Hirst=Giacometti? The relative-value paradox

Warhol_Dollar_Sign.jpgFor as long as I’ve been writing and thinking about the art market – roughly a decade, with increasing intensity – there have been two seemingly contradictory phenomena driving its development. I keep wrestling with how to reconcile them, but I haven’t yet, and I hereby throw the paradox onto the Artworld Salon floor for discussion.

The first phenomenon is the surge in what I’ll call “cross-category collecting.” It’s rare to meet someone these days who only collects, say, vintage photography or Old Masters or German Expressionism. Most collectors also buy within several mediums. And within those mediums, people have started to cover much broader swathes of history. As The Economist noted last month: “To some extent, interest is spilling over from hot markets to [Old Masters]: newer buyers who might start out buying impressionist, modern, Russian or contemporary art are increasingly drawn to the big names among the Old Masters. (Many older paintings fit surprisingly easily within contemporary interiors.) But the peculiar confluence of factors that has propelled prices sky-high in other markets has not had as extreme an effect with the Old Masters.”

That brings us to our second trend, much noted among artworld veterans: the erosion of “relative value,” meaning the notion that an artist’s market should reflect their standing compared with all other artists, not just their peer group. Explaining the July round of auction sales in London, Daily Telegraph art-market specialist Colin Gleadell wrote: “Last week a good Bacon sold for more (at  £21.6 million) than the two good Monets, and a flashy Damien Hirst ( £9.6 million) made almost as much as the much rarer Matisse….For fashion-conscious collectors, a Koons or a Hirst is now worth more than a Rodin and as much as Giacometti.”

And herein lies the paradox: If the collector bases for everything from Old Masters to the avant-garde are becoming more interwoven, shouldn’t more, not less relative-value thinking be reflected in the prices paid? Granted, I do know one contemporary-art collector who turned first to Morandi then toward Old Masters as the prices for contemporary paintings rocketed. But on balance it often seems to me that the various art-market segments are operating in wildly different ways – across even relatively minor increments in art history. So, clearly, though people are buying widely within different genres and generation, they’re not using the same metrics in judging what price they’ll pay for particular pieces. Thoughts?

Anti-market ruse, or Insta-Collection?

In a few weeks, “For Sale,” a show curated by Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s Wattis Institute, will open at Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art in Lisbon. Hoffmann’s statement describes the exhibition as a reflection of the current trend toward curators organizing shows in commercial galleries, a tactic which downplays the space’s art-dealing in favor of its cultural role. Playing slightly deuxième degré, Hoffmann has asked the artists that he selected for works directly reflecting the fact that the show takes place in a commercial context. The artists lists is strong, multi-generational and brainy, including Allora & Calzadila, John Baldessari, Elmgreen & Dragset, Andrea Fraser, Ryan Gander, Louise Lawler, Tim Lee, Jonathan Monk, Raymond Pettibon, Tino Sehgal, and Mario Garcia Torres.

Here’s the interesting twist: “None of the works in the exhibition can be bought individually and the show can only be acquired as a whole. This fact… obstructs the eventual purchase of the art works – it is clearly more expensive and far more complex to acquire a whole show rather than an individual work. While seemingly completely embracing the commercial aspect of the gallery, FOR SALE in fact tries to obstruct routine business.”

I’d love to see this show due its artists and concept, yet I’m especially curious how effective Hoffmann’s dictate will prove in its stated objective. Frankly, I would not be entirely surprised if some collector takes the plunge, given the mixture of hot young names and established stars, plus Hoffmann’s own curatorial imprimatur. (Obligatory disclosure: Hoffmann curates the Art Perform section of Art Basel Miami Beach; we also once survived a kimchi-and-karaoke night out together in Gwangju, Korea.) After all, if art-market history teaches us anything, it’s that the market is endlessly inventive and surprising when confronted with attempts to obstruct or circumvent it. For someone with tons of money and a big display space, who also happens to share Hoffmann’s taste, the Lisbon show could prove an attractive way to turbo-charge their collection. (Or a museum, better yet.) If it “fails,” this concept could prove strikingly successful for everyone concerned.

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.

Continue reading “Keeping score in the art(star)world”

Mission creep: the museum-director dilemma

I met up with a few artworld friends for drinks last night, and the conversation turned to the Sunday Times piece on Philippe de Montebello’s Met leadership and the inevitable speculations about his successors. Soon after she left us to go have dinner, Alexandra Peers blackberryed me: “Just heard Lisa Dennison has left the Gugg to do business development for Sotheby’s.” Lo and behold, another museum-director slot to be filled! That makes 25 in the United States, based on the Sunday Times article on the Getty’s museum-director training program.

During our cocktails, I had pointed out the fact that at any given moment there seem to be 20-odd open museum directorships and only a half-dozen names in circulation as their likely occupants. Often, of course, those are other museum directors, and when they switch slots, the dilemma remains. Now, musea are not my forte, but from my relatively outside perspective it seems the problem lies in the way that the job has evolved through mission creep over the years. In addition to the classic connoisseurship required, fund-raising and business skills have become a big part of the job, as has the ability to deal with major construction projects and foreign governments. The Getty article quoted Cloisters/Met curator Julien Chapuis saying: “I’m concerned that the next generation of museum leaders will be business people not trained in art history, people who have little knowledge of the collection, which for me is the raison d’être of a museum.” Then again, a museum director needs to have the respect of his curators. As the Guardian reported when London’s National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith quit, he was said “to have been undermined by a cabal of his own curatorial staff who belittled his intellect and thought him a poor connoisseur.”

So it seems today’s ideal museum-director candidate would have a PhD in Art History, an MBA, plus several years of Foreign Service and corporate experience under the belt. It’s a tall order, which may explain why it’s so frequently found to be difficult to fulfill, especially outside the top institutions. As I suggested to my drinking companions last night perhaps it’s time to widen the notion of how museums are led: Splitting the job into business and art functions, rather than desperately seeking candidates combining all the skills required in the modern museum era and paralyzing the institution until the ideal candidate surfaces. Thoughts?

The market limits of JPGs?

If there’s one thing I learned from having a closeup view of the nineties tech boom, it’s that the greater public tend to first underestimate a new technology’s impact (i.e email, txt-msgs, and e-commerce). Then, once it proves itself, they overestimate its utility, using it for purposes far beyond its capacity. We definitely saw Step 1 in the art market, where the initial attempts to do business virtually hit a wall (remember the ebay/Sotheby’s collaboration?), proving to skeptics that, “No one buys art they haven’t seen.”

But then collectors started doing precisely that, and at increasingly high price points. So suddenly people started talking about virtual art markets eliminating the need for gallery spaces. To me, that’s edging far into Step 2 described above, a sort of late-adopter euphoria.

There’s a limit to JPGs, after all, even in the age of 10-megapixel cameras. So I was gratified to spot this, buried way down in yesterday’s Independent article Saatchi’s new stars: collector prepares for new gallery opening:

A spokeswoman revealed [Saatchi’s] buying methods, which included an arrangement with international art dealers in which he could “view” works for 24 hours before deciding on a sale. “He gets sent images sent by about 25 or so young dealers in New York and Los Angeles and they have now got a system in place whereby if he thinks any of the images are interesting, he get the works sent over here for 24 hours so he can see them properly. If they are not for him they can be sent back the following day,” she said.

As a collector, Saatchi is famously rapid and risk-taking. Yet dozens of works are flying along the NY-LON and LA-LON axes so he can study them in person. Given his influence, that seems like a clear signal that the buying-by-JPG concept has reached the backlash stage of its art-market hype curve. Thoughts?

Chinese copy-painters come to Zurich

The art scene is slow in Zurich this time of year, like everywhere else. But there’s always room for a little controversy. Last weekend’s concerned the newly established Splügen-Gallery (all text in German), where the business model runs thus: You give them an image of an artwork, and they have it painted for you in Shenzhen Dafen, China, at whatever dimensions you like. The cost? Roughly $450-$900, frame included.

The eclectic first show features works “by” Gustav Klimt, Roy Lichtenstein and Tamara de Lempicka. Naturally, Pro Litteris, the Swiss artists-rights association, objects strongly, arguing that “to reproduce an image you need permission from the artist or their representative.” The gallery’s owner, Chris Rüegg, counters that he’s checked with his lawyers and it’s all perfectly legal.

One thing’s sure: Given the predicted vector of the Chinese contemporary-art scene, Splügen customers might do well to inquire precisely who painted their duped Picasso, Prince, Weischer, or Wool, and keep that name in their bank vault. After all, Western art history is full of people who went from doing commercial art to being canonized artists. Just look at the recent prices for Warhol sketches from his illustrator days.


In case you missed the news…

Unless you were on the Grand Tour last month, you may have noticed that I have not posted here for a while. There’s a very good reason: As many of you already know, I will be among the trio who will take over the leadership of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach next year, thus replacing Samuel Keller, who will become director of Basel‘s Fondation Beyeler. As you can imagine, the preparations and changes related to this new development have kept me very busy for the last month.

Full details of the new Art Basel leadership structure are here, but the fundamental information is this: Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, currently Senior US Editor of Parkett and a member of the Parsons New School of Design faculty, will be the Artistic Director; Annette Schönholzer, Show Manager for Art Basel Miami Beach since 2002, becomes Director, Operations and Finance; and I will be Director, Strategy and Development. I start working for Art Basel in September, and our trio takes over responsibility for the two shows starting in January 2008.

As Artworld Salon readers know, my fascination with the international artworld’s evolution is long-standing and intense. My new role will involve tracking that evolution even more closely, thereby helping one of the artworld’s most innovative organizations continue to play a leading role in support of its client galleries and their artists. The job presents a challenge and an opportunity to which I look forward immensely.

Documenta12: Terence Koh is not an artist?!?

Koh.jpgI had dinner last night with Terence Koh, arguably one of the hottest artists in the world right now, and he told me about a rather unexpected email he had just received.

With his kind permission, I reprint it below.

From: documenta 12 <professionalpreview@documenta.de>
Date: May 30, 2007 7:50:05 PM GMT+02:00
To: tiffany@peresprojects.com
Subject: documenta 12
documenta 12 <preview@documenta.de>

Dear Terence Koh,

Thank you for your application for accreditation. Unfortunately we have to inform you that we are not able to communicate a positive answer for the professional preview.

The team of documenta 12 is nevertheless happy to welcome you in Kassel during the entire duration of the exhibition from June 16th to September 23rd 2007.

Please go to our website www.documenta12.de for information on admission prices and the supporting program.

Please note: This message has been automatically generated. Please do not reply. This e-mail was sent from a notification-only address that does not accept incoming mail.

Apparently, having solo shows at the Kunsthalle Zurich and Whitney Museum in the last year does not qualify you as a professional artist in the eyes of Documenta 12’s accreditation mavens.

Or maybe they consider him TOO professional?

Clippings from the salon floor, #11

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007Hirstian Math 1 From Linda Sandler of Bloomberg’s $100 Million Diamond Skull Is ‘Almost’ Sold: “The skull represents about a fifth of the value of Hirst’s show at Jay Jopling’s White Cube galleries, according to the artist’s business manager, Frank Dunphy…. The life-sized platinum skull, studded with 8,601 stones weighing 1,106.18 carats, cost Hirst $20 million to make — about the same amount as Jopling spent to build his new White Cube Mason’s Yard gallery.”

Hirstian Math 2 From the BBC.com’s Hirst unveils  £50m diamond skull: “The 18th Century skull is entirely covered in 8,601 jewels, while new teeth were made for the artwork at a cost of  £14m .”

Hirstian Math 3 From the Reuters skull story: “Hirst, who financed the skull himself, said he couldn’t remember whether it had cost 10 or 15 million pounds.”

Hirstian logic Richard Dorment, dependably crystalline in his prose writes: “If anyone but Hirst had made this curious object, we would be struck by its vulgarity. It looks like the kind of thing Asprey or Harrods might sell to credulous visitors from the oil states with unlimited amounts of money to spend, little taste, and no knowledge of art. I can imagine it gracing the drawing room of some African dictator or Colombian drug baron.” Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #11”

The hedge-funders: Barbarians or bogeymen?

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1981 I’ve been meaning for a long time to write about the way in which the artworld talks about collectors who made their money from hedge funds. In fact, I’d rough-drafted a post two months ago, but newsier topics (and my hectic life) interceded. A comment posted by Olav Velthuis in response to Ian’s “Contemporary: what real value?” post prodded me to pick up that draft again. Because I often wonder if artworld insiders haven’t started to treat hedge-fund buyers as their handy whipping boys, blaming them for everything that makes people uneasy about the art market as it progresses into uncharted territory. Let’s start with the case against hedge-funders. [UPDATE: Olav says I misread the above. See comment #1 below. ] Olav wrote:

The new players on the market are hedge fund managers who have on the one hand an enormous reputation deficit (they are considered the parasites of the financial system, much more so than the Wall Street traders that flocked the art market in the 1980s) and on the other hand an enormous surplus of capital (again, much more so than Wall Street in the 1980s or, for that matter nowadays).

In April – when I wrote that rough draft – two pieces published in the same week likewise touched on hedge-funders in the current art market. Both pieces noted the wariness with which many regard those collectors (albeit while happily taking their money). In the New York Sun piece, “Art Market Shifts With Players” Marion Maneker wrote: “Many in the art world [are] nervous that their market is beginning to resemble the volatile financial markets. The presence of many hedge-fund managers — the puppet masters of the herky-jerky stock market — among the new breed of art collector has many dealers on edge.” Likewise in an item I contributed to a small part of New York Magazine’s blowout package on “hedgies,” I quoted a dealer saying: “The big fear is that if the market turns, they’ll get out of art just as fast as they came in.” Continue reading “The hedge-funders: Barbarians or bogeymen?”

Thoughts to digest, while packing for Venice

While cleaning my desk and preparing for the coming artworld marathon, I came across the book “Curating Subjects,” edited by Paul O’Neill and given to me by Ann Demeester, director of Amsterdam’s De Appel Foundation, which offers Europe’s premier curatorial training program. The book is a treasure trove of thoughts on curating and I recommend it highly for those to whom the topic is dear. (Buy it at Amazon, or better yet directly from the publisher).

This particular week, by far the most topical article from “Curating Subjects” is Bob Nickas’ biennials-related contribution, a Q&A based upon questions from Christoph Cherix. At Nickas’ request I’ve posted the full text below rather than blog-style excerpts. Many thanks to Nickas and O’Neill for their cooperation.



To Be Read (Once Every Two Years)

By Bob Nickas

Do Biennials still make sense?

If you are a city that hosts one of them, the mayor of that city, its travel and tourism director, the owner of a hotel, a sauna, or a sex shop, the answer is yes. Biennials make a lot of sense. Dollars and cents. The population of Kassel, Germany is largest every ten years. In between the massive Documenta exhibitions, is anyone making a special trip to Kassel for the many no-star restaurants? For a pizza almost as bad as the ones you find in Venice?

In their defense, the average visitor to these big art shows is not an art specialist. Just look at the numbers. There can’t be that many critics, curators, collectors, artists, and dealers in the world. Many visitors to biennials are simply people interested in art. We forget about them, don’t we? You often see families, although the children look like they would rather be almost anywhere else. (A child, like much of the art produced today, is another portable object in a world filled to the brim.) Let’s not forget that these big shows have a function for people interested in art who may not otherwise have the opportunity to see as much as you or I over the course of two years. Or even one. Maybe biennials are a way for art lovers to catch up with the so-called art world. We are not so much a world as we are many small satellites in orbit around one another. And, as biennials often serve to remind us, there are many shooting stars.

So, as a critic and curator, how do you answer the question: “Do biennials still make sense?”

The answer would have to be no. Any critic or curator who thinks differently is a traitor to the cause. Biennials are about business and politics first. Art will always come in a close second or even third. And why should it be otherwise? The entire world is organized along lines of commerce and power. Art institutions and their wardens (to use Robert Smithson’s term), not to mention quote/unquote independents, are not immune to a perverse fascination with the game and how it is played. Are they merely drunk with power? Order another Mimosa at Harry’s Bar and try not to fall in the canal. You can always save your doubts for another day … So why don’t biennials make sense anymore? Because art is not in charge. Continue reading “Thoughts to digest, while packing for Venice”

Collectors, consultants, complications…

Catching up on my Memorial Day/Pentecost weekend reading, I came across an upbeat-on-the-art-market New York Times piece, The Art of Buying Art, With the Help of an Adviser. It’s pretty pro-adviser, explaining all the various services the right one can provide. Including making you tons of money, as witnessed by the article’s kicker quote: “[Advisor Stacey Winston-Levitan] recalled a phone call a few months ago from one of her clients who wanted to thank her for her advice to buy a John Baldessari piece for $20,000 in the early 1990s. The client had just been offered $500,000 for it. ‘As an art adviser,’ she said, ‘those are the calls you love to get.’”

Slotted in the NYT Business section (not the culture pages), with the section head “Spending,” this piece was classic “service journalism,” i.e. intended to help the reader in dealing with their lives, finances, etc. Which is why it seemed a little weird to see how quickly it skimmed over one of the potentially thorniest issues in the collector/consultant relationship: Compensation. As the Times informs us, “Consultants can charge by the hour, by the project or on a retainer basis. They may also charge a percentage of the price of the art they help acquire.” But as I noted in this month’s Art Newspaper article “The problem with art advisors,” this can be filled with unexpected implications for the novice collector that the Times piece targets:

At its cleanest, [compensation] is straightforward: the collector pays a retainer, usually based upon the ambition level of the projected collection and the speed with which it’s supposed to be completed. Much more frequently, the consultant is paid a commission on each sale by the gallery. To the extent that there’s an industry standard, it’s 10 percent. But in reality, that’s just a baseline number. “With some of my artists, like Josephine Meckseper, where demand is high, the price is the price—if they want a  ­commission, a consultant needs to work it out with their client,” says dealer Elizabeth Dee of New York. “With other artists, I can be more  ­flexible. But you never want to give them more than 10 percent , even though many consultants come asking for 15 percent or even 20 percent.”

… The problem with fluctuating commissions goes beyond the dealer’s profit margin: it also means that advisors have a financial incentive to deal more with one gallery than another, which can skew their clients’ collections toward the artists of the galleries from whom the advisor reaps the best rewards. “I’m very blunt with  ­consultants—I tell them that I want to build a long relationship with them, and that commissions start when we do our fifth or sixth deal,” says Ed Winkleman. “But I know with some consultants that if there’s no  ­commission, they’re not coming back.” Continue reading “Collectors, consultants, complications…”

Clippings from the salon floor, #10

diamond skull Bling and nothingness? Damien Hirst, quoted re his  £50 million diamond-encrusted skull in the Financial Times article What else can you spend your money on?: “The idea is very blingy but it turns out to be something much more. The way it looks is amazing. You almost believe that it is a victory over death.”

Immortality for a mere  £50 million? Hirst again, in the same article, re the art market’s allure to his peers among the superwealthy: “If you want to own things, art is a pretty good bet. Buy art, build a museum, put your name on it, let people in for free. That’s as close as you can get to immortality.”

“See it Venice, buy it in Basel Venice” From The Art Newspaper’s Venice Biennale proposes becoming a selling show again: “The Venice Biennale used to sell art openly—from 1942 to 1968. The Italian dealer Ettore Gian Ferrari had the official job of placing works for any willing artist, earning 15 percent for the Biennale and 2 percent for himself. ….When the president of the Biennale, Davide Croff, realised that Cornice [Fair] had the support of all the public authorities…and of a number of prominent art world figures… he considered whether the Biennale should start selling again from 2009.”

Signor Croff, non c’e piu bisogno di vendere l’arte, metti all’asta le camere d’albergo! From ARTINFO.com’s Phillips de Pury auction report: “Before the auction began, Simon de Pury announced that one member of the Guggenheim Foundation’s International Directors Council would not be able to make it to Venice and had asked that he take bids on her room at the Hotel Cipriani, with proceeds from the unofficial sale going to the museum. A flurry of bids brought the accommodations up to $45,000.” Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #10”

Adrià‘s documenta art: Cooking at El Bulli?!?

FerranAdria.jpgLast week, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones went a smidgen ballistic about the notion that Spanish chef Ferran Adrià – founder of Barcelona’s El Bulli and frequently ranked as the globe’s top chef – was being put forward among Documenta’s artists. In his delightfully apoplectic post Food can be artistic – but it can never be art, Jones wrote:

They are not true artists because even the most modern food cannot disgust people beyond a certain point, or El Bulli would have no customers…. In reality, even a genius among chefs is obliged to please the customer (and cook to order), which means no chef can claim the freedom of mind that artists won in the Renaissance. Caravaggio could paint fruit that looked good enough to eat but he also painted tortures to turn your stomach; that’s art. Until people go to a restaurant to think about death, cooking won’t be art.

Well, Mr. Jones will be delighted to hear that Adrià has apparently bailed on Documenta. [UPDATE: Documenta’s debating this. See Comment #3 below] According to the issue of Berlin-based Monopol that landed in subscriber mailboxes today, Adrià is staying put in Barcelona during Documenta. Here’s a rough translation of the Monopol item: Continue reading “Adrià‘s documenta art: Cooking at El Bulli?!?”

Clippings from the salon floor, #9

Buying a Rothko Rockefeller Marc Glimcher of PaceWildenstein, which represents Mark Rothko’s estate, cited in Bloomberg’s report on the mindblowing new Rothko auction record, $72.8M at Sotheby’s: “While it’s a spectacular painting, it’s clear the allure of having David Rockefeller’s painting in your house is going way beyond what you might otherwise consider reasonable.”

Auctionmania at a glance Still trying to parse last week’s PostWarCon results? Check out the handy totals boards from chelseaartgalleries.com. Especially worth ruminating for art-market junkies is the data-crunching site’s “biggest surprises” category, which notes artist whose pieces showed steep and sudden jumps against their estimates. In some cases, such as the late Steven Parrino, it reflects the recent involvement of a heavy hitter (Gagosian) in the artist’s market. Likewise, Yayoi Kusama’s US representation is in flux, but clearly her market’s already spiking.

Ed Ruscha, Dare#2, 2001 Art market=New Economy? From CultureGrrl, to whom California collector Tom Dare explained selling two Ed Ruscha pieces he had commissioned to spell his own name: “The crazy market combined with all-time high Dow indices caused me to rethink the personal nature of the commissioned pieces and do the smart thing—take money off a hot table and pay the mortgage off. I work in the dot.com business and remember the pain from the bursting bubble in 2000 and the untold dollars I left on the table as a recently IPO’d employer fell back to earth.” This time, Dare made a killing, doubling the estimate on works that he had bought before the market for Ruscha rocketed.

Collector pathology From the Judith Pascoe’s New York Times editorial Collect-Me-Nots: “The pathos of Napoleon’s penis — bandied about over the decades, barely recognizable as a human body part — conjures up the seamier side of the collecting impulse. If, as Freud suggested, the collector is a sexually maladjusted misanthrope, then the emperor’s phallus is a collector’s object nonpareil, the epitome of male potency and dominance.”

Saltz stiletto strikes again From the Jerry Saltz review of Andreas Gursky’s new show, in New York magazine: “Gursky’s new pictures are filled with visual amphetamine, but now they’re laced with psychic chloroform.”

Banksy unmasked? We’re too busy (gearing up for the European art marathon) to bother being hassled by Banksy’s lawyers – the excellently named firm Finers Stephens Innocent – but apparently Radar magazine’s not. Check out its post Making Banksy, with the image of a man purported to be the anonymous artist, before FSI makes it MIA. Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #9”

The auction revolution will be televised

WarholBids.jpgClearly, there’s a huge difference between watching an auction live and watching it virtually, closely akin to the difference between attending theater and viewing films. Live, it’s a visceral, all-engulfing experience, as if one were getting a contact high from the massive endorphin rush of all the interested parties. Remote, it’s mind-numbing. Here’s a perfect example: Watch the Christie’s video of Andy Warhol’s “Green Car Crash” blasting past its high estimate to hit $64 million. I’m sure it was spellbinding to be in that room, but when one of Artworld Salon’s faithful readers e-mailed me the clip last night, I rapidly started multitasking in my email and IM windows until the the last couple of bids. Let’s face it, folks, unless you’ve got money on the line, auctions are boring television.

Interestingly, this week’s issue of New York Magazine has an Intelligencer item from Alexandra Peers, Sotheby’s Shuts Out Auction Regulars, relating how some grumpy auction attendees found themselves watching the sales on closed-circuit television rather than live. Based on differing versions I’ve heard – all from people well-connected inside the auction house – there were several possible motivations for this move, including: 1) making it easier for Tobias Meyer to keep track of bidders in the back of the (now-shortened) room; 2) making the auctions feel more exclusive for those allowed in (i.e. ye old velvet-rope nightclub trick); 3) reducing the traffic jam at the doors, which had previously made it impossible for some latecomers to get paddles in time to bid; 4) slick consultants told them it would raise profits.

Naturally, insiders long used to watching live auctions are dismayed at the prospect of following them on-screen instead. Although CultureGrrl managed to score some thrills tracking the Sotheby’s sales online, as a rule people getting shunted into the spillover room will feel personally slighted. One rejected regular, dealer Ellen Marie Donahue, told Peers that “she was told she could still get a ticket if she passed along her primary clients’ financial information to the house.” She refused the deal. And I’m betting veteran artworld types will get belligerent at the notion that they now must prove their worthiness to attend an auction live, especially given that the houses have taken to positing themselves as the democratic alternative to the “elitist” gallery scene.

That said, from a sales standpoint, the move seemed to have very zero effect at Sotheby’s. Which kind of undercuts my fundamental notions about what makes auctions such a powerful selling platform – namely that the right auctioneer and the right setting, with the right pacing of lots, can seduce people into paying significantly higher prices. But in the age of the telephone bidder, the monster guarantee and the massive marketing campaign, maybe the auctioneer is more like an MC than a master seducer. Thoughts?

Auctionmania: Where are the Chinese artists?

Yue Minjin, Le Dejeuner Sur L'herbe, 1995It’s been interesting to track the auctions from afar this week, but as I read through the results, something was nagging me: Chinese contemporary art – arguably the fastest rising, most speculative, art-market segment ever – is essentially absent in the evening sales, which is where the big deals go down and where stratospheric results rocket artists into the market’s pantheon.

Last year, the auction houses trumpetted the fact that they had included Chinese work in their Postwar & Contemporary sales. Yet Sotheby’s had precisely zero Chinese artists in its sale Tuesday, and last night at Christie’s there was only one. (Yue Minjun’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe pulled $1.2M against an estimate of $500-700K – a perfectly respectable result, granted, yet it represents less than 0.5 percent of the evening’s total take.) Tonight, Phillips de Pury has four Chinese pieces among its 74 lots, but none of them appear to be really major works – their combined estimates total only $800K-$1.15M.

I’m not quite sure how to interpret this. Was no one trying trying to flip their Chinese contemporary paintings? That’s doubtful. Are the collectors or auctioneers thinking these works will go higher in Hong Kong? More likely. Or maybe the auction houses feared that a market backlash was due after all the China hype?

On this last point: A critical backlash has definitely begun, at least in England. Richard Dorment of the Telegraph recently wrote:

One of the most deadening trends in recent years has been the Great Chinese Art Swindle. For years now we’ve been hearing about the vibrancy of the art coming out of Beijing and Shanghai – and it’s all baloney. Time after time, I’ve gone to shows of this stuff only to find that it wasn’t worth taking the trouble to review, only to read a few months later about the record prices the very same works were fetching at auction. Continue reading “Auctionmania: Where are the Chinese artists?”

Clippings from the salon floor, #8

Andrea Fraser, untitled, 2003Sexual aftermath Andrea Fraser quoted by STLtoday re reactions to the 2003 piece for which she slept with a collector for $20,000: “The project raised the level of expectations. ‘What will she do next? Kill herself?’ One artist asked me to bear his child as a work of art. I wondered whether I should retire.”

Warm hands, hot market Montreal’s Moderns dealer Robert Landau, cited in Bloomberg’s ImpMod auction reports: “This is a week where we can sit on our hands and buy nothing and watch as our inventory goes up $50 million in value.

Over-reaching auctionspeak #1 From greg.org’s post questioning the propriety of the Phillips de Pury catalog’s use of 9/11/2001 to promote a 1998 Eberhard Havekost painting: “Obviously, the destruction of The World Trade Center is going to factor into any encounter with a work of art which features the buildings… But rather than just make mention of the situation, Phillips is explicitly running with it, pumping up the importance of Havekost’s painting by torquing it into a kind of prophetic artifact.”

Wannabe dealer tip #1 Painter Dana Schutz, cited in The Boston Globe’s How did this guy become such an art world big shot? – a long profile of her dealer, Zach Feuer: “I thought dealers were terrifying people, and he seemed very open. He’s not the typical super-dealer type — he’s really down to earth, and he always pays on time.”

Roberta Smith, princemaker From the same Zach Feuer profile: “[Feuer recalls]’We didn’t sell much at first… I had trouble paying the rent for the first year and a half. The phone was always off for non-payment.’ Then in February 2002, New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote a positive review of a two-person show of paintings by Holly Coulis and Schutz. The show sold out. ‘Three or four collectors called,’ says Feuer, ‘and it all snowballed from there.’”

Dunst vs Hirst Actress Kirstin Dunst’s take on Damien Hirst, via the Irish Examiner: “I was going to buy a print for  £35,000 (€51,000) – a copy, not the painting, of the butterflies. Then I found out he has a whole studio of people who do the work for him and it only costs about  £1,000 (€1,500) to make a butterfly thing. I think he’s a genius and a good actor[sic], but I don’t think he should charge as much money as he does.Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #8”