I’m not sure what happened in London on Tuesday, but yesterday and today several UK stories involved the upcoming Ewbanks auction “Items from the Studio of Francis Bacon.” A more colorful title for the sale might be “45 Auction Lots Assembled From Objects Once Rescued from a Dumpster Outside The Studio of Francis Bacon, Including Other People’s Passports and Postcards.” If you click on the link, you will see interesting memorabilia. There’s also some epically tendentious auction-catalogue language, such as (emphasis mine), “This would not seem to be a completed painting but Bacon frequently discarded canvases, returning to them at a later date, perhaps in this case this was one to which he meant to return but did not do so.” Wow, they read Bacon’s mind, 15 years after he died: Apparently, Bacon wanted it to be a real painting - but things just didn’t work out…
Personally, I always find it jarring to see something in an auction room or gallery, lovingly framed for sale, that the artist never meant to be considered as part of their oeuvre. Weirdest was stumbling across a KÃ¤the Kollwitz lithograph, which she herself had crossed out (click on the image at right to see a pop-up with the X clearly visible), estimated at roughly $20,000 in a Swiss auction. By virtue of being sold in such contexts, these “pieces” tend to become integrated into the de facto oeuvre. Granted, there is a lot of complexity once one starts to consider the topic closely. It would be simplest, of course, to only deem as art those things which the artist has officially designated as art. But what about Henry Darger, whose stupendous work was only discovered after his death? Or an artist renouncing artworks after selling them, e.g. Richard Prince?
The Ewbanks Bacon sale itself isn’t really hot news, BTW - The Art Newspaper covered it in the March issue, which came out in late February. Either by coincidence or slyness on the part of TAN’s layout team, it adjoined an article that described how the Bristol student house Banksy inhabited is now being valued at double its normal price because of the mural he painted on one wall. Although, based on the image online, this work’s got nothing to do with his clever recent exploits (yeah, I’m a Banksy fan). Rather, it’s kind of cookie-cutter graffiti (one section reads “1st Division Airborne Aerosol Supremacy!”). Anyway, the mural’s being silent-auctioned “with a free house attached.” Right under that Banksy article was one detailing Damien Hirst’s painting a red nose onto a crappy £200 Stalin portrait, which then sold at Christie’s for £140,000.
Taken together, those three stories suggest that from a commercial standpoint, anything a famous artist has ever touched will be considered by buyers to be art - quality and intention be damned. Am I alone in finding this strange?