Talking Shop

L’Oeils and Levres

Brent Lewis

Heritage Auctions’ Brent Lewis shares insights into the recent high-value sale of works by Nicola L.

Among the highlights of Heritage Auctions’ April 20 design auction was a trio of rare lamps by the enigmatic artist Nicola L. The lamps, each estimated at $3,000-5,000, sold for over $56,000 in total, after furious competition among a large group of bidders. The result was hardly a surprise to those who are familiar with her life and work.

Nicola L. created a compelling and relevant body of work incorporating performance, installation, design, and film from the 1960s until her death in 2019. She was among an international set of artists who reacted against abstraction, making works that touched on social and political issues, especially those around the role of women in society.

Born in 1937 in Morocco, Nicola gained a formal art education in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts. This traditional training provided a backdrop for her to work against, as she began making sculptures and installations as an unofficial member of the French Nouveau Realists in the late 1960s, alongside the artists Yves Klein, Christo, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jean Tinguely.

Nicola’s work during this early period was inspired by the body and included her first foray into functional objects with her iconic Oeil and Levres Lamps (1969). She went on to create a fascinating body of functional works, most often exploring the female form and inspired by new wave feminism. Early examples of these works, such as the ones offered at Heritage, are incredibly rare. For an artist like Nicola, whose work transgressed strict categorization, these objects remain a valuable artifact representing much more than their initial quasi-utilitarian intent.

Nicola moved to New York in 1979 and lived in the Chelsea Hotel for the next three decades, working across disciplines and defying categorization as an artist. She performed at La MaMa. She made a film on Bad Brains at CBGB and later a film about Abbie Hoffman. She performed with others at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, which was headlined by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Miles Davis. She made installations and performances while continuing to make functional art. The latter has survived, perhaps because of its functionality, unlike so much of the intangible artworks she created throughout her incredibly rich life. 

Nicola was supported by many of the pioneering design galleries in New York in the 1980s and 90s, such as Art et Industrie, Alan Moss, Muriel Karasik, Full House, Delorenzo1950, and Patrick Parrish’s Mondo Cane. By the turn of the 21st century, however, her work had faded from view as the design market shifted toward a new generation of contemporary designers.

Nonetheless, interest in her work has revived in recent years as it has been included in more institutional surveys, including The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern in 2015. Her first institutional retrospective, Nicola L.: Works, 1968 to the Present, curated by Ruba Katrib, was presented at SculptureCenter in New York in 2017. The latter exhibition included examples of both the Oeil and Levres Lamps.

The three lamps that sold at Heritage in April were owned by a private collector who had acquired them separately. Two were acquired at Full House, and the other Oeil Lamp, previously in the collection of the late art collector Muriel K. Newman of Chicago, was bought at Wright in 2007 for $9,000.

In 2012, I sold another Levres Lamp at Christie’s for $15,000, which the artist had traded directly to Alan Moss, who in turn sold it to gallerist Muriel Karasik. (Nicola was the subject of the first exhibition at Alan’s Soho gallery in 1983.) At Heritage, the Levres Lamp sold for $30,000, while the two Oeil Lamps brought $15,000 and $11,500 respectively. There are many reasons for this, though ultimately, the answer lies in the number of bidders competing for them. Each could have been sold several times over.  

The three lamps had not been offered in one sale before. The auction gave them a stronger context and allowed them each to be seen as a fuller and more realized work of art, rather than just as a curious or whimsical piece of lighting. We were able to present them as the artist did, with the Oeils and Levres together. This allowed us to tell her story with more clarity, which helps when we talk about the works with our clients.

Of course, timing is important, and today’s design market is subjective and specific, with more interest given to colorful, eccentric works.  A visit to Design Miami will reveal works made with new materials and new forms by such artists as the Haas Brothers or Chris Schanck or Katie Stout. Or consider the revival of interest in Maestro Gaetano Pesce—the recent subject of two concurrent New York City gallery shows—whose work has a similar intentionality. Or consider the prices paid for Les Lalanne’s Sheep, now blue chip and present in any major art collector’s home. At this moment, when our lips are often hidden behind masks and our eyes become our only means of expression, perhaps these lamps are all the more enthralling.

Nicola’s work is thoughtful and provocative. She was a passionate artist whose intention was to create objects that are useful yet also capable of expressing a multitude of meanings beyond functionality. As complex as they are simple, her works are as relevant now as when they were conceived, with respect to both style and significance. ◆