The stimulating amount of $ 34 million was raised by Christie’s at its October 1st auction in New York. Good health in the art market, despite the occasional “ups and downs”. The sale brought together prominent poetics of contemporary art and was led by two postwar abstract paintings, each selling for $ 2,760,000. The authors: Helen Frankenthaler and Philip Guston.

Isabella Lauria, Christie's art specialist from this period, commented on the overwhelming success of the auction. A Yayoi Kusama piece fetched a price of close to two million, and a Yoshitomo Nara piece exceeded this amount. The auction also featured strong performances by various female artists, from the time of the Abstract Expressionists to the contemporary period. Names include Mickalene Thomas, Joan Mitchell, and Lynda Benglis.

It was also an auction where records were established, including one for Fabelo's work, which piece surpassed half a million. Lynda Benglis, Ernie Barnes, Gary Vaynerchuk, Dorothy Fratt, and rising contemporary artist Wonder Buhle Mbambo also hit the best prices ever during this edition of Christie's. Another peculiarity of the auction was that for the first time live offers were accepted on the crypto currency Ether.


Auction of lot 178, “The discourse of the flies”, by Roberto Fabelo


It is vital to mention that, although Fabelo's work has been systematically and successfully added to other editions of Christie's, specifically those of Latin American art, this is the first time that his poetry has been inserted in one of Christie's international art auctions, from the postwar era to the contemporary. So, if on other occasions Fabelo’s lots have been exhibited and sold together with names like Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Fernando Botero, or Leonora Carrington, among other renowned Latin American artists, in this edition they “rubbed elbows” with works by Frankenthaler, Guston, Kusama, Nara, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Damien Hirst. In a different group, Fabelo's work can be viewed from renewed dimensions. And it acquires a distinctive visibility, facing another niche of art collecting.

“The Discourse of the Flies”, a triptych by Roberto Fabelo, reached $ 525,000, breaking his world record. The artwork, lot 178, was accompanied by an extensive essay by art critic Donald Kuspit, who in addition to once again qualifying the artist as a “modernist master” and “master of the morbid”, referred to the auctioned piece as a surrealist masterpiece. Kuspit ends his text by stating that if the goal of modern art is to integrate traditional and modern art, then Fabelo is a post-modern master. Fabelo's artwork was the twelfth best record out of a total of 215 lots auctioned.



“The Discourse of the Flies”, 2014. 83 1/8 x 186 in. (211.1 x 472.4 cm.)
Christie’s Auction House, Rockefeller Center, New York.


Roberto Fabelo’s “The Fly’s Discourse”

By Donald Kuspit


Three heads, each a portrait, a surreal masterpiece, forming a kind of trilogy, not to say a trinity of monsters, a bizarre hybrid of a human being and an insect, a high form of life and a low form of life, bizarrely united in a common cause:  the ironical celebration of the death instinct, the demonstration of its ruthless authority and power, for all the figures have “authoritarian traits” or signifiers, as Fabelo writes, indicating that they are what social psychologists call “authoritarian personalities,” and with that fascistic psychopaths.(1)  The chains they wear around their necks signify their authority, and with it the power to chain people in prisons and torture them to death.

All the faces are confrontational, all have rigidly fixed expressions, stare us down with ruthless unblinking eyes, hidden behind black eyeglasses in the first portrait, completely obscured by black in the third portrait, the black announcing their sinister character, malevolent intention.  The face in the first portrait is half white, half black, suggesting a split personality, the face in the third portrait is almost completely black, a consummate portrayal of evil—of blind, not to say indifferent malice.  The tense interplay—negative dialectic—between black and white, shadow and light—in both works shows Fabelo’s insight into what Baudelaire called the “double nature” of human beings, what the Brothers Goncourt called the “contradictions” that inform them.

The morbidly sick—incurably insane—not to say dangerously demented, death-informed, and perversely “unnatural” colorless personages in the first and third portraits seem altogether at odds with the more “natural” green personage in the second portrait.  Green is the color of flourishing life, as Goethe pointed out, and the yellow that surrounds the green personage is as bright as the sun at high noon.  But the face of the second personage is as tightlipped, confrontational, defiantly dictatorial and intimidating, as the faces of the first and third personages.  They’re all somewhat grand, not to say delusionally grandiose—larger than life personages rather than everyday persons.  The crucial difference is that the green flies are eating away at his green head.  They seem to be nesting in his head in the process of consuming it, slowly but surely—inevitably.  Half of the flies have eaten through the skull, letting the yellow light through; half of them buzz around and perch on the skull:  he is half-mad rather than completely mad, as the first and third personages are.  Each represents a different stage in the process of becoming a completely mad autocrat.  We move from the outside to the inside of his sick brain:  from external reality to internal reality.  Fabelo offers us a complete portrait of the psychodynamics of an authoritarian madman.  There are many deranged characters in surreal dream imagery, but no surrealist dreamer has shown the stages of psychological degeneration as Fabelo has.

The flies dominate all three personages.  They do not completely possess the first personage.  The three black flies perched on the outside of his head are ready to drill into it, but they have not begun to do so.  The swarm of green flies on the second personage have entered his head and destroyed half his brain.  They buzz inside his head, indicating that he is half mad—another split personality, that is, a schizophrenic, a person who is unable to master his “double nature” and with that on the way to becoming a complete psychotic, which is what the third personage is.  The flies that flicker on his head seem like disintegrating meteoric streaks, suggesting they have already done their dirty work, confirmed by the fact that the third portrait is the darkest, bleakest of all—morbidity personified, incurable mental illness.

An emblematic fly appears on the disk that hangs on the chain that all three personages wear—it is their attribute, the sign of their distinction.  (It is not exactly a golden fleece.)  In the second portrait the green fly and the yellow disk on which it is engraved are meticulously rendered in sharp contrast to the blurry flies and hallucinatory disks on the chains in the other two portraits.  Each portrait is aesthetically unique however much they make common emotional cause—expose the inner life of a man whose will to power has made him crazy.  The three portraits, each dramatic in itself, form a psychodrama together:  the first portrait is the first act, presents the hero and shows him at odds with himself, his inner conflict conveyed by the conflict between black and white; the third portrait stages the final act, the death of the hero, the blackness that almost completely blots out his face turning it into a death mask, not to say a ruin; the second portrait, with its strong colors and few blacks, is a sort of hopeful pause, even as it shows the flies doing their dirty work.  All three portraits together form an unusual allegory of life and death, and show uncanny insight into humanity at its most inhuman.  

In 2008 Fabelo painted Fifteen Mad Portraits, in 2010 he painted Like Flies.  In The Fly’s Discourse, 2014, he brings the two together:  he gives us human beings who are like flies in spirit.  In art flies are used to signify decay and death—they buzz around corpses, irritate human beings.  In Carlo Crivelli’s Lenti Madonna, 1472-1473, the Christ Child recoils from a black fly he sees next to him on the white ledge on which he sits.  The white ledge is a symbol of his purity and innocence, the black fly a symbol of his death, perhaps an unconscious intimation of it, an intuition of its inevitability, for the death instinct is as much a part of human nature as the life instinct.  It has a similar significance in Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Carthusian Monk, 1446.  In the New Testament the Devil is called the “Lord of the Flies.”  It is a brilliant conceit, a traditional trope, that lives on in Fabelo’s three Lords of the Flies, ingeniously traditional Devils—or rather one autocratic Devil in three incarnations, three aesthetically devilish manifestations—however strangely realistic and politically contemporary.  The Fly’s Discourse alludes to the rise of ruthless authoritarian rulers with absolute power in many countries in the world.  Like flies, these super-fascists—fascists who regard themselves aa supermen—are cruel predators on society.  Like dirty flies—black flies, angels of death—these sick autocrats infect society with disease.  Fabelo offers us, with cunning aesthetics, a brilliant critical analysis of their evil psyches—their incurable pathology.         
A master of the morbid, producing what Baudelaire called an “efflorescence of monstrosities” that can be traced back to Bruegel’s “hallucinatory drolleries,” Fabelo is also a modernist master, as his understanding of what Kandinsky called the “psychological potency” of color suggests.  The flickering flies in the second portrait are gestural, each existing for its own expressive sake, all taken together lyrically abstract—a sensitive touch of abstract poetry in the otherwise representational work.  But the abrupt contrast between the passive, flat, yellow field, with its purely optical presence, and the active, in places hyperactive, black and green gestures that form and inform and enliven the face with their tactility, are a striking example of what Kandinsky called “dynamic equilibrium.”  The linear black gesture that moves from the right ear of the head down the cheek and around the chin is another stroke of aesthetic genius.  The contrast between black and white in the first portrait has its own aesthetic autonomy.  In the third portrait the face all but disappears in the blackness, a murderous blackness that is a triumph of death, but also a blackness that reminds us that for modernists black is a color, as Matisse said.  

Fabelo is a realist—a social realist—but he is also an abstract painter, making paintings that hold their aesthetic own even as they are critical revelations.  Portrait busts of grand personalities, as awesome and intimidating as many of those portrayed in the art of what Baudelaire called the “Grand Tradition,” Fabelo’s paintings also have their place in what Harold Rosenberg called the “Tradition of the New,” as their dream-like, not to say nightmarish, surrealizing of a social stereotype indicates.  Fabelo’s authoritarian figures are caricatures—they satirize rulers—mock them by turning them into flies, dehumanize them by treating them as big bugs to crush with art.  They bring to mind Honoré Daumier’s satiric caricature of King Louis-Phillip, 1831.  An oddly climactic ironic masterpiece of the Grand Tradition, it appeared in the magazine Gargantua; Fabelo’s authoritarian rulers are also gargantuan—grossly and grotesquely enormous.  If the task of post-modern art is to integrate traditional and modern art, then Fabelo is a master post-modern artist.



 (1) The Authoritarian Personality (New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1950), co-authored by a number of psychologists and sociologist, is the classic study of the authoritarian personality, with a certain emphasis on its rigidity—the rigidity that we see in Fabelo’s figures, confirmed by their fixed glances, not to say their inflexible faces.  The study, a response to the anti-Semitism that led to the Nazi death camps, argues that the fascistic psychopath is a killer, a devotee of the death instinct, what the poet Paul Celan called a “master of death,” or, as the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm says, a necrophiliac.   


Donald Kuspit is an art critic and professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is a contributing editor to Artforum, Sculpture and New Art Examiner magazines, as well as the editor of Art Criticism and a series on American art and art criticism for Cambridge University Press. Kuspit is the author of more than 20 books, including Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries (Allworth Press, 2000) and Idiosyncratic Identities: Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge University Press,1996).