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.
When I tell people I am an appraiser, it usually gets a Coooool!! response, followed by many questions: Like the people on Antiques Roadshow? Or How does one appraise a work of art? Or Can you take a look at this thing my grandma gave me? [Takes out cell phone to show me photos…]
And when someone engages my services, there is often a lot of explanation required to help them understand why, for instance, they can’t submit their insurance appraisal to the IRS for gift tax purposes; or how the prices they saw on 1stdibs.com are completely unrelated to what they’ll get for selling the same piece; or that, as cute as their collection of beanie babies is, Christie’s isn’t interested, so they’re better off donating it.
So, for today’s blog post, I thought I would lay out a little Appraising 101, so now when someone ask me how I do what I do, I can just send them this convenient, comprehendible and fun (emphasis on fun!) article.
*Disclaimer*: reading this article does not qualify you to go out and start appraising property. For any occasion requiring an appraisal—insurance, divorce, donations, tax liability, collateral, etc.—you are encouraged (and usually required) to engage the services of a qualified, USPAP-compliant appraiser, with membership in a vetted, professional appraisers’ association (such as myself).
First – what is an appraisal?
An appraisal is an opinion of the value of an object, based on available market data of the same or similar objects. It is important to stress that an appraisal is an opinion: an educated—and hopefully substantiated—projection or estimation of value.
So Emily, what’s this worth?
Let’s say someone comes to me and says, Hey Emily, I have this artwork by Artie McArtyface. What’s it worth?
The answer is: it depends! Because objects have multiple values. Yes, that’s right: objects have various values, which are determined by the context and circumstances of the sale. The purpose of the appraisal determines what kind of value I use.
Below are some of the more common values appraisers use, and the purposes for which they are used. Now I promise, the definitions below are as dry and boring as my article will get. Note that these are simplified definitions, and there are exceptions; the determined value is on a case by case basis.
Retail/Replacement Value: Retail Replacement Value or Replacement Value (RV), is how much it costs to replace something by buying the same/similar piece in a retail setting (i.e. gallery, dealer, etc.). This value is most typically used for insurance inventory appraisals or damage/loss claims.
Fair Market Value (FMV): A sale between a willing buyer and willing seller, neither under compulsion to buy/sell, in the most appropriate market (i.e. auction value including buyer’s premium). This value is typically used for Estate tax liability, charitable donation, gift tax, equitable distribution (e.g. divorce), and other purposes.
Marketable Cash Value (MCV): The value realized, net of expenses, by a willing seller disposing of property in the most appropriate market (i.e. the fair market value, minus fees, etc.). For example: a seller sells a painting at auction, and it hammers at $50,000. The seller must pay a 10% commission to the auction house, plus the 1.5% insurance fee, a $250 photography fee, and $200 transportation fee. So the client nets $43,800 = MCV. MCV is often used in equitable distribution (e.g. divorce settlements) or collateral asset appraisals.
Liquidation Value (LV): The price realized in a sale situation under forced or limiting conditions and/or time restraints (i.e. seized asset sales, fire sales, etc.).
Salvage Value (SV): The value of an abandoned (usually damaged) property. Commonly, this value is what an insurance company might get for selling repossessed property, so it comes into play for damage and loss claims.
Back to Artie McArtyface…
So my prospective client clarifies that he wants to donate Artie McArtyface’s work to the National Museum of Cultural Heritage, and wants to submit an appraisal to the IRS to get a tax deduction for the value of the work. Now that I know the purpose of the appraisal, I know I will use the fair market value, and must research the artist’s auction market.
The first place to start with research is with the client and the object itself: where did the client get it? Did he buy it at auction, or a gallery? Or was it inherited from his parents? Does he have a sales receipt? Any previous appraisals conducted on the piece? Was it ever exhibited in a museum exhibition? Firsthand inspection of the work is preferable, but the IRS will accept review by photographs if necessary.
Sometimes a client will dig up a sales receipt—irrefutable proof that grandma spent $100,000 on the piece! And the sales receipt looks like this:
Attention! Atención! Beachtung! The market for art and antiques, like any other market, fluctuates over time (remember my beanie babies joke?). So, sadly, the price grandma paid for something in 1952 (or 1852) has no bearing on the current value of the work. A sales receipt from 1952 is helpful to understand the authenticity and provenance of an item—that is, its history of ownership. But value-wise, generally speaking the last 5 years of sales data are most relevant to an appraiser, particularly for auction records.
What determines or impacts value?
Once I know everything I need to know about my client’s piece, I need to do my market research. This means finding recent auction values for comparable works (colloquially abbreviated to “comps”) to my client’s artwork. To use a shorthand phrase, we’re looking for works in LKQ: “Like Kind and Quality.”
What factors do I have to consider when comparing works of art? What qualities of a work of art impact or determine its value?
Well, we can start with the obvious ones:
Yes, it does matter.
Originals, Multiples & Reproductions
Is the work a completely unique work, like a handpainted oil on canvas painting? Or is it a print, in which the artist used a printing press to make 50 copies of the same image? Or is it a print or poster after an original work of art—like when a museum sells prints or posters of its most famous painting? Of course, it would be a big mistake to use a Picasso poster as a comp for a signed Picasso print!
Not all subjects are created equal. Is it a landscape? A genre scene? A portrait? A universal truth of humans is that we’re horndogs: a nude portrait of a woman will sell better than that same woman with her clothes on.
An artist’s skill and style can change dramatically over a lifetime: their early work may not be as developed as their “mature” works; or perhaps their early work is figurative, which collectors prefer to their later works, after the artist pulled an “180” into abstraction.
Let’s say Artie McArtyface died in 2010 at the age of 90, and was making art right up until his death. In his old age, his hand was not as steady, and his X series from later in life does not have the bold strength and presence of the earlier Xs. Perhaps collectors prefer the Xs from the 1960s to the Xs from the 1990s and 2000s.
Any damage, or repaired damage? What’s the quality of the repair—was it Cecilia Giménez-ed? Or conserved by a trained professional?
The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is only true to a point. Believe it or not, humankind has come to a consensus on the aesthetic appeal of certain colors and shapes, and how they’re arranged (also known as composition). How many people say their favorite color is blue? And how many people say their favorite color is poo brown? That’s what I thought.
That’s all to say that an artist will not make a museum-quality piece every time: there’s a range in the quality of the work, and the market prices will reflect the consensus on quality. The ability to analyze and compare the formal qualities of art or objects is honed over years of expertise and education—so again, make sure you’re hiring a qualified appraiser (such as myself).
The provenance, or history of ownership, of a work of art can have an impact on value. For instance, if a celebrity or person of historical importance owned something, it usually increases the value of the item.
Oftentimes there are gaps in the provenance for a work of art, as not everyone keeps sales records or receipts over decades, or even centuries. When an artwork has a solid and continuous provenance, that will give buyers more confidence that it’s authentic, and not stolen. By contrast, if a work of art has a gap in provenance from 1938–1949, for instance, that could be a red flag it was a Nazi-stolen artwork. Buyers will be less enthusiastic to spend the big bucks, in the event a rightful owner comes forward to claim it. Works that were known to be in the custody of the Nazis won’t be traded at all in the United States (at least at auction), because you can’t have clear title to something you don’t rightfully own.
Where in the World?
Unsurprisingly, items will sell best in the market where they have the largest concentration of interested collectors. So when researching comps and the appraised work, it is important to consider where the work is being sold, and at what market level (i.e. an international auction house? Regional auction house? Tag sale?).
Sometimes markets can be very niche: can you guess where California landscape painters’ work sells the best? That’s right—California! What would be a better market for selling a Picasso painting: at Christie’s New York, an internationally-recognized auction house with the marketing budget and connections to access the millionaire class that would bid on a Picasso? Or at a small regional auction house in Romania? (You’re so smart, I don’t need to tell you the answer…)
The “Bigger Picture”
Curveball: let’s say Artie McArtyface is world-renowned not for his Xs, but for his Os! What if he made Black X as a totally aberrant and wild experiment while flying high on peyote one night? It happens…
That’s all to say: you have to contextualize the artwork you’re appraising within the artist’s larger body of work. How did the artist develop and mature? What are they “known” for? Is scholarship changing on the artist? That is, are museums or curators “rediscovering” the Xs, and giving them more attention in public exhibitions or collections?
In addition to contextualizing within the artist’s career, I also take a look at the “bigger picture” of the artist’s market. Some art market databases to which I subscribe offer analytic charts and tools that allow you to examine the artist’s turnover, percentage of lots sold, average price ranges, etc. Very useful.
Comps for Black X
So I’ve researched Artie McArtyface’s auction records, and here are the most recent sales of Xs:
A Blue X from 1965 sold at Christie’s New York in May of 2016 (comp 1), just passing its pre-sale auction estimate of $30,000 – 50,000, to sell for $58,000. Both the client’s Black X and Blue X are from the same period, but formally speaking, the Blue X is more vibrant and visually appealing than the Black X.
The Checkered X (comp 2) came from the artist’s LSD-infused period of the early 1970s; although smaller in scale than Black X, the purple and yellow are satisfying contrasting colors, and create a lively visual rhythm that appeals to collectors. Thus, Checkered X outperformed its $15,000 – 20,000 estimate at Sotheby’s New York in May of 2018 to sell for $35,000.
Most recently, a Black X from later in the artist’s career was offered for auction at Sotheby’s, Paris in November 2018 (comp 3). Although the 2002 Black X exceeded its high estimate to ultimately sell for $36,000, the composition of the 2002 X is not as tight and controlled as the Xs from the 1960s and 1970s, and thus it is less appealing to collectors. Additionally, the work sold in Paris, which is not the artist’s best market; the artist’s work sells best in New York and London.
The above comps are useful, but still make it difficult to nail down a value for my client’s Black X; I’ll have to dig a little deeper. Ideally for an appraisal you want at least three comps that support your opinion of value; sometimes I’ll use four or five comps to substantiate the appraisal.
In May of 2015, Phillips auction house in New York offered a Blue X from 1967 (comp 4). The pre-sale estimate ($20,000 – 30,000) and the final selling price of $40,000 are both much lower than the Blue X that sold a year later at Christie’s ($30,000-50,000/$58,000). Did the market change that much in a year? Review of the condition report indicates that the Blue X at Phillips (comp 4) in fact had repaired breaks, thus the lower selling price. But a Blue X with condition issues may approximate the value of a Black X is good condition…
Finally, an auction result for a Black X similar to my client’s (comp 5)! Christie’s New York offered a Black X from 1966 in May 2014 with a pre-sale estimate of $20,000 – 30,000. It went on to sell for nearly double its high estimate, selling for $55,000. It is important to note the sale date of 2014: that year was an incredibly bullish year for the art market in general, and you can see the spike in the McArtyface’s sales chart above. That said, the McArtyface’s market has been on a continuous climb since 2015, and in 2018 the Museum of Modern Art put on a big retrospective exhibition of his work, which should benefit his market. And don’t be fooled by the dip between 2018 and 2019—it’s only August! With the fall sales still ahead of us in 2019, the turnover for the 2019 will probably be on par with—or better than—2017 and 2018.
Fair Market Value
Given the available market data, an appropriate fair market value for my client’s Black X by Artie McArtyface as of the date of my inspection is $50,000. And voilà, my appraisal allows my client to justify a $50,000 deduction from his taxable income for the year.
And that, my friends, is how you appraise a work of art.
College art history courses tend to tell a very direct trajectory for postwar art: namely that the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe instigated the intellectual and artistic “brain drain” that left a creative vacuum in Europe, enabling America, and New York in particular, to emerge as the cultural hub. Jackson Pollock and his circle dazzled the world with Abstract Expressionism, which soon gave way to American Pop, Minimalism, and so on and so forth.
In contrast to the chauvinism and surrealism favored by postwar American artists, European artists, still surrounded by rubble and ruin, were dealing head on with the existential fallout of the war. For French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), he dispensed with the concept of beauty altogether—beauty seemed frivolous after such atrocities—and created what he called “Art Brut.” Dubuffet’s Art Brut, which translates literally to “raw art,” works highly textured materials like sand, gravel, and plaster into muddy and tar-like surfaces to make what the artist called “matterologies.” These paintings are not psychologically escapist, but rather insist on their own material presence, and, in turn, reify the viewers’ own physical presence and confrontation with reality.
This 1946 portrait of the artist’s friend, writer and critic Jean Paulhan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderfully layered image. The childlike rendition of Paulhan’s features underscores Dubuffet’s commitment to “anti-art,” but there is far more complexity to the figure’s expression: Paulhan’s wide eyes, parted mouth and open-armed gesture gives the subject at once a vulnerable—even pleading—look, as well as one of confusion. The gesture is also reminiscent of Christ or apostolic figures in religious painting.
Scroll down to see more works by this amazing modern master.
Later in his career, Dubuffet’s palette narrowed onto a predominantly blue, red, and black scheme, and his subjects were typically rendered as you see below: built from flat segments of solid and striped irregular shapes.
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.
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, Spring/Break and Scope.
The Armory Show got off to a rocky start this year: one week prior to opening, the fair organizers discovered that Pier 92 was structurally unsound, causing a last-minute call to postpone the Volta satellite fair that would have been at Pier 90, and move one-third of the Armory exhibitors over to that space. Despite the snafu, the art was generally strong at the twenty-fifth presentation of the Armory Show. Once again, I didn’t get to see everything, and there are too many great works to address in one blog post, but I shall highlight a few personal favorites.
I was delighted to see again the work of Gustavo Díaz, the Argentine-born artist who constructs incredibly intricate and delicate worlds in cut-out paper. I became enamored with his work at the 2018 Armory show, in which his gallery Sicardi Ayers Bacino displayed some of his miniature sculptural cities. On view for the 2019 edition, SAB showed Díaz’s wall-hung works: webs of cut paper that magnificently toe the line of man-made construction and something topographical or organic, like an ancient, skeletal cross-section of an anthill. The scale and method of construction (hand-cut, I believe) is technically astounding.
Moving along through the show, I loved the monumental (and difficult to photograph in its entirety) 2018 lightbox installation by Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, apparently inspired by a vintage photograph of art dealer Samuel Kootz smoking a pipe in his gallery. The artist upends the airs of the art world, as well as gender stereotypes, in the cheeky tableau. The classic mid-century vacuum also conjured the image of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?
Like most visitors taking in the display of recycled plastic tapestries at Nicodim Gallery, my first thought was that El Anatsui was back in action (according to his own website, he hasn’t really had a group or solo show since 2016). But the gallerist informed us it was the work of newcomer Moffat Takadiwa, a young Zimbabwean artist. The themes of Takadiwa’s sculptures share many of the same concerns as Anatsui—reflections on consumerism, waste, colonialism and the environment—but are satisfying works in their own right, and surely more affordable than his well-established predecessor.
I think I have a crush on Mariane Ibrahim. The young gallerist, who has been based in Seattle but will be relocating to Chicago in 2019, has been killing it at the art fairs, promoting the work of some excellent talent from Africa and the African Diaspora. Her monographic display of glittering works on paper by Florine Démosthène sold out on the first day at $7,000 a pop—a total steal in my opinion.
One of my favorite sculptures of the fair was Alan Rath’s Yet Again (2017) at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, a dynamic pair of swinging arms resembling something sentient, like birds or snakes, engaged in a mating ritual. The artist wrote a code for the kinetic sculpture in which the movements of each arm is random, making each movement and interaction between the two unique. Photographs do not do it justice—click on my short video clip below for a taste of this dancing, flirtatious piece.
Below are just a few more works that I enjoyed—some by established artists, some by emerging artists. I wish there was time and space enough to discuss them all—if you’d like to discuss anything, feel free to leave a comment or email me with questions!
Love the vibrant palette of this Lee Mullican painting. It feels so much fresh and contemporary, but was painted over fifty years ago!
The artist Michael Sailstorfer cultivated a beehive inside the concrete base in the picture below; he then used the hive to create a mold to cast these delicate bronzes. He went through several attempts, and only saved a few as satisfactory for sale.
Brothers Jake & Dinos Chapman’s sardonic revision of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, entitled The Disasters of Yoga, (an anagram of Goya), is wonderful. The violence that is obscured and denied by the glitter is, instead, present in the brothers’ bronze sculptures of suicide vests nearby (not pictured). Apologies I couldn’t get a clear shot of the whole installation together, but see some details from the Yoga series below.
Below, a few offerings from the excellent Yossi Milo gallery:
And lastly, love supporting the “young” galleries and their emerging to mid-career artists, such as Massinissa Selmani at Selma Feriani Gallery (Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia). Selmani takes images from the media and recreates them in new, drawn arrangements. The vast negative space of the drawings opens up the narrative to questioning and interpretation.
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 Armory Show, Spring/Break and Scope.
The ADAA Art Show
This year the annual Art Show, hosted by the Art Dealers Association of America, kicked things off a week before “Armory week,” so as not to conflict with the grand art fair at Pier 92/94. At the Art Show you tend to find more modern art than the other fairs of Amory Week, as well as contemporary offerings. Many galleries continued their “correction” of representation, curating their booths to highlight works by women and artists of color. Overall the Art Show was, in my opinion, very strong: I enjoyed some singularly great works by established modernists, and discovered new contemporary artists. Below I share a sampling of both. Enjoy!
One of the great joys of the art fairs is to be exposed to galleries from around the country and world (it is also a tragedy—to discover a great gallery that isn’t a subway ride away!). In this case, I must find a good reason to go to Houston to see Inman Gallery and the work of Dario Robleto. I was drawn into Inman Gallery’s booth by Robleto’s intricate collages and large, ecological installation. I had a fascinating conversation with the gallery owner, Kerry Inman, about Robleto’s interest in Victorian traditions of collection and display, but my mind was truly blown when Kerry told me about Robleto’s artist residency with the SETI Institute. That’s right: the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute has an artist-in-residence program, in case we must communicate aesthetically with alien life. I loved this work so much I wrote a spotlight blog post on it—learn more about Dario’s work here.
Other delightful contemporary work at the exhibition included a fantastic series of illustrations for a forthcoming edition of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by multi-disciplinary artist Maira Kalman at Julie Saul Gallery. Kalman doggedly went through archival material to base her gouaches on real photographs and people. The suite of thirty-five drawings lends a contemporary warmth and intimacy to the book, which should be coming out in 2020.
I would be remiss to not mention Susan Inglett Gallery, and the impressive cut-outs of artist William Villalongo. I have really enjoyed Susan’s recent shows, including her current Wilmer Wilson IV show, “Slim…you don’t got the juice” (catch it before it closes March 16). Villalongo’s large, velvety cut-outs are not only technically and graphically masterful, their message of the struggle and resilience of the black male body is palpable.
Amid the modern art highlights at the fair, David Nolan Gallery had an exquisite exhibition of works by German artist George Grosz (1893-1959), focusing on his work during his New York years, 1933-1958. Grosz was one of the foremost German artists of the twentieth century; his modern, socio-politically charged works were among those singled out by Hitler as “degenerate,” and he fled to exile in the United States in 1933. A particularly fascinating contrast in the Art Show display are two watercolors that bookend his time in America: the first, a somber 1934 drawing called Wanderer, sympathetically depicting a cast-out Jew crossing a pond-like body of water; the second, a fiery 1956 composition, also called Wanderer, showing a blazing blue figure wading through a sun-soaked swamp. Who is the 1956 Wanderer? Is it an allegory, or perhaps Grosz himself, raging against the injustice of history?
I could go on and on about the great art I enjoyed at the fair, but alas, time does not allow for full discourse on each piece. Below are other great highlights of modern and contemporary works from the fair. If you have any interest, contact Avant-Garde and we can assist you with a purchase.
Lovely, playful collage by Jean Arp.
Classic Joan Semmel nude.
Part of an installation by Leslie Dill.
Toby Mug by Judy Chicago. I would love to see this on the table at The Dinner Party!
Check out this badass mama by Gaston Lachaise! I love the matting job, as if the figure is interacting with the mat. Really brings the work to life.
One of the great joys of the art fairs is to be exposed to galleries from around the country and world (it is also a tragedy—to discover a great gallery that isn’t a subway ride away!). In this case, I must find a good reason to go to Houston to see Inman Gallery and the work of Dario Robleto. His body of work that was on view at the ADAA Art Show (February 28 – March 3, 2019), Small Crafts on the Sisyphean Seas, is rife with beautiful tension and complexity.
I was drawn into Inman Gallery’s booth by Robleto’s intricate collages, which reminded me of Victorian curio cabinets. I engaged the gallery owner, Kerry Inman, in a fascinating conversation about the work, which indeed has its inspiration from the Victorian impulse to collect, categorize, arrange and display. Given that man-made climate change is endangering our planet and oceans to a catastrophic point, there is an ominous undertone to the preservationist quality of the work (will these species exist by the end of the century?), but the pleasing, decorative compositions soften the more sardonic implications of the piece. Robleto’s tightly organized tableaus at once poke fun at humans’ hubristic attempt to control and dominate our natural environment, but at the same time, we marvel at Robleto’s (read: Man’s) monk-like patience and ability to create the intricate details of the work (isn’t this why we’re at the top of the food chain?).
But my mind was truly blown when Kerry told me about Robleto’s artist residency with the SETI Institute. That’s right: the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute has an artist-in-residence program, to pose the incredible question: what if mathematics is not the universal (literally) language with which to communicate with alien life? What if we must communicate with E.T. visually, aesthetically? All art seeks to communicate in some way, but this is the first art I have experienced that seeks empathy with an alien species.
At the core of his cross-species aesthetic program, Robleto focuses on the shell, particularly the nautilus: not only is it one of the oldest biological forms on our planet, but it does contain math in the golden ratio of its construction. Now we (read: Man) marvel at the power of Nature, and find empathy with Nature’s ability to create beauty as we do. The artful symmetry of the shell has made it a favorite decorative object for humans for millennia, for use in jewelry, ritual objects, and even currency. These intergalactic offerings encompass biology, history/time, mathematics, beauty and cultural significance–to quote the gallery’s press release, they perform “archival and emotional communication.” Any alien who would reject such a gift clearly has no taste at all.