Cryptnotized: My Thoughts on the NFT and CryptoArt Trend

I’ll admit it: I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post. Partly because, frankly, I still don’t 100% understand CryptoArt, and I wasn’t sure I should weigh in on the topic until I had a better grasp of it. But no matter how much I read about it, there are still some head-scratching aspects of this new art/economic frontier. But perhaps the best way to work through my own incomprehension is to talk it out right here.

And I’ll also admit, part of the reason I’ve avoided publicly talking about CryptoArt is that it forces a difficult conversation of what is “good” and “bad” art, or just what qualifies as art–a meta question that has been debated among philosophers for millenia. While I don’t like openly disparaging certain artists or genres, as an art expert, in this case critique will be unavoidable. I recognize that, to some readers, I will sound curmudgeonly, maybe even snobbish, and technologically short-sighted–I must own it. Only time will tell if this is truly the future of art, or a fad that will go the way of Beanie Babies. Either way, I do apologize in advance for any sensibilities I may offend, and I welcome any comments that may elucidate some of my issues with CryptoArt (keep it respectful, please).

CryptoPunks, a limited edition collection of characters created by Larva Labs and minted as NFTs in 2017. According to Larva Labs website, as of writing, the lowest asking price for a CryptoPunk is over $32,000. (Image courtesy of Larva Labs.)

First, let’s just define “NFTs.” For its largely uninitiated audience, Christie’s actually provides a helpful “NFT 101” page where they define NFTs, or non-fungible tokens:

An NFT, or ‘non-fungible token’, is a unique, digital certificate that is stored on a blockchain and provides certain ownership rights in an asset, typically a digital one, such as a digital work of art. NFTs provide a powerful tool to establish and demonstrate ownership rights in the digital asset space where it is often hard to demonstrate such rights given how quickly and easily digital works can be replicated. NFTs are described as ‘non-fungible’ because each one is unique and of different value. This is in contrast to ‘fungible’ assets such as dollars or Bitcoin, which are identical and interchangeable.

Of course, the obvious, immediate benefit of NFT technology, then, is the function of the NFT as a digital “Certificate of Authenticity” and ownership. After decades of exhibiting their art on the unruly and unregulated internet, artists can now “mint” their digital art–ie create an NFT on the blockchain, certifying a unique and protected work. Additionally, artists can attach a stipulation of royalties to the NFT, so they make money on any subsequent resale of it–the absolute best outcome of blockchain technology, in my opinion.

But how unique and protected is the artwork? Herein is my first point of confusion: I took a screenshot of all the NFT works you see in this blog post. In what I thought was a remarkably ironic gesture, Sotheby’s even had a download button so anyone can save an mp4 file of Kevin McCoy’s Op art gif Quantum, which sold in their “Natively Digital”: curated NFT sale for a staggering $1,472,000 (below). Is there, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, an “aura of the original” in the metaverse (a crypto neologism I had to add to my vocabulary) if anyone can save an identical digital version online?

I have read some articles which liken the NFT artwork to an original painting, and any non-NFT copies are like posters of that painting that you see in dorm rooms. But this is not an accurate analogy: what differentiates an original painting from reproductions is the medium–the painting is a completely unique oil on canvas. The posters are glossy prints based on a photograph of that painting, churned out by the thousands–and the respective visual experience of the painting and poster is vastly different. With the digital artwork, the medium is pixels on a screen–whether an “original” or a screenshot of it (ie “reproduction”). The visual experience is essentially the same.

In reading more about the NFTs offered at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, I also learned that the digital artworks themselves often do not exist on the blockchain, but rather are hosted on servers “off-chain,” and the NFTs “point” to their offsite location. (This is to say nothing of physical assets, for which some claim NFTs can still be applied for “authentication.” But I think any art appraiser would tell you, that’s as uncertain a claim as a physical piece of paper that says “Certificate of Authenticity.”)

Kevin McCoy, Quantum, originally minted on May 3, 2014 on Namecoin blockchain, and preserved on a token minted on May 28, 2021 by the artist. 9 MB tiff. (Video courtesy of Sotheby’s.)

In the case of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, the condition report noted that “to avoid domain squatting, Namecoin [where he originally minted the NFT in 2014] was designed to include removal of pointers after 36,000 blocks. Accordingly, this specific Namecoin entry was removed from the system after not being renewed, and was effectively burned from the chain.” This concept alone was surprising, as I thought the appeal of blockchain technology was that it was full-proof and lasted forever.

It seems to me, then, that the blockchain doesn’t actually protect the artwork–it protects the certificate of authenticity and ownership (ie the NFT itself). And the utility and relevance of the NFT doesn’t actually come into play until a transaction is required–ie someone wants to sell the artwork. So I can enjoy my download of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum just as much as the guy who paid $1,472,000 for it. I just can’t sell it.

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a collection of digital drawings drawn over 5,000 days, and minted as an NFT that sold at Christie’s in March of 2021 for over $69 million. (Image courtesy of Christie’s.)

Or can I? If anyone can register NFTs, what’s to stop me from creating an NFT for the McCoy file I downloaded from Sotheby’s website? I can claim that undulating octagon as an original Emily Casden, and sell it with an NFT certifying it as my own–like a digital Sherrie Levine. Is there a blockchain police that cross-checks NFT artwork for fakes and forgeries? Sure, I’d be breaking copyright laws, but so far I can’t see how an NFT can prevent copyright laws from being broken.

Now before you think I must truly be some close-minded and conservative old hag, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against digital art itself. I think every medium of art–whether it is oil on a canvas, notes of a song, or pixels on a screen–can convey powerful meaning. I have seen digital artworks on my laptop that have moved me as much as any painting in a museum. And it’s worth noting that it is possible to sell limited edition digital works, and many galleries have been doing so long before NFTs existed. But, as with painting, or music, or any medium of art, there is a spectrum of quality: the good, the bad, and the stuff that just isn’t art. Which brings me to my next general “issue” with the NFT market…

The first NFT sold at auction–Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold at Christie’s in March for a jaw-dropping $69.3 million–was admittedly cool in its scope: a digital drawing every day for 5,000 days (from May 2007 to January 2021). The full collection allows one to see his evolution as an artist in a way that has never been documented and collated quite like this. But upon closer inspection, the digital illustrations were, let’s say, underwhelming. On the one hand, given the pressure of his daily output, the mediocrity is understandable; the famously prolific Picasso painted an average of two paintings a day, and certainly not all them are masterpieces. But largely, Beeple’s art is a product and paradigm of the Instagram age: easily digestible, pop culture pictures that have enough cynical wit to make you “like” them in your feed, and then keep on scrolling.

A digital drawing included in Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days. Meh. (Image courtesy of Christie’s.)

In a wildly over-the-top catalogue essay for Kevin McCoy’s five-second gif video Quantum (above), recently sold in Sotheby’s curated NFT sale “Natively Digital,” the Sotheby’s specialist says that Quantum is as historically significant as the modern masterworks that changed the course of art history. I will quote it at length, because it is so hilariously ridiculous:

In the long timeline of art, there are few works that serve as genesis blocks to their own chain of history. They are seismic forks in direction; forks that usher in new movements that block by block, mint by mint, usher in new art histories. These works close chapters on the art histories that came before, while anchoring a new flowering of human creativity. These prime movers occupy a singular position in art history. They came first...Pulsing with color, a riotously raw beacon to a new era, McCoy minted Quantum – unwittingly placing it within this vaulted pantheon of firsts. Timestamped July 1907, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles ushered in the chain of Cubism. December 1917, Malevich’s Black Square stands as the genesis block of Abstraction. April 1917, Duchamp timestamps the era of the idea [ie birth of Conceptualism]. 2nd May 2014 21:27:34, Quantum stands alone in the precision of its timestamp – immutably, verifiably, trustlessly pure. [Trustlessly?]

Mind you, there is absolutely nothing creatively innovative about Quantum as a work of art: all of its points of reference–Minimalism/Op art, animation art, video art–existed for decades before it was created. So why does the Sotheby’s specialist include McCoy in the pantheon of the creative geniuses Picasso, Malevich and Duchamp? Because Quantum was the first NFT artwork added to the blockchain. Was this a significant technological event? Sure. So was the company that bought the first website domain name in 1985. Do you know who it is? Do you care? Didn’t think so.

CryptoPunk 7523, by Larva Labs. It sold in Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” auction for $11,754,000. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.)

Lastly, there’s CryptoPunks, Larva Labs’s digital collection of 10,000 8-bit style “punks” that was minted (ie added to the blockchain) in 2017. It was a smart entrepreneurial endeavor: their pixelated style appeals to a nostalgic generation raised on Atari video games, and the distinguishing attributes of each unique character–men, women, zombies, aliens and apes with various combinations of hats, glasses, cigarettes, facial hair, etc–feed the “collect-them-all” mentality. But I would argue these definitely fall in the collectibles category, not art.

There is certainly nothing wrong with collectibles; they can have legitimate appeal and value. Exchanging coveted assets within a subculture of likeminded fans can be exciting; the hunt to acquire the rarest of your treasures can be a lifelong thrill. But that does not art make. I’ve been staring at these CryptoPunk avatars for several hours, and I’m just not detecting a heartbeat. Art has to have something to say. Are they cool? Yes. Fun? For sure. But these are the digital equivalents of trading cards, dare I say Beanie Babies (which would be bad news for whoever bought CryptoPunk 7523 for $11,754,000 in Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” sale last month).

Ultimately, my point is this: I think the mania over NFT technology is hyping up some absolutely mediocre art and collectibles. To be sure, there have been some really interesting digital works that have been minted as NFTs, but they did not need to be minted to be interesting, and could have just as easily been sold as limited editions without blockchain technology. And much of what I am seeing minted and traded as NFTs are just not that interesting. I think M.H. Miller said it well in his recent New York Times piece:

Creating absurd neologisms and claiming that something fairly unremarkable (an NFT artwork generally amounts to a mediocre digital illustration that comes with a certificate of authenticity) is in fact — to borrow a phrase from Sotheby’s, a “complex, groundbreaking technology” — is the way of both the tech and art industries, and this ugly symbiosis is one of the reasons it’s frightening to see the former so successfully manipulate the latter. If this is the future, what a bummer for all of us.

The good news is, I don’t think this is the future for all of us. I do firmly understand and believe that blockchain is a groundbreaking technology that has major implications for our future technological landscape–I think it will inevitably be part of our lives the same way the internet did. But I do not think that art is going to go purely NFT on us. Digital art is merely one of many mediums of expression; we still live and exist in a physical plane, and so does much of our art. And as of now, NFTs really can’t do much for physical artwork.

So, before you jump onto the NFT bandwagon, ask yourself a few questions: first and foremost, do you like the art? Does the price reflect the quality of the art? Or possibly the hype of NFTs? If you’re not sure, do some research (or hire me to help you!) to better contextualize the piece within the artist’s market.

As always, peace, love, and art.

Spring Auction Round Up: Back to “Normal”

In case you missed it: the Art Basel /UBS Global Art Market Report came out in March, and noted that global sales for art and antiques in 2020 were down 22% from 2019 ($50.1 billion). But if the spring 2021 auction season is any indication–with several 8-figure lots and many broken records for artists–we’ll be returning to a pre-pandemic market in no time.

Before diving into the sales themselves, I’d like to say a few words about a few words–literally. There have been some interesting category changes in auctions that signal the power of words to reflect the changing landscape of art collecting. As I reported in my December 2020 blog post, last year Christie’s and Sotheby’s used the occasion of the pandemic to experiment with format, offering a confusing array of day sales, evening sales, and global relay sales.

This season, Christie’s announced that it would be doing away with its “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” designations all together, and instead offered a “20th Century” evening sale, and a “21st Century” evening sale. These adjustments are semantic rather than literal, however, as the 20th century sale still includes works dating back to the 1880s (ie Impressionist/Post Impressionist), while works dating back to the 1980s are included in the 21st century sale. BUT, to still make things confusing, the “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” titles still apply to the day sales (insert shrug emoji).

Pablo Picasso’s Femme assise prés d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) from 1932 was the top seller at Christie’s new “20th Century” evening sale, bringing $103,410,000. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).

Sotheby’s has also jumped on the rebranding bandwagon, dropping “Postwar” from its auction headline, so it just reads “Contemporary Art evening sale,” even though the sale does still include postwar art. In another notable case of wordsmithing, Sotheby’s has also taken “Old” out of their “Old Masters” sales, so the auction instead is simply called “Master Paintings.” I must say, this is one rebranding strategy I can understand: the word “Old” certainly has more negative connotations than, say, the word “Impressionist.” And it can’t hurt the struggling Old Masters–excuse me, the Masters–market. It completely worked on me as clickbait.

Now, on to the sales themselves. As always, I focus only on New York because, frankly, it would be overwhelming to cover sales in Europe and Asia too. (NOTE: I have addressed this season’s NFT works and auctions in a separate post). Christie’s 20th and 21st Century evening sales together grossed over $691 million; in the 20th century sale, 98% of the lots sold above their low estimate–many surpassed their high estimates. And some standout pieces helped push the sales past the half a billion mark.

The top seller of the whole week was Picasso’s 1932 painting Femme assise prés d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), which took home $103,410,000 (illustrated above). The 20th Century sale also included some lovely eight-figure Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works (if I’m allowed to still call them that): Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, effet de brouillard sold for $48,450,000, and Vincent Van Gogh’s Le pont de Trinquetaille (1888), also a waterfront scene, brought $39,290,000 (each illustrated above). And a lovely study for Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte sold well over its $8 million high estimate, achieving $13,184,000.

Barbara Hepworth, Parent II (1971), set a new record at $7,110,000 at Christie’s 20th Century sale. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).

A few artists also had new auction records in the 20th Century sale: Alice Neel, no doubt buoyed by her current retrospective at the Met, set a new record when her 1966 canvas Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room sold for over $3 million, nearly 4 times its high estimate of $800,000 and doubling her previous record. She was followed in the next lot by Barbara Hepworth’s Parent II sculpture (1971), which burst past its high estimate of $3.5 million to sell fora record $7,110,000. New auction records were also set for Grace Hartigan and Alighiero Boetti.

As for Christie’s 21st Century evening sale (ie Postwar and Contemporary sale), the masterpiece that drove the sale was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In This Case (1983), which inspired competitive bidding all the way up to $93,105,000–the second highest auction price for the artist (illustrated below).

A whopping ten artists–six of whom are people of color–had sales records broken in this 21st Century sale, continuing the collecting trend for black contemporary artists. Jordan Casteel, who exhibited a lovely show of portraits at the New Museum last year, set a new record with his portrait Jiréh from 2013 when it sold for $687,500. Nina Chanel Abney’s 2015 canvas Untitled (XXXXXX), painted in the aftermath of the shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement), catapulted beyond its pre-sale estimate of $200,000 – 300,000 to sell for just under $1 million (illustrated below). And (white guy) Jonas Wood also set a record when his colorful still life Two Tables with Floral Pattern (2013) achieved over $6.5 million, more than 50% over the high estimate of $4 million (illustrated below).

Jean-Michel Basquait’s In This Case (1983) was the top seller in Christie’s 21st Century sale, bringing $93,105,000. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).
Nina Chanel Abney, Untitled (XXXXXX), 2015, set a record for the young artist, selling for $990,000 in Christie’s 21st Century sale. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).
Jonas Wood, Two Tables with Floral Pattern, 2013. The painting set a new record for the artist in Christie’s 21st Century sale, bringing $6,510,000. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).

Now, on to Sotheby’s evenings sales! While Sotheby’s had a few standout works, their auctions were decidedly less robust than Christie’s: together the Impressionist & Modern and (Postwar) & Contemporary sales brought $439,639,200, more than a $250 million less than Christie’s equivalent sales. In the Impressionist & Modern category, the big ticket item was Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas, a classic late water lily canvas (1917-19), which brought $70,353,000.

Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-19, was the highlight of Sotheby’s sale, bringing over $70 million. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s).

A few other works that sold well include Leonor Fini’s delightful self-portrait with a scorpion (Autoportrait au scorpion) from 1938, which soared to three times past its high estimate ($800,000) to sell for $2,319,000; and Diego Rivera’s exquisitely elegant Retrato de Columba Domínguez de Fernández (1950), sold more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring $7,445,250 (each illustrated below).

Several other works in the Sotheby’s sale, however, sold around their low estimate or, in some cases, below it. Paul Cézanne’s fruit still lifes are usually top sellers, but the Nature morte: pommes et poires that was in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern auction sold for $19,969,350, a far, far cry from its $25 – 35 million estimate (illustrated below). Fritz Glarner’s Relational Painting Tondo No. 65 (1965) also sold well below its $600,000 – 800,000 estimate to bring $403,200 (illustrated below). And Les Coteaux de Thierceville, temps gris, a typical landscape by Camille Pissarro, sold for $1.472 million, just under its $1.5 – 2 million estimate.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Versus Medici, 1982, sold for just over $50 million. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s).

Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale generally fared better than its Impressionist & Modern evening sale, although overall the offerings did not excite bidders as much as the equivalent Christie’s sale did. The big ticket item was Basquiat’s Versus Medici (1982), which just about sold at the high end of its $35 – 50 million pre-sale estimate ($50,820,000)–not quite as impressive as the $93 million Basquiat at Christie’s, but the highest grosser of the night for Sotheby’s.

There were some impressive sales, however: newcomer Salman Toor has had an explosive few years, capped with his recent wonderful, intimate solo show at the Whitney Museum, which included The Arrival, the third lot in Sotheby’s sale. With a modest pre-estimate of $60 – 80,000, the 18 x 14-inch painting sold for a whopping 10 times its high estimate, finally bringing $867,000. This was the auction record for the young artist until Girl with Driver sold a few weeks later for almost $890,000 at Phillips in Hong Kong. (Mind you, Girl with Driver is 60 x 78 inches, so, inch for inch, tiny little The Arrival takes the cake!)

Salman Toor, The Arrival, 2019. This 18 x 14-inch painting sold for $867,000 in Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s).

A few other highlights of the sale include Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), which reached $15,315,900, surpassing its $9 – 12 million estimate. Charles White’s The Ingram Case (1949), depicting the incarcerated Ingram family (whose murder trial of a white neighbor underscored the institutionalized racism of the time), is as timely and evocative now as ever. The powerful drawing achieved $1,472,000, more than double its high estimate ($500,000 – 700,000). As with Christie’s contemporary auction, the high prices achieved by these few artists reflect the continued strong interest in artists of color.

Last but not least, another noteworthy highlight is Banksy’s famous Love is in the Air (2005), depicting a masked protester throwing a bouquet of roses (rather than the expected molotov cocktail). With a pre-sale estimate of $3 – 5 million, the canvas ultimately brought nearly $13 million. It was the only lot in the sale that accepted cryptocurrency as a form of payment.

And speaking of cryptocurrency, I bet you’re all wondering why I haven’t addressed this season’s auctioned NFTs yet. I have written a separate post regarding the NFT craze here. Enjoy!

Banksy’s Love is in the Air (2005) sold for nearly $13 million in Sotheby’s Contemporary art evening auction.

A Few Favorites from Art Basel Miami Beach’s OVRs

As it did for its other two iterations in Basel, Switzerland and Hong Kong, Art Basel of course had to take its Miami Beach art fair online due to COVID. But apparently the pandemic didn’t stop sales; according to a few media reports, Art Basel Miami Beach’s online version generally sold better than other virtual art fairs this year. Could it be the promise of the vaccine that spurred consumer confidence? The fact that the election is behind us? Or were the offerings just more enticing to buyers at Art Basel Miami Beach? Hard to say.

It turns out that scouring online viewing rooms (OVRs)–which are no different than websites, but they’ve kindly included pricing in a nice and very rare touch of transparency–is just as exhausting as going through these massive art fairs in person. Alas, my eyeballs were sore before I could see every OVR, but I’ve included below a few highlights from what I saw, and, when available, pricing info.

Enjoy!!

Andrew Edlin Gallery of New York offered some lovely postwar works, including this cosmically explosive 1957 painting by Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), for between $50,000 – 75,000 (24 x 24 inches). The American artist (1910-1983) was a private, outsider artists whose art was not discovered until after he died.

Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), 1957. Image courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York.

This stunning photograph by Kwame Brathwaite (American, b. 1938) at once draws on classic Northern Renaissance portraiture, but also feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Philip Martin Gallery (Los Angeles) sold the work in the range of $4,000 – 12,000, a great deal if you ask me, especially since the artist has an upcoming retrospective at the Blanton Museum of Art (June – September, 2021).

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Clara Lewis Buggs with Yellow Flower), 1962 (printed 2020). Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

Pae White‘s intricate, luminous 42 x 42-inch mixed media work Luna (2020), caught my eye—and someone else’s, because it was sold by the time I saw it. White (American, b. 1963) calls these works “Paper Tapestry Paintings,” and her dealer, Kaufmann Repetto Gallery of Milan and New York, notes that the shimmer is achieved with car enamel over paper clay on wood panel. Preeeettty….

Pae White, Luna, 2020. Image courtesy of Kaufmann Repetto Gallery, Milan and New York.

Can’t afford Joan Mitchell (whose untitled 1956 painting sold at David Zwirner for $1.2 million), or the other mid-century abstractionists? Try Elizabeth Neel (American, b. 1975), the granddaughter of famed figure painter Alice Neel (whose Estate Zwirner also represents, and sold Neel’s portrait of Aaron Kramer for $750,000). Salon 94 was selling some lovely pieces by the younger Neel at ABMB, including this fantastic acrylic on canvas, Scanning the Meridian Sun (2020, 46 x 76 inches). Sold by the time I saw it, so price unknown, but other abstract works by the artist were in the range of $45,000 – 65,000.

Elizabeth Neel, Scanning the Meridian Sun, 2020. Image courtesy of Salon 94, New York.

Where’s the party? Nicholas Party is blowing up right now: his 2014 Still Life of pears set his auction record at Christie’s this month, bringing about $1.35 million (10,450,000 HKD), and at Art Basel, artnet reports at least three works of his selling, including this arresting pastel on linen Portrait with Red Flowers (2020) from Hauser & Wirth for $300,000.

Nicholas Party, Portrait with Red Flowers, 2020. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth, New York.

I do love me some American regionalist art. Hirschl & Adler‘s “Of the People” online exhibition featured figurative artists who “have grappled with the human condition in all its multi-faceted depth and complexity.” Among the lovely collection of 20th century works was this impressive 1953 canvas by Jules Kirschenbaum (American, 1930-2000), titled Without the Hope of Dreams (86 x 39 inches), available for $135,000. (Image courtesy of Hirschl & Adler, New York.)

I wish I could cover more, but alas, there’s just too much good art. I’ll leave you with this numinous and mesmerizing video work from Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani, b. 1969), Reckoning (2020; ed. of 7 + 2 APs). Available from Sean Kelly Gallery for $75,000. I have admired Sikander’s mosaic works, but this is the first video work I’ve seen. I dig it. The artist has a traveling show opening at The Morgan Library in New York in June 2021.

Watch with sound on!!

Shahzia Sikander, Reckoning, 2020. Video courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Art Fair Round Up: The Armory Show

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.

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Photography Still from Cassils’ performance Becoming an Image, installed against wallpaper of other stills from the performance. Photo by the author.

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.

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Cassils, photography still from Becoming an Image performance. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Gallery.

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Cassils, The Resilience of the 20%, bronze cast of assaulted clay from performance of Becoming an Image. Photo by the author.

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:

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Guo Hongwei, The Landscape of Natural Form No. 3, 2017, watercolor on paper, 40 x 60 inches. Photo by the author.

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Guo Hongwei, The Landscape of Natural Form No. 1, 2017, watercolor on paper, 60 x 40 inches. Photo by the author.

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Shahzia Sikander, Double Sight, 2018, glass mosaic with patinated brass frame, 63 1/4 x 44 1/4 inches. Presented by Sean Kelly Gallery, photo by the author.

Art and design intersect in the whimsical (and sometimes unsettling) work by Atelier Van Lieshout, presented at the fair by Carpenter Workshop Gallery.

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“Old Man,” bronze sculpture by Atelier van Lieshout, which can also be converted to a lamp. Photo by the author.

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Drawing by Atelier van Lieshout, photo by the author.

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Reclining Figure/Bench, by Atelier van Lieshout.

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Kate MccGwire, Sasse/Sluice, 2018, mixed media with pigeon feathers, 84 x 154 x 9 inches framed. Unique edition, presented by Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

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Kate MccGwire, Sasse/Sluice, 2018, detail.

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Omar Ba, Untitled, 2020, mixed media on canvas, 78 3/4 x 145 5/8 inches. Presented by Galerie Templon. Photo by the author.

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Hugo Wilson, Rebel Forces, 2019-2020, oil on aluminum, 63 x 51. Presented by Nicodim Gallery, photo by the author.

Believe it or not, this elaborate sculpture by Hugo Wilson is not carved from stone, but is painted bronze.

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Hugo Wilson, Untitled, 2019, bronze, 37 1/2 x 43 1/2 x 36 1/4 inches, presented by Nicodim Gallery. Photo by the author.

This lovely, textured tableau by Fu Xiaotong was made from piercing the handmade paper with a pin–455,600 times. The artist changed the angle of the pinprick to create the modeled look of the forms.

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Fu Xiaotong, 455,600 Pinpricks, 2018, handmade paper, 45 3/4 x 94 1/2 inches. Presented by Chambers Fine Art, photo by the author.

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Fu Xiaotong, 455,600 Pinpricks, 2018, detail. Photo by the author.

The ornately carved frame enhances the primal force of this “outsider art” by Philippino-American artist Alfonso Ossorio, which, painted over 70 years ago, feels presciently ahead of its time.

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Alfonso Ossorio, Birth II, 1949, ink, wax, watercolor and gouache on paperboard, 39 3/4 x 29 7/8 inches. Presented by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, photo by the author.

Still a sucker for some good modern art, by Morris Graves.

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Morris Graves, Alter, c. 1940, tempera and watercolor on paper, 25 x 27 3/4 inches, presented by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. Photo by the author.

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Morris Graves, Alter, c. 1940, detail.

Art Fair Round Up: Spring/Break

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

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.

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Geoffrey Owen Miller art installation, mixed media, presented by 5-50 Gallery, Long Island City. Photo by the author.

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).

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Pablo Garcia Lopez, Brainvolution 2,
Natural silk, PLA filament (3D printing) and fabric.
48x29x7 inches. Photo by the author.

“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.

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Krista LaBella, Pearl Necklace, Polaroid photographs, presented by New York Artists Equity Association. Photo by the author.

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.

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Melissa Spitz, You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About, with random guy. Curated by Ben Tollefson. Photo by the author.

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Melissa Spitz, You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About. Photo by the author.

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Melissa Spitz, You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About. Photo by the author.

Art Fair Round Up: Lala Land Edition (Photo LA)

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!

Photo LA

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:

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Tom Blachford, Futuro I, dimensions and editions vary. Courtesy of Toth Gallery, New York.

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.

Chantal Stoman
Chantal Stoman, Terminal Station, Vittorio de Sica, from the Omecittà series, 2017. C-print mounted on aluminum, 26 3/8 x 39 inches, ed. 1/5. Courtesy of Sit Down Galerie, Paris.

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1950s Male Physique photographs, mounted on board. Courtesy of Photosique.

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.)

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1950s Male Physique photographs, mounted on board. Courtesy of Photosique.

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.

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Untitled, from the RFK Train, 1968, dimensions and editions vary. Courtesy of Danziger Gallery, New York.

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Untitled, from the RFK Train, 1968, dimensions and editions vary. Courtesy of Danziger Gallery, New York.

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Untitled, from the RFK Train, 1968, dimensions and editions vary. Courtesy of Danziger Gallery, New York.

Fall 2019 Auction Roundup: Young Artists Bring Big Returns Amidst an Otherwise Humdrum Season

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.

Artnet sales by price chart
Less paintings sold above $10 million in 2019 than previous years–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Chart courtesy of artnet.com

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.

Boccioni - Unique Forms
Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (1972 cast), set a record for the artist.

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.

Caillebotte - Richard Gallo portrait
Gustave Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1894)

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.

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Tamara de Lempicka, La Tunique Rose (1927), set a record for the Polish artist.

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.

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Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), was the highlight of Christie’s contemporary evening sale.

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.

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David Hockney, Sur la Terrasse (1971)

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.

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.

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Charles White, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), set a record for any medium by the artist.

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.

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Michael Armitage, The Conservationists (2015), sold more than twenty-one times its high estimate.

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.

See you 2020. Peace, love and art!

Artist Spotlight: Pierre Soulages

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 outrenoirwhich 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. [1]

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The different matte and gloss surfaces of this outrenoir painting respond to the light in different ways.

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 2009to 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.

Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!

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Pierre Soulages, Peinture 181 x 405 cm, 12 avril 2012, acrylic on canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Soulages - Outrenoir
Peinture 18 novembre 2014, at the Musée Soulages in the artist’s hometown of Rodez.

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Pierre Soulages, Peinture 324 x 362 cm (Polyptyque J), 1987 © Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne

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Installation shot from a 2014 exhibition of Soulages’ work.

[1] Pierre Soulages, quoted in the lot essay for Pierre Soulages, Peinture 227 x 306 cm, 2 mars 2009, Christie’s Postwar & Contemporary Art evening sale, Paris, June 7, 2018, Lot 33.

 

“My Brain is a Collage Brain:” In the Studio with Delphine Diallo

In July I went to the opening of “African Spirits,” a group show of African photography from the 1950s to today, at Yossi Milo gallery. Upon entering the space, I turned to my left to start my stroll around the room’s perimeter when I met his gaze, and was immediately drawn in.

The Herculean man had neon-green hair on his head and chin, piercings in his nose and in his hulky pectorals, and a kinky leather collar. His vintage blue shorts were buttoned up to the middle of his smooth abdomen, and a diminutive fanny pack pinched his waist. His Doc Martens were decorated with black and pink furry pompoms, and, completing his fantastic ensemble, an electric pink robe, rolled at the wrists and suggestively falling off his left shoulder. Like Manet’s Olympia, he projected so many wonderful paradoxes: at once confident and vulnerable; seductive and guarded; masculine and feminine; insistent in his queerness, but untrusting of our voyeuristic presence. Perhaps somewhere under that campy pink robe was some scar tissue—wounds from years of rejection by a bourgeois society that does not understand him. Wounds which heal themselves when he can “live the fuck out loud” at the Afropunk Festival where this picture was taken.

I was mesmerized.

Delphine Diallo - Afropunk - Pink Fur, 2016, framed (mid)
“Afropunk – Pink Fur,” 2016, image courtesy of the artist.

I proudly added the photograph to my art collection, and reached out to the French-Senegalese artist Delphine Diallo to arrange a studio visit.

Based in Brooklyn since 2008, Diallo was born in Paris to a French mother and Senegalese father. She studied at the Académie Charpentier School of Visual Art and upon graduating in 1999, started working in the music industry as a visual effects specialist, graphic designer and editor. In 2008 a friend invited her to a dinner, where she happened to sit next to the photographer Peter Beard. “It was very surprising; I was meeting someone who was 72, and I was 31, and our energy was the actually same,” she remembers. They shared the same “curiosity, and openness, and discovery—like a child.”

Beard asked to see her work—an intimidating request for any young artist, but all the more nerve-wracking because Diallo admits she had never shown her work to anyone. Beard immediately recognized her talent, and invited her to join him on his next photoshoot for Pirelli in Botswana. On location, Beard showed her everything she needed to know to be a photographer. The most important lesson? Learning to let go and let the art happen: “You set up 50, 60 precent, ensure the set or the subject is the right person. But then after you can’t just control everything, you have to let go. And the space where [I] let go…the pictures that were the best ones were the pictures where [I] let go.”

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“Stay Strong,” 2009. “You have it,” Peter Beard told Delphine Diallo upon seeing this photograph. Image courtesy of the artist.

Yet there were other formative experiences on the Botswana shoot as well: Diallo objected to what she saw as the “oversexualization of the male gaze,” particularly of the black female body, which she felt in Peter’s work and in the fashion industry in general. She also said there was editorial friction between her and the Pirelli production staff, who dismissed her as one more of Peter Beard’s pretty models (he has a reputation…). As painful as the dismissal was, it motivated Diallo to take her life in a new direction: she would move to New York on an artist’s visa, and devote herself to empowering and celebrating female beauty and energy—simply put, the Divine Feminine.

“The patriarchy is dividing us too much,” Diallo notes. We only see three or four archetypes of women represented in our society, whereas Diallo wants to “access many dimensions”: nature, humility, transcendentalism, emotionality, childish whimsy, and anger. “The woman is a real subject, because she is changing, she is transforming, she is sensitive, she is very emotional, she might be the most emotional creature on Earth. And to be able to photograph it, to be able to see her transformation…it’s not actually being shown that much in photography.”

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A large collage Diallo and a few assistants created then photographed as the splash page for the article “Everywhere & Nowhere: What It’s Really Like to be Black and Work in Fashion,” by Lindsay Peoples Wagner for New York Magazine, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Diallo works across a spectrum of styles, shooting street and documentary photography, portraiture, and fine artwork. When Diallo does take on commercial projects (she has worked for such publications at Time, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Essence and more), she prefers assignments that meet her mission, or at least endeavors to lend a more thoughtful interpretation of the female body.

In her more artistic pursuits, Diallo captures the Divine Feminine in photographs of women in quiet repose; other times, she explores the Divine Feminine through the lens of religious iconography, mythology, or symbols of energy that are ancient and universal: she’ll paint her models with spirals, yin yangs or “the third eye.” Surveying the work, I thought, some of these portraits of feminine energy were quite literal. But then I asked myself: how does one capture something as elusive yet ever-present as the Divine Feminine—especially in photography? Abstraction seems an obvious choice for capturing “energy” (think the Action painters), but then how does one differentiate feminine and masculine energy on a canvas, without falling right into gendered language that reinforces sexist divisions and stereotypes? Whereas abstraction would deny the female body, Diallo and her models reify the female body as the vessel of our unique feminine energy; Female Empowerment occurs in the performance of the Divine Feminine.

Diallo - Photo Collage
“Decolonized,” 2018, featuring a photograph by Diallo at center, framed by collaged antique and vintage photos and clippings. Image courtesy of the artist.

In more coded imagery and language, Diallo’s collages were some of the best work I saw in her studio: richly layered works that do beg comparison to Peter Beard, although with a decidedly more feminist tone. Unlike Beard, Diallo maintains, she “treats collage in a transformative way…[my] use of ink and narrative is totally different.” Many works also address the racial legacy of African colonialism, a topic of which Americans are too ignorant, Diallo laments. But addressing racism, she says, is not her primary concern, because the Divine Feminine transcends all: “I am a woman,” she declares. “That’s the first struggle.”

Diallo - Photo Collage2
“Decolonized,” 2018. At center is an antique colonial photograph, in which white siblings pose with their instruments, while their parents hold up the backdrop. Diallo has framed the photo with images of African masks and statuary. Image courtesy of the artist.

Diallo and I talked for over two hours—well, I should say she talked, and I listened. She covered quite a lot in those two hours, and admittedly not always in a comprehensible way; it is not always easy to translate a visual message into a verbal one, especially for artists discussing their own work. “My brain is a collage brain,” she said at one point. It wasn’t until I was walking back to the subway from her studio that I realized what a self-actualized statement that was: Diallo had laid out snippets of her life and worldview—a shuffled deck of scraps that did not make perfect sense at first. But as we spoke, she tested, contrasted, and rearranged the pieces. By the time I left her studio, I had a clear vision of the collage: she had artfully composed a portrait of herself, quite without my noticing.

Diallo - Surrealist Collage
“Killing the Minotaur,” 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Spring 2019 Auction Roundup: a ‘KAWS’ for cheer?

Let’s get one thing straight: any market that generates over $7 billion a year is doing fine. But, as has been the case the past few years, there’s mixed results reflected in the auction seasons: there are statistics we can examine in the spring 2019 sales that speak to bullish growth, enthusiasm and collector confidence; and there are other statistics that speak to a slowly waning art market. This fickle data requires collectors, advisors and appraisers to pay close attention to the nuances of each auction, and the fluctuations in each artist’s own market.

The nearly 2,000 lots offered this past May by the three major houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips) grossed just over $2 billion; the equivalent sales last May brought in more than $2.8 billion—a gloomy decline. Another ominous statistic: Sotheby’s, the only publicly traded auction house of the three major houses, reported a 2018 income of $108.6 million, down from $118.8 million in 2017. For the first quarter of 2019, the auction house declared a loss of $7.1 million—worse than its $6.5 million loss for the equivalent period last year. One can perhaps attribute Sotheby’s decline to poor business decisions or structural issues, resulting in their recent decision to sell the company back to private hands for $3.7 billion. But one wonders if this regression is reflective of the secondary market as a whole (as privately held entities, Christie’s and Phillips do not report their profits and losses).

Another interesting fact: the number of guaranteed lots declined at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s from this time last year. In his New York Times preview of the spring sales, Scott Reyburn noted that this reflects seller confidence in the market; that these sellers don’t need the guarantees, and are confident enough to take on the risk that the good ol’ fashion auction model is all about. But seen another way: could the lack of guarantees reflect hesitation on the part of third-party guarantors—including the (possibly cash-strapped) auction houses themselves?

When we start to break down the sales themselves, the statistics get more nuanced. The “less good” news first: the Impressionist and Modern market generally continues to slow. Christie’s and Sotheby’s New York Imp and Mod day sales each sold below their aggregate estimates, respectively selling only 72% of their lots. Sotheby’s New York’s Imp and Mod evening sale came in just under $350 million, with the lion’s share of the revenue coming from the highlight of the spring season: a spectacular, luminous painting from Claude Monet’s haystacks series, which sold for $110.7 million—the new record for any Impressionist work at auction.

Monet Haystacks
Claude Monet, Meules, 1890, sold for $110.7 million at Sotheby’s, setting the record for any Impressionist work.

Yet despite the record-setting Monet, and a general sell through rate of 91%, other statistics from the Sotheby’s evening sale paint a different picture: twenty-five lots (nearly half of the offerings) sold below their low estimates, and some highlight works failed to sell at all, such as William Bouguereau’s La Jeunesse de Bacchus (1884), which stalled at $18 million, below its $25 million low estimate. And while this recent Imp and Mod evening sale did top Sotheby’s equivalent sale from 2018 ($318 million), both auctions relied heavily on the income of one major masterpiece (in 2018, half of the revenue of the evening sale came from Amedeo Modigliani’s $157 million Nu couché sur le côte gauche. As any business owner (myself included) will tell you: it’s never healthy to have your income so unevenly reliant on one source.

Cezanne Still Life
Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et Fruits (Pitcher and Fruit), c. 1880s, sold at Christie’s for $59.3 million.

Speaking of blue-chip masterpieces: Christie’s Imp and Mod New York evening sale reached nearly $400 million ($50 million more than Sotheby’s), thanks in large part to the esteemed collection of the late Condé Nast juggernaut S.I. Newhouse, who passed away in 2017. Five artists alone accounted for more than $100 million of the Estate’s sales, including a $40 million Van Gogh landscape, and a Cézanne still life that was famously stolen in the 1970s and recovered in 1999, when Newhouse bought it at auction for $29.5 million. In their May sale, Christie’s sold it for $59.3 million.

As has been the case for many years, the news is better for the Postwar and Contemporary sales: the total sales for the three major houses was $1.214 billion. The gross revenue for the evening sales was $981 million, up 6.6% from the same sales last May. According to Artsy, this spring’s evening sales results were the biggest week for P&C auctions since November 2017 (which was greatly skewed by the $450 million sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi), and the best spring sales result since May 2015.

Koons - 1986 Rabbit
Jeff Koons’s Rabbit, 1986, broke David Hockney’s auction record for a living artist when it sold for $91.1 million at Christie’s.

Love him or hate him, the big headline-grabber of the week was Jeff Koons, whose Rabbit (1986) broke David Hockney’s recent auction record for a living artist when it sold for $91.1 million at Christie’s (Christie’s increase in buyer’s fees, introduced February 1, just tipped it past Hockney’s $90.2 million record). This work was also from the collection of S.I. Newhouse, and purchased by art dealer Robert E. Mnuchin on behalf of a client.

Bourgeois - 1997 Spider
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996-97, sold for $32.1 million, a new record for the artist.

The art market trend–or correction–for works by women and artists of color continued: Louise Bourgeois’s massive Spider sculpture (1996-97) sold in Christie’s evening sale for $32.1 million—a world record for the artist, and a new record for a contemporary sculpture by a female artist. If artist Dana Schutz’s market felt any fallout following the controversy around her Emmett Till painting in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, it appears to have recovered, with two back-to-back auction records: her 2009 painting Signing set a record of $980,000 at Phillips, only to be shattered a few hours later at Sotheby’s when Civil Planning (2004) burst past its $400,000 high estimate to sell for $2.42 million (backed by an irrevocable bid).

Other notable sales by women and/or artists of color this spring included British artist Cecily Brown’s Confessions of a Window Cleaner, which sold for $3.62 million at Sotheby’s New York evening sale, and British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Leave a Brick Under the Maple (2015), sold for 795,000 GBP (about $1 million) at Phillips London, almost double its high estimate. The latter’s market may be benefitting from her inclusion at the Ghanaian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, as well as a forthcoming retrospective at the Tate Britain next year.

Yiadom-Boakye Leave a Brick Under the Maple
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Leave a Brick Under the Maple (2015), sold for 795,000 GBP (about $1 million)

A record was also set for Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Compound Leaf, a self-portrait of the Nigerian-American on paper, which brought 471,000 GBP ($597,000) at Phillips London, well above its high estimate of 150,000 GBP ($191,000). And Tschabalala Self, the young African-American artist currently in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, set a new record when dozens of bidders competed for her 2015 collage Out of Body, ultimately selling for 371,250 GBP ($415,000).

Tschabalala - Out of Body
Tschabalala Self, Out of Body, 2015 (detail), broke a record for the young artist when it sold for 371,250 GBP ($415,000) at Christie’s.

It is remarkable that such recent works by young, trending artists are already coming up for auction, as galleries—and artists—struggle to keep up with the demand for fresh work. Some galleries have waiting lists for their hottest artists, and sellers are clearly willing to bypass galleries and put their works directly onto the secondary market, bringing prices that rival or even exceed gallery prices. Collectors are sometimes flipping their purchases after only a few a years: the seller of Odutola’s aforementioned Compound Leaf only acquired it in 2017, and a collector who bought Barkley L. Hendricks’s Yocks (1975) for $942,500 in May 2017, sold it this season for $3.74 million (against an estimate of $900–$1.2 million). This also speaks, however, to a still volatile and uncertain landscape for young artists who are not market-tested, and I urge collectors to make educated and measured decisions; we can learn lessons from artists like Jacob Kassay, whose auction market exploded rapidly between 2011–2013, and deflated just as quickly.

KAWS album.png
KAWS, The KAWS Album painting, 2005, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $14.8 million

The other much-discussed winner of the spring sales was the street artist known as KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly). KAWS has not usually been taken seriously by critics, but his Instagram-friendly and accessible art has bypassed the usual market trajectory of artistic success (i.e. through critics and curators); Scott Nussbaum, head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips, especially credits a young, emerging class of collectors from Asia for boosting KAWS’s market. Following a whopping $14.8 million sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this spring for The KAWS Album (2005)—a parody of the Beatles’ famous Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, with characters from The Simpsons—for the first time, all three major houses simultaneously included works by KAWS in their sales (19 works total). In these recent auctions, KAWS’s pieces continuously surpassed their estimates, including 2012’s The Walk Home, a large painting featuring SpongeBob SquarePants which sold at Phillips for an impressive $6 million, 10 times its low estimate of $600,000–a ‘KAWS’ for celebration (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). We’ll see what the fall sales have in store for him and the rest of the P&C market.

Until the next market report!

KAWS - The Walk Home
KAWS, The Walk Home, 2012, recently sold for $6 million at Phillips.