NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rufino Tamayo's painting "Watermelon Slices" fetched $2.2 million, topping Sotheby's Latin American sale, which also set auction records for pioneering Venezuelan kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez.
"It was a great night for Rufino Tamayo," Sotheby's Latin American art chief Carmen Melian said of the Wednesday evening sale, which totaled $17 million.
"Watermelon Slices is a symphony of colors that recall the (late U.S. master abstract colorist) Mark Rothko. Dozens and dozens of reds and orange shades vibrate," she said.
Melian added that the work, which shows watermelon slices precariously balanced on a brown stand, is difficult to reproduce because Tamayo used pure dried pigment for each tone.
The painting, which was sold by The Museum of Modern Art for its acquisition fund, held a personal significance for Tamayo, Sotheby's said. As a boy, he helped his aunt sell watermelons at a Mexico City market stand.
Tamayo, who died in 1991, is widely seen as a monumental figure of Mexican 20th century art. The Sotheby's auction also fetched unusually hefty prices for work from a long overlooked earlier period when he explored surrealism.
The 1928 "Frutero y Domino" fetched $530,500 and the 1932 "La Tenista" sold for $398,500.
Among other highlights was kinetic art, which "had an exceptional night," said Melian.
Kinetic art plays on optical illusion. Typically, works seem to vibrate for viewers walking past.
Venezuelans played an early and prominent role in developing the genre. Among them was Cruz-Diez, whose 1962 "Physichromie 88" set an auction record at $518,500.
Featuring cardboard on wood, the work at first seems to display what looks like a miniature multicolored skyline. But shapes can turn solid black depending on the viewing angle.
Fellow Venezuelan kinetic artist Jesus Rafael Soto's 1976 "Escritura Cobalto" fetched $530,500.
Bids for kinetic art came from around the world, said Axel Stein, Sotheby's vice president. Explaining its global appeal, he said the genre bears the "universal language of geometry."
"You can be Russian, Latin American, French, it's abstract you get it or you don't," he said. "It's also playful."
The auction also set records for Mexican artist Francisco Corzas for his oil on canvas of a nude young woman "Desnudo (Fleur du Mal") which sold for $218,500.
Argentine artist Martha Boto's "Abstraccion No. 3" sold for $56,250, setting an auction record for her painting.
Reporting by Walker Simon; editing by Patricia Reaney