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Mar. 22, 2010 

Art Market Watch has been on something of a hiatus during the last few months. What with the recession, reporting on auction results just isnít as compelling as it was during the boom years. Last week, Phillips de Pury & Co. in London raised the heat a little, though, with its "Sex" theme auction on Friday, Mar. 19, 2010. To the extent that it represents the life force, sex is generally held in high regard around here. Plus, the sale was no doubt a good source for bordello decor. †

At first glance, the overall results arenít that impressive -- a mere 69 percent of the 217 lots sold for a total of $2,057,114. A single work accounted for more than a quarter of the aggregate, the $542,417 paid for British Pop artist Allen Jonesí Soft Tread from 1966-67 -- a large (10 x 8.5 ft.) oil of a womanís legs in profile, wearing nylons, garters and high heels, taken from a Fredericks of Hollywood mail-order catalogue. The price is a new auction record for Jones, and more than double his previous auction high, set in 2007.

More important to note, perhaps, are the artists that Phillips has decided to put in the "Sex" category, since auctioneer Simon de Pury says that the auction is now an annual event. Sigmar Polke doesnít really belong, but his Untitled painting from 1977 could illustrate a dictionary entry for the subject: itís an outline drawing of a pornographic photo of a couple in intercourse, done in "Lyrical Abstraction" violets, yellows and mauves. Funny, actually. It sold for $182,057. †

Another top lot was Jack Piersonís Sex (1992), which belongs in a special "this is about sex because it says so" category -- itís three found sign-letters spelling out the word. Formed from a passionate orange "s" and "e" and a kinky bronze "x," the work sold for $108,057 -- an impressive sum, though less than Piersonís Lust (1996), which went for $352,000 in 2006. Piersonís current auction record of $664,478 is held by the more romantic The One and Only from 1993, sold in 2008.

The BBW community was represented in the fourth-highest lot, a photograph of a heavy nude womanís torso pressed flat against a pane of glass (with head and extremities unseen) done in 1995-96 by painter Jenny Saville with photog Glen Luchford. It sold for $100,975. The price is a new record for a work from this series.

What else counts as "sex?" Well, nudes, in case there was any doubt, via lithos by Henri Matisse, etchings by Pablo Picasso, and photos by Nan Goldin and Edward Weston -- none of which were expressly erotic. Plenty of material in that camp was available, of course, notably photos by Nobuyoshi Araki, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Sante DíOrazio, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Marilyn Minter, Pierre Molinier, Terry Richardson and Thomas Ruff, drawings by Tom Wesselmann and Tom of Finland, paintings by Jonathan Meese and George Condo, and erotica by a range of other, lesser known photogs -- Gavin Bond, Willy Camden, Bob Carlos-Clarke, Stephane Graff, Pamela Hanson, Rankin, Paolo Roversi.

The model Helena Christensen, naked and leaning seductively towards the viewer, is both beautiful and sexy in Patrick Demarchelierís 1992 photo, which sold for $10,500 (in an edition of 20). Does it deserve a category of its own?†

Brigitte Bardot apparently counts as "sex," too, even if just standing there wrapped in a towel, as demonstrated by Armanís Untitled (Brigitte Bardot) from 1963, a collage made from two postcards of the French sex kitten that were cut (slashed?) into five pieces and attached to a sheet of black paper. It sold for $7,636.

An auction titled "Sex" may feature artworks that arenít in fact sexy, like one of Cindy Shermanís black-and-white photos of a grotesque spread-eagled plastic baby doll (with a penis) ($7,636), or Spencer Tunickís 2007 color photo of a horde of nudes on a glacier ($7,255, for a ca. 8 x 10 in print). A drippy painting of the Playboy bunny logo by Zevs went for $10,500.

When sex isnít about desire, itís about comedy. A 1998 photograph by Gilbert and George of themselves in their underwear, posing like boyhood chums with arms thrown over each otherís shoulders, sold for $1,050 (it is from an edition of 300).

Animals get into the act here and there. Some savvy buyer paid $8,591 for a 40 x 48 in. painting of two lizards mating by Alexis Rockman, while Sarah Lucasí Sex Baby photo, a witty burlesque made from a t-shirt on a hanger with two lemons for breasts and a supermarket chicken carcass for legs, sold for $9,928 (in an edition of ten).†

Oral sex is a lively subcategory. A Chantal Joffe painting of a straight blow-job from 1997 sold for $13,364, while a Wolfgang Tillmans photo of a gay blow-job went for $4,582. And Jake & Dinos Chapman contributed a film still of a woman sucking off a penis-nosed mannequin head, which sold for $1,090. Those artists, what will they think of next?

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