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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“New York Spirit,” 2012, image courtesy of the artist.
“Highness,” 2011, image courtesy of the artist.
“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.”
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.
“Yomi, The Divine Feminine,” 2018, image courtesy of the artist.
“Self-Portrait as Kali,” a collaboration with Indian body-painting artist Geeta. Image courtesy of the artist.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Miami-based multimedia artist Jillian Mayer’s work explores our fraught relationship to technology, and its effects on our lives, bodies and identities. There is a wonderful yet unsettling tension in Mayer’s art thanks to her acute use of irony. The artist masterfully employs her media to enable our addiction to and fusion with technology, whilst also critiquing its artifice and falsity. Sometimes the work invokes cautionary fear; sometimes it invokes absurdist humor. But overall, Mayer’s art holds up a mirror to the viewer, presenting him/her with an existential challenge: do you succumb to and participate in the digitization of humanity? Or do you—can you?—resist?
Mayer’s sculptural furniture constructions, for instance, are designed to better prop up our bodies when we’re engaged with our devices. Of course, the glitter and color of these utilitarian sculptures entices and encourages phone interaction (especially selfies), yet the works are mockingly called Slumpies—a reminder of the deleterious effect technology is having on our bodies.
Jillian Mayer, Slumpie, in use at the Perez Art Museum, Miami. Photo courtesy of the artist
Jillian Mayer, Slumpie 32 – Privacy. Photo courtesy of the artist
In her project 400 Nudes (2014), the artist staged and re-shot women’s nude selfies that she had found on the internet, merging and manipulating them into composites with her head on other women’s bodies. But Mayer then re-uploaded her own doctored images onto the web, thus participating in the consumption of these images (for a primarily male audience). This gesture adds an extra layer of complexity to the series: Mayer is contributing more “noise” to the artifice and falsity that the internet represents, but simultaneously satirizes men’s consumption of these images—little do they know this is an art project! These aren’t real! Joke’s on them!…Or is the joke on us? Is the subversive manipulation of the images irrelevant if the consumers can’t tell the difference (or don’t care)? It is this double-edged tension that pervades Mayer’s whole body of work, and makes her art very powerful.
Some of Mayer’s most effective works are her videos: of particular note is the YouTube hit I am Your Grandma (2011), a music video message from the young artist to her unborn grandchildren. The Dadaist assemblage of crazy costumes is weird, funny, and affective. In the artist’s own words, “the work challenges notions of mortality, celebrity, and the universal impetus for creation and legacy. By placing the video in a public forum (YouTube) Mayer conducts a phenomenological study of why people ultimately share their personal feelings with anonymous strangers.”
Also be sure to see her collaboration with Luther Campbell, aka Uncle Luke from the rap group 2 Live Crew, called The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke. The film is described as a modern adaption of a 1962 French short film called La Jetee (The Jetty), and depicts a mostly fictionalized autobiographical narrative of Campbell through Mayer’s installations and artistic vision. Uncle Luke is excellent in it!
Mayer currently has a solo exhibition, Timeshare, at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery (on view through May 11), which will travel to the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE in the fall of 2019 (preceded by an artist residency for Mayer at Bemis this summer). Mayer is co-director of Borscht Corp, a non-profit film and art collaborative in Miami, and is represented by David Castillo Gallery, Miami.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Spring/Break.
Scope Art Fair
I can be a nerd for art theory. The most common of these philosophical head-scratchers is the question of whether there is good art or bad art. Who are the arbiters of taste? That is, who decides what art is good, and what is bad? Isn’t beauty in the eyes of the beholder, one might ask?
Here are my short answers: yes, there’s good art and bad art. The people who decide what’s good and bad are the experts. What makes them experts? They spend a lot of time studying that thing. This goes for a variety of fields: I can’t tell the difference between a real 1961 250 GT California Ferrari and the fiberglass prop they used in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I bet Jerry Seinfeld can. Ergo, those with limited exposure to art may not appreciate the difference between a splashy abstract giclée painting sold at Ikea, vs. a genuine mid-century abstract painting from an avant-gardist of the New York School.
But in the end, that is OK. Because art should be accessible—both intellectually and financially. A broad range from the decorative copyists up to the museum-quality masterpieces means there is always something for everyone. And art experts should do well to remember that, because we have a reputation for being—what’s the word?—ah yes, pretentious and elitist assholes. As an art advisor, I love educating clients, and getting them excited about good art (so yes, I think taste can be learned through exposure). But ultimately, if they’re unconvinced, I’d rather see a Thomas Kinkade on their wall than nothing at all.
That’s all to say that, in this expert’s opinion, much of the offerings at Scope Art Fair this year were schlock. A fair amount of work struck me as ornamental, without much to say. In our era of social media, there has been a rise in Instagram art—works that reproduce well on your 2 x 4-inch screen, but don’t have much substance behind them. But hey, if that’s what works for you, that’s OK. To borrow from the lexicon of addiction, Scope is like a “gateway” art fair; it’s a novice’s dosage of art to which you will eventually develop an immunity. And that’s when you’ll be ready to pack your bowl with a Spring/Break or an Armory show. And if we continue with the extended metaphor, as an art advisor, I want to get everyone high! So I’d rather the Scope audience get excited about this art than be bewildered by the more experimental fare at Spring/Break and write off the arts altogether.
That said, there were some diamonds in the rough (or buds in the oregano? Nope, I’m done with drug metaphors). Below is a tasting. Bon appétit!
Fifth generation quilter Phyllis Stephens updates the African-American tradition of quilt-making with fresh but nostalgic urban subject matter.
Dutch artist Hans van Bentem revives glass and porcelain traditions from around the world, merging pop and antique imagery into imaginative new creations. The pieces are interchangeable, allowing for an ever-interactive and evolving sculpture.
Mike Stilkey‘s clever repurposing of unwanted books creates artworks that interact dynamically with our lived space. According to his gallerist, Stilkey has become a favorite commissioned artist for libraries.
Trevor Guthrie‘s beautiful charcoal drawings hint at eerie and unsettling narratives.
For me, the thing that saves Laurence de Valmy‘s Impressionist Instagram works from being gimmicky is the real art historical dialogue happening in the comments.
Very impressive photorealistic snapshots of New York life by Yigal Ozeri. Hard to believe it’s painted.
Fair-goers had a great time trying on Sarah Sitkin‘s highly realistic body suits. It was remarkable how transformative it was to those who tried on a suit, but the pieces also remind us that our sense of self is not defined by our skin.
According to Laura Jane Petelko‘s website, her series “Soft Stories” was inspired by retreats in the Canadian wilderness for the “furries” subculture. With artist and designer Sara Wood providing the costumes, Petelko’s images convey a longing for connection and intimacy in a bleak and indifferent landscape.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Scope.
For most people “spring break” might conjure images of drunk frat boys and sorority girls at Daytona Beach, but for the art world it is one of the fresher and more experimental art fairs you’ll experience during Armory week. The talent tends to be more emergent to mid-career, with all its positive and negative connotations: some works still have the undercooked whiff of a recent MFA degree, but many also show greater ingenuity than some of the commercial crap you’ll find at the grander fairs. The best part of Spring/Break, though, is that many artists are onsite to discuss the work, which is my absolute favorite thing to do. And to boot, the art of emerging artists tends to be very affordable! So many wins all around. (Note that unfortunately, I did not have time to get through the whole fair—especially when I stop to talk to each artist for a half an hour—so there is surely more great work that I don’t cover below.)
The theme of this year’s fair was Fact and Fiction. In the case of Lulu Meng and Naomi Okubo, they explored the fantasies and falsities of fairytales in a joint installation of their respective work. In Meng’s work, dome-shaped cases have two-way mirrors, which, when a migrating interior light switches on, reveal an image inside each case. The images within allude to fairytale narratives, but the fragmented display disrupts the narrative, and draws attention to the imperfection of memory (the series of little display pods and wires itself mimics brain cells). Hanging from the ceiling, Okubo’s double-sided paintings feature the artist in classic fairytale stories, with mirrors on the reverse side bearing quotes. But these enchanted fables are not what they seem: the paintings have sinister overtones, and the quotes on the back are unsettling variants of fairytale excerpts (Mirror mirror on the wall, please tell me who I am…). As I discussed with Lulu, both artists feel—and I wholeheartedly agree—that fairytale narratives disenfranchise and delude girls, compromising our identities well into womanhood.
Another delightful installation was the room curated by artists Jennifer McCoy, Kevin McCoy and Jennifer Dalton. The “TV Guide” theme of the room was somewhat tenuous for some works, but the living room arrangement was curated with choice art nonetheless. The crowd pleaser of the room was Dalton’s Hello, I’m (2015), a series of ten sticker dispensers, bestowing visitors with various custom-made phrases to match their mood, such as “wearing the wrong shoes,” “enjoying proximity to wealth,” and the one I chose—”in my element”! I enjoyed a lovely conversation with Jennifer McCoy about the glass sculptures she constructs with her husband Kevin, casting glass from broken shards of fancy stemware and crystal. The sculptures could be read as either the detritus of a wild, decadent party, or they can be interpreted more darkly, as artifacts of an as-yet-to-happen sociopolitical revolution. I can’t but help to see the latter.
I had an interesting conversation with artist Melissa Maddonni Haims about her knit-wrapped trophies. Melissa has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disorder that she feels is not adequately discussed in our society. With her two-sided trophy sculptures, Haims celebrates our complex psychology, embracing the idea that anyone can hit highs and lows and come out the other side. The front side of the yellow trophy awards the owner as “super sunshiney”; when the top ornament is showing you her rear, the trophy is for “most miserable.” The sculptures are very affordable–and she takes commissions!
I spoke with artist Chris Cohen about his highly personal work, exploring the fact and fiction of family narratives, history and memory. Working from his own family albums, the artist remakes portraits and candid shots of relatives to mine his own fraught relationship to his highly religious family. Aptly titled “White Noise,” curator John Ros installed the work in an intimate living room setting.
The last piece I’ll address at length is an ambitious and beautiful project by Irish artist and animator David O’Reilly. When I looked up O’Reilly, I learned that he has an expansive studio practice that covers works in the entertainment industry, music industry, television and gaming (the most recognizable project to me was that O’Reilly created the animation sequences in Spike Jonze’s Her, with that little punky marshmallow puff). For Spring/Break, curator Yve Yang showed a trailer for O’Reilly’s Everything, a “video game” that isn’t really played so much as lived and experienced. In the ultimate effort to bestow and spread concepts of cosmic empathy, in Everything you can literally be anything: a speck of pollen, a lion, a plant, a universe. You can create universes within universes. In our era of tribal politics, ravaged Mother Nature, and all around dark times, the karmic message at the heart of this game/art is deeply moving. Suffice it to say it’s better to experience the trailer than have me explain it to you (click image below). In fact, you can buy it or download for your computer or Nintendo Switch for the low cost of $15! Worth every penny.
Below are a few other works I enjoyed from the fair.
Some of the more political art at the fair…
The translucency of this large painting by Anthony Goicolea makes for a luminous effect.
I spoke with Chris Walla about this series of colorful bandanas, embroidered with models from gay magazines. Connecting to the quilting roots of the AIDS crisis, Walla crafted these in response to conservative political discourse during the Bush Jr. administration. Walla’s sculptures on view–phrases made from dangling ball-chains–are poignant and deliciously tactile. Check out my video of its beautiful movement.