This May, shortly after a long-awaited Philip Guston retrospective opens in Boston, a 1958 abstract painting by the artist will make its auction debut after being held privately for four decades.
Nile will hit the auction block at Sotheby’s during a New York evening sale dedicated to modern art on May 17. The painting has a $20 million–$30 million estimate, the highest one ever given to a Guston work at auction.
The sale comes a couple weeks after the opening of the 100-work exhibition “Philip Guston Now,” which will first appear at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and then travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Tate Modern in London. The exhibition was initially slated to open in 2020, and then was that year controversially delayed amid concerns by its organizers over Guston’s usage of Ku Klux Klan imagery.
The painting dates to a period when Guston had transitioned from painting in a figurative mode to a working in an abstract one. During the ’60s, he would return to figuration and paint the Klansman works. Though lesser-known these days than his figurations, Guston’s abstractions have in recent years seen a surge in interest, with an acclaimed survey dedicated to them having appeared at Hauser & Wirth in 2016.
Nile is one of only three from a group of similar canvases still held privately. The others reside at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, both in New York.
For more than 40 years, the work remained in the hands of Dallas-based philanthropists Peter and Edith O’Donnell. The former, who died this past October at 97, amassed his wealth through investments and served as a Republican politician during the Nixon era. Edith died in November at 95.
The work will be sold to benefit the collectors’ eponymous charitable organization, which distributes funds for causes related to education, technology, public health, and culture. That organization is one of the largest independent foundations in Texas. Foundations like it are often used by ultra-wealthy individuals to fund museums and other private and public institutions.
Two other Guston works from the O’Donnell’s collection will be offered at Sotheby’s during a contemporary art evening sale in May. Funds from those sales will also benefit the foundation. Sotheby’s has not disclosed the price ranges for those works.
Prices for Guston’s work at auction have risen to new heights in the past decade.
In November, during the sale of New York billionaires Harry and Linda Macklowe’s collection, held following a contentious divorce, a new record for Guston was nearly set when his 1976 painting Strong Light sold for $24.4 million, tripling its $8 million estimate. It came just shy of the record for Guston set in May 2013, when the abstraction Fellini (1958), once owned by Nelson Rockefeller, sold for $25.8 million.
Nile will go on view this week at Sotheby’s headquarters in London and will later appear in Hong Kong and New York. It marks the first time that the painting has been seen publicly.
While the sale of the Guston is likely to be closely watched, it is hardly the most highly priced work headed to sale in New York this May. A Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe is poised to fetch $200 million at Christie’s. The sale of that work will benefit a foundation set up by the family of the late Zurich art dealers Thomas and Doris Ammann.