Keeping score in the art(star)world

Walking through the MCA Chicago’s summer photography show recently, I came across the David Robbins piece “Talent,” from 1986. To create it, Robbins had 18 young art stars of that moment, including himself, pose for the sort of glossy airbrushed headshots that actors send casting agents. Two decades later, some of those are names that even a Culture-section scanner would recognize, such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. Others are around, if not quite stars. And some have moved far from the artworld spotlight. Robbins himself reportedly “became disenchanted with the New York scene and returned to his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, he began to pursue performance art and dot painting in the context of the small-town tradition of the ice-cream social. The first social was held at a local Baskin-Robbins.”

That some stars stay and others fade is not noteworthy. No, what struck me at the MCA was the (coincidentally) side-by-side presence of Peter Nagy and Ashley Bickerton in the matrix. A decade after the picture was taken, in 1996, both seemed to have essentially exited the mainstream artworld, making new lives an ocean away. As the NY Times wrote last year, the early-nineties “art-market dip left Mr. Bickerton’s career, among others, high and dry. He moved out of New York, first to Brazil then to Bali, where he still lives.” The international Herald Tribune in 2005 tracked Bickerton down doing a printmaking project in Singapore. “My career was basically in the toilet,” he recalled. “After the flash and success, there is another test that comes: longevity.” After a mid-nineties hiatus, Bickerton has come back strongly onto the international art market, most recently via Lehmann Maupin gallery. Painter and East Village gallerist Nagy, who had disappeared to Asia around the same time as Bickerton, has successfully recast himself as the leading gallerist working with India’s suddenly sought-after contemporary artists.

Looking across a much broader swath of art history, there was a long period when the influence of Marcel Duchamp was totally undervalued, and likewise the resurgent interest in Francis Picabia, circa 2002, caught many by surprise. We too often tend to view artists’ careers simplistically, as a progression from anonymity to fame and (almost always) back again. But that’s hardly the only model, especially in an artworld that’s growing ever more multifaceted. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but even art history is never written in stone.

My theory: At any given moment, the artworld’s core members are attracted to particular artists for subjective reasons – ranging from aesthetics and current affairs to pop culture and the society’s broader anxieties/obsessions. But we naturally want to feel like our attractions to those artists are grounded in art history; so we cast backwards for new “pivotal” figures in the past that position our current stars as part of a logical and well-grounded historical continuum, not the product of a more gossamer zeitgeist. (This is not limited to the artworld, of course; people mentally rewrite their life’s backstory all the time.)

Thus, those compiling Top 100 Artists, “Blue-Chip Painters” and other such lists may try to keep score of who’s on top and who’s disappeared forever from the artworld’s hierarchies – sometimes even deploying pseudo-quantitative analysis, as if the artworld was like pro sports or the stock market. But those are numbers-driven milieus with reliable data. Judging an artist’s long-term importance involves trickier variables and a more dynamically shifting landscape. And those who try to do so might well consider Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s reported response when Henry Kissinger asked for his take on the French Revolution’s historical impact: “It’s too early to say.”

10 thoughts on “Keeping score in the art(star)world”

  1. The subject of those artists who disappeared from the public eye is one that I have often pondered about in recent times, and I applaud Marc from bringing it up. Marc is right in suggesting that the upward or downward turn of particular artists does have to do more with us and our collective fashions than with the work of the artists themselves. Nothing is a better example than the 80s, which is when the David Robbins piece was made, which were notorious for creating those instant celebrities (many of which, as we know, proved too fickle to withstand any test of time). But that still would not explain why certain artists, while their reputation may fluctuate somewhat they never truly disappear from the top tiers. Duchamp and Picabia may certainly have shifted in value at different times, but their works didn’t vanish from museum surveys for the last half-century or so.

    The problem may just be, I think, that because we simply cannot stand complexity we just have to create lists, competitions, and top-10, top-100 lists. And ironically, the more the artworld expands and becomes more complex and the more we are overwhelmed by its size, the greater the need is to come up with those lists in order to feel there is some sort of human scale to that mass. It would be silly to pretend that we could abolish those lists: they may always be there, servicing the market and our dow-jones/tabloid perception that we have of the world. But since it always had to do with us, we might as well just keep that in mind, maintain our perspective and know that those holy-grail-like pantheons do little to contribute even as drafts of history.

    On a side note, another question that I have never been able to answer and wonder if anyone has ever cared to ask: why do we always regard art history mainly as a narrative of the exceptional cases, the geniuses, the one-of a kinds? Wouldn’t it be more accurate if art historians studied the works of those who were not particularly ahead of their time, but just representative of their own time?

  2. The incredible disappearing artist trend will continue as long as the market favours the few, rather than the multitude. However, just because you’re gone doesn’t mean you’re forgotten. Especially now that there has been a spate of ‘rediscoveries’ of long-dead or neglected artists, most of whom (in London at least) have been female painters or sculptors. I’m not talking about the perennial Louise Bourgeois – who has a mammoth touring show starting at Tate Modern soon – but about names like Carol Rama, Lee Lozano, Joan Mitchell, Charlotte Posenenske and British abstract artists Prunella Clough and Mary Martin, all of whom have had survey or gallery shows recently.

    Partly, these reappraisals come at a time when dealers who are sitting on an estate or hiding a hoard of old work, can take advantage of high prices for an also-ran of Abstract Expressionism or a marginal 1970s Conceptualist. Curators too, love finding the latest retro art star – just look at Documenta’s roll call of dead or misunderstood artists from the 1960s and ‘70s, who were wheeled out as serious counterpoints to the current frothiness of the contemporary art market.

    Maybe these neglected, embattled female artists spent so long being painted into a gendered, art historical corner that they developed a stubbornness and a refusal to play by the rules of the game. Perhaps they’re just easier to deal (with) when they’re gone.

  3. Pablo asked: “why do we always regard art history mainly as a narrative of the exceptional cases, the geniuses, the one-of a kinds? Wouldn’t it be more accurate if art historians studied the works of those who were not particularly ahead of their time, but just representative of their own time?”

    Something very much akin to those questions occurred to me while reading fellow AWS commenter Lindsay Pollock’s biography of pioneer American art gallerist Edith Halpert. Although some of Halpert’s artists are virtually synomymous with “American art” (Davis, O’Keefe, Marin), others are mere footnotes to the general public, even those in whom she deeply believed (such as her husband, Sam Halpert [well, she believed in him until she divorced him, anyway]). But what struck me as I gathered up gems of gallery-running wisdom in Lindsay’s book like manna from heaven, was the synchronicity of Halpert’s efforts and of the forum she created. Not only did all of her artists benefit from the careers of the others in the gallery (e.g., the exhibition that first brought Abby Rockefeller to Edith’s space led to additional sales for many other artists in the program), but the dialog that emerged through the salons Edith hosted undoubtedly influenced all the artists attending in ways we tend to play down when discussing an individual artist. Somehow we’re uncomfortable with the “it takes a village” narrative in artmaking and much prefer to focus on the individual vision aspects. I guess the cult of personality is ultimately more sexy and, for those lucky enough to get in on the game, lucrative, but it seems to tell only part of the story.

  4. Here is a big and multi-faceted topic that is very close to my heart, and it is a little difficult to keep it from getting personal.

    I know this piece originally from Steven Parrino, who showed it to me way, way back when. He is there too, just above Ashley Bickerton, so we can add another level to the Where Are They Now questions. This would be the parallel topic of how the market suddenly ‘remembers’ or ‘discovers’ an important artist when they ‘disappear,’ as in die. The currently surging interest in the case of Parrino backs up Marc’s theory to a point. Parrino was steady in his vision, and extremely influential to other artists. On the other hand, though he was not a market darling in his lifetime, he did have a worldwide network of support that was impervious to the ups and downs of that market. I learned a lot from him about balancing life and practice. I think that it is great that his work is getting the attention from new people. (And Parrino was not difficult at all. I am not really sure how Ossian’s point about female artists relates in this topic)

    I put some of these words in quotes just to stress that a market is not a being that has thoughts or feelings nor is it capable of actions. So we have to keep this in mind when assigning value to it’s ‘interests,’ especially when we are speaking about worth, historical context and politics. It is likely not such a good practice to anthropomorphize something that does not really have a form. It can be painful to deal with the nearly daily issues of acceptance and rejection, but it is not just artists going through that. Certainly dealers, collectors and writers have felt it too. But those are the feelings of individuals, and no object or market or structure can ever quantify, qualify or make any of that go away for anyone. It just does not play in the bigger long-term picture.

    Peter Doig is living in Trinidad and Tobago. An artist leaving a perceived center of the art universe is not always an artist who has lost their so-called career. One of the greatest things about the internet and the speed of things these days is that it is possible to have quite a nice career as an artist AND a high quality of life, because there are so many more options of where you can work with only the distractions of your choosing.

    I used to think of these things by way of Robert Smithson’s site and non-site concepts. But that is probably just because of my age. I’m trying to be a little less industrial. It is probably keeping me from getting that promotion and moving up in the firm. Oh gosh now I am just reminded of that Tom Cruise movie what was it? The one with the “Show me the money!” line?

  5. Right Greg, Jerry Maguire. The Cruise (title) character is a sports agent. In his milieu, everyone is always keeping score. It recalls Marc’s warning on the limitations of “deploying pseudo-quantitative analysis, as if the artworld was like pro sports”.

    I first saw Talent in the mid 1980s, most likely at Nature Morte Gallery, run by Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher, both of whom are pictured. (Nepotism can be lots of fun when it’s utterly transparent.) I enjoyed the piece as a clever jab, very tongue-in-cheek, conflating art world careerism with celebrity culture. It’s also somewhat louche, suggesting young artists were familiar with the casting couch. The subversive identification of art stardom with the entertainment industry was relatively new back then, even before Jeff Koons complained that artists could never quite reach the heights of show biz celebrity. Which didn’t stop him from trying. Talent marked a pivotal moment, the changing of the (avant)guard from the untrammeled excesses of Neo-Expressionism to a cooler, more cerebral, media appropriative and commodity critical praxis.

    Was Robbins defining a constellation of 80s stars or just chronicling his particular scene? I think the latter, although considering the moment, his selection process seemed somewhat arbitrary. (Where were Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Jack Goldstein, Haim Steinbach, Meyer Vaisman, Sarah Charlesworth, Troy Brauntuch, Nancy Dwyer?) I also felt his audacity was a bit too cute, a sly tempting of fate, almost begging to become dated. His pantheon was bound to age, and not just (as expected) from fresh faces to middle age, but also with regard to reputation. Still, in its good humor and cheeky intelligence, it is a watershed piece, and I am happy that Marc has brought it back for our consideration. It’s like running into an old friend and resuming a conversation one never imagined would again be possible.

    In the notes for his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “There are no second acts in American lives”. This is absolute twaddle. Had Fitzgerald finished his novel, perhaps he would have revised his opinion, and realized the tremendous capacity we have for re-invention, or as Ashley Bickerton calls it, “longevity”. Marc documents the “second acts” of Bickerton, Nagy and Robbins. Allow me to add: Tom Lawson and Michael Byron continue to write and paint while also working in the academy (at CalArts and Washington University). Jenny Holzer, Robert Longo, Jennifer Bolande, Allan McCollum and of course Cindy Sherman all maintain careers of greater or lesser stardom. And inevitably, with the passage of twenty years, several of those pictured have died. Gretchen Bender is gone, as is Steve Parrino. In her fitting tribute to Parrino, Lisa notes his “disappearance” might have actually focused renewed market attention on his work. Considering his distressed black and white canvases, semi detached and falling off their stretchers, and his coolly defiant stance towards the collectible art object, it’s an irony he probably would have appreciated.

    Personally, I am more interested in biography, in the development of creative artistic personae over time, rather than in “second lives” in the marketplace. It’s obvious that the market is reductive and tends to simplify the moment to focus attention on the few, because the reality of an ever expanding artworld is just too confusing for the purposes of commerce. Some stars must be cast out of heaven so that others might shine more brightly, and more remuneratively.

    Of greater interest is the redefinition of artistic influence, and with it a more meaningful star system, which grows out of our burgeoning MFA culture. I am thinking of the growing importance of artists like Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci and Robert Smithson in recent years, as their work from the 60s and 70s inspires the practice of recent graduates from the academy. So it’s not just curators who “love finding the latest retro art star” (thanks Ossian). But there is certainly one New York based curator/dealer who makes this his entire raison d’etre, who only shows work by former art stars, now forgotten. He should be mentioned in the context of this thread: Mitchell Algus. Algus would certainly concur with the immortal words of Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over”.

  6. There are two lines of comment here: the first is concerned about the narrative arc of the artist’s career; the second is concerned with the narrative arc of art history. On the latter (which is all I will comment on at the moment) I think we’re talking in generalities. What are the specific incidences of works of art history that are pegged to the ‘cult of personality’ or ‘exceptional cases’? I know Phaidon is possibly guilty of this, but academic publishers are certainly not. And I can think of two or three works that are about to be published that stake their currency on creating a ‘new’ history of art history (whether they’re successful or not is still up for debate).

    All said and done, I’m not convinced: (Art) Historians are too concerned with their own academic careers to acknowledge figures like Franco Moretti who have come along with new forms of making (i.e. writing) history that have nothing to do with picking favorites (or the “overlooked”, which translates into a “discovery”); this is the nod to Pablo’s comment above.

    The fact is that the business of contemporary art is too, well, recent. We have no perspective: I’m reminded of a parallel comment to the Kissinger one posted by Marc above, though this one’s not by Kissinger.

    Apparently at some point in the early 1970s Nam Jun Paik is putting a video synthesizer through its motions for none other than Hollis Frampton, and Paik is asking Frampton about the potential of the new technology. Essentially, Paik asks, “What do you think? Is this the end of film?” And Frampton, still too wise at that point, says, “It’s still too young.”
    Lesson?: It’s always too early for history. So don’t rush it.

  7. It is a very good point that history is not something that comes from one book or one author, but rather many. But I guess another question is, will art history continue to hold any significance in the measure of value in the marketplace or even to artists? Perspective is scientifically important and must have the right circumstances to function, but what use is perspective in a two dimensional environment (meaning less experiential)? Perspective is, in the end, just another version of distortion. Flat in a way somehow becomes the closest thing to a real experience. Will the strength of contemporary at the auction houses be replaced again by the modern art that it so recently surpassed? Or will there be a new interest in old master drawings and graphics for example?

    I am glad that Steve mentioned Mitchell Algus, a hero of mine. I first heard of Lee Lozano from him, as well as many, many others who I later saw re-discovered in other places. (He is also a really good and knowledgeable source of interesting artworks, I have gotten a couple treasures there myself at very good prices) What is interesting to me is that his gallery program is like that of a ‘young’ gallery, with a somewhat fluid subtext about what people are paying attention to at the moment, it is that looking back for new pivotal figures kind of thing, but not in the service of supporting any particular new artist. Many of his artists make it into the paper of record, and not just when they die.

  8. Regarding the rediscovery of female artists, I look forward to the upcoming Hannah Wilke show at Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. It will include video, photography, monotypes and watercolors from 1990 – 93, the last three years of her life. Wilke meets several of Ossian’s criteria — long-dead, neglected, embattled, painted into a gendered, art historical corner — but Feldman has consistently shown her for 35 years, both before and after her death. I have no particular knowledge of her market, but this hardly seems a dealer cashing in on an estate, but rather a long term commitment to the work.

    Wilke was certainly stubborn. She could be difficult. But she was also hilarious, irreverent, totally upfront, and fearless right to the end. She was a pioneer feminist, conceptualist, performance and body artist who made unusual choices of material (chocolate, latex, chewing gum, her own body). Her vaginal sculptures were executed in all sizes and media, and were often exhibited serially, a nod to Minimalist aesthetics. Her politicized use of language and sexuality places her in direct descent of many artists working today. In the 80s, when I knew her, Wilke was beginning to achieve a wider recognition, but also felt passed over in light of the attention given to a younger generation of women who echoed many of her methods and concerns, including Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.

    So perhaps it is time for a reassessment. And to bring the matter full circle, back to Ossian’s turf, there is a concurrent show of Wilke’s early work (1966 – 1980) in September at Alison Jacques.

  9. Lisa’s initial comment is encouraging, but I want go back to the idea of long-term importance that Marc introduced as it relates to influence, and as it is articulated through exhibitions, art criticism and history, and not solely the marketplace. I think the most palpable, authoritative artistic influences are driving, creative forces usually made and led in complicity, not by stars but constellations. (Is this a naïve approach?)

    When considering more general forms of artistic influence in the field of contemporary art, I think historical revisionism is curatorially the most incisive methodology. Marc points to a similar effort, and to another extent does Steven. In the most compelling revisionist contemporary curatorial work this search has focused less in resurrecting particular artists as in identifying critical moments that have shaped and defined influential artistic practices. The difference between this more current, revisionist curatorial approach and earlier forms of historical research is that the former go without (re)visiting or considering other inspirations, sites and cultures as romantic or primitive, biography included. Rather, revisionist projects approach cultures, artistic practices and art markets bearing in mind multiple intellectual histories as one more matter of fact (and surprise).

    But, ultimately, importance, influence, and stardom are terms that champion vertical hierarchies within a field that has been most recently de-centralizing, struggling to operate more horizontally. The popularity of contemporary art and the proliferation of commercial galleries—and thus of artists, emerging collectors, and new audiences—are as much an indication of this struggle as the issue of representation is in discourses of cultural politics.

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