Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Post-Incipient-Vomiting (or, An Analytical Look at "If I Live I'll See You Tuesday")

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote of "disgust" that it is but "an incipient vomiting." He went on to note that what you vomit must surely have already been inside you, but that's a topic for another day. 

In thinking about Sartre's observation on disgust, I've found it helpful to consider it in the context of a new military surgeon in the battlefield. I can imagine that the first few times the brutally mangled body of a soldier is hoisted upon the table in their portable surgeries, their impulse to hurl must be very strong indeed. After months of near constant exposure to such levels of gore and heartbreak though, the young surgeon's  disgust gives way to a more analytical approach: a calm, systemic focus on first how to save each new wounded soldier's life and then how best to salvage the limbs and other parts they can toward maintaining as much functionality and autonomy for the soldier post-war as possible. 

With deep respect for any wounded soldier, I still wish to note the parallel I find between such doctors' evolution toward an analytical approach to horror in battle and my own reaction to the marketing and resulting sales prices of contemporary art at auction these days. Essentially, there is no longer any point in feigning disgust. We have grown so accustomed to the bodies of work by artists we admire being reduced to mere commodities in this market that any incipient horror has now evaporated.

And so it is my intention here to try to offer a calm, analytical look at what it means that so many world records were set for living artists last night at the Christie's auction titled “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday.” It is my hope here to offer a post-incipient-vomiting assessment of it all, with an eye toward salvaging my interest in those artists' practices beyond these mind-boggling prices.

The first thing that struck me as news came out about the results was the way in which some news publications discussed them. Consider the subtitle from the report from Gallerist (which seemed to have been the first to hit the Internet): "New top prices for Bradley, Israel, Kawara, Colen, Prince, Kippenberger, Guyton, Eisner, Schütte, Riedel, Doig, Ligon, Quaytman, McEwen." 

You'll note only names here...a list of "brands" in fact.

Even within the article itself, there is very little discussion of any actual objects that were sold:

It brought in $134.6 million for the house, including buyer’s premiums, at the top end of a high estimate of $124.1 million (calculated without premiums), and saw 14 new artist records, for Joe Bradley, Alex Israel, On Kawara, Dan Colen, Richard Prince, Martin Kippenberger, Wade Guyton, Louis Eisner, Thomas Schütte, Michael Riedel, Peter Doig, Glenn Ligon, R.H. Quaytman and Adam McEwen.

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen oversaw a businesslike room that witnessed a healthy number of bids on the floor, even though many of the lots had, in effect, been pre-sold, with guarantees. Of the 35 lots, 15 carried a guarantee, which means the house had someone bound to bid on it, and the record-setting lots for Messrs. Bradley, Colen, Guyton, Prince, Doig and McEwen were all achieved in under a minute.
I know [most]* all the names are men's names (that's also a post for another time), but it's the fact that only the names (not the medium of the work or the particular pieces by these artists) were deemed important to report here that confirms what transpired was viewed as all about the success of branding. Which McEwen brought a record price is irrelevant in the context of the fact that some McEwen brought a record price. 

Mind you, the report in The New York Times (which is a general audience publication, as opposed to Gallerist's focus on a more market-insider audience), did indeed describe many of the works themselves. But it's noteworthy to me that the marketing of the auction was all about branding and the insider reporting is all about branding. Individual works of art are beside the point of it all.

The second thing that occurred to me about the results was how it indicates that, despite what might be sincere intentions on the part of some collectors, this degree of ramping up prices via flipping is not actually leading to more support for these artists among more collectors. 
In a controversial interview with pro-flipping collector Stefan Simchowitz, for example, Mr. Simchowitz argued that the practice was to some degree about increasing the number of collectors involved in discussing and studying the art by these artists. Via bypassing the galleries (who have traditionally tried to prevent prices from skyrocketing too quickly, to help maintain a longevity in their artists' markets), Simchowitz argued, the art would be more widely distributed among more collectors:

If I sell you something for a dollar and you sell it to your mate for two dollars and he sells it to his mate for four dollars, and he sells it to his mate for eight dollars, and he sells it to his mate for 10—well, that’s five collectors who bought the work, discussed the work, studied the work, and made a profit from it.
Mind you, he doesn't really mean "eight dollars" here. But the logic is undoubtedly that flipping gets the work intimately viewed and discussed and studied by more collectors...until it doesn't. Until speculation drives the prices up to where they quite efficiently put an end to how many new collectors can now afford to support the work of those artists. Rather than expanding the potential collector base for these artists, the pool of collectors or institutions who can afford their work dramatically shrinks. 

You might think it doesn't matter. So long as this small group of obviously wealthy collectors continues buying the artist's work, he'll continue to make money and be able to continue making new work. But the fact is that a wider base of collectors is better for the long-term support of any artist, and of emerging artists in particular. A smaller group of collectors, any one of whom may have reason at any moment to dump their collection at auction, is a big risk for emerging artists. The more work a small group of collectors own, the more control they have over an artist's market. The more diversely collected an artist is, the more control the artist maintains over his market.

The final thoughts I have on such prices are on how they're impacting the gallery business and the type of art that galleries are investing the most in promoting (because it's paying their bills). Most of the works that broke records at Christie's were paintings. Among the younger artists represented, some having their work appear at auction for the very first time, the trend was definitely toward a non-offensive, minimal or reductive brand of process-oriented abstraction (Israel, Eisner, Riedel, Guyton). This despite the entire affair being marketed as edgy and gritty.

It's no coincidence, I assure you, that such work is also in obvious abundance at the art fairs dedicated to the most ambitious young galleries. In his review of the recent NADA New York art fair, for example, Andrew Russeth noted:

Too many of the full-sized gallery booths, meanwhile, are dominated by safe, conservative abstract paintings that look like other, more-famous abstract paintings. Or worse, they’re another layer removed, aping safe, conservative abstract paintings that aim to look like other, more-famous abstract paintings. It’s getting bleak out there! I’m tempted to name names, but this stuff is going to be gone so fast—or, at least, I hope that’s what will happen—that it seems better to focus on more of the positive.
New York art world impresario (and founder of Newarttv.com) Robert Knafo didn't hesitate to name names. He posted 26 images from NADA on Facebook confirming the trend (you may need to "friend" Robert to see this link, I'm afraid...sorry for any flood of requests I send your way, Robert :-). As Knafo concluded:
if you're still wondering if that barely-there, liminal abstraction is a Thing, here's an improvised survey culled from 30 mins at NADA that should put all doubt to rest.

Now I know and truly admire a great number of the galleries in Robert's round-up. I also know that their programs extend far beyond this type of artwork, which is certainly a valid part of the contemporary dialog. But the fact that this is the work that so many galleries choose to promote during the high-profile platform that NADA provides is telling. Where that leaves their other artists is a concern of mine as well.

I've been through many of these issues on this blog before, with more breathlessness previously than I hope is present this time. While I may no longer feel the full force of disgust in the face of last night's results, I do still feel such issues are relevant and important to discuss. 

*I originally didn't point out that one of the artists mentioned is a woman, the painter RH Quaytman. Thanks to a careful reader for catching that and bringing it to my attentions.


Blogger hydeordie said...

I think it's interesting also the order of the names in these articles. Colen and Israel are always featured near the beginning ahead of Kippenberger or Prince. It seems a desperate attempt at relevancy a la my mom asking me what the "hip" music is.

5/13/2014 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If I Live I'll See You Tuesday"

Fixed t0

"I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today". ...

5/13/2014 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

"The Problem With A Collector Driven Market" by Jane Kallir, back in 2007.


The redundancy and repetition is in every medium, IMO, not just abstract painting. I call much of what I see today in the contemporary art world, especially in NYC, "landscape painting." But instead of a natural landscape being the subject, too much work copies (in a representational/mimetic way) the "landscape of the contemporary art world/industry," regardless of medium, as it appears in the galleries and other showcase venues.

Why not? The product is safe - comes with its own helmet, seatbelt, first aid kit, insurance, GPS tracking device, and condom - and is art-world "tested and approved." And, honestly, isn't that what the galleries, dealers, and collectors are begging for? Edgy but safe? Kind of like a biker convention where the MBA-accredited investment banker gang rubs their fashionably tattooed shoulders with the MFA-accredited art gang and shares burgers and Budweisers in the parking lot of Disney World, with the Disney security force working as bouncers to keep out anyone who doesn't sport the same cliquey look?

And hasn't that always been the case for the majority of artists, who are just people, after all? One copies another who copies another who copies another, ad infinitum, until eventually you get back to the source of an original and truly fresh idea? It was that way with Bebop back in the '40s when almost everyone in the Jazz world was mimicking Charlie Parker. An entire 10-year movement based on one person's ideas. And they’re still copying him 70 years later.

It is important to note, too, that those names on the list are not just men but "white men." Maybe that should be an issue for another time, too ... though better sooner than later.

Too much inbreeding, IMO. Community is good … when it is balanced by a good chunk of isolation, solitary introspection, and a healthy brain flush. Cezanne knew that.

5/13/2014 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for the link to that article Lee. Solid thinking in that piece.

The Problem with a Collector Driven Market

5/13/2014 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

I've read all the articles on that page, Ed, many times. She is very wise, IMO. The titles and links are on the left side of the screen.

5/13/2014 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous GAM said...

...somehow, this kind of makes me imagine this is how the jurors of the salon must have felt when the Salon des refuses thumbed their collective noses at them.

The branding had shifted to someone else with a differing idea of what a brand should embody.

Is it a revolution or just generational angst I feel?

5/14/2014 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I know what you mean, GAM. Each time I consider writing something like this I try to check my thoughts for wiffs of sour grapes or generational gapping...it's not always easy to detect them from one's own point of view, and so I'm happy to have such feedback.

What stops me from thinking it's (only) generational, though, is the dearth of discussion of the actual objects...I'm all for younger folks making art that rocks my world...watching my first Ryan Trecartin video was an absolute cultureal ephinany, and I think Artie Vierkant is mining some of the most fascinating veins in contemporary art....I simply don't see much to talk about that way with the market's most bankable new darlings, and so I'm not convinced it's an advance in the style of branding here that chafes my neck (we're not exactly talking about the bleeding edge among venues or moneyed payers here)...as much as a rather cynical focus on branding irrespective of what's being marketed under that brand.

5/14/2014 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Epiphany and cultural....I can spell...

5/14/2014 03:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...


For a jurist in the salons, it must have been absurd the concept of foregoing mastery of technique or genre - to embrace instead newness, discovery and innovation, non-continuity even.

what if today this paradigm shift is as schismatic and as simple as: instead of the artwork embodying something of value, the value is with only whom wants it - isn't that the extrapolation of branding in our age? Not what the product is, but how it makes you feel about yourself?

even the hypothesis feels absurd

5/15/2014 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

Jed Perl, 2007, "Laissez-Faire Aesthetics"


An excerpt:

"...A great shift has occurred. This has deep and complex origins; but when you come right down to it, the attitude is almost astonishingly easy to grasp. We have entered the age of laissez-faire aesthetics. The people who are buying and selling the most highly priced contemporary art right now--think of them as the laissez-faire aesthetes--believe that any experience that anyone can have with a work of art is equal to any other. They imagine that the most desirable work of art is the one that inspires a range of absolutely divergent meanings and impressions almost simultaneously."

5/15/2014 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

When identity is in flux
For both individuals and cultures
And we own no common core
Drift is mutual

Branding fixes things
(provides a quick solution to instability)

It is a thoroughly substance-less fix
But at least it offers the illusion of meaning and direction
Like a Gypsy palm reader we want to believe but really don’t
Or an artificial constellation of gods lasered onto the sky
Over the weekend

High art used to provide symbols that reflected deep and enduring commonality

Now we interface with surface and skin
And decorate and accessorize our independent
Or social realities at whim

The faster the better, too
Since life on this analogue planet has become too tedious -
Costume changes between acts are much swifter without constantly
Tripping over old roots

Change gives the appearance of meaningful vitality
And simulates the left-over notion of purposeful advance

Distraction, stimulation overload, digital simulation
They alternately camouflage or jolt the flat lining

There is some hope in being lost

5/15/2014 05:16:00 PM  

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