November 10, 2016

Hello! Hello! Moholy Nagy and the Telephone Painting

One of the featured lots in this season's Impressionist and Modern art auctions is a super rare and super important work by the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy.  A pioneer of conceptual and performance art, this work put the Bauhaus professor at the forefront of the avant-garde and earned him an international reputation as an innovator and theorist.

What is this curious work?  It is called "EM 1 Telephonbild (Telephone Picture)", 1922/23, and it is being offered by Sotheby's New York in their evening sale of November 14.  Why is it so important?  It marks the culmination of an effort to replace traditional easel painting with a manufactured article literally turning the artist into a creator of ideas rather than of objects.  If this reminds you of Marcel Duchamp's famous "Fountain" readymade from a few years prior you'd be on the right track.

What makes it so unique?  Well, that's the thing.  In 1922, László Moholy-Nagy placed a long distance telephone call from his studio at the Bauhaus School in Weimar to the Stark & Reise Enamel Sign Company in Tannroda, Germany.  Armed with a sketch on graph paper and a color key sample, he spoke with a factory supervisor and described precisely what he wanted as an image and ordered it in different sizes.  "It was...", to quote the artist, " playing chess by correspondence".  The following year, three porcelain enamel signs in small, medium and large, were delivered to Moholy-Nagy by post.  The artist had, in fact, created these works via the mechanics of a telephone - he had never laid a finger on them until he received the finished product.  It marked the beginning of art as transferable data, a creation of mechanical reproduction, and it was sensational.

Though the "Telephonbild" series "EM1", "EM2" and "EM3" had its roots in Dada, it was a springboard for Constructivism, Productivism and Performance Art and remains historically very important as well as aesthetically very lovely.  The three works were exhibited together in 1924 in Galerie der Sturm, Berlin, and eventually the two smaller versions were purchased by New York's Museum of Modern Art.

The third and largest example "EM 1 Telephonbild" was in the collection of the esteemed American museum director Jan van der Marck before being sold to its present owner in 1987.  It is this remarkable work that is being offered at public auction next week with a pre-sale estimate of $3-4 million, which, when one reads the staggering prices achieved for some contemporary works, seems almost a bargain.

László Moholy Nagy (1895-1946) went on to great success as a photographer, typographer, sculptor, painter, printmaker and master of industrial design, and his achievements in the avant-garde inspired many contemporary artists today.  Despite his devotion to the ideas of producing machine made art for the masses, the "Telephonbild" series was the only time he applied this method in practice.

"EM 1 Telephonbild", 1922
Executed in 1923
Porcelain enamel on steel
37 1/2" x 23 3/4"

It was my good fortune to be able to see this remarkable work both at a preview of auction highlights at Sotheby's London in October and again last week here in New York.  I think it would be wonderful if MoMA could acquire it to complete the trilogy and hang them together for the first time in three quarters of a century, but we'll all have to wait and see who the lucky bidder turns out to be!

P.S.  I am happy to announce that the MoMA did indeed acquire this marvelous work for a hammer price of $5.2 million (a little over $6 million with commissions).  Looking forward to the first time the three are exhibited together!

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