I headed for answers to the conveniently timed “The Price of Everything” exhibition, just across from the Empire State Building at CUNY’s art gallery on Fifth Avenue. The subtitle of the show, on view through June 24 and organized by the Whitney Independent Study Program, is “Perspectives on the Art Market.” The exhibition promises to illuminate the logic of the commercial art world by “evaluating and examining the different economic structures that comprise today’s expanded art market.” The selected artists “invite a skeptical awareness of market mechanisms” and “an active engagement with possible alternatives.”
I was hungry for enlightenment. These days, aren’t we all trying to figure out how a piece of canvas with half a gallon of paint can metamorphose into an asset comparable in value to the lifetime earnings of two-dozen tenured art historians?
Here’s what I found. In a dimly lit, shrine-like room, covered in red fabric, works by four famous artists that had been donated by the Whitney Museum to corporations in recognition of their support of the arts. On a ledge circling the gallery below the ceiling, a visually arresting piece by Fia Backstrom consisting of pages from Artforum magazine (according to the catalog, the work “considers the economic basis of Artforum by drawing attention to its large volume of full-page advertisements.”) To the side, photos of the artist Marianne Heier documenting her donation of a check to a struggling alternative art gallery. (“The hidden economic infrastructure of the commercial art gallery is often rejected by many artist-run spaces.”)
Three TV sets in the rear were looping interviews with art dealers, although, sadly, these were somewhat overpowered by the roar of the security guard’s walkie-talkie. The center of the gallery space was occupied by giant road sign, a sculptural prop for Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa piece from 2005, pointing 1837 miles to New York City. There were also token works by reliable old-timers: A Hans Haacke gilded snow shovel readymade, Louise Lawler’s picture of an exhibition featuring Koons and Halley, and correspondence pertaining to a Whitney exhibit by Robert Morris, titled Money, from the late sixties. (This piece, involving a loan to the museum that would generate profit while Morris’ work was on view, was certainly the sharpest in this show) Finally, a large drawing of a Cadillac Escalade, entitled $56,055 by its creator, Karl Haendel. The artist stipulated that the drawing would have to be offered for the price of the utility vehicle and subsequently its price would track the car’s Blue Book value.
Never mind that used cars lose value while the backdrop for this show is a historically unprecedented inflation in the art market. It was just another superficial and ultimately failed attempt to raise “skeptical awareness” and provide “possible alternatives.” I admit, though, drawing a killer Cadillac like that must be fun.
With artistic and curatorial responses like this, no wonder dealers and collectors are having their way with art. Contrasted with the turbocharged complexity of today’s artworld, the acuity of the insights offered in this show invite analogies to a face-off between a Stealth bomber and a baseball bat.