Ellen Berkenblit - 20th Century to Now London Friday, June 30, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Berkenblit has absorbed Pop Art’s penchant for cartoons, transforming that cool, transparent domain into something far more challenging: a largely legible world that invites and resists interpretation. It is this push-pull, and all the forces she brings to bear to attain it, that contributes to her significant achievement.”
    —John Yau

    Drawing from a range of sources spanning vintage comics to 20th century painting, Ellen Berkenblit’s work is evasive and complex, impossible to characterise within any single movement or medium. Constructing images from a diverse lexicon of deeply personal subjects, Berkenblit’s work is filled with external references yet fully unique and unmistakable. Through her distinctive style, Berkenblit’s paintings resonate equally with pop culture and art history, as well as her own interiority and her audience’s visual schema.


    Berkenblit sources her inspiration from a vast range of subjects from German Expressionism and Pop Art to the 1960s Nancy comics she grew up reading. From these diverse sources Berkenblit has constructed a dynamic and personal vocabulary of cartoonish figures over the course of her four-decade career, including recurring subjects ranging from jaguars and horses to high heels and lipstick. Despite an underlying tone of something more sinister or forboding, Berkenblit’s work is also imbued with a sense of lightness and humour. Her paintings are familiar and unfamiliar; comfortable yet uncanny.


    Of Berkenblit’s many iconic subjects, perhaps her most well-known is the one featured in Nite Vibe: a cartoonish girl in profile, with a long pointed nose, open mouth, and long eye lashes. She is like an animated version of Giacometti’s screaming, existentialist subject in Le Nez. Artist Amy Sillman has written about the emotional and psychological charge of Berkenblit’s female protagonist, noting, ‘This girl is the incarnation of seeing and feeling […] She is tense with a cluster of affects: anxiety, amusement, desire, shame, wonder […] She sees and feels something off the edge that is not pictured, perhaps something unsayable; you sense the proximity of trauma, or spooks.’i


    A Conversation with Ellen Berkenblit | Twilight Talks


    Although Berkenblit’s paintings are figurative in nature, they carry the spirit and energy of abstraction. Often working on a large scale, Berkenblit’s process is physical and energetic, activating her body as she reaches, extends, and stretches to cover the large canvas. In this way Berkenblit is in dialogue with abstract painters such as Sillman. While Berkenblit works in figuration and Sillman in abstraction, they create similarly ambiguous compositions that challenge such binary definitions of painting. Whereas Sillman uses organic forms to guide her abstract compositions, Berkenblit employs gestural mark-making to liberate and energise her figurative paintings.

    “It feels like a dance […] The physical movements of what I'm doing, whether it's getting up and down a ladder, or stretching my arm or leg to reach something, it informs the work, and in that way, it's very athletic, and I'm a very physical person when I'm making the work, and in general.”
    —Ellen Berkenblit

    The present work is also exemplary of Berkenblit’s experimental process. To create her works, Berkenblit employs a range of media including painting, printmaking, and drawing. Each of these elements plays a key role in her construction of her work. The act of painting offers a sense of physicality and allows the artist to experiment with colour and surface. The printmaking process ties her work to both comic books and Pop Art. Lastly, drawing offers a directness and economy of line that makes these images expressive yet legible. As Berkenblit herself explains, ‘To me, communicating an idea through drawing—that's magic. One has conjured something that reads and speaks. Sometimes it's just very zen and to-the-point. I love comics for that reason. My work is not an homage to comics, but my work has a similar love of the economy that comics generally need because of the printing process.’ii


    Berkenblit’s works are held in prestigious institutional collections including the Aspen Art Museum, Aspen; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.



    i Amy Sillman, ‘Ellen Berkenblit’, Bomb Magazine, 1 April 2007, online.

    ii Amy Sillman, ‘Ellen Berkenblit’, Bomb Magazine, 1 April 2007, online.


    • Provenance

      Anton Kern Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Tracy Williams Ltd., Subliminal Shifts: Martin Basher | Ellen Berkenblit | Samantha Bittman | Bernard Frize | Olav Chridtopher Jenssen, 22 January - 6 March 2016


Nite Vibe

oil and charcoal on linen
218.6 x 193.4 cm (86 1/8 x 76 1/8 in.)
Executed in 2015.

Full Cataloguing

£20,000 - 30,000 

Sold for £40,640

Contact Specialist

Leonor de Osma
Head of Sale, 20th Century to Now
T +44 20 7901 7912
M +44 7584 086 052

20th Century to Now

London Auction 30 June 2023