Beaus of Holly

Los Angeles

Left: Detail view of Andy Warhol's photobooth strip Untitled (Holly Solomon), 1963-64 (Photo: Bonhams). Right: Writer and professor Ann Reynolds stands before Janice Provisor's Roselawn, 1980.

What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? The Holly Solomon Estate auction on Sunday afternoon at Bonhams in Los Angeles was not your usual sale. In conventional terms it was something of a bust, attracting only a tiny crowd of bargain hunters and a few family friends such as Christine Nichols and Paul Masursky. A lack of current market darlings meant that many lots sold below estimate and a fair sprinkling were bought in.

Yet, with its startling variety of incredibly low-selling items, the Solomon sale functioned as an alternative art fair, a marketplace of the out-of-fashion, and a rigorous art-historical critique. The event was only a partial clearinghouse for the estate, including just a couple of obligatory Warhols, two solid Gordon Matta-Clarks, a nice Richard Tuttle, a great Charles Garabedian, and a cornucopia of about 250 other items that revealed the twists and turns of one of the most fertile and quirky minds of our era.

First as a collector and after 1975 in her Soho and uptown galleries, Solomon embraced art of nearly every persuasion, from Conceptualism to Pattern & Decoration, chunky abstraction to slick cibachrome photography. She was instrumental in jumpstarting the careers of Matta-Clark, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sigmar Polke, Judy Pfaff, William Wegman, and the entire P&D movement. An inveterate shopper, she was that rare dealer who bought both artists she showed and others whom she happened to like.

In today's hyped marketplace, Solomon's pluralistic pursuit of the new looks prescient—only the names of the artists have changed. The lethargic pace of the sale gave plenty of time for deep-dish thinking—what happened to some of these artists and who decided that their works and ideas were no longer relevant? This work seems more interesting than much of what one sees today in Chelsea or Culver City. What does that tell us about the current crop of tyro-geniuses?

Left: Frank Hettig of Bonhams talks with gallerist Marc Selwyn about works by Gordon Matta-Clark. Right: Bonhams's Cecilia Dan and museum director Victoria Rowe look on at Robert Zakanitch's Cotton Seed, 1975.

Fifteen paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Nicholas Africano looked totally fresh. These included sketches of neo-romantic nymphs and ephebes that seemed worthy of Christian Bérard. A 1980 tableau of the death scene from The Girl of the Golden West featured a killer epitaph in small handwritten letters: “Non morire, Johnson.” This kind of lyrical oomph was the ballast of Holly's sensibility, evident in the kooky brilliance of Kim MacConnel, Robert Kushner, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, and Rob Wynne, all of whose early works here seemed shockingly direct and alive.

While the auction was being filmed for cable television's Fine Living network, we played a game: “What’s Most Outré?” My friend, art historian Ann Reynolds, chose Joe Zucker's scary six-foot Octoport and humongous nutty diptych Kung Fu Tiger vs Crane, both from 1984. I picked the three big, iconic mid-'80s oils by Scott Kilgour and two early, murky abstractions by Lydia Dona. Outré-in-a-good-way winners were the clunky cookie-dough semi-abstractions by Janis Provisor and a group of five lusciously painted landscapes by Lynton Wells. The sale's sleeper, Wells's expert paint handling and deft use of photography and relief showed that he is a major artist missing-in-action.

The more time I spent with the collection, the more dangerously revisionist I got. Currently sidelined players like Tina Girouard and Izhar Patkin looked ready for primetime. Questions arose: Are Susan Hall's drawings from 1969 any less interesting than Amy Cutler's or Robyn O'Neil's from 2005? Why is Donna Dennis’s use of architecture-as-sculpture in the 1970s never referenced in the context of similar efforts today by Jorge Pardo or Rirkrit Tiravanija? Are the cartoonish paintings of Rodney Alan Greenblat and Milan Kunc any less charmingly dopey than those of Takeshi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara? What does Africano lack that Hernan Bas and Elizabeth Peyton have?

What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? For today's youth-cult art market, it ain't what you got, it's the age that you do it. When today's derivative hotshots turn forty, they will go the way of last season's Hollywood starlets and boy toys. And after the dust settles, maybe some in the art world will look again at the lasting achievements of Solomon’s artists. Twenty or so years ago, she gave these artists a shot and now her eclectic taste has been disseminated in 250 or so directions. Even if no one broke a price record, the fact that these works have found new homes is a good thing. She believed in love, Alfie.

Michael Duncan