Saturday, May 18, 2013

Contemporary Art Frenzy

"Dustheads" by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

New heights were attained in the historic sale of postwar and contemporary art conducted Wednesday evening at Christie’s.

In just under two hours of gavel-wielding, Jussi Pylkkanen, the president of Christie’s Europe, sold 66 works of the 70 offered for $495 million.

Perhaps even more striking than the global figure was the pace at which the session proceeded. Mr. Pylkkanen never allowed the tempo to diminish.

Christie’s triumphed thanks to a high concentration of pictures set in the concrete of post-World War II art history. The auction house was offering the antiquities of contemporary art — most of the phenomenal prices went to works done before 1960. Five world auction records were set above $10 million. Of those, four were established for pictures painted between 1948 and 1963.

Jackson Pollock’s abstract composition “Number 19, 1948,” painted in oil and enamel on paper mounted on canvas soared to an unimaginable $58.63 million. The painting exceeded the upper end of the estimate by half, an extraordinary occurrence at these stratospheric heights. When offered 20 years ago at Christie’s the Pollock sold for $2.4 million.

“Number 19” is part of a group that induced Life Magazine, in August 1949, to ask: “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” In retrospect, the answer is yes.

The second-highest record price, $56.12 million, was commanded by Roy Lichtenstein, a leader of the Pop Art movement that caused a big commotion on the New York art scene. Even though its roots were in Britain, where the style based on the aesthetics of cartoons appeared in the 1950s, it was in America that it was cultivated in huge monumental formats by Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann and others.

The price achieved by Lichtenstein’s “Woman With Flowered Hat” painted in 1963 is doubly astonishing. The picture is a spoof of Picasso’s late portraits that break up and distort the human face in a style derived from the Cubism of his youth. Christie’s boldly reproduced Picasso’s picture, “Woman With Flowered Hat,” which dates from 1939 or 1940. Usually, interpretations of another artist’s work are not easy to sell. The furious competition that sent Lichtenstein’s climbing so high underlines the abyss that separates the buyers of contemporary art from traditional collectors.

A third New York school artist of the 1960s also prompted bidders to set a world auction record. Philip Guston’s huge canvas titled “To Fellini” sold for $25.88 million, nearly doubling expectations. 
The price is the more extraordinary because the paint is applied in thick, seemingly disconnected impastos, despite the claim made in the catalog that the picture “possesses an architectural quality to its composition.” It is as if Guston had set out to smear his canvas without a purpose other than to create color contrasts.

But Guston, like Pollock and Lichtenstein, is perceived as a central figure of American cultural history. And history, or the perception of it, rather than art, is what mattered.

The focus on the rebellious artistic movements of the 1950s did not stop at American borders.
One of Piero Manzoni’s canvases crumpled into horizontal folds and coated in white kaolin under the generic title “Achrome” brought a world record $14.12 million. Visually, the white canvas has nothing in common with the New York school pictures. But like the Americans, the Italian painter expressed the abrupt rejection of the past. “Achrome” dates from 1958, like Guston’s “To Fellini.”

Tellingly enough, the one painter who rose to an extraordinary record level at Christie’s and who belongs to a later generation is Jean-Michel Basquiat, a rebel if ever there was one.

“Dustheads” was the 10th lot of the session. Signed and dated 1982, the picture went up to $48.84 million.

The monumental picture of two characters is painted in the manner of very young schoolboys giving vent to their pent-up rage at the blackboard in the teacher’s absence. Basquiat was 22 when he painted it. He died six years later. As Basquiat once put it himself when referring to his art, “it’s about 80 percent anger.”

This week, a young man who once passed for the buffoon of the American art scene was posthumously elevated to the level of the most serious contenders for the attention of multimillionaire buyers of contemporary art. Indeed, Basquiat was arguably the great winner in Christie’s sale. From the very beginning, his grimacing characters triggered protracted bidding contests. “Furious Man,” which came in the sixth position, expected to sell for $1 million to $1.5 million, plus the sale charge, shot up to $5.72 million. For a work on paper, that is a huge price.

In May 1990, “Furious Man,” then relegated to a day sale reserved for low value art, had managed a modest $37,400. When it came back on the block at Sotheby’s in 2001, the price rose to $307,500. 

That was multiplied more than 18 times on Wednesday.

Basquiat never dreamed of such prices. Nor did anyone else.

Debating the Art Market as the Best Judge of Quality

On May 24 at China's Hong Kong Convention Center an outfit called Intelligence Squared will host a formal debate during the debut of the newest spinoff of the Art Basel franchise of international art fairs. The motion under consideration will be: "The Market Is the Best Judge of Art's Quality."

Honest. That's the topic for debate. I figure the program harbors two, maybe three minutes of chat -- tops.

The panel is a retread of a 2011 program held at London's Saatchi Gallery. (You can watch that one on YouTube.)

But the short retort to the market-based judgment is: Nope. The longer answer is: Bernard Buffet.

You've never heard of him? In the 1950s the savior of the School of Paris rocketed to fame and fortune and became the Next Big Thing -- until he wasn't. Since then plenty of superstar market-darlings were once hot, then not -- and vice versa. Make your own list. The cultural landscape is littered with painters and sculptors seduced, abandoned or just plain ignored by the profit-driven markets, regardless of artistic depth.

Never mind the ordinary vagaries of supply and demand, which transform market prices -- whether for Picasso, pork bellies or Cabbage Patch dolls -- into the distorted reflections of a fun-house mirror. The market is just a shopping mall; it judges what's best for the market -- what sells. Which is fine by me.

A cynic might even wonder why decisions on cultural values would be entrusted to the faceless financial elites responsible for the recent crashing of the economy, throwing millions into turmoil. And then there's the matter of young artists coming out of burgeoning art schools with massive debt, just like their non-artist peers: They need to pay back loans somehow, which creates enormous pressure on their work, which feeds into the market maw, which ... you get the idea.

So the art market is a judge of quality, just like Mom and cousin Fred are, but hardly the best judge.

There's a simpler explanation as to why collectors and dealers aren't the ones deciding who, finally, are the important artists. (Nor, for that matter, do curators, critics or the general public.) It's because artists do. Artists decide who is worth paying attention to among their cohorts.

They do it by picking up indirectly from modern culture's unconscious -- or flat-out stealing from the best. What we call quality is largely a factor of the breadth, depth and longevity of excitement artists harbor for other artists' work. Art comes from art. It doesn't come from Goldman Sachs.

Scheduled to speak in favor of the debate's market motion at the new Hong Kong art fair are Amy Cappellazzo of Christie's auction house and longtime art investment advisor and art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, current director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Speaking against the market as arbiter of the best are Matthew Collings and Rirkrit Tiravanija -- both artists.

Pick your vested interests. Debate over.