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A Cy-ing Shame: Dia Ditches All Its Twomblys

Sotheby's installation shot of Dia's Chamberlains (on pedestals) and Twomblys (on walls) to be auctioned in November

Installation shot taken at Sotheby’s last week of Dia Art Foundation’s John Chamberlains (on pedestals) and Cy Twomblys (on walls), to be auctioned this November
Chamberlain’s “Shortstop,” 1958 (presale estimate: $1.5-2 million), on right; his “Candy Andy,” 1963 (presale estimate: $2-3 million), second from right


[UPDATE: More on this, here.]

In one of the most problematic art disposals in recent memory, the Dia Art Foundation has announced through Sotheby’s that it plans to unload “nearly 30 works” by Cy Twombly, John Chamberlain and Barnett Newman that are “estimated to bring in excess of $20 million.”

Astonishingly, these include all of Dia’s holdings by Twombly—some 14 works that, in the words of the auction house’s Dia-approved press release, “provide a retrospective view of his indomitable career. The broad and varied selection demonstrates his mastery of drawing using graphite, wax crayon, colored pencil, oil paint and collage on paper.”

Even taking into account the customary exaggerations of presale auction hype, what museum in its right mind would unload all its holdings by a celebrated artist who was an integral part of its founding collection? The star lot, “Poems to the Sea,” is extolled in the press release as having “long been widely recognized as among the artist’s foremost triumphs, and is respected as a critical early touchstone for the subsequent evolution of his entire career”:


Cy Twombly, “Poems to the Sea,” suite of 24 drawings, 1959
Presale estimate: $6-8 million

Here’s the rationale for this irrational scenario, as enunciated in the Sotheby’s press release by Philippe Vergne, Dia’s director. (My own comments are in brackets):

Dia has been honored to have been the steward [make that, “temporary custodian”] of these important works of art. The sale of these works will help establish an endowment for acquisitions, allowing Dia to reflect on its collection, deepen its relationships with living artists today and in the future [Twombly died two years ago], and continue its tradition of in-depth, single-artist presentations.

The justification for burying dead artists to privilege living ones becomes more problematic in Vergne’s comments (i.e., “Dia cannot be a mausoleum”) to Carol Vogel for today’s piece in the NY Times:

In 1991 Dia gave the Menil Collection in Houston [founded by Dominique de Menil, mother of Dia’s co-founder, Philippa de Menil] six of its best works by Twombly in anticipation of the Twombly Gallery that opened there in 1995. Mr. Vergne said that when he started evaluating Dia’s collection he felt it no longer made sense to keep the remaining Twomblys because there are not enough to fill a gallery. [Does every artist in Dia’s collection need to be represented by enough works “to fill a gallery”?]

How will the auction proceeds be used? According to Vogel:

Mr. Vergne said it was premature to say what he planned to buy with the auction proceeds, but he did give a hint: “There are things at Beacon that are on long-term loan and don’t belong to us,” he said. He was referring to works by the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher and by Louise Bourgeois.

Unmentioned by Carol is something else that Philippe may have been referring to—a collection of 30 works from the Lannan Foundation that Dia has had on long-term loan, which, as it announced last month, Dia will acquire as a “partial gift, partial purchase.” When I asked a Dia spokesperson whether the proceeds from the sale would be used to defray the “partial purchase” requirement of the Lannan agreement, she replied: “It is our policy not to comment on financial arrangements.”

These are not the first Dia deaccessions through Sotheby’s: In 1985, the then financially troubled foundation “sold off 18 artworks at Sotheby’s for $1.3 million,” as recounted by Bob Colecello in a September 1996 article for Vanity Fair. In his Apr. 6, 2003 NY Times Sunday Magazine article about Dia, Michael Kimmelman wrote this about the 1985 auction:

A low point for [DIA co-founder Heiner] Friedrich was when Dia sold two of its three Barnett Newmans. ”That was crushing,” he told me. ”I had talked about a Newman museum with Newman.”

The Newman now being offered by Dia through Sotheby’s is evidently one of the works that failed to sell at the 1985 Sotheby’s auction, whose catalogue was titled, “23 Works from the Dia Art Foundation.” Vogel mentions in her piece that “Dia tried unsuccessfully to sell ‘Genesis—The Break’ before, in 1985, to raise money for an endowment.”

Now Dia plans to unload this last of the three Newmans it originally owned. The significance of this early, pre-“zip” painting is demonstrated by its inclusion (as described by Sotheby’s) “in the critically acclaimed [Ann Temkin-curated] exhibition [my link, not theirs] of the artist’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2002.”


Barnett Newman, “Genesis—The Break,” 1946
Presale estimate: $3.5-4.5 million

Even without the Chamberlains that it is unloading (see top photo), Dia “retains one of the largest museum collections of the artist’s work,” says the auction house’s press release.

In its May 2002 press release announcing plans for its sprawling new home that opened the following year in Beacon, NY, the Dia Foundation provided this description of its distinguished collection:

Assembled largely during the 1970s and early 1980s by Dia’s founders, Philippa de Menil and Heiner Friedrich, the original collection consisted of in-depth holdings of works by some of the most significant American and European artists of the 1960s and 1970s, including Joseph Beuys, John Chamberlain, Walter De Maria, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo, Fred Sandback, Cy Twombly [emphasis added], Andy Warhol, and Robert Whitman.

Not any more: Bye-bye, Cy.

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