The painting went on the block during Sotheby’s prestigious evening sale in late June, alongside some of the most seminal artists in history: works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon.
The Realm of Appearances was painted by Matthew Wong in 2018 – a 65 by 80 inch oil on canvas in the complex and expressive style for which he became known, and one of the first paintings to go to auction since the painter’s death by suicide near his home in Edmonton in October. He was 35 years old.
The painting had been estimated at US$60,000 to US$80,000, but the bids blew quickly by those figures, and still the phones kept ringing.
“The response was extraordinary,” said David Galperin, who heads evening contemporary art auctions for Sotheby’s. “… The response was just amazing because we had interest spanning from around the world. It really was a testament to how universally resonant his body of work is and how it deeply touches people from all different geographies, regions and demographics.”
The auction itself was unusual. Delayed since May because of the pandemic, it took place entirely online, with bidders appearing virtually and by phone. Galperin said there were 59 registered bidders for Wong’s painting, the most he has ever seen for a single lot in a contemporary art evening sale.
“I think that goes to show just how wide, deep and far reaching the interest in this painting was,” he said.
At the end, two bidders remained, one represented by a Sotheby’s employee in New York, the other by an employee in Hong Kong. By the time the hammer fell, The Realm of Appearances sold to an anonymous buyer for US$1.5-million (US$1.8-million with fees), marking an exponential increase in value for Wong’s work and garnering international attention with headlines such as “Matthew Wong’s Market Ascends.” The auction was fast and intense, lasting a little more than three minutes.
It is remarkable recognition for an artist who first showed his work in 2014 and made his U.S. premiere in 2016. At the time, he had been painting only about three years.
Born in Toronto and raised between there and Hong Kong, Wong had more recently been living with his parents in Edmonton. He studied photography and began experimenting with ink on paper in his late 20s, but it is through painting that he soon found a powerful voice.
Painting prolifically and connecting with people in the art community online, his work was quickly recognized by some of the most influential critics, curators and collectors in the world. Some called him a visionary, others a genius.
Wong’s first solo show opened at Karma in New York in March, 2018, to remarkable notice. New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz called it “one of the most impressive solo New York debuts I’ve seen in a while.”
But Wong had struggled deeply throughout his life. Speaking to The Globe and Mail after his death, his mother, Monita Wong, said Wong was diagnosed with autism and Tourette syndrome as a child; after becoming suicidal as a teen, he was further diagnosed with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia.
Interest has been growing in Wong’s work over the past two years, Galperin said, particularly since his death and his posthumous solo show, Blue.
He attributes the intense interest in The Realm of Appearances both to the quality of the painting, which he says he believes to be one of Wong’s best works, and also because so few pieces are for sale. (None of the 26 paintings in Blue were made available for purchase.)
The Realm of Appearances is the second of Wong’s paintings to go to auction. A small 10 by 8 inch gauche on paper sold at Sotheby’s in May for US$62,500.
Another of Wong’s oil paintings, a 2017 canvas called Homecoming, will be up for auction at Christie’s on Friday.
Monita Wong declined to comment on the sales, and said by text that she is focused on working with museums, creating scholarships and stewarding the legacy of her son’s life and work.