Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Determining Long-Term Value

A good deal of chatter around the sky-high prices of some contemporary artwork lately centers on how it's too early to know whether the work will stand the test of time. In particular, the thinking goes, it's too early to know whether years from now anyone will continue to care about it, despite how its current price would suggest it's important work. This is generally accompanied by an example of an artist who was popular during his/her (but mostly his) lifetime or whose work sold at auction for some astronomical sum, only to have the artist's work relegated to the dustbins of art history later on. 

Scott Reyburn provided a textbook example of this progression of thought in the Sunday New York Times, in an interesting article about whether the red-hot economic theory (just translated into English) by the French rock-star-economist Thomas Piketty can be applied to art:
As during the so-called Belle Époque, certain living artists, whose longevity is still unproven, find they have a cult following. Christopher Wool (born 1955) is the high priest of American painting at the moment, particularly after the record $26.5 million paid for his 1988 work “Apocalypse Now” at the $1.3-billion series of contemporary art auctions in New York in November. Private museums, packed with works by Mr. Wool, Wade Guyton, Mark Grotjahn and other must-have names, are sprouting up across the world.
“People are spending millions on works by artists who have questionable long-term value,” [Ivor Braka, a London dealer who has been buying and selling high-value art since 1978] said.
“Do they have taste?” he added. “I don’t know. That’s capitalism. You can spend money on what you want.”
Back in 1882, the British businessman-cum-art speculator Thomas Holloway, using the best art advice that money could buy, splurged £6,615 on “The Babylonian Marriage Market” by Edwin Long, an auction record at the time for any living English artist. The painter and the painting are now forgotten.
In general, people have good reason to expect high auction prices to correlate with art historical importance. The highest prices paid for artwork at auction or known private sales are indeed for works by artists generally accepted in the canon (even if each of the works themselves are only questionably among their best). 

Consider the list of the 20 publicly known (or estimated) most expensive paintings ever sold :
$269 ($259) Paul Cézanne, "The Card Players," 1892/93 [April 1, 2011]
$162 ($140) Jackson Pollock, "No. 5, 1948," 1948 [November 2, 2006]
$159 ($137) Willem de Kooning, "Woman III," 1953 [November 18, 2006]
$155 ($155) Pablo Picasso, "Le Rêve," 1932 [March 26, 2013]
$155 ($135) Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," 1907 [June 18, 2006]
$149 ($82) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," 1890 [May 15, 1990]
$142 ($142) Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," 1969 [November 12, 2013]
$141 ($78) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Bal du moulin de la Galette," 1876 [May 17, 1990]
$129 ($104) Pablo Picasso, "Garçon à la pipe," 1905 [May 4, 2004]
$122 ($119) Edvard Munch, "The Scream,"    1895 [May 2, 2012]
$118 ($110) Jasper Johns, "Flag," 1954 [March 1, 2010]
$114 ($106) Pablo Picasso, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," 1932 [May 4, 2010]
$111 ($58*) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of Joseph Roulin," 1889 [August 1, 1989]
$110 ($95) Pablo Picasso, "Dora Maar au Chat," 1941 [May 3, 2006]
$109 ($53) Vincent van Gogh, "Irises," 1889 [November 11, 1987]
$108 ($100) Andy Warhol, "Eight Elvises," 1963 [October 1, 2008]
$105 ($105) Barnett Newman, "Anna's Light," 1968 [October 4, 2013]
$105 ($105) Andy Warhol, "Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)," 1963 [November 13, 2013]
$102 ($87) Gustav Klimt, "Adele Bloch-Bauer II," 1912 [November 2, 2006]
$102 ($71) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe," 1889 [November 19, 1998]

First dollar amounts [in millions, and rounded for space] are adjusted for inflation to show comparable expectations of "importance" via sale price. Prices in parenthesis were prices (or generally accepted estimates) on day of sale. Dates at end were dates of sale, for reference in how long the work had been around for the public/art world to weigh in on its importance.
 *plus exchange of works

Mind you, the shortest length of time between the creation of one of these works and their record sales price was 44 years (for the Francis Bacon), and some of them had exchanged hands several times before they reached these peaks in prices. But again, if you follow such reports, it's logical that you would expect high auction prices to correspond to art historical importance (and long-term value).

In the flippant auction atmosphere of contemporary art today, the amounts of money stirring questions of art historical importance are pennies compared to the record prices, so perhaps it is all relative. But it's still millions of dollars, and so the questions of "long-term value" do linger.

Through a series of conversations lately, I've been trying to reconcile my working assumptions about what makes art "historically important" with the question of determining "long-term value." Perhaps sharing those thoughts and conversations here can help collectors avoid any
Edwin-Long-type "mistakes" (which I put in quotes because to me it's not a mistake if you go to your grave truly loving the artwork, but your heirs may disagree...). If nothing else, perhaps it can open up a healthy debate as to whether the question of "long-term value" makes sense within the context of contemporary art auction prices. Here goes:

My long-standing theory has been that what makes any artwork truly "important" is the influence it has on other artists. If other artists look to it for its ideas, aesthetic achievement, or innovation--in short, if it opens up opportunities for other artists in solving problems within their own practice--then on the most fundamental level it's "historically important" to my mind. This can take years to happen (as in the case of the now widely influential Philip Guston, who was considerably less so until a generation of younger artists started turning to him for answers about 20 years ago), but I do believe this is a key to whether or not something contemporary will become art historically important.

This quality, though, of opening up opportunities for other artists, can take several forms. It can be something quite technical, such as the "invention" (or rediscovery, if you will) of linear perspective. It can be a liberating break with traditional notions of what "art" is supposed to look like or be made from. It can be an achievement in creating something so beautiful that other artists simply marvel at the fact that it now exists. 

What unites all these forms of influence, to my mind, though, is innovation and uniqueness. It's something new, something that didn't exist before this work was created that captures the imagination of other artists and propels a work into that category of "important." If an artwork isn't innovative or unique in some way, if there's not something new in it that other artist can learn from, something that they don't already know from seeing some already accessible work, the more recent work's odds of becoming influential seem quite diminished. Again, other artists may turn to a work that offers nothing seemingly innovative, simply because it's so damn well done, but it's that "thing" that makes it so damn well done that I would argue is also something that's, in its own way, new and unique in the world. That "thing" that makes other artists wonder How did they do that? and turn to it frequently for answers. If you can find damn well done works on every corner, why would you seek out the one perhaps half a world away? 

And so, I return to the question at hand: How can you avoid shelling out millions at auction for the next Edwin Long? One answer I come up with is to avoid artwork that is in no way innovative. Of course, this requires a solid grasp of art history, which is time consuming or requires advice you can trust. Moreover, as the contemporary art market goes increasingly global, a "solid grasp" is more and more all-but-impossible for any given individual. And so, perhaps a better, more reliable/actionable answer is: Seek out the work that looks like nothing you've ever seen before (that can include something that's just so damn well done, you can't get it out of your mind). None of which will guarantee it's unique in the world (although it's easy enough to ask your dealer or artist friends if they know of other work like it), but your long-term odds are much higher with such art than they are with work that brings nothing new to the table for other artists to get excited about.

Friday, April 18, 2014

How do you grow a Renaissance person? | Open Thread

I was recently introduced to an intriguing concept called "learning by forgetting." The best example of how this works is in acquiring a language. The theory goes that at birth, human children have the ability to learn essentially any language they are exposed to. Because they are generally exposed to specific languages, with specific grammatical rules and sounds, however, as they grow older they lose (forget) the ability to distinguish between certain sounds only used in other languages. They also theoretically lose (forget) the ability to intuit grammatical structures that are not used in their first acquired language.

For example, when to use or not use a definite or indefinite article in English, which any person raised to speak English gets correct instinctively, seems to be entirely lost on people raised to speak Russian who learned English later in life (we have a living case example of this in our home). Friends/family of ours who grew up speaking Russian often simply don't instinctively know when a definite article is needed in English, despite having mastered nearly every other element of English grammar.

"He should lock the door before leaving house," sounds like perfect English to many Russian speakers with an otherwise solid grasp of English grammar. But to someone raised speaking English, it's clearly missing the word "the" before "house." It's not a matter of implicitly understanding the grammatical rule here either; we simply feel it's missing.

Why this remains difficult for people raised to speak Russian is explained by "learning by forgetting". The theory goes that, like everyone, they were born with the ability to intuit when an article is needed in English (which would be easily proven by any example of a person born in a Russian-speaking country who moves to an English-speaking country early in life and gets articles correct instinctively now...we have another case example of that in our family as well), but they "forget" that ability through never using it if not exposed to English before a certain point in their life. After that point, when they've officially "forgetten" that ability, it's very, very difficult to get it back. Mind you, and this is the really interesting part for me, the theory insists forgetting that ability is simply a part of learning to speak Russian correctly.

And so, I've been wondering if the same applies to learning other things well. Do visual artists, for example, who learn to master a particular medium need to "forget" what they were born knowing or otherwise have under their belt about other mediums to do so? Painting in oils, for example, which are very forgiving (you can usually easily go back into a passage while it's wet and "correct" something repeatedly) is quite different from painting in water color, which is nowhere near as forgiving. Mess something significant up in water color and you quite often are better off just starting over. (I speak from limited, quite amateur, experience.) Do these different limitations require not only learning certain things to master these mediums, but also forgetting certain other things? I'm not sure. Perhaps some of the painters out there have examples that would clarify this.

But beyond technique, I'm also wondering whether "learning by forgetting" applies to art making in general. Is there a parallel between spoken language and visual language? Are all human children born with the ability to master essentially any visual language if exposed to it early enough in life? Mind you, I'm not talking about raw talent here. In English, even among those who were raised speaking it, there's a wide gap between using it correctly (being one of millions of people who have mastered it) and using it to great artistic effect (being that rare human who can create amazing things with it). Rather, I'm talking about simply being able to master a visual language via being exposed to it, being encouraged to use it by those around you in your formative years.

I suspect that via learning other types of languages with their own stringent rules (such as mathematical languages) and not simultaneously being exposed to visual languages, mastering those other languages leads to "forgetting" the abilities we're all born with in visual languages. It may be that, like the way learning to speak Russian well requires "forgetting" the ability to intuit when definite articles are needed in English, becoming a mathematical genius requires forgetting certain other abilities (which could explain the "Beautiful Mind" phenomenon or the quirky scientific genius cliches).

But that's a bit of an unhelpful tangent. Where I'm heading with all this is a question that's been banging around in my brain since first reading what Picasso said about painting like a child. Two quotes form my impression of his meaning there:
“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” ― Pablo Picasso

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” ― Pablo Picasso

The second idea ("every child is an artist") seems parallel to the central premise in the "learning by forgetting" theory. Every human child is born with innate artistic instincts (if not exactly abilities) for any visual language--the door of possibilities is wide open--just as any child is born with the intuitions to master Chinese or Hungarian or even ancient Greek, but they lose/forget those intuitions as they grow older. Is this because they must forget them in order to master other things? And was Picasso foolish to think he had any choice in this forgetting process? He claims to have, over a lifetime, regained the ability to paint like a child. Had he really? Did he un-forget everything he had lost via concentrating on learning to paint like Raphael?

And what implications do these ideas raise with regard to how we might best nurture children to grow up realizing their fullest potential as artists (let alone as humans)? How do you grow a Renaissance person? Exposing them to as much art/ideas as possible seems a logical approach, but for them to master anything, must they also go through the process of forgetting other things? And what about those bona fide "Renaissance people"? Did they somehow skip the "forgetting" phase while growing up? How?

Consider this an open thread (wide open) on "learning by forgetting" and its implications.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Poem for April Fool's Day (with apologies to Dr. Suess)

On an Island hard to reach
Sat the East Beast on his Beach
On the West Beach sat the West Beast
Each Beach Beast thinks he's the Best Beast.

Which Beast is Best? Well, I thought at first
The Western way, we'd all be cursed.
But I realized looking West from East
Who cares? It's all one big Freak Feast.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Looking for Leaders...

I'm so sorry to tell you this, contemporary artists, but one way or another you're going to have to lead us out of this mess. 

I've read many a comment on social networks from artists arguing that they resent critics and others insisting that the way out of the death spiral that is the contemporary art market's focus on money over art must come from artists. They resent it. After all, they only work with galleries because they don't want to deal with the business end of things, so why can't the galleries figure out how to change all this?

The factors one must understand to appreciate why that's not likely though are that 1) a gallery IS a business and if there's a clear way to make money and a clear way NOT to make money in the current climate, the business owner part of the dealer's path is obvious; 2) dealers are their artists' representatives, with an obligation as such to work toward their true goals, so as long as their artists are making choices that favor money over art, they're simply doing their job in helping them; and 3) while other artists may demand their dealers make choices that favor art over money, unless there's some money involved there to cover expenses, dealers can't afford to represent too many artists like that (whereas entire programs are built around the other category of artists, and very lucrative ones at that, bringing us back to factor #1).

I'm sure some artists out there are chomping at the bit to interject here:  buh...buh...who ARE these so-called category 2 artists you're imagining here, demanding money over art? 

I kid you not, I had a conversation just the other day with an artist who confirmed for me that so long as there's money to be made in the current market, they felt they should try to make as much as they can too. Why should they be the cross bearer for their generation? And it's clear they're not the only artist who feels that way, regardless of what some would say if put on the spot. Which isn't to say all artists feel this way...just enough to fuel an ever-money-obsessed market.

But let me back up. What is this "death spiral" you're hyperventilating about, Edward? Adam Lindemann summarized it quite nicely the other day:
We’re in a pretty scary moment in the cycle. The number of people flipping works of art has never been higher, and they will keep on pumping up prices until the music stops. When it will stop is anyone’s guess[...] One can semi-plausibly argue that a Bacon, a great Picasso or a Warhol is a rare and precious thing and that in the 21st century we will always see more buyers (many of them from outside the U.S.) than there are works available. The young stuff is another matter altogether. Artists go on making it every day, and the higher it goes, the more they produce. The market now is rife with speculation and getting hotter by the day. Today, everybody’s a wise guy looking for an angle.

A guy gets offered a picture for a buck and thinks: Why just tell the seller “yes” or “no”? Why not be a player and re-offer it to 10 other guys you know for two bucks? Maybe you can buy it yourself for 85 cents and sell it for $1.50, or better  yet, just flip it without buying it. This is, after all, trading tulips; no one really wants to smell them roses. Collecting is now an anachronism. Some people are still doing it, but they have become the minority. The new generation is in it to win it, and it’s very bold and not risk averse. It will dive into anything that has buzz and hype and feels like it’s going to the moon. What’s ironic and sad is that some artists’ careers now seem to end only months after they began. This means we won’t get to “sell them later,” because there won’t be any “later.” [emphasis mine]
I've been talking about this issue long enough to know at this point, someone will chime in to suggest all we need is enough idealistic dealers who dig in their heels, show quality work without compromising, and they'll begin to change how things are heading. Again, though, waiting for enough dealers to do this increasingly seems like a fool's game to me. In her "Exit Interview," Kristen Dodge explains part of why she recently chose to close her Lower East Side gallery:
"I spoke with a successful art dealer recently who dismissed the notion of a new model, observing that when people set out to do it differently, they wind up doing the same thing as everyone else. This particular person has decided to look the evil (not my word) and fallibility of the art world in the face, embrace it, become it, and use it for financial gain. It's a job at the end of the day, right? I admire this person's tenacity to succeed and survive alternately over the course of changing markets, and their track record of launching artists’ careers. But at some point along the way, this person admittedly lost the art part of the equation. All I could think was, what happened and fuck that." [emphasis mine]

And so putting those two emphasized ideas together:  "Artists go on making it every day, and the higher it goes, the more they produce" and "when [dealers] set out to do it differently, they wind up doing the same thing as everyone else," it's hard not to conclude that whether artists resent it or not, shifting the focus from money back onto art must come from the artists themselves.

OK, you say, but how? If an ever-expanding pool of MFA graduates are willing to crank out the production to fuel the speculation that's drowning out any demands to focus on art for art's sake, how can individual artists change anything here?  
The only answer (and I'll admit it's not instantly satisfying or easy) is to not get drawn in. Becoming a tool of the 1% is best left to politicians. From artists we have always expected a bit more. The artist above who told me they figured they might as well make what money they can from this market could have made other choices. They would not have died had they not.

I know there are those who will conclude, "well, the dealer who Kristen cites could have made other choices as well...they wouldn't have died either." And that's true, but in the current climate dealers making those choices are finding it hard to climb above a certain level, because their best selling artists leave them for bigger galleries who will more generously "clean up their messes." As that keeps happening, over and over, almost systematically, those types of dealers are being exhausted.

So again, to my mind, if more artists don't lead here, change will not quickly come.

I will say one artist who is leading in this regard (as I've noted before) has a show up right now at Postmasters. I think artists looking for guidance on how to change things could do much worse than to visit it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Fake Hitler Landscapes : Open Thread

I know an art dealer who specializes in Modern and Contemporary art that includes works by most of the giants of the cannon. He can talk authoritatively about autobiographical or technique or aesthetic details for any of the artists or works, in tones so soothing and compelling, it makes you want to run out and rob a bank just to buy up and take his entire inventory home with you.

In his private life, however, this dealer collects only art by Anonymous artists. He finds them in estate sales or even flea markets, and relies on his "eye" only to make purchasing decisions. It's a wonderful and daring approach to collecting, and not one that in the current climate of "big brand" artists is likely to leave his heirs much to sell off, but the confidence this gives his clients in his abilities as an aesthete probably more than makes up for it. 

I thought of this dealer recently, and the advantages of collecting anonymous art, because lately there's been a number of conversations on Facebook and other social networks about not being able to see past the autobiographical details of artist X or artist Y in attempting to appreciate their art. One such discussion I got embroiled in dealt with Woody Allen (which I provide here as a clear example of what I mean, and most definitely NOT as a wish to revisit that discussion...no comments on Allen will be published except those using that case as shorthand for this phenomenon of not being able to tolerate the work of someone who you cannot stand personally...there are plenty of other places where the details of that case have been hashed out over and over), but there have been a few more such cases come up lately than is normal, and a few about contemporary fine artists, so I thought I'd examine what this all means.

There was an episode (or two) on the TV show "Justified" that dealt with an art dealer who specialized in paintings by Hitler. The market for that work was portrayed as so hot, apparently there were also "fake" paintings by Hitler they were concerned about. I wasn't familiar with this particular market at all, but I wasn't terribly surprised to entertain the idea that one exists. A little post-TV research revealed an article that suggested the market not only exists but is "thriving"...although the same article suggests the editor who inserted "thriving" in the headline hadn't read the full text. Indeed, the interest seems, mercifully, to be quite finite:
"Some people, for whatever reason, like these paintings," says Dr Burkhard Asmuss, head of the department of contemporary history at Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum. "But we have no interest in them. We have enough objects that enhance people's understanding. And what do these paintings show? That he once turned his hand to a few picture postcards? So what?"
I jump ahead to Goodwin's Law here, though, to help put the rest of the conversation in context. None of the artists I've heard mentioned recently have done anything that even begins to approach the evil that Hitler embodied, and yet, their actions have also won them hard-boiled detractors unable to separate out their statements or behaviors from their artwork. And all of them are much more accomplished by far as artists than Hitler. (So let's please keep that relativity firmly in mind while we debate this topic.)

And so, with all that established: this issue raises a number of interesting questions for me about authorship, "vessel-ship," and the role of the artist in society. 

The questions about authorship and what I'll call "vessel-ship" (i.e., an artwork's ability by itself to carry into the future cultural clues or solid information about how a generation that has passed away thought and lived or what they valued) are similar to my mind. If we're looking at a painting from a few centuries ago, for example, and the way it portrays someone is offensive to us today, it might be useful to know the artist was, even in their own time, seen as a notorious bigot and his/her views didn't represent those of the majority of his/her contemporaries. 

But if there's nothing particularly offensive in another painting by the same artist, does the fact the author was a notorious bigot still matter? In other words, does his/her bigotry taint all his/her work? If so, is the concept of "vessel-ship" valid? If a work doesn't ever stand on its own in conveying information, but always brings its author's baggage along for the ride, do any of us really appreciate any of the art that came before we were born? Even for those artists who we can read indepth biographies about, without being an expert on his/her time and place, we're most likely projecting quite a bit onto their meaning and personal opinions. 

Dragging this up into the present, if an artist says or does something that offends us, what does it mean that such behavior can taint all his/her work? I personally cannot stand a few artists (yes, it's true, a few of them are occasionally unpleasant), but I can't think of any case in which that has made me conscious of evaluating their art in unduly negative terms. Having said that, I can't think of a single living artist I personally can't stand whose work hangs in our home either, so there's most likely something at play there. We do have an engraving by Picasso, who I suspect I wouldn't have been all that fond of, but honestly, once an artist is gone, I truly couldn't care less about their personal lives...I suppose if Picasso were revealed to have slaughtered a million people or something I would care, but otherwise, his excesses or abuses seem too removed from the genius of the work to my mind.

Which I know is not the case for a lot of people. Many people cannot separate out excesses or abuses from the work an artist creates. I've heard of collectors who, learning something negative about an artist, were no longer able to even look at their art. Part of me finds this both understandable and quite beautiful. It makes artwork somehow more of a living thing in the world. Part of me, though, can't relate. I have seen enough Hitler paintings in magazines or newspaper articles to know they don't interest me, but it's not because he was evil, but rather because they're so dull. In this way, my objection to them isn't based on his evilness, but rather his work's blandness. If they were sublime, I'm not entirely sure how I would feel about them, but I suspect, because I don't turn away from them now just because of their author, I wouldn't turn away from them if they were sublime because of their author. He would have been an evil person capable of painting sublime paintings. (Fortunately, that exact paradox isn't one we need to consider here.)

All of which for me comes back to the role of the artist in contemporary society. Actors are interviewed more than other creative types in our society, so I'll begin this discussion with examples from Hollywood (which conveniently keeps me from having to name any names in the art world ;-) ). But several actors, when asked about others in their industry who voice political opinions that may be controversial or even offensive, have responded by saying they see their role, as actors, to work on films and such and not share their opinions with the public. And while I feel that's a perfectly valid personal choice, I don't agree it should be considered the "place" of actors to simply perform and not participate in the democratic dialog. On the contrary, I find the experience most actors accumulate over long careers, the number of different people and locations they're exposed to, to make their opinions very much worth hearing. Even when I disagree with them.

I feel the same about visual artists. The amount of self-awareness and the practice of perceiving so intensely that it takes to make great artwork does indeed make most artists very, very interesting people for me. (I've said it before, what I like far and away the most about being a gallerist is talking with artists in their studios...hearing their opinions and learning what they're thinking about.) And so, when from time to time their opinions chafe my neck, I try to consider how much good I'm getting (along with this bad) in determining whether I want to continue my dialog with them. As noted above, though, I'm not sure I have ever consciously decided to dismiss an artist's work because of an opinion that I didn't appreciate, but I'm not sure that hasn't happened subconsciously, so....

Of course, there's a difference between sharing opinions and offensive behaviors, but one of the most recent examples I know of a contemporary artist stirring up resentment was essentially both: an offensive sharing of opinion that basically equaled bad behavior, at least to some people. The behavior led someone who owned the work by this artist to no longer wish to display it or have any future dealings with the artist.

The second decision is fully understandable, but the first one is one I personally cannot relate to. Should the artist who made one of the works that hang in our bedroom be revealed to have committed some terrible crime, would my love for that art need to change? I know for many people it simply does change. They don't rationalize it, it's simply that they can't look at it any longer. I cannot imagine the same happening for me, though. I've actually had arguments or falling outs with various artists whose work hangs in our home, but I have never felt that should lead me to take the work down. I didn't hang it up because I liked the artist...I hung it up because I liked the work.

Again, though, there are degrees. Should they discover a "sublime" painting by Hitler, I would not ever wish to own or live with it. I suspect I would also approach evaluating its sublimity with great skepticism. And perhaps this reveals to me that my choices here reflect nothing so much as my own line in the sand and what I can personally excuse or forgive and what I cannot. But that then raises the question of how meaningful a vessel any artwork can ever truly be...and I'm back at square one.

Consider this an open thread on how artists behave affecting how you feel about their work.

Friday, March 14, 2014

No one you see, is smarter than he

I pointed to an article a while back in a post whose thread took a detour a bit different from what I had expected (for which I'll accept full responsibility), but I wanted to go back to it again and highlight a part of it that in my mind deserves much more consideration. The article, by Bloomberg's Katya Kazakina, focused on the accelerating rate at which "collectors" are flipping contemporary artwork at auction. The bit I'd like to focus on here is this:
From 2011 through 2013, the number of works three years old or younger sold at auction topped 7,300 annually, compared with 4,023 in 2007 when the art market was peaking, according to research firm Artnet Worldwide Corp.
This nugget came back to me recently while talking with a good friend who has a gallery that has traditionally sold work in the $20K-$50K range, to collectors who we'd consider lower-upper class all the way up to the 1%. The type of artwork this friend sells steadily appreciates, but none of the gallery artists have made the kind of astonishing leaps in their pricing that Kazakina highlights in her article. What this friend reported though, are two trends that seem clearly influenced by a perception among the gallery's collectors that "flipping" is now how one is supposed to behave as a "collector." 

First are the number of collectors coming back to this gallery much more quickly to resell work than ever before. Whereas collectors used to wait on average about 10 years before asking the gallery to try to resell the work, increasingly that time period is shrinking. The point this gallerist friend made about this trend that stuck with me was that their collectors seemed to begin feeling stupid for not trying to capitalize on the "money to be made" in flipping contemporary art. The growing sense among them was that the flippers were being smarter than they were, and so they felt the pressure to dive into those waters. 

The second trend this friend reported, though, is even more disturbing. Increasingly collectors they used to be able to pitch a $20k or $30k work to on a regular basis are informing them that they're going to pass so that they can "save up" to buy one of the hot brand-name artist's works. It's one thing for the collectors who support a gallery to feel they need to move their collection around much more quickly, but when they shift what they buy and the artists they support to a smaller and smaller subsection of the market (the same subsection many other collectors are also focused on), tulip mania cannot be far around the corner. 

I know a collector (who's one of the Top 200 collectors in the world according to ArtNews) who made the decision to never sell anything from their considerable collection while they're alive. It's a beautiful commitment, and one that impresses me immensely. I also know plenty of collectors who also impress me who decide from time to time to sell a work back through the gallery or at auction, usually so they can buy more artwork (we lovingly call these collectors "the addicts"), and I've talked with them about their decision to collect this way and feel strongly it's as valid a choice as the collector who chooses to never sell anything. None of this is troublesome for me. These are personal decisions, and the best collections in my opinion are those that reflect a personal vision. 

What the practice of flipping as sport or at a pace so clearly only about the money reflects, however, is not something that impresses me at all. It's something that quite frankly nauseates me. I personally value what contemporary art is about too much to accept anyone's view who reduces it to merely a commodity. I find that position callous and beyond philistine, and life is far too short to subject yourself to such attitudes willingly. 

So while the flippers may seem to some smarter than anyone else they see, every time I sincerely consider that, the old Bible quote springs to mind: "And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?" I'm quite sure that will strike those so busy counting their auction profits as melancholic or hyperbolic. Or they'll sniff, "Who are you? And why should I care about your little opinion." And that's fair enough. 

But check back in with me on your death bed and let me know if you still feel that way. I hope to be contemplating the beautiful work I cherish that hangs in my bedroom. YMMV.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

For Martina

Martina Batan began her career in the art world at age 18. Working for Ronald Feldman Fine Arts for more than 30 years, she climbed from an entry level position to Vice President and Director, a position she held until last year, when a major stroke landed her in a rehabilitation facility where she continues to recover. It's been a long, tough road toward recovery and unfortunately there's a long way yet for Martina to go. 

Murat and I were able to visit Martina a few times while her recovery was taking place in the greater New York City area, but for a higher level of care she has been moved to a facility a few hours north and, well, we're still working out a trip up to visit her there. We think about her constantly though, and her circle of extraordinary friends who can visit regularly send updates on her progress. 

If you've never met Martina, you've been missing one of the New York art world's most formidable characters. Her razor sharp wit is matched by a physical and spiritual beauty the likes of which win her life-long fans within moments of meeting her. For a sense of Martina's famously wry humor, as well as her boundless compassion for artists, consider this passage from an account she told to Triple Canopy about "outsider" artist Roy Ferdinand:
Roy was in jail when he started to draw; at least that’s the story. He was a professional artist—he was a professional lot of things, but I think he was very proud of his identity as an artist. He said at one point, "Rembrandt was Rembrandt, Picasso was Picasso, Kandinsky was Kandinsky, and Ferdinand is Ferdinand." At times he did other things for money, for stability, as many artists do.
Despite being the Director in one of New York's most legendary galleries, where many of the giants of contemporary art history have exhibited for decades, Martina is also known for her passion for outsider or self-taught artists. Over the years, she has bought work to support many of them and amassed a considerable collection of work by artists who didn't follow the MFA track (as well as many who did), but as her very expensive recovery has dragged on (and beyond that, this treatment is so difficult for her emotionally and physically), her family and friends have had to consolidate and sell much of her collection to try to cover her expenses. 

I can't tell you how much this breaks my heart. Few people I know in the art world have volunteered for as many non-profit organizations or helped organize as many benefits for them as Martina. Moreover, I've listened to Martina get animated about outsider art for years, and while she's an art dealer and happy to close a deal, I know these were not the circumstances under which she had imagined her prized collection being passed along. 

And so, I make an appeal, for Martina, to those of you who also collect art. The amazing artist Dawn Clements has created a gorgeous portrait of Martina in a limited edition print, the proceeds of which go to help cover Martina's medical expenses. 

The first time I saw the portrait I nearly gasped. It captures Martina's strength and beauty so perfectly. Murat and I have bought ours. I hope you'll consider a purchase to add to your own collection, as well as to help out an insider who has given so much to the art world, both inside and outside.

Inquiries can me made by emailing: the Feldman Gallery frayda@feldmangallery.com. Taxes and shipping charges (if necessary) will be applied.

For Martina by Dawn Clements
Pigmented abaca on linen
16 1/4 x 16 1/4 inches 
Edition of 25 (with 2 AP’s reserved for Martina and her mother)
signed verso

Description: Celebrating Martina Batan's vibrant energy and beauty, artist Dawn Clements worked in the Dieu Donné studios to create this limited edition work in handmade paper. Drawn from a photograph in Martina's image archive on Facebook, Clements seized the opportunity to interpret Martina's profile and strength, while incorporating subtleties and tonal gradations available in the paper making process. This work was built in the "wet process" in three layers, and began with a base layer of blue abaca paper, followed by a veil of orange linen paper pulled to have variation across the edition. For the final layer the artist's hand cut stencil was used to create the silhouette. Dawn Clements created the edition in the wet studio with collaborators Amy Jacobs and Lisa Switalski.