Art On Block From Pop Art's 'Mom & Pop'

November 08, 1986|BARBARA ISENBERG | Times Staff Writer

Contemporary art collectors from Los Angeles, New York and plenty of places in between are expected at Sotheby's in Manhattan on Monday for three days of sales dominated by work from the fabled collections of Ethel Scull and Robert C. Scull, once called "the Mom and Pop of Pop Art."

Nine major artworks from the collection of Ethel Redner Scull go on the block Monday evening, followed the next two days by 140 works from the estate of her former husband, taxi magnate Robert C. Scull. The late Scull once said, "You bet I'm a social climber--and I'd rather use art to climb with than anything else."

Ethel Scull's offerings include Jasper Johns' 1959 painting "Out the Window," which Lucy Mitchell-Innes, vice president and director of Sotheby's contemporary art department, called "arguably the finest Johns remaining in private hands today." The painting, which Ethel Scull won title to following a coin toss, is expected to sell for upward of $1.5 million. The painting is expected to challenge the contemporary-art auction record of $1.98 million set by DeKooning's "Two Women" at Christie's in New York in November, 1984.

Ethel Scull called the sale "a bittersweet thing for me," in a telephone interview. "I have the choice of living with the paintings and being poor or selling them and being able to live comfortably."

Also on sale Monday evening are nine pieces by Robert Rauschenberg on consignment from Los Angeles collector Frederick R. Weisman--a Weisman spokesman said Weisman preferred to concentrate on other artists, but artist Rauschenberg has called the sale "vindictive"--and works from the estate of the late art scholar and museum director James Johnson Sweeney and from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Tuesday and Wednesday Scull estate sales involve 140 works, generally acquired from the artists.

Mitchell-Innes said that both seating and standing room at the auctions have been gone for weeks. She expects "well over 1,000" people at each of the sales. Many are expected to stay on for contemporary, modern and Impressionist art sales scheduled later in the week at Christie's in New York. (While smaller in scale, Christie's contemporary-art auction also will offer major works by Rothko, Lichtenstein and others from the collection of Ted Ashley, as well as works from the collections of the Otto Preminger family.)

Several high-rolling Los Angeles contemporary art collectors are expected. Sotheby's West Coast paintings specialist Barbara Pallenberg said, "Their true colors will be shown when we see if they bid or not on these truly major pieces that come around only once in a lifetime. The big Los Angeles collectors so far have not been in the million-dollar-plus range on contemporary art.

"It isn't easy to spend that much money on contemporary art," Pallenberg conceded, " but to my knowledge, collectors here haven't even been in the bidding. It'll be interesting to see who takes the leap, if anyone does, from Los Angeles.".

Sotheby's Mitchell-Innes said Ethel Scull's property has been valued at between $2.3 million and $3 million. Works from the estate of Robert Scull, once called the "Aristotle Onassis of New York taxicabs," have been valued at between $4.3 million and $5.7 million, Mitchell-Innes said. The 40 most important works from the estate are being sold on Tuesday evening, she confirmed.

During the '50s and '60s, the Sculls acquired art by many then-unknown artists, filling their Fifth Avenue apartment, across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As they spent their money on art and parties, the Sculls maximized the social benefits of collecting. At dinner parties in the '60s and '70s, Ethel Scull said in a quiet voice, "we brought the worlds of collectors, artists and museum directors to each other." Or as People magazine put it in 1974: "Jay Gatsby would have eaten his heart out at the real-life saga of Robert and Ethel Scull."

Ethel Scull recalled that Jasper Johns, with whom she "became very, very friendly," often gave her presents--including a sculpted fountain pen made for son Jonathan for his bar mitzvah--"and I have a relationship with him still today." DeKooning used her nickname--Spike--in naming two paintings, Andy Warhol would bring her flowers. As for artist Barnett Newman: "I was crazy about him. . . . "I sat at his feet and listened all the time."

The Sculls first auctioned off some of their artworks in 1965, also at Sotheby's. That auction funded the Robert and Ethel Scull Foundation, which dispersed money to young artists, said Ethel Scull, now reported to be in her 60s. (She added that the foundation is "still alive" but hasn't functioned in a few years.) Money earned from another auction in 1970 "went to buy more art," she said.

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