogue is Roy Lichtenstein’s Benday-dotted Mirror #1 of 1972 (est. $5,000-$7,000), and the back reproduces the trompe l’oeil print by Jasper Johns titled Face with Watch from 1996 (est. $12,000-$18,000).

Along with Warhol and Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Frank Stella and Takashi Murakami are amply represented in the sale, which leans heavily towards postwar art. Minimalism in particular has a strong presence, led by a set of four Sol LeWitt etchings that make the paper’s surface look like finely grained wood. Vertical Not Straight Lines Not Touching on Color is estimated at $10,000-$15,000.

Among the notable earlier works is Paul Klee’s famous etching of a tightrope walker from an edition of 220, which is expected to bring $20,000-$30,000. Another etching is the exquisitely detailed Quarter of Nine, Saturday’s Children by Martin Lewis, the great chronicler of city life, which carries an estimate of $10,000-$15,000. In September 2010 an impression of the 1929 print brought $20,400 at Swann Galleries in New York.

Editioned sculpture is also included in the sale. An ominous cloaked figure in bronze with a spear for a head by Lynn Chadwick could bring as much as $25,000, and two small pieces by Tom Otterness -- including an atypically ominous figure of death with his scythe -- are each estimated at $10,000-$15,000.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.