During the holidays, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: Carmen Herrera’s Blanco y Verde, a mid-1960s canvas that sold at Sotheby’s in March 2019 for $2.9 million–a record for the artist.

The expert: Saara Pritchard, senior specialist in Sotheby’s Contemporary art department in New York.

Why was this painting chosen to lead the By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women sale in March 2019? Sotheby’s photographed Oprah Winfrey, collector Agnes Gund, and others in front of it. The auction featured a strong lineup of works. Why does Blanco y Verde earn that treatment? I think this painting would stand out in almost any group of works. It’s incredibly rare to have a work of this scale and caliber come to auction at all. I think it would have achieved the world auction record for the artist in any auction for its rarity, its exceptional provenance, and its status as a truly iconic work by the artist. It doesn’t get better.

Could we talk a bit about Carmen Herrera and her contributions to art? She trained as an architect when she was much younger. She moved between Europe and New York and was friends with important painters, including Ellsworth Kelly. She pursued an interest in minimal geometric abstraction before Kelly and Frank Stella got into it.

Herrera was born in 1915. Is she still painting? Yes. She is still making new work, with a studio assistant to help her build compositions.

Herrera has said she regards her Blanco y Verde series as her most important. Do you agree? What makes it important? Because she started her career training as an architect, she’s said she paints with her brain, not her heart. She investigates color relationships, pairing one color with another to create her desired effect. She pursued the relationship between white and green for over a decade. And Blanco y Verde generally and this painting in particular inspired her to pursue sculpture–she started thinking about the 3-D nature of her work. Her first sculpture, from 1971, has the same composition as the work in the auction. It has the same one-two-three diagonal, the same horizontal format, and a similar scale. The green areas are negative spaces in the sculptural work. This form and this composition became very iconic. That’s why she believes Blanco y Verde is important.

The painting measures 40 by 70. Is that a typical size for her work, and for the Blanco y Verde series? This is among the larger of her canvas compositions, but not the largest. It might be the largest of any to come to auction.

Do we know how many works there are in the Blanco y Verde series? I don’t know, but she did them over the course of 13 years, and there were nine in the Whitney show. [The Whitney Museum of American Art presented Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight in late 2016 and early 2017.]

Do we know how many paintings from the series have come to auction? I think only two have come up in recent years.

When did the secondary market for Herrera works begin? It’s much more recent. I think it didn’t have a presence until the Whitney show.

What is Blanco y Verde like in person? There’s a clear distinction in how she layers different components of the paint, creating a contrast between the green and the white. It does create a sculptural quality. It’s certainly not a uniform surface. The green is the window through, like an opening, and the white is like architecture. And because there’s so many different diagonals, there’s a sense of movement as the diagonals meet and join.

What was your role in the auction? I was helping the school [Miss Porter’s School, the beneficiary of the sale] get works for consignment, and working with collectors who ended up bidding on the painting. Several were familiar with Herrera’s work, and some were completely new to her work and were captivated by it in the view [the preview show]. We had five bidders on the day of the sale. It came down to two when it was over $2 million. I think the buyer and the underbidder were sitting in the room.

That’s unusual. It was very special. Agnes Gund [the collector who consigned Blanco y Verde] was thrilled with the result, obviously.

How did the provenance of the work influence the final price, if at all? It certainly didn’t hurt. Agnes Gund has a great eye, and she’s a very deeply committed collector. If you acquire a painting she owned, it’s probably the best work by the artist there is.

The auction was designed to benefit Miss Porter’s School, a private girls’ school in Connecticut. Did that influence the bidding? I don’t think so. People close to the cause–people who were alumnae, people who were involved in the auction did bid on lower-value work, but that wasn’t the case with this painting. It was bid on by five of the best collectors in the world.

It sold for $2.9 million. Were you surprised? No. I was prepared for more, but thrilled with the result.

The top two auction results for Herrera are works from the Blanco y Verde series. How big is the gap between them? The second-highest sold a couple months earlier, in November 2018, at Phillips New York, for $2.6 million.

How long do you think this record for Carmen Herrera will stand? What else is out there that could challenge it? I’m not sure you’ll see a price quite this high at auction. Not too many Carmen Herreras are better than this one. I think the big public auction prices help the primary market [sales by Herrera’s gallery], and it sure helps spread her name, making her better-known among the collecting community. That’s the importance of a sale like this, especially since she’s still making work.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? Anything that’s the best of its kind is harder to forget. A lot of good will was created by the sale, and it was history-making as well–the first all-female artist auction. I’ll never forget it. Not every day do you get to have dinner with Oprah and Agnes Gund.

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Earlier in 2019, I wrote a preview story about the By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women auction for Robb Report’s web site.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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