Funny as Hell: Lisa Dennison on Sotheby's "Divine Comedy" Show

In an art world that generally likes to be laissez-faire about taboos, crossing over from the high-minded museum community to join an auction house is still one that can be viewed as akin to doing a deal with the devil. Yet that is exactly what Lisa Dennison did when she stepped down as director of the Guggenheim in 2007 to take a job as chairman of North and South American art at Sotheby’s. But while the move was shocking at the time, the groundwork for novel auction-house partnerships had already been laid by archrival Christie’s purchase of the respected Haunch of Venison gallery earlier that year, and it has been furthered through innovative "curated" sales at Phillips de Pury, such its upcoming auction overseen by art advisor Philippe Segalot.

Now, as the art market continues its post-bust resurgence in a chastened environment that values art-historical substance over speculative glitz (or at least pretends to, for the time being), Dennison has come full circle, organizing "Divine Comedy," an exhibition at Sotheby’s that harnesses the company’s expertise and contacts to bring together a centuries-spanning show on humor in art. Featuring about 80 works from antiquity to the present day, the show contains works that will be sold through Sotheby’s along with others that are on loan especially for the show. ARTINFOs executive editor Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Dennison about the genesis of the exhibition, and how the difficulties of getting the wider art world to embrace auction-house shows can be hell.

Why did you decide to put together a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s?

We have this incredible, museum-quality exhibition space that is not always used outside of our main auction season, and what we feel in the world is this strong appetite for art and exhibitions — that’s what our clients love. So we started to think about ways in which we could contribute to this landscape that would be different from what museums and galleries are doing. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for quite a while, actually. The concept that developed was that what we have that’s unique at Sotheby’s — unique compared to most contemporary galleries, or even museums, except encyclopedic museums — is that we have specialists in all fields, all mediums, crossing different time periods, cultures, geographies, from antiquities to contemporary art. Context is everything with a work of art — the minute you put it into a different setting, a different juxtaposition, a different frame, you learn so much more. And honestly, so many of the collectors we know today are interested in collecting in multiple categories. They’re not just defined by modern art. They may also collect 20th-century design or Old Master drawings or photography. So we thought, how can we capitalize on this — which we’re seeing as something as a trend — to think in different ways, cross-category, drawing on expertise throughout the company? That led to the idea of exhibitions.

Comedy seems to be a theme that’s being taken up again and again as a curatorial topic these days.

Yes, I totally agree. Particularly in the contemporary realm, contemporary artists have always used comedy as a way of digging into issues of race, and gender, politics, identity. Because you can be self-deprecating — it’s a way to look at yourself; it’s a way to approach tricky issues. It’s a very prevalent strategy for contemporary artists, and there’s a lot of comedy in art. Take Maurizio Cattelan, whose work we had for sale here and who has an upcoming retrospective at the Guggenheim. For me, he’s the ultimate prankster, but it’s not just a one-liner. The issues that are raised are so much deeper and make us think about ourselves and our world and our society. It somehow gives us a handle into those issues in a nice way, and then you get inside and you think: wow, this is deep, dark stuff.

Comedy is a great way to reach new audiences, too, since its more commonly associated with entertainment than fine art.

I should say that, many years ago, when I was at the Guggenheim, Caroline Hirsch, who has Caroline’s Comedy Club, said that they were interested in figuring out a way to do an exhibition during the New York Comedy Festival about humor. And they were asking for help: what venues might be available, what artists might curate, if comedians curate. So we had a few sessions that continued when I came to Sotheby’s, talking about how we might help them. Finally I said, you know, I would love to do the exhibition here. It’s not exactly what you’re thinking of, and we couldn’t coincide with the Comedy Festival, which is in November, because our space isn’t available, but I would love to do it. But they thought it was a lovely run-up, sort of a warm-up act to the bigger festival. There’s a loose link between them, but it helped in the development of the idea.

For the show, you’ve taken an expansive view of the tradition of humor in art, which you have pointed out stretches back to cartoons made by the ancient Egyptians. Will there be any of those works in the show?

No, therein lies the problem. And it’s not really a problem, but if I were doing the show from a museum perspective, I would just go the Met and find Egyptian works, et cetera. But this is an exhibition wherein a majority of the works is for sale. So it was about finding works that are for sale, and we do have some fantastic early antiquities in the show to start us off, and some incredible medieval and Old Master paintings. But that material is very rare, and the show really is more of a contemporary exhibition looking backwards through time and using the earlier art to punctuate what’s on view. We also have this incredible school of Hieronymus Bosch painting that’s almost like "The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and so much of contemporary art comes out of that. When I read the narratives in the catalogues, time after time after time, something’s referred to as a "Boschian universe," or a creature just like Bosch’s Bis, or the way a canvas is composed — multi-layered hybridization, all the marvelous, fantastical things you find in Bosch were really, really important to contemporary art. So having works like that in the exhibition just speaks miles about what artists today are engaged with. There are also some fabulous things from the 15th century and the 16th century that really make the exhibition so special.

From an auction perspective, what would you say are the top lots in the show?

[Laughs] It’s interesting, I don’t use the word "lots" anymore, but top "objects." One of the great masterpieces of the show, in the Purgatory section, is a painting by Franz Francken the Younger called "Mankind’s Eternal Dilemma — the Choice Between Vice and Virtue," dated 1635. It shows the three realms of Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell with this wonderful satanic, hellish creature who resides in the bottom of the painting. It’s a heroic masterpiece, one of his greatest works ever, and yet it’s really quite funny when you really start to look at it because of the idiosyncratic way it stemmed from his imagination. So that is one of the higher value works in the show. It’s over $10 million. Another work that’s of extraordinarily high value and importance, and which anchors Hell, might be Maurizio Cattelans "Hymn," which is the kneeling figure of Adolf Hitler. It’s a very controversial piece, but there is no better personification of evil than Hitler. It’s his head on a child’s body, and you approach him from behind so you see this kneeling, penitent figure and then you come around to the other side and see the face. It’s never been seen in New York. There’s no estimate on it because it’s not 100 percent clear whether or not that’s for sale. Then we have an incredible sculpture by Rodin of the Three Shades, a cast of the figures who sit on the top of the "Gates of Hell" and point down to the sign "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." I can’t tell you the price, but it would be one of the higher-valued works. There’s also a remarkable Dali painting from the 60s, his vision of hell, which is again very funny. It’s a Virgin Mary kind of figure being poked by pitchforks. My assistant calls it the "Dali barbeque" painting. Again, that’s a high valued work. The nice thing about the show is that there’s photography in the $50,000 range, and there’s work that goes well upward of $10 million. So there’s something for everyone.

Is the price where the comedy comes in?

There are a few where you might want to laugh at the price, but I think everything’s fairly well estimated.

In terms of the pieces that are not for sale, what are some that were loaned?

There’s a Francis Bacon screaming head that is a loan, and it will fit in the exhibition next to a George Condo screaming priest, which is obviously looking backwards to Bacon very literally. That loan is from a private collector. I’d say probably about a third of the show are loans. It was really essential to round out the concept. As we put together the show, some people weren’t sure if they wanted the work to be for sale or for loan, and it’s possible that some of the works might be for sale at a later date, or might even come to auction at a later date. But the beauty of this is that we can keep it slightly fluid.

Art dealers have been hosting critically acclaimed museum-quality shows for years, but auction houses have had more trouble finding acceptance when they enter the curated gallery realm. Even the Christie’s-owned Haunch of Venison gallery has had to fight against notions of commercial taint in their shows, such as this spring’s "Your History Is Not Our History," which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl praised but said carried "a supermarket air." Will "Divine Comedy" be different?

First of all, I remember what Roberta Smith once wrote about the Donald Judd show that Christie’s did, which was in an independent space — the space that soon became Haunch of Venison — when they sold works to benefit the Donald Judd estate. She called it one of the most beautiful exhibitions of Don Judds work she had ever seen anywhere, ever. So it’s not always a backhanded compliment. Looking critically at any exhibition, I think, you really have to understand what it is — a museum show has different standards and objectives than a gallery show or a show that an auction house might put together. What we have tried to do here is bring strong production values to the project, and to bring the expertise of incredibly knowledgeable people who have sought out really extraordinary objects from all over the world, which I’m very, very proud of. And we have a former curator and museum director who is spearheading the enterprise. Although I’m not the curator of the show, I’m definitely organizing it with my amazing team of specialists. I think we’ve really done our best to do something that’s coherent, educational, fun, and that we hope a lot of people will come to see.

Coming from a museum context, how much more difficult is it to borrow art for an exhibition being put on by an auction house?

I didn’t go to museums for loans, intentionally. I could have tested those waters, and I probably could have gotten works for loan in the same way that when I was at the Guggenheim we loaned works to many galleries in New York — from Pace to L&M and Gagosian — and abroad. It wasn’t out of the question. We always looked and talked at our committee meetings about the value of the show: is it contributing something to scholarship? And we had no qualms in doing that. So it’s not out of the question to think about museum loans, but we had an abundance of riches just from going to the collector community — working with collectors, with private foundations, with galleries, and with the artists themselves. My ambition wasn’t to have 150 works, it was to have a small, tight exhibition. It’s just a really nice concept that we were able to articulate very well by the works available to us.

Is it true that some of the loans were made directly from artists?

I spoke to a lot of artists directly. Whether the loan ultimately came from them or through their gallery, I have to say that there was much enthusiasm on the part of the artists’ community. I was in direct contact with everyone from Maurizio Cattelan to George Condo to Will Cotton, who actually painted a painting for us called "Beatrice." We needed a Beatrice in Paradise — that was just essential. Also, Richard Phillips and Tom Sachs loved the idea. They were very engaged, they helped point me in directions and, in some cases, they loaned work.

What role did nostalgia for curating on your part play in the formation of this show?

Oh, please. I have no nostalgia for curating. When I first came to Sotheby’s, one of the first things I did was do a show called "Wall Rockets" at the Flag Art Foundation that was about Ed Ruscha and his legacy and went to the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo. So I’ve had my share of curating — It’s not like I’ve been without it. Even when I had moved into being a museum director, I had sort of left the world of curating behind. So there’s certainly no nostalgia for that. I love doing it, but I also love helping to put together sales, because that is curating in a very, very different way. What I love about our sales and about the specialists I work with here, particularly in the modern and contemporary departments, is how a sale really is curated — it’s put together very thoughtfully. It’s exciting when you see a sale going in a particular direction — whether it may be more blue chip Abstract Expressionist, or more Pop, or more Minimal, to be able to help find things that augment that. And I love helping collectors who are building collections to figure out what we may have for sale that would be beautiful and appropriate in their collection. So that’s another kind of curating. We visit collectors all the time to help them with things like appraisals and everything. It’s always about shaping collections. When I was at the Guggenheim, I was much more involved with the permanent collection than special exhibitions, and what I always loved, more than anything, was shaping and building collections. I feel like I get to do even more of that here than I did in the museum world.

James Frey, the controversial author of "A Million Little Pieces," wrote the catalogue essay for this show, and he also wrote the  essay for "Wall Rockets." The art world seems to love James Frey.Why?

The art world — he’s really fascinated by that, and is deeply engaged, and very close to a lot of contemporary artists. He’s adopted a lot of the methodology and practices of art in thinking about how he’s pushing his writing into new directions. I don’t want to speak for him, but he is very much aligned with the art world. He was really my first choice for this, I think because I was so enamored of the text he wrote for "Wall Rockets." I went to him first, and I had a whole list of people I would have gone to for catalogue essayists, and he came up with this idea of using the structure of "Divine Comedy." It wasn’t anything I asked for at all, but I must say it’s a fabulous piece. It’s really incredible, incredible, incredible. So he was sort of appropriate for it. There are so many people where there’s a crossover between involvement in comedy and art—whether it’s Steve Martin or John Waters, even Richard Prince. There were many directions to go to, but somehow I just knew that James would set the tone. And he did.