Is Contemporary Art at a Tuning Point?

Fountain from Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp's Foutain signed R. Mutt 1917 Image via Wikipedia
The more extreme forms of Contemporary Art have for decades been breaking one record after another at auction sales. The latest sales at Christie's and Sotheby's are no exception, as pointed out by Souren Melikian, the savvy, tongue-in-cheek art expert of the New York Times in an article with the odd title : "A serious Moment for Contemporary art" (published 1 July, 2011)

Because, the implication is obvious, Contemporary Art is NOT normally serious.

Isn't it nice to hear an art expert admitting to this? And so rare...

The article is worth a careful read, and when you do, you'll notice that contemporary art got serious only for a very short moment, and only at Christie's. As Melikian puts it: "in a session where 53 of the 65 Contemporary works of art on offer found takers, adding up to almost £79 million, or 126 million, the six most expensive lots were decidedly figural." (highlight added)

And he points to a Francis Bacon ("Study for a Portrait", 1953) that topped the list and sold for £17.96 million, exceeding by 50% the estimate, noting that it "ranks among Bacon's most strictly representational paintings".

Likewise, "this appreciation of faithfully figural art probably helped to rescue the 'Mao' executed by Andy Warhold in 1973. The quasi-photographic likeness managed, albeit with some difficulty, to sell for £6.98 million, the second highest price paid that evening." This all the more remarkable as there were problems with that sale: (1) it "lacked the punch of the Pop artist's images admired by his fans" and (2) it was burdened by a so-called "guarantee" to the consignor. This is something that tends to dampen the enthusiasm of buyers, because they are faced with a somewhat locked situation: on the one hand,  the auction house guarantees a certain undisclosed percentage of the low estimate in case the work doesn't sell (usually 90%), while a "third party finances the guarantee" and becomes the buyer.

Both these sales concern "historic" contemporary artists (with that term Melikian means they're both dead). But live artists also broke records, like Peter Doig, whose "Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)" made an astonishing £6.2 million, triple its high estimate. And Melikian enthuses: it is all "the more astonishing because the painting is hardly the best among Doig's works seen at auction. Rather banal, it is pedestrian in execution. The reason for the triumphant success [...] may well lie in the echo that the subject sends back to Gauguin's Tahitian period oeuvre. Works with reference to 19th century artists combined with straightforward figural execution were sought after right from the beginning at Christies." (highlight added)  And he goes on to include works by Lucien Freud, Marlene Dumas and Miguel Barcelò.

So is "figural art" back in fashion?

Not quite, says Melikian. Abstract works were also successful at Christie's, in particular Lucio Fontana's paintings punched with holes and slashed with knives (the hole-punched one, part of the "Concetto Spaziale" series, reached a respectable £2.33 million).

And the magic moment regarding figural art at Christie's was not repeated in the Sotheby's sale that followed - which "outshone Christie's session with its financial scores, £108.8 million realized by 79 Contemporary works, leaving 9 unwanted" (this is quoted from the IHT, 2 July - like some of the rest of the article here - unaccountably the two articles, in the NYT and the IHT, do not coincide entirely, even though the papers are institutionally linked).

The stuff sold at Sotheby's was, according to Melikian, back to the usual. There was some figural art, but it was "less representational". Melikian was shocked (aren't we all?) when Jean-Michel Basquait's "Untitled" picture painted in 1981 sold for a "stupendous £5.41 million". It is, he writes, "an outsized cartoon"... 

So, in Melikian's view, "it is too soon to say that a page has finally turned. The time when 'works' of the talentless followers of Marcel Duchamp's art of the absurd sell in the millions of dollars is not yet over. Would-be witty pieces were still seen this week, though in fewer numbers. At Christie's, butterflies pinned on a large ace-of-hearts painted in solid pink, made £601,250, more than the high estimate [...] Melikian doesn't tell us who's the artist here, but we can easily guess...

At Sotheby's, another work by Christopher Wool, a white panel displaying black lettering which read "cats in a bag" (!), provoked his ire. In the International Herald Tribune, Melikian finishes his article with a punch line that is not present in the New York Times, and I quote:
"Estimated at £1.5 million to £2.5 million plus the sale charge, the Wool was allowed by the auctioneer Tobias Meyer to sell for £914,850. His considerable expertise in Contemporary art is widely acknowledged. Perhaps Mr. Meyer suspects that such cats may not stay in the bag for ever."

So when will the cats get out of the bag and serious art will be back in fashion?

Not soon, I suspect, and not as long as the art market is "fed" by newly-made billionaires who are more interested in art fashions than in art proper...These are guys who are more interested in investing in Art than enjoying the pleasures Art can give. And that's understandable:  they've been more busy making money than building up their knowledge and taste for Art. So they rely on a coterie of astute art experts - mainly art merchants, but also art historians and art museum curators - to guide them in their art investments. Wealthy people notoriously do not like to waste either their time or money. So the art they invest in has to be the kind that makes headlines (and incidentally, helps their PR image: for a newly-made billionaire, it is always a plus to be considered an art connoisseur). That means their advisers pick out art works for them not for the pleasure they might give, but for their "shock value". That's the key concept: shock value. Without it, no art work can make the necessary splash in the media. And thus ensure a good return on investment...

What is your take on this? When do you think the cats will get out of the bag?

For the rest of the NYT article,  link here
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