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This Thursday, Sotheby’s is hosting the sale “BENT.” The auction, taking place at 10AM in New York, includes photographs, books, painting, and prints made from the 19th century to today, all informed by the LGBTQ+ experience. It coincides with pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, with a portion of the buyer’s premium to be donated to The Center.
Whitewall spoke with Aimee Pflieger, Assistant Vice President, Specialist, and Head of Sale of Sotheby’s Photographs about some of the more meaningful and notable lots in “BENT.”
WHITEWALL: What does the sale “BENT.” represent for Sotheby’s?
AIMEE PFLIEGER: This sale presents an opportunity for us to underscore the important contributions to art and literature by LGBTQ individuals. Of course, many of these artists have appeared in Sotheby’s auctions in the past, but the WorldPride celebration and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots gives Sotheby’s not just the opportunity but also the responsibility to recognize these significant artists in a dedicated sale.
WW: Included in the sale are a range of works informed by the LGBTQ experience. What are some of the earliest pieces?
AP: One of the most notable lots features a copy of Walt Whitman’s landmark collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, inscribed by Whitman in 1868 to Peter Doyle, his lover. 2019 marks the 200th birthday of Whitman, and Leaves of Grass remains just as fresh and relevant today as when he self-published it in 1855.
Other important early works included in the sale is Ludwig von Hoffmann’s Bathers (formerly in the collection of Sir Elton John), and an ink and wash drawing by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).
WW: What are some of the more recent works of note?
AP: There are several outstanding works in the sale that were created in the last few decades, including pieces by David Benjamin Sherry, Lissa Rivera, Youssef Nabil, Nir Hod, Jayne County, and Jeff Burton. Shantell Martin, known for her large, black and white line drawings (including the unforgettable recent work in the lobby of the New York City Ballet) is represented by an acrylic on canvas.
WW: One work by Gerald Incandela, Robert Woolley in His Living Room (1994), seems quite special to Sotheby’s. Can you share the story behind this work?
AP: Robert Woolley was Head of Decorative Arts and an accomplished auctioneer at Sotheby’s in the 1980s. During his career as a charity auctioneer, he raised over $16 million for AIDS-related causes. The portrait we are offering was taken in his ornately decorated living room by Gerald Incandela, who is known for his unique photographic process whereby he selectively applies developer and fixer on photographic paper with a brush to reveal certain areas of the image.
WW: The title of the sale takes inspiration from Martin Sherman’s Bent. Can you tell us about the significance of the 1979 play and the poster that is included in the sale?
AP: Bent was a play produced in 1979 that addresses the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. The title of the play refers to a slang word used for homosexuals that has been in use since the early 20th century. Whereas the word “bent” was previously used as a derogatory term that referred to the supposed corruption and immorality of homosexuality, we use the word in a context of defiance and celebration, and intend for it to be understood as the reclamation of a formerly hurtful label.
WW: What are some of the major works included in the sale we should know of?
AP: Perhaps the most noteworthy painting in the auction is Robert LaVigne’s Nude with Onions (Peter Orlovsky) from 1954. This iconic, colorful portrait is one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century Gay Liberation movement. The poet Allen Ginsberg visited LaVigne’s apartment where he saw the rendering of Orlovsky, and remarked “I looked in its eyes and was shocked by love.” Orlovsky and Ginsberg moved in together shortly thereafter and remained together until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.
WW: The sale also includes some more intimate photographs and drawings at a lower price point. Any special finds there of note?
AP: The sale offers a wealth of photographs and drawings estimated under $5000. For instance, there are three evocative photographs by Christer Strömholm of transsexuals in the Place Blanche area of Paris in the 1950s, as well as are several great portraits by Carl van Vechten, and a portfolio of 30 hand-colored photographs by Mark Beard. I would also mention Robert Mapplethorpe’s arresting photogravures for Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, and Polaroids by Andy Warhol, among many other great finds.
WW: Do you have any personal favorites in the sale?
AP: There are three lots—96, 97, 98—in the auction by Claude Cahun, an artist and writer who undermined traditional gender roles as an outspoken member of the Parisian lesbian community between the two world wars. Her self-portraiture and collage works are surreal, chameleonic, defiant, and years ahead of her time.