nytimes.com/ ‘Degenerate Art’ to Koons’s ‘Made and Heaven’ and Much in Between

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When I started covering the art world for The New York Times in 1991, the market was reeling from a worldwide recession. Gone were the Japanese who had been snapping up Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings at a frenzied pace, spending huge sums for what one dealer described as “pretty pictures across a crowded room.” After the Japanese disappeared, sales at the auction giants Sotheby’s and Christie’s plummeted to about half of what they had been.

Now, as I write my last Inside Art column for The Times, not only is the market many times stronger but the overall canvas is also considerably larger, with higher prices, bigger galleries, more acquisitive museums.

Not that the art world has changed beyond recognition: Back then, one of the most talked-about shows was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s re-creation of “Degenerate Art,” the exhibition organized in 1937 by the Nazis in Munich; a few months ago, the Neue Galerie in New York held a hugely popular exhibition that explored the same theme. In 1991, one of the most buzzed-about gallery shows featured Jeff Koons’s series “Made in Heaven.” Lines formed in front of the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo, with curious art lovers wanting to glimpse works of Mr. Koons engaged in sex acts with Ilona Staller, the Italian porn star who was then his wife, and to ogle the perfectly made wooden sculptures of panting puppies and sexually suggestive flowers. Although more panned than praised, it was a “must see” — just as Mr. Koons’s museum-wide retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art was a few months ago. The recent show, attended by 320,000 people, was its last hurrah in the landmark Marcel Breuer building; its new digs in Manhattan’s meatpacking district open May 1.

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Neue Galerie’s exhibition last year of “Degenerate Art” was similar to a series that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showcased in 1991. CreditByron Smith for The New York Times

The art world has always operated on the herd instinct. But over the years it has morphed into a visible playpen of power and privilege, where art dealers fly around the world on private planes, famous artists are stalked like movie stars, and the number of art galleries, museums and collectors has multiplied exponentially.

While the players may have changed, the engine driving the giant prices, the money behind the myriad museum expansions and the ever-expanding international network of supergalleries still reflect pockets of new wealth, whether from Asia, Russia, the Middle East or a group of hedge fund managers who live down the street. Unearthing their stories — tales of fortunes made and lost, of greed and deception — has often meant encountering a rogue’s world that is stranger than fiction. Among the most mind-boggling, in my 23 years on the beat, are the time the heads of Sotheby’s and Christie’s secretly met in the back seat of a limousine in a parking lot at Kennedy International Airport to fix prices; the time a Japanese businessman, unable to decide whether Sotheby’s or Christie’s should sell his collection, challenged experts from the auction houses to a game of “rock, paper, scissors”; and the time a man in the throes of divorce hoodwinked his about to be ex-wife by making a perfect copy of a Norman Rockwell painting and hiding the original behind a false wall in his Vermont house, where it languished unnoticed for decades.

Working for The Times has given me a front-row seat to the lives and work of some of the most creative and intriguing minds of the 20th and 21st centuries. Until he died in 2008, Robert Rauschenberg cherished a stash of found objects — discarded bicycle parts, bolts of moth-eaten fabric, rusted stools — from which he had fashioned his celebrated “combines,” keeping these junkyard treasures in the back of his studio in Captiva, Fla. Then there was that cloudless summer’s day deep in the English countryside, when scientists from the Natural History Museum in London, waist-high in a pool of formaldehyde, injected one of Damien Hirst’s dead sharks, a replacement for a rotting one that Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire, had purchased for $8 million in 2006. So toxic were the chemicals used to pickle the 13-footer that spectators like me were required to wear full hazmat suits and breathing masks.

But just as the popularity of artists like Mr. Hirst has gone up and down as often as hemlines, the wild, ever-changing, art world is again in flux. Following is a brief assessment of where things stand and where they might be headed on its three main continents — auctions, galleries and museums:

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Damien Hirst, known for preserving sharks in formaldehyde (above at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999), once replaced a shark for a collector after it rotted. CreditDoug Kanter/Agence France-Presse

AT THE AUCTIONS

With rising prices come — more rising prices. In May 1990, the Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito paid $82.5 million for van Gogh’s 1890 “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” making the canvas depicting the gloomy doctor, head in hand, the world’s most expensive painting sold at auction. It was a title held for 14 years until Picasso’s “Boy With a Pipe (The Young Apprentice),” a 1905 Rose Period painting, fetched $104.1 million. That figure was beaten in November 2013, when Elaine Wynn, a co-founder with her ex-husband, Stephen A. Wynn of the Wynn Casino Empire in Las Vegas, paid $142.4 million for a Francis Bacon triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” The Bacon purchase reset the benchmark against which to measure other $100 million-plus purchases. So nonchalant has the art world became that only two months ago, when Mr. Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire, was the only bidder for Giacometti’s “Chariot,” spending $101 million for the 1950 sculpture of a stick-thin woman atop a chariot, the price was considered a disappointment. Before the sale, experts had predicted the sculpture would fetch at least $115 million, making $101 million seem like a black eye for Sotheby’s, the auction house that sold it. Sotheby’s reportedly lost several million dollars from a guarantee it had promised the seller, Alexander Goulandris, a member of the Greek shipping family and a major art collector.

At both Sotheby’s and Christie’s in November, during the last round of big auctions, bidding at the top was noticeably thin. How soon before the bubble bursts?

The auction houses are currently in a state of upheaval, having lost their chief executives. Faced with sagging profits and rising costs, both houses are struggling to figure out how to be competitive without giving away revenue streams like the fees they charge buyers. The big sales in London next month will signal whether buyers are feeling flush. Those sales precede May sales in New York, where experts are said to be scaling back on the amount of money each company will invest in guarantees — the undisclosed sums promised to sellers regardless of the outcome of a sale — without the safety net of an outside party putting up the cash and assuming the risk.

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The Whitney Museum of American Art is leaving its landmark Marcel Breuer building for a new and larger space it will take over on May 1 in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will expand to the Whitney’s former location in 2016.CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the start of Sotheby’s live eBay auctions, scheduled to be broadcast in the next few months. Other auction houses and dealers are said to want to follow soon with their own, smaller presence on eBay.

Collectors are already used to shopping for art and objects with the click of a mouse. Sotheby’s officials reported that at the recent auctions of art, furniture and objects from the estate of Rachel Lambert Mellon (known as Bunny), nearly 25 percent of purchases made during the five-day sale were online. What is the future of live auctions when it’s just as easy (and more anonymous) to shop at home?

IN THE GALLERIES

Two decades ago Larry Gagosian had just two galleries, both in Manhattan — one on the Upper East Side and the other in SoHo. Now, he runs 14 spaces around the world, 15 if you count his bookshop and restaurant on Madison Avenue. This global network allows him to expose his artists to collectors everywhere, something that has spawned what has come to be known as the supergallery. Fearing that they will lose their biggest artists to Mr. Gagosian’s empire, dealers like David Zwirner, Pace Gallery and Marian Goodman have opened up spaces in Europe, too.

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Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold for $142.4 million at a Christie’s auction in 2013, resetting the benchmark for measuring $100 million-plus purchases.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

As these mega-companies multiply, there is fear they may start squeezing out the midsize gallery unable to compete with the growing giants. They also exact a toll on the artists working today. With more spaces comes the need for more product. But as dealers are pushing their artists to produce at a faster rate, some artists, appalled at the commodification, say they are finally pushing back, and refusing to pick up the pace. The American artist Wade Guyton, who creates canvases on inkjet printers, has gone so far as to stage a one-man revolt to challenge the rapidly escalating prices for one of his paintings at auction by making copies of the 2005 image from the original disk and posting them on Instagram. At Art Basel last summer he gave the five dealers he works with the same image, made from the same disk, and put the same price tag on each.

Galleries, however global and numerous, do not have the power to draw crowds quite the same way as the countless art fairs. But the allure of the fair appears to be cyclical, and there is a danger of fair fatigue. Some dealers say they have noticed that attendance has begun to slip at events like Art Basel in Switzerland and Miami, and Frieze in London and New York.

IN THE MUSEUMS

Bigger seems ingrained in the mind-set of museum directors these days. In New York, the Whitney is poised to open its new and larger building in Manhattan’s meatpacking district; the Metropolitan Museum of Art will take over the Whitney’s original Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue as a satellite space next year — its first — and the Museum of Modern Art is building on the lot where the American Folk Art Museum once stood. Even the Frick Collection, once the bastion of intimate sumptuous spaces, is trying to expand.

Museum expansions are expensive, and despite the 1 percenters supporting them, once the buildings are complete, the cost of running them — having the endowment and operating budgets to keep the galleries open, the exhibitions vibrant and the collections growing — is another challenge.

At the same time, the museum foundations created by billionaire collectors have become part of the culture, with more being planned in Europe, China and the Middle East. Smaller, more nimble operations, these museums have the advantage of being able to make acquisitions and plan exhibitions far more quickly than their larger, traditional counterparts. Could their presence be a threat to the centuries-old museums because of their ability to build strong collections without the red-tape of boards and committees?

As I think back on the cycles and sagas and changes that fuel this constantly intriguing world, it is often easy to forget why so many of us are addicted to it to begin with: for the pure joy of appreciating art made centuries or hours ago. I have decided to slip away from the daily demands that newspaper reporting requires, but I will always be hooked, getting my fixes reading, writing and looking.

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