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Exactly one year ago, the collector, dealer and sometime columnist Adam Lindemann was roundly criticised for an article he wrote in the New York Observer, in which he announced: “I’m not going to Art Basel Miami Beach this year. I’m through with it. It’s become a bit embarrassing, because why should I be seen rubbing elbows with all those scenesters, people who don’t even pretend they are remotely interested in art?”
In what he now says was a satire (he did indeed come to the fair), Lindemann exhorted those who care about contemporary art to “Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach” to “correct the ills of global art fairdom once and for all, and to send the dealers, the artists and especially the art-fair companies our message of protest”.
In the months since, however, others have started to express doubts about the state of the contemporary art world. Recently, a number of art-world figures have broken ranks, claiming that the high prices being spent on art invite trophy-hunters and oligarch investors, not serious appreciation.
Although there have always been complaints about the pernicious influence of the market on art, and the ease with which rich patrons sway taste, this was counterbalanced by the critical discourse about the cultural value and meaning of art. Today, the noise around the market has amplified, while independent critical debate is diminishing. “Art and money have slept together since the beginning of time. It’s the same as it ever was, only more so—there are more people with more money, spending more money more publicly,” says the critic Jerry Saltz.
The Art Newspaper
Since reopening in 2007, the New Museum has raised a lot of hackles. At every level of the art world, people express chagrin and frustration with the place. Complaints always start with the terrible exhibition spaces in the new building and usually proceed from there to the idea that the museum is playing a zero-sum game of Art World Survivor: trying to outthink, outplay, and outdo other local museums. The common conception is that the institution is more about strategy than vision. I love the place, but there are problems.
New York Magazine
Two weeks ago, I went to an evening in New York in honour of the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham…There was a form to all of it, but in the moment of performance it was ungraspable. Things were in constant motion, like overlapping ripples on a rainy pond. It was mesmerising – and hard to know where to look and who to follow…I meant to stay an hour, and remained for almost four. Sometimes I’d find myself taking respite beside a stage void of dancers, a visual equivalent to Cage’s silent work, finding myself looking at the clear patch of floor as if it might tell me something. I bumped into a few friends, but we mostly kept our distance, not wanting to break one another’s mood. As well as watching, there was space and time to reflect. The best art always returns you to yourself.
A part of me wanted to keep this experience to myself and not write about it. When it was over, I walked into the evening with a kind of aimless purpose – almost tearful, though it’s hard to say exactly why. The experience was complicated, a relationship between setting and dance, music and acoustics, the occasion itself and everyday life beyond…
The art world is in crisis. First there was too much money; now there isn’t enough. Newspapers and print media are in crisis. Theory is in crisis (does anyone have time to do more than look at the pictures in magazines nowadays?). Curating is in crisis. The professional critic is in crisis (they are dropping like flies in north America). Artists – well, they’re always in crisis, drama queens that they are.
But crisis is good. Crisis is sexy. Crisis shakes you up. And if it changes our habits when it comes to looking at art, reading about it, or even making it, then that’s probably good, too. Artists, if they’re any good, are engaged in a war against habit, complacency and indifference.
We’ve heard a lot about how the economy is bad for the arts, but the current downturn brings with it some upsides:
For contemporary art: With less hope of easy sales, artists could refocus on making difficult, complex, less-marketable art. If you can’t sell, you can’t sell out. We might see fewer attractive paintings with a veneer of substance (Peter Doig might fade from view) and more works that directly address the substance of life (the films of Tacita Dean could take up the slack).
For museum exhibitions: A crash-chastened audience could learn to reject glitz (the flashing lights of Leo Villareal installed at the National Gallery, for instance) in favor of substance. Bling is out on Wall Street. Maybe it will fall from fashion in museums, too.
For auction sales: With no prospect of breaking records — they were all set in an inflated era — collectors will have less incentive to overpay for things. That means fewer minor artworks (that $104 million “Boy With a Pipe,” painted by an immature Picasso) getting attention just for their sticker prices.
For artists: Empty retail, office and industrial buildings will likely mean cheaper studios. (Look at New York in the 1970s, and its great SoHo scene.)
For museum collections (1): As financial bubbles pop, speculators may stop investing in the art market, which would bring its prices back to earth. Those lower prices would help museums stretch their acquisition funds.
For museum collections (2): When companies retrench, they tend to ditch their art collections. Those often end up in museums, such as when Altria gave its collection to the Whitney last year.
For museum buildings: Could the crash mean the end of architectural elephantiasis? Museum expansions often do more harm than good: The long process of making them happen can distract from artistic priorities, and once they’re done, they turn museum visits into marathons. What visitor can take in all of the Museum of Modern Art, at its post-expansion scale?
For us: With the crash, things of the mind and “spirit” — art among them — could start replacing wealth and goods.
Art magazines operate in a sphere of journalism that knows none of the rules of logic, grammar, coherence or entertainment value that generally prevail in the world of the published. To get published in an art magazine you need to follow criteria that are almost the total opposite of what you need to write for general publications. Anything that might interest or enlighten the general reader – or any reader – is to be ruthlessly avoided.
This is why there is almost no crossover between such magazines and the mainstream press. But, amazingly, there has in recent years been a feeding frenzy in the bizarre media subculture of art magazines. The vogue for art has apparently convinced many publishing titans that there’s money to be had in art fairs. What with all the idiots who’ve been buying art (until recently that is), there must surely be a market for an idiot’s art magazine?
ArtReview, for example, having gone through innumerable changes of editor and style, now features big celebrity interviews that treat artists as if they were not so much gods as something much greater than gods – say, reality television stars. There’s also one, I believe, called Art World (ugh) while Modern Painters has intensified what was always a fairly celebrity-struck gloss.
Other magazines have adapted to the frenzied popularity of art without entirely losing their souls. Frieze has obviously had a massive boost since its publishers founded an art fair. This is one that I actually wrote for. I’ve recently been reading it again – and have been amused by its funny pedantry. A piece I was looking at last night cited the old children’s television programme Why Don’t You? and some intern had actually checked the dates the series ran. Who knew it was on the air until 1995? And who says you learn nothing from art magazines?
I’m relieved that I haven’t needed to fork out more than I have on magazines during a period of intense contemporary art research. Google goes a long way. One journal I have enjoyed looking at, however, is Afterall. This magazine is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary and I was pleasantly surprised that it kept me diverted during a train journey yesterday.
Afterall is the very opposite of the slick, ugly new breed of mags that try to feed off art’s perceived glamour. It publishes essays rather than interviews, and the essays do try to explore real ideas. I found an article on the return of the “spiritual” in art pertinent and provocative. It pointed out something I hadn’t quite noticed, that the vogue for the gothic in art so visible in a show like Mythologies at Haunch of Venison is related to the anti-Darwinian religious resurgence in society. Afterall seems aware that art exists within a larger world. That’s much more worthwhile than offering pathetic secondary access to a glamorous “art world” that doesn’t exist.
Last year Artforum magazine, one of the country’s leading contemporary art monthlies, felt as fat as a phone book, with issues running to 500 pages, most of them gallery advertisements. The current issue has just over 200 pages. Many ads have disappeared.
The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.
Anyone with memories of recessions in the early 1970s and late ’80s knows that we’ve been here before, though not exactly here. There are reasons to think that the present crisis is of a different magnitude: broader and deeper, a global black hole. Yet the same memories will lend a hopeful spin to that thought: as has been true before, a financial scouring can only be good for American art, which during the present decade has become a diminished thing.
The diminishment has not, God knows, been quantitative. Never has there been so much product. Never has the American art world functioned so efficiently as a full-service marketing industry on the corporate model.
Every year art schools across the country spit out thousands of groomed-for-success graduates, whose job it is to supply galleries and auction houses with desirable retail. They are backed up by cadres of public relations specialists — otherwise known as critics, curators, editors, publishers and career theorists — who provide timely updates on what desirable means.
Many of those specialists are, directly or indirectly, on the industry payroll, which is controlled by another set of personnel: the dealers, brokers, advisers, financiers, lawyers and — crucial in the era of art fairs — event planners who represent the industry’s marketing and sales division. They are the people who scan school rosters, pick off fresh talent, direct careers and, by some inscrutable calculus, determine what will sell for what.
Not that these departments are in any way separated; ethical firewalls are not this industry’s style. Despite the professionalization of the past decade, the art world still likes to think of itself as one big Love Boat. Night after night critics and collectors scarf down meals paid for by dealers promoting artists, or museums promoting shows, with everyone together at the table, schmoozing, stroking, prodding, weighing the vibes.
And where is art in all of this? Proliferating but languishing. “Quality,” primarily defined as formal skill, is back in vogue, part and parcel of a conservative, some would say retrogressive, painting and drawing revival. And it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song.
The ideas don’t vary much. For a while we heard a lot about the radicalism of Beauty; lately about the subversive politics of aestheticized Ambiguity. Whatever, it is all market fodder. The trend reached some kind of nadir on the eve of the presidential election, when the New Museum trotted out, with triumphalist fanfare, an Elizabeth Peyton painting of Michelle Obama and added it to the artist’s retrospective. The promotional plug for the show was obvious. And the big political statement? That the art establishment voted Democratic.
Art in New York has not, of course, always been so anodyne an affair, and will not continue to be if a recession sweeps away such collectibles and clears space for other things. This has happened more than once in the recent past. Art has changed as a result. And in every case it has been artists who have reshaped the game.
New York Times
“New China” (1965), colored pencil on paper, by Peter Saul, the subject of a retrospective this year at the Orange County Museum of Art in California. Ken Showell/George Adams Gallery
In the past eight years American art and American politics had a lot in common. Both favored big money, insularity and retrograde conservatism. Now come changes.
In politics the old order was voted out. In the art world money is running out. Auctions are iffy. Galleries are closing. Museums are in slash-back mode. So 2009 could be 1989 all over again. Important to remember: The last crash opened the art world’s tightly guarded gates to a wave of upstart talent and radical new ways of thinking. That was great. It could happen again.
Meanwhile here are some notable events from 2008, a year that may go into the history books as the first catastrophic fall, but also the first vital correction, for art in the new century.
A MET LEADER
Thomas Campbell was named the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s not well known, but what’s known is good: excellent curator, fine scholar, nice man. His job will be to firm up an institution that has come to rely too heavily on the lulling allure of imported luxe. He will want to find ways to make the museum’s permanent collection galleries look like special exhibitions: smart, fabulous, constantly changing shows, spiced with maybe a few sexy loans. The Met’s Chinese galleries have set a sterling model. If he will trust in the imagination of his curators, and let them go nuts once in a while, he’ll do fine.
LOS ANGELES MUSEUMS, PLUGGED IN AND ALMOST UNPLUGGED
Michael Govan, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has trusted imagination, and that paid off. The new Broad collection display is a boilerplate bore, and the museum still looks all over the place. But this year it also felt wired into the city around it, with a feisty show of young Chicano artists, a (tiny) first-time African display and reinstalled pre-Columbian galleries. Jorge Pardo’s design for those galleries has problems, but it got people talking and looking. People were also talking about the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, because it may disappear. It’s a funny place, with its internationalist sheen and market-driven program occasionally interrupted by inspired, could-only-happen-here shows. The city needs a contemporary museum, no question. But is this the right one?
When Chinese contemporary art went international a decade ago, it had a manic energy and few rules. Today the gallery scene in Beijing is all but identical to that in New York: same spaces, same hype, same percentage of bad product. Far more interesting are new finds of old art — bronzes, ceramics, sculptures, entire cultures — coming out of Chinese soil. Provincial museums are experimenting with fresh ways to exhibit the material effectively, the biggest challenge being how, or whether, to make discoveries like tomb murals, too fragile to be moved, accessible.
Indian contemporary art went at record auction prices, even as its best-selling artist, M. F. Husain, remained in exile. Mr. Husain, 93, left India for Dubai two years ago to avoid lawsuits and personal threats from religious nationalists who accused him, a Muslim, of painting blasphemous nude images of Hindu goddesses. In May an Indian court dismissed obscenity charges, though the situation remains volatile. Coincidentally three paintings by Mr. Husain that hung in the lobby of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai were destroyed in last month’s terrorist siege.
Judiciously scaled exhibitions of two artists too rarely seen in the United States were season highlights: “Poussin and Nature” at the Met, and the Peter Saul retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art in California. Poussin turned Classicism into Romanticism, and gave Gustave Courbet — the subject of his own T. rex of a Met survey — a target to shoot at. Mr. Saul, our most scathing and elusive history painter, tackles global politics and personal weirdness with the same awful relish. He might well have invented Rod R. Blagojevich.
William Eggleston took us on an acid-trip tour of the Deep South in his Whitney retrospective. The curator Okwui Enwezor offered a morgue-cold view of the modern world in “Archive Fever” at the International Center of Photography. Both cast an unshakable spell.
Strong exhibitions of work largely from the 1970s by Judith Bernstein, Lorraine O’Grady, Barbara T. Smith and Martha Wilson demonstrated that art emerging from early feminism was and is The Source.
A HOLE IN THE FLOOR
For his show titled “You” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Urs Fischer destroyed the gallery floor with jackhammers, then excavated the earth beneath. Gallery visitors climbed down into an open pit. Footing was uncertain and sharp rocks poked up. Who knew what pollutants lurked? This was art after the bottom fell out.
ADIEU TO AN ALTERNATIVE
Triple Candie, Manhattan’s one truly alternative alternative space, closed. Located in Harlem, it began with solid, traditional shows. By the end it was showing anonymous work by real artists and signed work by fictional artists. In the process it exploded the meanings of creativity, history, authenticity and value. And it gave lessons in advance on how art and artists can survive, even thrive, in hard times, which of course they will.
New York Times
A few months ago, a mystery began blossoming on the streets of New York. All around town, on hundreds of hoardings, bus shelters, phone kiosks and half a dozen billboards in high-traffic areas, a simple white-on-black phrase teased passersby: “See The World Through Ana’s Eyes.” What did it mean? The sheer omnipresence of the ads suggested it was the work of a movie studio, but no forthcoming releases seemed related. Workers in offices near the billboards quizzed each other and came up blank. Amateur sleuths went online to share theories, to no avail.
Then, late last month, the stark ads were replaced with reproductions of paintings composed of bursting, wild colours, and a new tag line: “See the world through Ana Tzarev’s eyes.” Oh, well then: Mystery solved.
Wait – Ana who?
Ana Tzarev is a 72-year-old painter, and though almost nobody has heard of her, she is about to become the first person in New York – indeed, perhaps in the history of the art world – to have her work carry a price tag of a million dollars without first ever having sold a single piece of art.
The last solo artist to splash his work so flagrantly around town was the Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert, who threw up billboards of his ethereal man-and-animal-communing pictures to promote his Nomadic Museum project in the spring of 2005. But that venture wasn’t designed to sell work, at least not directly: Colbert used it to interest collectors, who were invited back to his small East Village studio for actual sales.
Tzarev is a retail animal. Born Marija Guina in Croatia, she married a fellow by the name of Robert Chandler and moved with him to New Zealand in the mid-fifties, where she raised a family and began studying dress design.
The couple opened a series of luxury department stores, where Tzarev served as creative director.
In 1987, they sold the chain and retired to Monaco and Thailand, where Marija Chandler began painting and adopted her mother’s name as an artistic pseudonym. With the proceeds from the sale of the business, their sons Richard and Christopher Chandler founded Sovereign Global Investment, where operations in emerging markets made them both billionaires.
Using a multimillion-dollar loan from Richard for start-up costs, the Ana Tzarev Gallery throws open its doors today on a prime spot along West 57th Street. The same building houses dealers including Marian Goodman, who handles Gerhard Richter, Tacita Dean and Jeff Wall. Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton are a stone’s throw away.
The 14,000-square-feet space, which goes all the way through to 56th Street, was recently renovated for an estimated $3-to-$4-million by the architect James Harb, who has also done work for galleries, restaurants, Barney’s New York and Fendi. The gallery faces the street with a two-storey glass front, through which pedestrians can see Tzarev’s large-scale work, including a 2-by-4-metre canvas titled Annunciation, which hangs above the reception desk on the main floor. The work depicts two floating rust-coloured figures, holding masks away from their faces, against a vibrant blue background. (At $700,000 [U.S.], it is the most expensive single-canvas work in the gallery, other multipanel works are more.) Tzarev loves colours that pop: hot pinks, electric blues, surreal summertime greens.
Most of the 57 paintings in the opening show, entitled A Journey of Discovery, were executed over the last few years, and offer what Tzarev calls “postcards” from her travels around the world. There are women in African villages devastated by AIDS, a Japanese silk trader Tzarev used to patronize when she bought material for Chandler House, and Dogon dancers she saw perform on a trip to Africa.
Tzarev, who has had no formal training, cites inspiration and influence by 17th- and 18th-century Japanese woodblock print artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, Ogata Korin and Kitagawa Utamaro, but the influence of African artists and Impressionists such as Matisse is also evident.
“Ana’s work is a little more traditional, which is one of the reasons we chose this neighbourhood,” acknowledged Reed McMillan, the gallery’s executive director.
“This is just not the work you’d find in Chelsea.”
Indeed, Tzarev flouts the identity crisis that painting underwent with the advent of photography in the middle of the 19th century, seeing art as a legitimate outlet for the same sorts of stories offered on nature- and anthropology-oriented cable channels. In a published introduction to her work, she writes that the same hunger for knowledge that led Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and Edmund Hillary to open up the world leads her “to paint more distant people and their customs, and through doing this I hope to make them familiar, not only to me, but to all who search for and delight in the differences of our combined human family.”
In an e-mail from Phuket, Thailand, Tzarev wrote to me: “Because of my travels, I developed great respect for old diverse cultures and through my art I tried to preserve them for posterity. They are postcards for future generations.”
The appearance on the scene of Tzarev has the potential to upend many art-world conventions: that artists are best introduced to the public when they are young; that they must be part of a creative community; and that the value of art stems in part from a body of critical analysis that grows around the work.
Tzarev, a canny marketer, has already self-published a series of lavish coffee-table books of her art. A monograph is planned, and a text was commissioned from the British art historian Edward Lucie-Smith, who references Warhol, Bacon, Gauguin, Pissarro and Cézanne, and compares Tzarev’s work to that of van Gogh and the German expressionists known as Die Brucke.
He writes, in part: “Ana Tzarev is a dynamic and visionary painter because she has a constant desire to get it all down, to recreate what she encounters in her own visual language. Contemporary painters have rather lost this gift, which was possessed in full measure by the Post-Impressionists and early Modernists. Her work reverts in spirit to an earlier and more heroic time.”
True enough, but the critics who are not on Tzarev’s payroll have yet to weigh in.
Globe and Mail
In Artopia, art is gender-neutral. This does not mean we deny that women, for one reason or another, cannot offer art that deals with what are sometimes called “women’s issues.” And men can deal with “women’s issues” too, or for that matter, topics deemed male or manly by our weird little culture: sports, war, guns and cars (as if women were immune to these). Nor do we need to ban particularly womanly subjects such as birth or menopause. In fact, participant perspectives are always worth having, as I think Judy Chicago proved ages ago, with both her Dinner Party and The Birth Project.
The point is that unless you are ridiculous enough to hold to the old-fashioned notion that art itself is gender-specific (i.e., specific to males), it behooves us to look at the art itself. Some men have mothers, wives, daughters and want to know what goes on inside of their heads. If we need art at all — and we do, now more than ever — we cannot afford to avoid more than half of the art produced, simply because men have not produced it.
Statistically, more male than female artists are famous, but this is merely documentation of oppression, or at best the sociological facts. In our culture, little girls are expected to be “artistic.” In spite of this, some of them go on to art school and actually develop the notion they can be full-fledged culturistadors, on a par with Michelangelo and van Gogh.
So the short answer to my question is that women artists want to be treated fairly as artists. Women want success.
Let us leave aside for the moment the definition of success that equates it with commerce. Even what we might call spiritual success in art is dependent upon support systems and supportive persons, but at this late date, when feminism is thought to have won out, there are few fully developed support systems and support persons for women artists, even among women. Show me the art dealer who represents more than one or two women artists; show me the art critic, male or female, who writes about more than one or two female art stars; show me the collector who puts her money where her gender is.
I came across a great rant about the art market the other day. It’s by Damien Hirst and it appears in the catalogue of the exhibition In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, held at Tate Britain in 2004.
Hirst’s relations with dealers, money and the Golden Calf in general have been big news this autumn, what with his sidestepping his dealers, Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian, to auction his latest works directly at Sotheby’s. And the future of the big, beautiful art market is now of course as dubious as every other economic fact. So I can’t resist introducing Hirst as guest blogger today. His remarks made in 2004 surely reveal a lot about his real feelings about White Cube and Gagosian.
Here’s a highlight: ” … Art is about life and the art world is about money although the buyers and sellers, the movers and shakers, the money men will tell you anything to not have you realise their real motive is cash, because if you realise – that they would sell your granny to Nigerian sex slave traders for 50 pence (10 bob) and a packet of woodbines – then you’re not going to believe the other shit coming out of their mouths that’s trying to get you to buy the garish shit they’ve got hanging on the wall in their posh shops … Most of the time they are all selling shit to fools, and it’s getting worse.”
So there you have it – the last word on the art market from the man who deconstructed it and made millions into the bargain.