These are just some of the common descriptors for Elijah Burgher’s arresting work. The artist (b. 1978 in Kingston, NY) creates intricately executed drawings and mixed media works that blur queer imagery with mystical iconography and ritualistic themes. Before Burgher’s work, I had never considered the confluence of queerness and the occult, but operating as they do on the fringe of bourgeois society (like the avant-garde), and relying on coded forms of expression and interpretation, the queer and mystical make logical bedfellows.
Burgher works in both abstraction and mixed imagery of portraits overlaid with abstraction. There is something holy and innocent about his portraits, and his colorful language of abstraction, called sigils, are “private motifs readable only to the maker unless shared with others and, even then, only for as long as they can be remembered,” writes curator Claire Gilman. “A product of twentieth-century occult magic (although variations have been used since the Neolithic era), sigils were adopted by the artist and his friends ten years ago as a way of encoding queer desire. In this sense, they relate to the queer community’s privileging of secrecy and private initiation.” But in their vibrant display, the sigils do not alienate the viewer, but invite us to investigate their meaning.
For years the artist’s preferred medium was drawing–a medium that, with its gestural presence and record of time, is a ritual of creation itself. As a medium typically treated as an “exercise” or preparatory stage to painting, Burgher feels that drawing deserves more credit as an end in and of itself: “A drawing’s content is always held at arm’s length, not only because of the structure of representation, but because of the aforementioned promise of application–in the future and elsewhere, in real time and space, in life,” the artist wrote in 2013. “This is drawing’s link to magic.”
Dr. Clare McAndrew—cultural economist and mastermind behind Art Basel/UBS’s market reports—and her team recently released a special mid-2020 survey on how the COVID pandemic has impacted the gallery sector. Let’s take a look at the data.
As one might expect, “the business model of galleries—based fundamentally on discretionary spending and strongly dependent on travel and in-person contact—is uniquely positioned to struggle in the present realities of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states. With lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, in 2020 many art fairs that attract international audiences moved to online viewing rooms, and nearly half of gallery exhibitions were cancelled or postponed.
As a result, comparing the first half of 2020 to the same period in 2019, galleries reported a 36% drop in the value of their sales, with a median of 43% (see fig. 1). Smaller galleries, with a turnover of less than $500,000, reported the largest declines in sales. Asia was hit harder than other parts of the world.
Galleries had to permanently lay off or furlough between 27–38% of their employees in the first six months of the pandemic (fig. 2). Some were able to rehire about 5–9% of their staff. Small and mid-size galleries were already in precarious financial positions before the pandemic hit, unable to keep pace with what Jerry Satlz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries. And according to the Art Basel/UBS report, some galleries, especially in smaller markets, felt that public or government assistance was harder for them to come by than their peers in larger markets.
Unsurprisingly, in lieu of attending fairs and galleries in person, online sales rose from 10% of total sales in 2019 to 37% of sales in the first half of 2020 (see figs. 3 & 4). Whereas previous data indicated a spending cap of about $100,000 for online sales, according to the new survey, high net worth individuals (HNWI) are now willing to spend seven figures through online sales, as galleries that average $10 million-plus sales reported 38% increase in online sales.
Although overall sales were significantly down (fig. 1), a whopping 92% of the surveyed HNWI said they bought a work of art in 2020; 52% said they had paid prices in excess of $100,000 (fig. 5). And despite economic hardship endured across the country, 59% said the pandemic had increased their interest in collecting (31% said “significantly” so). They are certainly taking advantage of the “buyer’s market.”
As a result of their downward sales, and the apparent eagerness of the HNWI individuals to continue to purchase art through the pandemic, “the majority of galleries also shifted their focus in 2020 from widening their base of buyers to ensuring that they maintained relationships with existing clients who are seen to be critical to their survival,” the report states.
Art Basel/UBS report is unsettling to me, because the art world is a microcosm of the larger gross income inequality of this country. Let us remember that the economy is in a recession due to COVID. Millions of Americans are on unemployment, and according to Feeding America, 54 million Americans face food insecurity in 2020 (including 18 million children). Not only have many Americans gotten poorer, but, remarkably, the wealthiest have continued to grow their wealth in this recession: The Guardian reports that America’s billionaires grew their wealth an extraordinary $637 billion in just a 3 month period, from March to June—that’s equal to three quarters of all Black wealth, and more than all the wealth of our country’s 59 million Latinx people.
Similarly, Dr. McAndrews’s report demonstrates how the devastation of the pandemic impacts those at the bottom of the art world pyramid, so to speak—small galleries, art industry employees, and artists—while the wealthiest Americans remain largely untouched by the economic impact. For decades, the art world has structured itself to cater to the ultra-rich, and the galleries’ own admission in this report that they are focusing their energies on maintaining the relationships of their clients that are “critical to their survival,” underscores how the market is structured to cater to and depend on the ultra-rich.
Most art world professionals are probably relieved to see such healthy spending: after Sotheby’s online sale in June, one art advisor proclaimed to the New York Times that there was “absolute confidence in art as an asset class.” But the truth is, this apparently flourishing market is only benefitting a very, very slim portion of galleries, artists and buyers, as another art advisor noted in The New York Times: “Sales are down across the board, but there’s an incredible amount of wealth chasing the rarest of the rarest…There’s a real disconnect between who’s hurting and who isn’t.”
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “When it’s better for everyone, it’s better for everyone.” Such a simple but poignant statement. Just like the grander picture of American late stage capitalism that we find ourselves in, we must recognize that this gross income inequality and wealth hoarding is unsustainable. Art is for everyone, and we need to create economic and business structures that support a healthy middle class, small businesses, and the staff and artists who depend on them. It’s simply better for everyone.
To download a free copy of the full Art Basel/UBS report, click here.
If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.
In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.
Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.
To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.
Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.
I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.
I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.
Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.
I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.
A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.
“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.
In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, lithographic poster.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1893, lithographic poster.
In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.
In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.
Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.
In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.
I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.
And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.
I was devastated to learn yesterday that my mentor and friend, Maurice Berger, was tragically taken by the coronavirus on March 23rd. I wanted to take a moment to honor this great man, and what he meant to me.
I met Maurice when I was working at The Jewish Museum. Maurice was what you might generally call a “cultural critic:” his true specialty was civil rights (you may have read his posts for the New York Timeslens blog from 2012-2019), and he was a professor and chief curator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But he also had a deep knowledge of and connection to the Jewish community; Maurice had been involved in The Jewish Museum over the decades in various, often unseen ways, consulting on projects or institutional strategy. I first got to know him more intimately when he wrote a catalogue essay for the show The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, on which I worked as a curatorial assistant.
In 2012, Maurice officially took the title of “consulting curator” with TJM, and selected me to be his assistant in the early planning stages of his show Revolution of the Eye, an exhibition about the influence of television on art, and the use of TV as a medium for artistic innovation in its own right. The exhibition, which opened in 2015, was beautiful and thought-provoking. Maurice was bright, enthusiastic, and patient as a supervisor as we worked on it in those early stages. But he would come to mean a lot more to me.
About a year later, I found myself in a very difficult situation, professionally; in the blink of an eye, I saw my promising career trajectory take a sudden detour, and I was feeling helpless, incredibly upset, and above all, alone. Of the several people I counted as professional mentors and friends, it was Maurice who stepped in to talk me off the ledge, so to speak. He patiently listened to me vent my confusion and anger through tearful phone calls over the next few weeks, and provided compassionate wisdom and comfort. He reminded me of all my great strengths and gifts, and while my final year at TJM was a tough one, I never would have gotten through it without Maurice.
Maurice was a truly special man, brilliant scholar, and warm soul. The world is a little less bright without him in it. My deepest sympathies go out to his family.
There’s a lot of good art at the Armory Show—too much to be able to write about everything I liked. So, forgive the brief format, but I will just post pictures and descriptions for a selection of the art that I enjoyed, with the exception of a fantastic show of work by the artist Cassils—the highlight of the whole fair, which deserves a few words, in my opinion.
There has been an admirable and long overdue uptick in transgender representation in the last ten years or so, both in popular culture and fine arts. Unfortunately, in tandem with this increase in transgender visibility has been an uptick in fatal hate crimes against the trans and queer community. In a layered body of work at Ronald Feldman Gallery’s booth at the Armory, the artist Cassils (b. 1975) memorialized the victims of such violence, whilst also celebrating the resilience and beauty of the transgender body.
In a live performance called Becoming an Image, which has been performed several times since 2012, the artist beats up a 2,000 pound slab of clay in complete pitch darkness. No one in the audience can see the artist–who is nearly or completely naked–including the photographer documenting the event; they can only hear Cassils’ grunts, moans, punches and slaps against the clay. When the photographer snaps a photo, it creates a brief flash of illumination for all to see what’s happening. Cassils’ act of aggression on the clay is an act of cathartic anger, even revenge, in response to the invisibility of and violence against the LGBTQ community. But simultaneously, the performance is a fierce and true celebration of the trans body that is still largely invisible in our culture: in the dramatically lit photographs from the performances, Cassils’ naked rippling body is powerful and beautiful.
The artist did not perform Becoming an Image at the Armory Show, but their representing gallery, Ronald Feldman Gallery, presented a wonderful selection of the stills from a 2018 performance. Also on view was a 2016 bronze cast of the brutalized slab of clay called The Resilience of the 20%, referring to the 20% increase in murders of trans people worldwide since 2012. What a beautiful and affective installation.
Enjoy these other works by some top notch artists as well! The images are linked to the artists’ websites, or their representing galleries.
Gorgeous watercolors by Guo Hongwei, presented by Chambers Fine Art:
It is strange and unsettling times we’re living in, but I will keep on posting to share good art. Because Art is Love, and Love is Healing!
Spring/Break this year was huge, and I am sorry to say I ran out of steam and could not see everything, so note that my highlights may be missing some real winners. The theme of “in excess” was interpreted in a myriad of ways, although many artists took it to its more literal iteration of decadent neo-Pop (think Takashi Murakami, with more bedazzling). I get the message—it’s hard not to, it really hits you over the head—but I admit, I can only take so much of that aesthetic before I get queasy. Candylands aside, there was some really lovely works that I enjoyed:
Christopher Chan’s installation As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold (room 1011) was great. It had the right amount of bedazzling in the form of the glittery, shimmery wallpaper. The real stars of the show are the painted wood dolls of stylish, urban characters. Chan, who, unsurprisingly, is also a commercial designer, activated the dolls in a stop motion animation called “Honorroller, Champion Edition” on display in a retro arcade game nearby, the paneling replaced with marbled plastic. Outside the installation, the artist created a bed in a retro-looking racecar. When I tried searching the web for more on As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold, the only hit that return was a reference to an episode of the Simpsons.
Geoffrey Owen Miller’s spectral, shimmering woodland scene, reflected in the black glass of the upside down, was beautiful and quietly unsettling. On the gallery website for this work, the artist quotes Jorge Luis Borges’s book Book of Imaginary Beings: “Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the color of this line will be like no other color. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers of glass or metal and this time will not be defeated.”
On the walls surrounding Miller’s installation were abstractions rendered intensely in graphite; the artist’s dexterity with the pencil creates an array of texture and dimensionality (unfortunately, I cannot locate the artist’s name for the graphite drawings). Both were presented by 5-50 Gallery in Long Island City (room 1035).
“Fragments of Luxury,” a group show presented by the New York Artists Equity Association (room 1044), was a selection of lovely works. I particularly enjoyed Pablo Garcia Lopez’s molded silk tableaus, recreating the decadent baroque compositions of Old Master religious scenes, like the Ascension (the artists calls the works “Silk bassreliefs” [sic]). Krista LaBella’s Pearl Necklace polaroids, in which pearl necklaces, food, flowers and other objects are tossed across the artist’s ample bosom, were a compelling commentary on decadence, sex, femininity, and various cultural associations we have for the female body as a site of consumption, and the objects themselves. Christopher Scott Marshall’s sculpture Life I Might Of (2019) is not the most arresting of the works that one can peruse on his website, but is still nice. And lastly, Aaron Miller’s coal dusted works pay homage to the coal mining heritage of his hometown in Wyoming, merged with more classical portraiture or genre scenes.
Philadelphia-based artist Lyn Godley’s light pieces Currents blew my mind a little: these colorful scenes, reminiscent of auroras or mystical landscapes, are not in fact videos, as they seem, but an arrangement of films (Mylar, dichroic, mirrored, etc.) bending and reflecting an LED lightshow within the artwork. That’s all to say that these moving, shimmering works are happening live, and can change with adjustments to the LED light loop or the position of the film. Gorgeous.
My favorite installation of the fair was Melissa Spitz’s You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About, curated by Ben Tollefson (room 1102). I had a nice conversation with Ben about this deeply personal artwork: the artist’s mother has struggled for years with addiction, and the Spitz began documenting it a few years ago. Interestingly, her mother supports the project, participating to the point of “directing” and collaborating with her daughter. The resulting photographs—some staged, some candid—are an intimate and complex portrait of a woman and her struggle to find herself. Especially effective is the pile of 4 x 6 photos on the table in the center of the room, for visitors to rummage through, as if dumped out of a shoe box in the closet.
Despite the postponements and cancellations of upcoming public events, art-related or otherwise, I’m happy to say that the coronavirus didn’t seem to thwart the art fairs this late winter/early spring. Travel prevented me from catching all of them, but let’s do a quick overview of what I was able to see!
I was out of town for the Winter Show at the Park Avenue Armory, but instead visited Photo LA, my first time attending an LA art fair. While there has been much talk of LA’s growing art scene (bummed my timing didn’t work out to see the second annual Felix Art Fair), overall Photo LA did not knock my socks off. Many of the offerings seemed to me to lean more decorative or amateurish, but there were some nice diamonds in the rough. Here were a few highlights:
Tom Blachford’s midnight photographs are emotive and striking: with a true technical grasp of his medium, Blachford shoots retro architectural sites around the world at night, using nothing but ambient light and moonlight to light the scene. The resulting images have the beautiful eeriness of a Gregory Crewdson without all the gimmicks or theatrics. Blachford shows with Toth Gallery in New York.
A few years back, French photographer Chantal Stoman visited a suburb of Tokyo called Ōme, a small hamlet frozen in time with paintings of classic movie posters all over town. Ōme was once a cinephile’s dream, with several theaters showing national and international movies. Decades after its decline as a movie mecca, the town decided to honors its cinematic past and one of its citizens, an artist by the name of Bankan Kubo, who painted reproductions of the movie posters. As a child, Kubo could not afford to attend the movies, so he satisfied himself with the movie posters; after a show closed, he would take the poster home and copy it. His passion led him to change his name from Noboru to Bankan, a reversal of the word kanban, or poster. Stoman’s photographic series, Ōmecittà (merging the Italian cinecittà with Ōme) “is based on absence, absence that creates our imagination and helps to transform it…Photographing the city of Ōme is like searching for lost time.” Stoman’s work was presented by Galerie Sit Down of Paris.
One particularly intriguing gem at Photo LA was a collection of male physique photo collages from, as the accompanying text noted, the “Golden Age of Physique Photography, 1945–1970.” Crediting World War II with a new liberation and celebration of the male body, male physique took on new visibility in the arts and popular culture, and the physique photographic genre blossomed in Southern California (particularly LA). Exhibited by Photosique, these homoerotic images are a fascinating historical display of masculine identity, sexuality, and objectification at a time most of us associate with the classic female “pin up.” (Apologies for the glare in the photos.)
Last but not least, one installation that moved me to tears was Danziger Gallery’s installation of Paul Fusco’s series The RFK Funeral Train. Fusco, who, with other journalists, road on the New York to Washington train that hot summer day in June of 1968, captured the throngs of people who came to the tracks to pay their respects to the fallen politician. Perhaps it is our current political atmosphere that is taking its emotional toll, but I found the diverse array of mourners very poignant.
If you’ve been to my website before, you might notice a few changes to the look and language of the site…well, Avant-Garde’s art advisory has refined our mission, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain in greater detail what inspired this new direction, and what it means. (Note the appraisal arm of my business remains the same!)
In 2019, I was suffering some stress in regards to my business. Some people recommended therapy or medication, and while those solutions can have their merits, I wanted something more sustainable: I sought a spiritual-wellness practice that would help bring some balance and harmony to my life. I listened to the wisdom of several spiritual leaders and thought leaders from various backgrounds and affiliations: from Buddhist monks to Christian pastors, spiritual gurus to enlightened doctors and academics. Some consistent (and perhaps self-evident) themes were that 1) we are all one. The racial, cultural, or political differences between us are an illusion; and 2) nearly everyone lauded the benefits of meditation, because it focuses our awareness in the present. We only exist in the present moment, the here and now.
It was not long after that I had an epiphany: wait a minute…art is my spiritual practice!
Experiencing art is an intuitive practice in mindfulness—it is about presence, compassion, and awakening to that greater “oneness.” When I spend a few hours at a museum or gallery-hopping in Chelsea, I enter a contemplative state akin to meditation: I am present with the art, and I am in a heightened state of awareness. I feel abundant peace and calm at the end of my art outing, and that’s because art is a physical manifestation of a higher consciousness, or awareness. Artists are like shamans: they tap into that higher awareness and put it into form, to share it with us. That is why the best art has something a little unknowable about it…a veil of otherworldliness to it.
Several spiritual leaders and scholars have lauded art as an expression of our higher spiritual selves, such as proponents of the Baha’i faith, Joseph Campbell, Josef Pieper, and Eckhart Tolle, to name just a few. And of course, countless artists have conceptualized their own creations as serving the spiritual, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramovic, to name a few. It is important to clarify, however, that I am not advocating for a category of “spiritual art”—that is, spiritual or divine forces do not need to be the subject of a work of art for it to be spiritually resonant (and honestly, much of what you see online that is described as “spiritual art” tends to be way too literal and just…blech). You can have a transcendental experience with an Expressionist painting, Greek sculpture, street photograph, Chinese scroll, video installation—truly, any and all good* art is ripe for a spiritual experience (*the question of what is constitutes “good art” is an age-old question and unfortunately, too complicated to get into at present…).
With so many other great thinkers before me commenting on the spirituality of art, you may be wondering, So Emily, what makes your great epiphany so special? You’re obviously not the first person to think of art in spiritual terms.
Well, there’s two reasons I think Avant-Garde’s revamped mission is timely and novel.
First, I believe that many in the art world have lost touch with the true meaning and power of art, because the industry has been corrupted by avarice and materialism. The .01 percent has put their megawatt spending power into the trendiest artists, but this has actually had detrimental implications for the rest of the art market. Prices for blue-chip artists have skyrocketed out of control; in light of the multimillion-dollar records broken every auction season, “merely affluent” buyers “assume the $50,000 work they can afford is not worth buying,” the New York Times reported last year. Without these buyers, smaller galleries have been closing, or losing their best artists to what art critic Jerry Saltz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries that cater to the super-rich. It is increasingly clear that only the .01 percent of buyers, galleries, and artists are benefitting from this apparently “flourishing” art market.
All this is to say that I feel the corruptive forces of money have created a top-heavy art market that does not honor the true, transcendental purpose of art: to bring us closer to our higher selves. Avant-Garde seeks to counter the art world’s materialism by encouraging our collectors to first and foremost connect to art on a deeper, intuitive level, and support artists and galleries that resonate with them, regardless of their art-world status. And rather than conceiving of art-buying as “collecting” art—a rather possessive and egotistic notion—we encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.
We encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.
The second reason I believe Avant-Garde’s mission is unique is that, quite simply, I do not know any arts professional that has ever addressed how to have a spiritual connection to a work of art. Put another way: any talk of spirituality in art tends to be an armchair intellectual exercise. In graduate school, for instance, I read artist Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 treatise On the Spiritual in Art; we discussed it in the classroom, and wrote response papers addressing its philosophical points. But my professor never encouraged us to stand before a Kandinsky and really try to internalize his message, and write about that feeling. I do not mean to discredit the academic community, or dismiss the intellectual value of art, which is important. But no amount of reading about the spirituality of art will ever approximate the direct experience of it. Or, to quote artist Marina Abramovic: “Nobody’s life is changed by somebody else’s experiences. I want more from the public. I want them to be involved and to go through changes as I do.”
The truth is that you do not need a PhD in art history to “get” a work of art. Anyone can have a spiritual experience of a work of art if they apply the principles of mindfulness: presence, awareness, and compassion. Avant-Garde works with our clients to cultivate mindful contemplation of art; we encourage collectors to begin from an intuitive experience of art, to which we add our art historical and market expertise. In service of this mission, I will also be offering contemplative art tours each month, and speaking engagements that can bring a mindful art experience to your community, conference, or even office lunch hours.
The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.
The most beautiful thing is that the benefits of a mindful art interaction go far beyond the walls of your lived spaces: you’ll find yourself bringing that mindfulness into the rest of your life—heightening your awareness as you walk down the street, noticing beautiful details of the world you hadn’t noticed before. If you find yourself inspired by our message, please contact Avant-Garde to see how we can work together. Whether you’re a complete novice to art or spirituality, we’d love to cultivate your interest in both.
Peace, Love, and Art,
Emily Casden, Director
 “Toward a Pure Energy,” Germano Celant in conversation with Marina Abramovic, in Germano Celant, Marina Abramovic, Public Body: Installations and Objects, 1965–2001, Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2001, p. 17.
This year’s Fall modern and contemporary auctions in New York were once again a mixed bag: there were no real headline-grabbers, and there even a handful of flops. But there were also some bright spots; several records were set, and as blue-chip artists become more and more out of reach for most collectors, more buyers are purchasing younger contemporary artists’ work at auction, especially those artists for whom there’s a waiting list on the gallery circuit.
Ahead of the sales there was cautious speculation of how global turmoil—Brexit, protests in Hong Kong, and the Trump impeachment inquiry—could impact the art market. Once again, there’s mixed data on this; while there is generally some soft market contraction, there was spirited bidding this season from Asia, including Yoshitomo Nara’s smashing new auction record of $25 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, despite its political upheaval. And although the fall New York auctions were more subdued than the last few years, sell-through rates were still strong, and every auction sold within its pre-sale estimate range. Ultimately, despite some soft contraction, the art industry survived 2019 with few scratches. Let’s recap some of the auction highlights, starting with the Impressionist and Modern sales, and move our way up to contemporary.
Generally, the Impressionist and Modern category slowly continues to downshift in value; Christie’s and Sotheby’s Imp & Mod evening sales this fall were down 52% and 40% respectively from the equivalent sales in May. But it is important to remember that there were some blockbuster artworks offered in May: Monet’s Mueles (1890) set a record at Sotheby’s for any Impressionist work at $110.7 million, and works from the esteemed S.I. Newhouse collection gave Christie’s Imp & Mod sale a $100 million boost.
Christie’s took in $191.9 million (with buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale estimate of $138–203 million; this was a 31% drop from the equivalent sale last November of $279.3 million. Only sixteen of the 58 lots had in-house or third-party guarantors, which accounted for about $53.3 million of the total sale. One of the great highlights of the sale was Umberto Boccioni’s Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (Unique Forms of Continuity in Space), the artist’s undisputed masterpiece. Boccioni was one of the founding members of Italian Futurism, and just as his work was maturing, he tragically died in 1916 during a training exercise in World War I, at the age of 33. With a curtailed body of work, Christie’s specialists noted that this was a difficult lot to price; it is only the second time in a century that one of Boccioni’s sculptures has been offered at auction. The auction house conservatively estimated the work at $3.8–4.5 million, but the bronze busted past its high estimate to sell for a record $16.2 million, with fees.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale outperformed Christie’s, raking in $209 million; unfortunately, this was still far below the equivalent sale from May ($349.8 million) or last November ($315.4 million). One of the gems of the evening was Gustave Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1894), a large, richly-painted portrait of his friend walking along the Seine. But the painting generated less interest than Sotheby’s anticipated, selling just inside its low estimate at $19.7 million, with fees. A happier outcome occurred for Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka’s La Tunique Rose of 1927, depicting a solidly-built, reclining woman in a red slip. The lovely modernist painting surpassed its high estimate of $8 million, as well as the artist’s previous auction record of $9.1 million, selling for $13.4 million with fees.
Moving on to the Contemporary market: Christie’s topped the evening sales with $325.3 million, which was squarely in the middle of its $270.3–397.8 million estimates. This is a 9% downturn from the same sale in November 2018, but it is worth noting last year’s $357.6 million sale was augmented by David Hockney’s $90.3 million Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). 24 of the 54 lots offered this year had third-party guarantees. Despite promoting the “fresh to market” appeal of the works (all but three of the 54 lots had not been offered in at least ten years), 43% of lots hammered below their low estimate. But this contraction in the market was countered by a few bright spots.
The standout of the evening was Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), a great, early example of Ruscha’s more conceptual approach to Pop, which achieved $52.5 million with fees. Another lovely offering was a rediscovered Hockey painting called Sur la Terrasse of 1971, which hasn’t been shown publicly since 1973. Encouraged by last year’s record Hockney sale, the Christie’s specialists estimated Sur la Terrasse to reach $25–45 million. Unfortunately, this proved to be ambitious; the painting hammered under estimate, and only reached $29.5 million with fees.
Sotheby’s Postwar & Contemporary evening sale brought in $270.5 million with an 89% sell-through rate, which was down 25% from November’s 2018 sale ($362.6 million). Artnet reports that the top bidders of the night seemed to be hailing from Asia: Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for Asia bid on behalf of one client who spent $54.4 million, or 20% of the value of the total sale. This buyer purchased the top lot of the evening, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII(1977) for $30.1 million, as well as Clyfford Still’s PH-399(1946) for $24.3 million, well over its $18 million high estimate. But other lots did not fare as well: one high-profile work was a Francis Bacon Pope painting deaccessioned from the Brooklyn Museum, which sold for $6.6 million against an estimate of $6-8 million. And works by Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and David Hockney all passed unsold.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXII (1977)
Clyfford Still, PH-399 (1946)
The market for artists of color and women artists continue to rise, with records set and re-set for several artists this season. On the heels of a retrospective exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, Alma Thomas set a new record when her 1970 painting Fantastic Sunset sold at Christie’s for $2.7 million with fees. Also riding the success of his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art, Charles White set a new auction record, only to have it broken the next day: his painting Banner for Willie J (1976) sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million, followed by his work on paper Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), which sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s. Also at Sotheby’s, Norman Lewis’s Ritual (1962) sold for $2.8 million, trumping his previous record of $956,000; and Kerry James Marshall had another eight-figure sale when his painting Vignette 19 sold for $18.5 million, just a few million shy of his $21.1 million record for Past Times, sold to P. Diddy a few years ago.
As the .001% continues to push prices at the top of the market beyond the reach of collectors, more buyers are taking the risk to purchase art by emerging artists at auction, paying incredible amounts for some artists who are not quite “market tested.” Reviewing the day sales, rather than evening sales, is very eye-opening in this regard: Michael Armitage’s The Conservationists (2015), was estimated at $50,000–70,000 when offered at Sotheby’s contemporary day sale; the painting soared to $1.52 million, over twenty-one times its high estimate. Tschabalala Self’s Star, also from 2015, sold at Phillips for $350,000, nearly triple its high estimate of $120,000. Based on retail data, artnet speculates that Star probably only cost $10,000 when it was first offered in a gallery in 2015. Noah Davis, who died tragically in 2015 from cancer, had his first artwork offered at auction this year in May, selling for $47,500, well-past its $10,000–15,000 estimate. At Phillips this fall, his painting Single Mother with Father out of the Picture sold for $168,750, far outperforming its $40,000–60,000 estimate. Notably, all these young artists are also artists of color, yet again underscoring the craze for collecting artists that have, in previous generations, been marginalized.
With the presidential election on the horizon in 2020, the market will likely contract a little more, as it did during the 2016 election cycle. As has been the case the past few years, there will be some standout works that will tantalize the market, such as the likely forthcoming sale of the famous (or infamous) Macklowe Collection. In my honest opinion, it would not be the end of the world if the market contracted a little bit; to quote one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, “It’s not good when [my art] is the value of a house.” Even with a slight softening, the art market will likely continue to be quite healthy; that is, Richter’s work will always be the cost of a house. A very nice, very big house. In the Hamptons. With a helipad.
Pierre Soulages is one of the greatest artists to come out of France in the 20th Century, and the Louvre agrees with me: although the prestigious institution rarely mounts monographic shows of living artists, they are making an exception to honor Soulages with a career retrospective on the occasion of his 100th birthday (coming up December 24). The almost-centenarian has been an active member of the Parisian avant-garde since the late 1940s, working in a gestural abstract style that was trending at the time. But he is perhaps best known nowadays for his outrenoir series, a body of work that he began in the late 1970s, at the ripe age of sixty. Soulages says that the genesis of the outrenoir—which roughly translates to “beyond black”–paintings began from a foiled session in the studio, in which he kept slathering black paint on a canvas but could not arrive at a resolved composition. Frustrated, he gave up and went to bed. The next morning he saw the canvas with fresh eyes, and was struck by how sensitively the black paint responded to the light:
I saw that it was no longer black that gave meaning to the painting but the reflection of light on dark surfaces. Where it was layered the light danced, and where it was flat it lay still. A new space had come into being: the painting was no longer on the wall (as in Byzantine Art) or behind the wall (as in perspectival art) but physically in front of the canvas. The light was coming from the painting towards me, I was in the painting. 
Thereafter Soulages completely changed his artistic practice to explore the complementary relationship of darkness and light. He uses a wide range of tools to achieve various strokes and marks on the canvas, and experiments with different mattes and glosses of the pigment, all of which reflect or absorb light in different ways. As a result, this monochromatic body of work is, in fact, remarkably diverse. The artist gives the paintings direct titles that describe exactly what they are and when they were painted (for example, Peinture 227 x 306 cm, 2 mars 2009) to emphasize their objecthood; with no referents to outside imagery or objects, these artworks stand on their own and share your space and time, forcing the viewer to be present with them.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris between December 11, 2019 and March 9, 2020, be sure to check out what should be an amazing show.