Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art Market

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

November 12, 2012

Jim Kempner Fine Art, corner 23rd Street and Tenth Avenue, 11/9/12.

I never want to post unless I have something to say – and now what I have to say is that I have nothing to say. The posts I prepared the week before and the week before last—before the hurricane and the election—now seem irrelevant, like documents of another era. I mean, do we really care anymore if Wade Guyton’s work can be considered “painting” or not? (Actually I never did care.) The New York art world, its galleries and artists hard hit by Sandy, is unmoored, floating in a sea of garbage with no certain future.  Much as I railed against its excesses, smugness and stupidities, without Chelsea up and running, I feel unplugged.

            Jake, a former art student and Chelsea art handler turned Berkshire butcher said, “Maybe this is the shakeup the art world needed.” And it’s true, whenever the art world gets a shake, something new appears.

            Friday in Chelsea I found only one gallery open—Von Lintel, which was untouched by the storm. When I asked Von Lintel what this meant for the future of Chelsea as an art center, he said it was over long before the storm, with landlords asking $60,000 a month for 5,000 s.f. of ground floor space. He said art dealers, including himself, are considering moving to the Lower East Side, but Hudson of Feature, Inc. tells me there isn’t that much available real estate left there, and that the spaces are small. Now that people have finally figured out that it’s only two subway stops away, my guess is that Long Island City is next.

            You know how, when you’ve been on a long-distance train, you can wake in the night and feel as if you’re still on it? That’s how I feel about the election; I’m still caught up in it, even though it’s over. What did I do before? I can’t even remember, but I know I wasn’t combing the Internet every five minutes. And then there’s the disconnect of being in SoHo elbow-to-elbow with manic shoppers (where do they all come from?), while not that far away, people are struggling just to stay warm and alive in the wake of the storm.

            I think I’m traumatized by numbers: those $60,000-a-month rents, or that a person would have $70 million dollars laying around to contribute to a political campaign—and that it’s legal. But what really boggles my mind (this is old news, but I’m still getting over it) is that someone would fork over $120,000 million for a piece of cardboard, one of several versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I know, that sounds heretical; I’m supposed to believe in the power of art, but there’s a limit.

* * *

Two terrific articles on The Scream by Jerry Saltz and Blake Gopnik, and Jon Stewart on Karl Rove and Fox News’s meltdown, in case you can’t get enough.

And this painting by Jules de Balincourt at Salon 94, just because I like it:

  • Jules de Balincourt, Illuminated, 2012
  • Oil, oil stick, spray paint, and acrylic on canvas
  • 96 × 96 inches (244 × 244 cm)
    October 13, 2012

    Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1982
     ©The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc

    Jerry Saltzon Facebook, yesterday:

    We now have this enormous top-heavy operational apparatus… a hundred art fairs and international biennials, galleries growing larger as artists work in smaller spaces, skyrocketing prices during a worldwide economic contraction. The art world’s reflexes are shot; its systems so predetermined that they’re driving us; we’re no longer driving them. The system is less susceptible to paradox, discovery, ambiguity, and all the exquisite deviations and orphic oddness that brought us to art in the first place.

    ….The system may be too big NOT to fail. It is telling us what we already know: A crystal is cracked. It is time for mutinies, forging new topographies and plotting other courses."

    Artists are famous for pioneering new territory, making places like SoHo, TriBeCa, Williamsburg, etc. so attractive that they’re driven out by the moneyed interests. However now it’s bigger than that; while we were sleeping, they co-opted the entire art world and made it one big hedge fund. 

    In Chicago last week, a collector friend asked me what’s going on in art, what’s good, what’s happening, and I couldn’t begin to answer him. What’s good? From whose point of view? Mine? Gagosian’s? Sotheby’s? And does it matter? The machine that is the art world is going to run regardless of whether I, Saltz, or anyone who really thinks about art, finds it important. As in current politics, the truth is meaningless and history never happened. So what if another artist did the same thing better yesterday or ten years ago, or is doing it better now in some loft in Cleveland. Like everything else, when things become corporatized, the emphasis changes; it’s no longer about building a better mousetrap, but how many mousetraps can we sell?

    Back in the day, the value of contemporary art was determined by an intangible, but nonetheless fairly reliable, aesthetic consensus of artists, writers, inspired dealers, curators, and collectors crazy enough to spend money on the art they loved—with no prospect of a return, as the secondary market was reserved for dead artists. Now value is determined by how long you can keep the ball (or “spot” in the case of Damien Hirst) in the air. Other than generators of product, artists aren’t part of the game. Nor are critics, whose insistence on analyzing and qualifying is beginning to appear superfluous at best, and at worst, downright annoying.

    How great is the divide? Example: Richard Prince’s work sells for millions, yet not one artist of my acquaintance cared enough to see his 2007 Guggenheim retrospective (I did, but only because my press pass got me in for free), and Peter Schjeldahl wrote of him: “An adept of juvenile sarcasm, like Prince, is well advised not to invite comparisons with grownups.”

    Often compared to the tulip craze that took over Holland in the 1600s, one wonders if the speculative art bubble will burst once investors find it's filled with hot air, when the tide turns from Hirst, Prince and Koons to….? (Whatever happened to those Chinese artists who were so hot a few years ago?) Even the seemingly grounded market in Warhols could be upset when the Andy Warhol Foundation (whose Creative Capital grant is supporting this blog) disperses its collection.

    What could unravel even sooner is the art school pyramid. For a couple of decades, students have been willing to take on loans of $20,000 to $30,000 a year to get a degree that would supposedly net them a tenure track teaching position worth upwards of $50,000 a year. Now, however, that 75% of those jobs are being filled by adjuncts making an average of $2700 per course, with many, like Walmart employees, having to rely on food stamps, it seems unlikely that academia will maintain its appeal for long.    

    Meanwhile, what’s an artist to do? Saltz says it: mutiny, forge other topographies, plot other courses…in other words, make history once again. Think the Salon des Refuses, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, New York’s Downtown Scenein the 80s….This is not the first time artists have had to take things into their own hands—and they will. 

    An addendum, following the comments of friends on Facebook, some of whom found merit in Prince and Koons, although I'm glad to say no one defended Hirst. That, however, is not the point. While I have no interest in Prince, I do like some Koons, and I adore Richter, who is a daily inspiration and, for me, completely deserving of his fame. However, outside of seminal historic pieces, to assess ANY work of art, even Richter’s, at millions of dollars, or even a million, is to indulge in pure speculation. No longer engaged in questions of artistic merit, every institution, from museums to art magazines, is swept up in this wild game of chance being played out by people with too much money. There were probably some pretty gorgeous tulips during the tulip craze, which is no doubt what set the whole thing off, but what happened ultimately had nothing to do with tulips.
    December 2, 2010

    The reason I’ve been reading so much lately is because I’ve been laid up with a cold. However yesterday I read a book that was guaranteed to make me sicker: Steve Martin’s novel about the art world entitled, Times article describing how Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon's talk at the 92nd Street Y bombed to the point that attendees were monetarily compensated. The reason given was that they talked too much about art, but given how little understanding of art both have demonstrated in their writing, methinks it was the content rather than the subject that sank them.

    Another concurring review.
    March 9, 2009
    At the Armory: a Leo Villareal light sculpture reflected in a David Levinthal photograph, Gering & Lopez Gallery, March 2009

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870), A Tale of Two Cities

    Dickens famously warns us against thinking of our particular times as unique, however there have been few points in my lifetime (the sixties, for sure, except I was too young to have anything to compare it to) where the extremes of best and worst were as clearly drawn as they are now. It’s a time of depression and darkness, but also of awakening and light, and we all know it. Everything this year is different from the way it was last year, and the ten years before that, and the ten years before that. It’s an epoch that will get a name, be called something, however just as people didn’t know that they were living in the Renaissance or the Roaring Twenties, we don’t know how history will remember these extraordinary times.

    In the art world, everything is up for reassessment, and whether it’s the worst and best of times depends on who you talk to. If you read the Armory Show wrap-up in the Times today, you’d think it was going down the tubes, yet the people I spoke with at a couple of galleries (Gering & Lopez, Sean Kelly) were more than pleased with their return at the Armory and others even suggested that the economic downturn could turn out to be a boon for art because the prices have been discounted and rich people have nowhere else to put their money.

    One thing’s for sure: the era of second-guessing the art market and thinking that it can be controlled with any amount of hype is over. Remember Richard Prince? I didn’t come across a single piece of his in the Armory Show. Damien Hirst? Who?

    In last month’s Art in America (February, p.33, not yet on the Web) Dave Hickey described the previous “period”—meaning up until last fall—as one where “ ‘fairness’ (read mediocrity) proliferated. Dealers diversified their offerings to disguise their personal taste, thus eroding their better judgment.” Or, as one dealer once told me blatantly, “I don’t show what I love.” The same was true for artists, who were coached by art schools to ape certain kinds of art.

    Now all we have to fall back on is ourselves. How refreshing!
    April 21, 2008
    Bruce Nauman, Double Poke in the Eye II, 1985, neon construction, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Mo.

    My post "Impenetrable prose from the Whitney Biennial" clearly hit a nerve, whizzing around the Net in the last couple of weeks before bouncing out into the print media, the subject of “Being at Ease With Difficulty” defended the academic tone by saying, “the blogger culture lends itself to an anti-intellectualism that has its way of raising its heads in a gang.”

    The anti-intellectual label is easily hurled, as is the accusation that anyone who suggests that ideas might be rendered in a readable and understandable manner is somehow calling for a “dumbing down.”

    So when Hrag Vartanian states, “If the ideas are complex it is because they often grapple with concepts that resist simplification,” I insist on distinguishing between "simplification" and "clarification." It is not necessary to simplify in order to clarify. Further, I'm suspicious of any idea that can’t be clarified.

    Anyway, the issue at hand is not about difficult ideas being made simple, but simple ideas being made difficult.

    What I’m calling for is not a “dumbing down” but a “smartening up.” I’m asking for readers of the fatuous phrases that litter artists’ statements, press releases, and museum text not to swallow them whole, but ask themselves: “What is this really saying?” “Does it make sense?” And more, “What does it have to do with the art at hand?”

    In an email, Janice Gewirtz, a reader of the Wall Street Journal, thanks me for my criticism of what she coined the “Emperor’s New Biennial” and says, further, “These overblown installations say nothing cogent about the subjects they ostensibly tackle. Rather, they reference ‘pop culture,’ or ‘sexuality,’ or even the notorious ‘fluid communication structures’ (whatever that is) as buzzwords.”

    Exactly. That's what I was referring to in my posts here and here about Doris Salcedo’s crack in the floor of London’s Tate Modern, which is billed as “addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world.” Sometimes a crack is just a crack.

    Idly Googling “artspeak” the other day (procrastination is a wonderful thing), I came across an essay by John Haber, written in 1997, where he nails the origin of this language:

    …am I imagining it, or do they blend together—the gallery press release and a parody of management jargon?…. It may have its roots in academia, where scholars hope to share their hesitant insights with students and peers. It may look back to art journals, where critics fumble for words to describe works of art rich in emotions and ideas. However, that is not where artspeak begins, and complaints about it hide its origins all too well.

    Worse comes to worse, academics will trip up on their own humanity. Worse comes to worse, they will stumble on insights as unfamiliar and unpronounceable as art itself. Artspeak really starts sometime later, when critical clichés pass through the gallery system and into the marketing departments of major museums, eager for a larger public and bigger institutional gifts.

    Promoting art is business,
    big business, and money talks. I call its language martspeak.

    So perhaps now that it’s been defined for us--the language of two industries, academia and the art market, who have joined together for their mutual economic benefit--when we see it, we'll more easily recognize martspeak for what it is.

    Haber continues:

    Words never contain a work of art. Words can, though, encourage its reconstruction. They can create small openings in the walls that already exist, so that others may begin to look—and to see….

    Art asks one to enter into a broken conversation, a half-overheard dialog between the work and the world. Newcomers to art distrust that demand. Most, often, too they would never know how to begin. A critic’s job is to break the ice.”

    Something that all of us who write about art—be it our own or that of others—would be wise to remember.
    November 18, 2007
    In the post below about Jenny Holzer, I noted that the artist underwrote some of the costs of the exhibition, which on the face of it seems laudatory and in this case, where Mass MoCA was brought up short by the Buchel debacle, it no doubt is. However what kind of precedent does it set? An article in the New York Times today, entitled "Museums Solicit Dealers’ Largess," focuses on the now common practice of galleries contributing to the exhibition costs of publicly funded museums when their artists are featured, yet another example of commerce having an influence on the art we see.
    November 16, 2007
    Calvin Tomkins is back in the November 12th issue of The New Yorker with a profile of art power broker Jeffrey Deitch. Again it’s all about the question, who defines the art of our age? Now it's clearly the collectors. I wonder, however, when has commerce ever determined great art? People talk about how patrons used to commission artists, as if that were comparable, but Lorenzo de Medici wasn’t into Michelangelo for his resale value.

    One reason the market has taken over, in the opinions of Deitch and others, is that critics and museum curators no longer clarify and define the main currents in recent art. In the nineteen-fifties, when hardly anybody was buying contemporary art, a handful of influential critics (Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and one or two others) told us which artists mattered. The sixties changed that. Pop art, minimalist art, and a host of other developments caught the critics off guard, and for a decade or more the artists filled the critic’s role; Leo Castelli and other leading dealers made decisions mainly by listening to artists. Increasingly, though, auction houses, with their slick marketing techniques, were becoming the primary arbiters of quality. “I know a lot of collectors who look to the auction catalogues to define contemporary art today,” Deitch said recently. “The museums are not really articulating this in a coherent way. The market provides the structure, and when you ask who are the major artists, it’s basically, “What are the prices?”….

    …A few weeks ago, over dinner in New York, I asked Deitch if he though that contemporary art was good enough to justify the astonishing prices being paid for it. “But that’s a question I wanted to ask you!” he said.

    Here Tomkins truly drops the ball. Of course Deitch thinks this is a Golden Age, comparable to “the sixties, the forties, or the years around 1910” but what does Tomkins think? He never tells us, which makes him complicit in the whole scenario. Here is one of the best art writers of our time, who’s observed the scene for nearly fifty years, and he’s holding back? Why? Is it to keep the favor of his sources? Why has what we really think become such a desperately held secret?
    November 10, 2007
    In New York magazine this week (Nov. 12) is an article about art advisor Kim Heirston who, it says, has “helped old money and new get into the market.” It describes how, “In recent years, she’s put her clients’ money—and her own—in such emerging artists as Piotr Uklanski, Urs Fischer, and Ugo Rondinone. Over the mantel of her art-stuffed, all-white living room is a purple metallic ‘tinfoil’ painting by Anselm Reyle….Today she’s long on Baselitz. ‘Almost all of my clients have one or two Baldessaris in their collections,’ she says… ‘Most of my clients have a Ruscha…’ And, of course, she’s tried to make everyone buy a Reyle.”

    Hmmm. The article suggests that the value of Heirston’s Reyle has gone from $10,000 to $600,000 in two years. Is there no conflict of interest in collecting and trying to get other people to buy the same artists, thereby raising the value of your holdings? (Oh, Carol, you’re so old-fashioned…conflict of interest? Nobody cares about that anymore!) I also thought a good art advisor helped clients develop their tastes, but here, where everyone owns the same thing, taste doesn’t seem to be an issue. Someone likened the current art market to the Dutch tulip craze of the late 16th century, where outlandish speculation in tulips and bulbs caused huge numbers of people to lose their shirts. It used to be that the price of art was relative to its influence on other artists, its value to the culture, something that was determined over time. Back in the day—oh, say, a decade ago—it took ten years for an artist’s work to reach the auction houses. But in this speeded up market—and it is a “market,” no longer a “scene”— the only measure is hype. It reminds me of when I was a little kid and my friends and I exchanged trading cards. I’ll give you two kittens for a bunny. Three for a Baselitz.