Waiting for certain artworks to appear at auction can be like waiting for a bus. Nothing comes along and then three appear at once. This is true of British pop artist Peter Phillips, who made his name as a contemporary of Peter Blake and Allen Jones in London, and Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol in New York. Three rare Phillips works have been made available for auction for the first time: two were recently sold by Christie’s in the UK, while a third will go under the hammer at Koller Switzerland on Saturday December 8.
Birmingham-born Phillips, now based in Australia, originally studied at the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney and RB Kitaj, where he quickly made a name for himself. His paintings combined graphic stars and shapes with a dose of sex appeal and the modernist love of fast bikes, arcades and the machine age.
The two artworks sold by Christie’s at its Modern British Art auction on November 20 were 30 Years of Loveliness, originally painted in homage to his late wife, the German model and fashion designer Claude-Marion Phillips, which went for almost £16,000, and Racer I, depicting a motorbike in transit, which went for £20,000 above its estimate, at £27,500.
Those who missed their chance in London will find a third important piece at auction in Zürich at Koller. The work (estimated at SFr1,800-SFr2,200, about £1,400-£1,700) is from Phillips’ Random Illusion collection. “I used shaped canvas early in my career,” Phillips recalls. “Each painting in the series would include a combination of images reflecting nature, biology, geometry and man. I sourced drawings of birds at random from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. I would also include manmade items, such as machine parts, or in this instance, dice. Once I had those basic elements, I would include checkered or grid patterns to bring out a particular aesthetic.”
“I was working with gallerist Bruno Bischofberger when I painted them back in 1968,” the artist says. “They’ve been in private collections for many years. It’s nice to see them again when they come to auction, particular the hand-drawn studies.”
Phillips’ pioneering work feels immensely fresh to the contemporary eye. For the artist the aim is to demonstrate the surface nature of reality. “To me, all art is illusion,” he observes. “It‘s not real, in the sense that we don’t see reality, only what our minds tell us is real.”