Joyce Pensato - 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale Hong Kong Tuesday, June 21, 2022 | Phillips

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  •  Seducing the viewer in with its strong black-and-white contrast of splatters, drips and bold linear gestures, Whipper Willie Mickey is a superb example from the oeuvre of Joyce Pensato - an American painter who, as aptly described by Roberta Smith for The New York Times, ‘took the Abstract out of Abstract Expressionism and added a little Pop, making large-scale black-and-white paintings that transformed popular cartoon characters into ambiguous, emotionally complex and sometimes scary creatures.’ i

    The present work exhibited at Los Angeles, Grice Bench, Joyce Pensato: The Fizz, 21 May – 2 July 2016
    Image Courtesy of Grice Bench


    Born in New York in 1941, Pensato spent most of her life within blocks of the Brooklyn street where she grew up. From a young age she aspired to be an artist, and though her rise to acclaim was riddled with setbacks, it was in these moments that her devotion to her draft shone through, ultimately shaping what later became her signature visual language. In the 1970s she attended the New York Studio School for six years, during which time she was mentored by Abstract Expressionists Joan Mitchell and Mercedes Matter, and shared a studio with Christopher Wool, a long-time friend and supporter who encouraged her shift from oil to enamel.


    The artist with the present work


    “Joan Mitchell was a mentor of mine too. But she could be kind of brutal. She would say, ‘Do you want to be one of those German Expressionists, all dark? Or do you want to be one of the French painters, like Matisse or Cézanne, with light and colour?’ I wanted to please her, of course, so I’d say, ‘I want to be French!” But I realised I was one of those expressionist painters.”
    — Joyce Pensato

    Uninspired by working with traditional still-life, ‘apples and pears and all that crap’ ii, Pensato landed upon her winning strategy in New York’s street and thrift stores, where she was drawn to the multitude of discarded pop culture artefacts of cartoon heroes, including carboard cut-outs, masks and toys. Influenced by her expanding collection of objects of curiosity, she soon swapped out fruit bowls for Mickey Mouse, Batman and other icons who later became the central motifs for her work. Favouring frontal, symmetrical portrayals of these enamel-flecked mascots, expressively rendered on a large scale at the centre of her canvases, as Pensato’s distinct approach came into its full realisation, it diverted the course of her art career as she came to be recognised as ‘one of the most exciting New York-based figurative painters.’ iii



    Left: Joan Mitchell, Untitled, circa 1961
    Collection of the Dayton Art Institute, gift of Mr. Max Pincus in honour of Mr. and Mrs. Elton F. MacDonald

    ​​​​Right: Christopher Wool, Maggie’s Brain, 1995
    Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Society for Contemporary Art

    Exhibited at her 2016 solo show at Grice Bench in Los Angeles, Whipper Willie Mickey flickers between comedic representation and menacing abstraction, masterfully encapsulating the familiar faces made strange that are at the heart of Pensato’s practice. Messy and unruly, though the painting appears to have been made at a furiously fast pace, the artist was known to work relatively slowly, carefully considering each mark before putting brush to canvas. The subject glowers over us with its blank eyes and a wide smile, seeming to pop off the canvas with an almost three-dimensionality attributed to the luminous, monochromatic contrast. The result is marvellous, assaulting all senses as the work commands whichever space it is in.


    Pensato’s work is held in the permanent collections of institutions including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York. Among her many accolades, she received the Robert de Niro Sr. Prize in 2013, the Award of Merit Medal for Painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012, the Pollock Krasner Foundation Award in 1997, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996.


    Having been exhibited extensively since the 1990s, Pensato’s work has most recently been honoured with a solo show at the Petzel Gallery in New York which took place in 2021.


    Joyce Pensato Interview with Louisiana Channel, ‘A Life With Cartoon Characters’, 2017

    Video Courtesy of Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2017



    i Roberta Smith, ‘Joyce Pensato, Who Made Cartoon Characters Complex, Dies at 77’, The New York Times, 24 June 2019, online

    ii Joyce Pensato, quoted in Johanna Fateman, ‘Joyce Pensato’, 4Columns, 2 May 2021, online

    iii Alex Greenberger, ‘Joyce Pensato, Creator of Punkish Paintings of Cartoon Characters, Dead at 78’, ARTNews, 13 June 2019, online

    • Provenance

      Grice Bench, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Grice Bench, Joyce Pensato: The Fizz, 21 May – 2 July 2016


Whipper Willie Mickey

signed, titled and dated 'Joyce Pensato 2016 "WHIPPER WILLIE MICKEY"' on the reverse
enamel on linen
183.2 x 162.7 cm. (72 1/8 x 64 in.)
Painted in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

HK$800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for HK$1,071,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale

Hong Kong Auction 21 June 2022