What a Contemporary Art Auction Is Depends on What Your Definition of ‘Is’ Is
by April Lamm
(a version of this was published on 20 November 2009 in the German edition of VANITY FAIR)
It begins before the herd is seated, and the un-herded few leave before it is over. It is not the opera nor the ballet but a staged battlefield where artworks are stock: up, down, out. There is no intermission, the pace is relentless, a “piece” sells for millions or is “passed” on in a minute. None have qualms about coming late or leaving early: leaving after the piece you wanted is bid out of your range. I’m bored, honey, let’s go.
It’s a quick and quixotic theatre of inconspicuous consumption. It’s conceptual and concrete: the artworks are abstracted but real and the people who acquire them are real but abstracted, that is they are not real people but “the lady here,” “the gentleman there,” “you sir at the back,” “yes, madam, I see you here on the aisle.” They hold paddles with numbers but all that one can see from the back – from where I sit – are the backs of well-coiffed heads. P.T. Barnum raised high in the chancel, the auctioneer, sways dramatically right to left and left to right like an amateur singer in an off-off-Broadway musical. The ring-leader of the spectacle gestures mostly to the first few rows of heads, the bigwigs. Some are seen, while others are represented by the pew dressed in black gripping old-fashioned landlines. And they have names: “Alex can I have one more? It’s Alex now against the lady’s bid. Alex, Charles is against you and the lady now. The lady is out. Charles are you still in? Can you go one more? Now it’s not yours Alex, no, fair warning, I can sell it at…. Sold to Alex on the phone. Alex may I have your number? Paddle number 0010, thank you sir.”
It’s a battle between invisible parties who communicate via secret agents bidding on their behalf. They hide behind aliases: Alex and Charles or Daryl and Warren. To further complicate matters, Alex is not always Alex 0010, but Alex 434, 1757, or 658. Alex is legion. There’s the rush of the beginning, the boredom of the middle, the blurriness of the end. Was that good, bad, medium rare? After so many artworks – 64 lots at Sotheby’s and 75 lots at Christie’s in an hour and a half – and so many escalating sums, you feel as if you have entered a search term and gotten lost in the links. Did that just sell for 9 million or 900,000?
It is the week of contemporary auctions in New York and everyone is on tenterhooks. This week defines the moment whether or not the art world is a submarine or a sinking wreck (while the rest of the world, or those who owned houses, are breathing “underwater”). “Many like to put their money in banks; I like to put it on my walls,” said rock-star art collector Lars Ulrich of Metallica fame, who is putting yet another of his Basquiats up on auction. It is because of this penchant, this trust in art as an investment that the art world lived out its own parallel market, largely through the wild sums reached on auction. I remember at one point asking myself whether or not 200 million was a lot to spend on an art collection (witness George Michael and partner Kenny Goss) if a single piece of art could potentially cost you 72 million? That was 2007, when what they call the bubble was big.
It remains a mystery to me why people buy art on auction when they can get it for much cheaper through a gallery or dealer. Why people sell, sure, that’s easy to understand. But buying? It makes no sense. It only makes sense to buy works on auction when they are works that are no longer available in a gallery, works that are rare or difficult to acquire. When they are what no one dares to call them: bargains.
For many auction-goers this week, Sotheby’s or Christie’s is Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Sotheby’s is Bacon, Basquiat, Hirst, Koons, Lichtenstein, Murakami, Prince, Richter, Stella, Warhol, Wesselman. Christie’s is Wesselman, Warhol, Stella, Richter, Prince, Murakami, Lichtenstein, Koons, Hirst, Basquiat, Bacon. The same but different. Why do the same artist names always come up on auction? This was the question that had long-plagued me. Was it only a matter of money making more money? When a Richard Prince Nurse, one of a series of 19 paintings that once sold in a gallery for $80,000 each, sells on auction for 8 million some 12 years later, what you have is a gain of , absurdly, 10,000%. Prince has just had a major retrospective at the Guggenheim, but there are 19 Nurses out there painted in 2003-2005, and recently I had seen drawings elsewhere. The artist is still alive and kicking and he might decide to take up a fancy for making yet another Nurse. Wouldn’t you just go to Barbara Gladstone to find out if she might find a collector who was willing to sell at a large profit but not quite so large as what one might get or might not get at auction? The matter is not easy as Prince is not Gladstone anymore, but Gagosian, you see. And a Richter is not a Polke, god knows why. Bidlo or Sturtevant is not Warhol, but Warhol is nearly cut from the list of all tomorrow’s parties. Sherry Levine is not Carl Andre, or at least not yet.
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Bill Clinton once said of his affair with Monika Lewinsky. "There is nothing going on between us." His reference to the present tense “is” made his statement true. I had always wondered why some of those same always-on-auction artists are represented by Larry Gagosian. Could one say, Larry Gagosian is Sotheby’s? And if so, is Larry Gagosian Christie’s too? Can Larry be more than Larry? Larry is Sotheby’s and Christie’s and, well, Larry too? Years ago, it was well-known that Larry on the auction floor is not really Larry but S.I. Newhouse. But now even Larry is legion. Larry might be Si, Charles, Ron, David, Aby, Francois, Steve, or Dave.
Which brings me to a new matter of the Importance of Being Lisa: she is not just any Lisa but a new acquisition in the ranks of Sotheby’s employees. Lisa Denison was chief curator of the Guggenheim for many years and destined to replace the director Thomas Krens, until she surprised them all by jumping ship and taking course with Sotheby’s. That is, when you are at Sotheby’s, Lisa is a warm gun, which might help or hinder her client. She is a Brand Name.
* * *
What’s in a name? A name is a name is a name, but that name is not always the name, if you know what I mean. The Pink Panther is a diamond and not Inspector Clouseau. This is clear; do not tell me what I already know, you say? But what becomes confusing is that a Rothko is not always a Rothko.
If you successfully bid on a “Rothko” you are only guaranteed “Rothko” for a limited time of 5 years. At 72 million divided by 5, that’s 14, 4 million a year, a mere 1,2 million per month for the belief in a Rothko. Should you discover that your “Rothko” is a fake after 5 years of having it above your sofa, you might have to re-define what the meaning of “is” is. What a million “is” is also a matter up for discussion, but that’s not an issue for a Marxist with Groucho leanings.
I had asked several people and no one could come up with an answer. It was a case of the missing MacGuffin, the necklace, the diamond, the mysterious papers, the brief case, which we always see but never know what is. Why do people buy at auctions when the guarantee is only a guarantee for the next 5 years? It depends on how you define “guarantee.” The auctions were full of MacGuffins, the plot being driven by the demand for more alone.
It was a case for Inspector Clouseau and his chaotic comic reasoning. Clouseau was at the auctions, that is, the comedian Steve Martin, whose connubial relations made him one degree closer to me than years before (after having married a colleague of mine last year). He was either in disguise, perhaps as one of the many European men in pin-striped suits and flamboyant scarves to frame their natural-looking wavy manes. Perhaps he was the lady with the purple fade to blue hair. “So very last-season Prada,” I heard someone say in snobby mockery of her hue. “Rothko could have done that,” said another. My question was “Is this Steve Martin in one of his many Chief Inspector disguises? “Comme des Garçon once dressed me as a hunchback,” a fine Southern lady collector confessed to me at a dinner after the auctions, “and when Rauschenberg saw how foolish I looked he said, ‘Just go to the bathroom and turn it inside out and I’ll sign it’.” Now that is a true collectible, a piece perfect for the auctions – according to the old-fashioned meaning of “is.”
* * *
“Look at it as a funnel. What you’re hearing is the very bottom of a funnel.”
“Like Pollock the painter?”
“Yes, he is… he is Pollock the funnel arranger guy.”
This is a description of a drummer getting his socks off about the playback of a drum-riff. He’s talking with his manager and a radio “personality” Crabby Cabbie. The drummer, at the height of his powers, is described as being Pollock. Jackson, that is, the piss painter, the angry man of the Cedar Tavern, the guy who painted on the floor.
Lars Ulrich is not a drummer. He is Pollock.
Inspector Clouseau reasons: if Ulrich is Pollock, and Pollock is selling his Basquiat, what this art market “is” now is not easy to define. A hedge fund manager described it to me like this: Call the $8M for a Prince painting in ’08 a spike and chart the long-term trend---remember this result is coming off a major retrospective and eight years of cheap borrowing. Will anybody have money after this crash is over? And then what are the 19 Nurses worth? Markets are very efficient over the long haul. My guess is that it will be like living in Apt 2-A – nice address but not much of a view, plus all the street noise.