Knowledge vs. Wisdom: Using Mindfulness to Connect to Art

If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.

In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.

Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.

To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.

Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.

I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.

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Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1891-92, Oil on laminate cardboard, mounted on panel, 24 7/8 x 16 5/8 in. (63.2 x 42.2 cm). Collection of the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute.

I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.

Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.

I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.

A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.

“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.

In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.

In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.

In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.

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Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, 1892, oil on cardboard, 28 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches. Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.

In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.

I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.

And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!