Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

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.
October 27, 2007
Yesterday, on 57th Street, I witnessed an exchange between a gallery director who had never heard of a Barcelona chair and a collector couple from out-of-town who didn’t know the names of the artists whose work they own (“We also have quite a few prints…one’s by a Schwartz maybe? We bought them from that gallery down the street, I can’t remember the name…” “PaceWildenstein?” “Yes, that’s it.”).

The paintings the couple was considering, to be flanked by the aforesaid Barcelona chairs in a 15' x 30' hallway, were priced from $35,000 to $65,000. The gallery director introduced the artist by saying, “He died last January. He’s not exactly famous but pretty well-known.”

She might have said, “This artist, who died last January, was prominent in the sixties and seventies and has been rediscovered after a recent show about that era at the National Academy Museum…” but then why am I quibbling?

“This is a horizontal painting?”
“Yes, but you can hang it vertically if you want.”