Update: The Louis Tavelli tryptic sold for $5,625–a new auction record for the artist.
What you see: Untitled (hunters and bulls), a 1991 tryptic by Louis Tavelli. Rago Auctions estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
Who was Louis Tavelli? He was an American musician and abstract expressionist whose art career spanned six decades. Born in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is home to Williams College and the Clark museum of art, he mostly lived there and in Woodstock, New York throughout his life. Tavelli’s earlier works were influenced by music, but a 1983 trip to Spain with his chamber music group changed him forever. He took a side trip to Altamira, a cave decorated with paintings that are at least 15,000 years old, and after that, his artworks reflected the effect that the ancient, unnamed cave paintings had on him. Tavelli sometimes staged one-man gallery shows and participated in museum shows, but it’s unclear if he ever had steady gallery representation. He died in 2010, at the age of 96.
This tryptic is monumental–each of the three panels measures 59 1/2 by 36 inches. Did Tavelli normally work at that scale? “He did like to work big like this,” says Arlen Sam Brown, design specialist at Rago. “He created art his whole life, and it morphed into a graffiti-like style. His earlier works paid homage to music. But there was definitely a switch, a change, and he went a little more Basquiat-like.”
This belongs to Tavelli’s Indigenous Peoples Series of works, which he started after viewing prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira, Spain. Are all of the pieces from the series as large? And how many pieces are in the series? “He did do other pieces that were large, but they’re not all on that scale. He did works on paper as well,” she says, noting that there are at least 60 to 70 works in the series.
It seems like Tavelli didn’t concern himself with promoting or selling his work. The earliest auction result for him is in 2011, a year after his death. Was he only discovered as an artist after he died? “He had local showings, and he did exhibit his work, but he remained regional. It was not shared publicly until he passed away,” she said, noting that his output is still being cataloged. “What’s exciting about this work is it came to market in a strong capacity. We’ve had the good fortune to roll his work out on a stronger scale, and we’ve had good results.”
Rago set the world auction record for Tavelli in June 2017 with an untitled, undated mixed media collage on paper that sold for $4,063 against an estimate of $800 to $1,200. Was that work also part of his Indigenous Peoples Series? And what are the odds that Untitled (hunters and bulls) will set a new auction record for the artist? She says the mixed-media collage is from the same thematic series, and says there’s a “strong likelihood” that the tryptic will break the record.
Untitled (hunters and bulls) is estimated at $4,000 to $6,000. Did its large size have any influence on its estimate? “Its size informs the estimate, but it’s not what made the decision,” she says. “We had a discussion with [the consigner,] whose perception was, ‘It’s three times the size, so it should be three times the estimate.’ That’s not the case… We truly believe in being very grounded in our estimations. We believe in basing them on auction results. While Tavelli is being well-received, we maintain our integrity. He’s a relatively unknown artist. I’m not sure if you’d call him an emerging artist. You don’t need to be young to be emerging.”
Where do you think the market for Louis Tavelli works is going? “I think the notion that it’s still being shaped is very accurate,” she says. “It’s limitless because it’s fresh. I’ve been pleased and surprised by the reactions to each sale. Tavelli is getting more attention with each one, which is cool.”
Why will this work stick in your memory? “It stops you in your tracks, no question,” she says. “It’s a pretty intense piece. The people are almost stick figure-like. It’s almost like a cave drawing.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
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