It was a jam-packed auction season—the first in two years with in-person audiences—with some standout collections and blue-chip artworks that led to a soaring $2.6 billion in generated revenue for Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Due to time, I did not get a chance to cover the Phillips sales, but in the next few blog posts, I summarize some highlights from the modern and contemporary auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But here, first, an introduction of sorts, with a few over-arching points and themes to touch on:
In a sign of our ever-changing times, it’s worth noting that Sotheby’s has yet again restructured its marquee sales into different categories. You may recall in my December 2020 post, I recounted the confusing structural changes that the auction houses experimented with in the face of the pandemic, including global online “relay” auctions, throwing in some Old Masters (and T-Rexes) into the mix, and generally shaking up the time-honored categories of “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary.” And for their 2021 Spring auctions, Christie’s committed to a permanent change away from these categories to respective 20th and 21st century sales, the parameters of which are noted as “flexible.”
This fall, Sotheby’s announced they are restructuring the modern and contemporary evening auctions into 3 sales: “The Modern,” (covering late 19th to early 20th century art), “The Contemporary,” (covering postwar art to the late 20th century) and “The Now” (art of the last two decades). A Sotheby’s representative noted that, like Christie’s’ groupings, these parameters are flexible, because the sales also take into consideration stylistic—rather than strictly chronological—factors.
Sotheby’s’ and Christie’s’ creation of marquee sales just for 21st century art reflects the unprecedented market demand for art by living artists. There is no doubt that the art in these contemporary sales is absolutely fabulous, and when you survey the modern and contemporary sales, the newest work does feel fresh and incredibly satisfying. With waiting lists at galleries for some of the hottest emerging artists—who can only produce so much (good) art in a year—artworks that were painted in 2019, 2020, and 2021 are showing up at auction, and bursting past their estimates at jaw-dropping rates.
The concern of many in the artworld, however, is that emerging artists are missing out on the financial returns. More often than not, it is collectors who are flipping the paintings, after having purchased them at modest “emergent prices” from the artist’s gallery. We are seeing some glimpses where artists are submitting their paintings straight to auction, and reaping the rewards. Until recently, it was considered inappropriate—and even arrogant—for an artist to bypass galleries and sell new work directly to auction. Damien Hirst was one such rare case with his 2008 Sotheby’s auction of new work fresh from his studio, and even as a market veteran, he was called “cocky” by more than one critic for the stunt.
In the NFT market, it is almost exclusively artists who are selling their work at auction (see my post on the Christie’s auction with Beeple’s recent HUMAN ONE, or my general blog post on NFTs, for more on the current NFT trend). But anyways, perhaps with the new trend toward contemporary—and the auction houses’ pivot to serve this market—it’ll be more commonplace to see artists selling directly through auction.
Sotheby’s took another note from the Christie’s playbook, too: they took advantage of the many eyes on the popular modern and contemporary sales to squeeze in an anachronistic but high-profile item: a single lot sale of a copy of the original printed U.S. Constitution, one of only two copies that exists in private hands (out of 13 extant copies total). Wedged between “The Now” and Contemporary evening sale, the Constitution was offered by private collector Dorothy Tapper Goldman, and sold to billionaire collector Kenneth Griffin for $43.2 million.
As always, year on year, as the art market continues to reach dizzying and seemingly endless heights, I reflect on what it says about our culture and society at large. While I love art—which, if you’re reading this blog, I am sure you do too—I am alarmed at the excess of the artworld, especially now, when so many people in the world face financial insecurity in the midst of COVID. The strength of the art market is a symptom—and powerful symbol—of the growing wealth inequality of our times. So until we address wealth inequality in a major way, I don’t think we will see much of a deflation in the art market soon.
There was a lot to cover this year, so I’ve broken up the summaries of the auctions’ offerings into different posts—you can read about Sotheby’s’ sales here, and Christie’s’ sales here. Remember, when I speak of pre-sale estimates it refers to hammer prices, whereas any final selling price I quote includes the buyer’s premium (the buyer’s fees to the auction house).
Christie’s had one of its most successful weeks in its history–which given the current state of the country and world, is saying something. With just the three auctions discussed below–the 20th and 21st century sales, plus a single-owner auction of Impressionist masterpieces–Christie’s raised nearly $1 billion.
Christie’s’ first sale of the week was its 21st century sale (i.e. contemporary art). The biggest ticket item of the sale was a massive Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, The Guilt of Gold Teeth from 1982. Interestingly, there is no lot essay for this work, which is surprising given the pre-sale estimate of $40–60 million. Perhaps this work was a last-minute addition to the sale, which may explain why it ultimately did not meet the house’s expectations, selling with fees at the low estimate of $40 million. Peter Doig’s large Swamped, one of his classic images of a canoe on water, took in almost $40 million as well.
The next big seller was from Beeple, the artist with the record-setting NFT collection EVERYDAYS: The First 5000 Days which earlier this year sold for $69 million. Here, Beeple has created HUMAN ONE, a kinetic sculpture with four video screens of rotating landscapes traversed by a lonely astronaut. As Beeple explains in his own Terms and Conditions issued with the art, the sculpture is the “Physical Element” that displays the digital “Artwork:”
“Although the NFT and Physical Element are sold to the purchaser, the Artwork is licensed and not sold to such purchaser. The Artwork is neither stored nor embedded in the NFT, but is accessible through the NFT. The Physical Element displays a copy of the Artwork.”
Of course, given the hype of NFTs, and Beeple’s recent success (which instigated said hype of NFTs), HUMAN ONE achieved almost $29 million. While I think Human One is far better than 5000 Days, in my opinion, Beeple is a better opportunist than an artist. Here’s why:
You don’t need a f*cking NFT to create a digital work of art!! It is strictly a marketing ploy. NFTs are being marketed to sell you the idea that you can’t own or trade unique digital artwork unless it has been minted on the blockchain. But this is completely false.
There are hundreds of artists who create digital artwork. Sometimes, the artist designs a special mechanism or sculpture to display the digital creation. There are also artists who have used A.I. algorithms to create digital art that changes and evolves. All of these works can be created as secure, unique artworks (i.e. one copy) or limited edition works (often in small editions of 2, 3, 5, etc.). This can be all be done without NFTs. Let me repeat: the NFT is completely unnecessary.
You may glean from my tone that I am not a fan of NFTs. You can read my fuller assessment of NFTs here (one point I think I failed to make in my previous blog post on NFTs is that they have an astronomical energy footprint and are thus terrible for the environment. One more reason not to be suckered in to this ridiculous hyped-up scam).
I need some cheering up: let me talk about the art that I liked in the 21st century sale.
The first three lots in the sale were among my favorites: opener Darling by Xinyi Cheng from 2017 sold for $300,000, far outstripping its $30,000–40,000 estimate. And the second lot, Hilary Pecis’s 2019 canvas Upstairs Interior, sold for more than ten times its high estimate of $80,000, bringing $870,000. And while I don’t love all of Nicolas Party’s work, I do like the landscape he submitted to the auction, which roared past its $300,000–500,000 estimate to achieve $3.27 million, with fees. All together, Christie’s 21st century sale raked in $219 million.
Just as Sotheby’s’ season benefitted from the marquee sale of the Macklowe Collection, Christie’s’ fall season was enhanced by a collection of Impressionist masterworks from the Estate of the late Edwin Cox, a Texas oil magnate. The heart-stopping prizes of the night included an absolutely magnificent Vincent van Gogh landscape from 1889. Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprés has the classic van Gogh palette, with its aquamarine sky and bushes, contrasting against the bright yellow fields and spindly cypress trees. The show-stopper sold for $71.35 million with fees (estimate was by request).
Two more van Goghs brought in stunning prices as well: a bright watercolor of peasants harvesting threshes by haystacks (Meules de blé) from 1888. Interestingly, this work was stolen by the Nazis from the famous French banking family the Rothschilds in Paris 1941. Christie’s noted that the sale of the work was pursuant to a settlement between the Cox Estate and the descendants of the Rothschilds, who claim rightful ownership. I think they’ll be satisfied with their settlement: this little work on paper sold for over $35.8 million.
The other van Gogh took everyone by a surprise: a portrait of a boy with a blue flower in his mouth, painted one month before the artist’s untimely death in July of 1890. The boy’s red hair is wild; his cheeks ruddy from his antics in the sun; his lips chapped; and he has a rather goofy expression. Given the admittedly less appealing palette and subject, Christie’s had put a more modest estimate of $5–7 million on the painting, but bidding far surpassed expectations, bringing this small portrait (16 x 12 in.) to more than $46.7 million.
And finally, a record was set for the evening for Gustave Caillebotte’s Jeune homme àsa fenétre, from 1876. This museum-quality work went, in fact, to a museum: the Getty in Los Angeles acquired it, shelling out $53 million, more than double the artist’s previous record of $22 million.
All in, the Cox collection grossed over $332 million, serving as a highly satisfying appetizer to the evening’s main entrée: the new 20th century sale. The fresh catch (to continue the food analogy) of the night was Andy Warhol’s portrait of fellow art market superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dated from 1982, the painting incorporates a brief experimental phase of Warhol’s, in which he coated paintings with a copper metallic pigment and urinated on them, creating an oxidized effect over time. The portrait sold for just over $40 million, making it the highest selling work of the night.
Another notable sale of the evening was Lee Bontecou’s classic sculptural painting Untitled from 1960. With an estimate of $2–3 million, it sold for more than double the high estimate, bringing $9.2 million and breaking the artist’s previous record of $1.9 million (set over 10 years ago). Cy Twombly also has had a good auction season, with a few works offered at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s; in this sale, a large untitled painting from 1961 brought $32 million.
Some additional personal favorites from the sale: Light, a still life by Alice Neel. More reminiscent of Jane Freilicher than the portraiture for which Neel has become so well-known, this still life was recently featured in Neel’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting brought over $2.3 million against a $900,000–1,200,000 estimate. David Hockney’s bright study of a Woldgate Tree, Mayfrom 2006 sold over its $3–5 million estimate to bring $6.27 million. And Kazuo Shiraga’s dynamic abstraction Chiken-sei kendoskin (1961) sold for $3.33 million, against a $2.5–3.5 million pre-sale estimate.
In total, the 20th century took in $419.8 million, which, when taken together with the Cox collection sale that preceded it, Christie’s had a $752 million dollar evening—one of its most successful nights ever.
After nearly six decades of marriage (and art-collecting), the couple went through a bitter divorce. There were 65 artworks for which the divorcees could not agree on a value or settlement, so in 2018 a judge ordered them to sell these works and split the revenue.
Sotheby’s won the bid for the collection, on the promise that they would guarantee at least $600 million to the Macklowes. Well, they delivered: of the 35 lots offered in this single-owner sale, a whopping 20 sold over $10 million, with the final tally coming to a staggering $676 million dollars with fees.
The biggest ticket items included Alberto Giacometti’s Le Nez (conceived in 1947-49, cast in 1965) which took home $78,396,000; No. 7, a warm Mark Rothko canvas (1951), which achieved $82,468,500; Warhol’s Nine Marilyns in silver from 1962, which took $47,373,000; and a Jackson Pollock which soared past its $25–35 million estimate to sell for $61,161,000 (Number 17, 1951).
My favorite of the sale: Franz Kline’s Crosstown (1955), which brought $12,0401,250 (surprisingly just inside its low estimate of $12–18 million).
Next, let’s touch on the “The Now” auction. Sotheby’s scheduled this 23-lot auction of ultra-contemporary art as a kind of opening act for its main contemporary evening sale, hoping to generate buzz and interest. It paid off: several artists records, and a 100% sell-through rate that generated $71.8 million, well over its collective presale estimate of $36.6–53.2 million. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the opening lot: Lisa Brice’s No Bare Back, after Embah (2017), which exploded past its estimate of $200,000–300,000 to bring over $3.1 million, crushing the artist’s previous auction record of $34,500.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, now ever-present in contemporary art auctions, also set a new record with Through Line, which took $2.2 million for the evening. This beats Odutola’s record of $832,700 that was set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this past April.
Undoubtedly the starlet of “The Now” auction was Yoshitomo Nara’s 1996 painting Nice to See You Again. This menacing little tyke had a presale estimate of $8–12 million, ultimately earning $15.4 with fees. Other favorites included Matthew Wong’s exquisite Night Crossing from 2018, which tore past its $1–1.5 million estimate to earn $4.86 million; Hernan Bas’s Night Flight or Midnight Migration, or My Merry Way (2008), which took $746,000 against an estimate of $150,000–200,000; and Mickalene Thomas’s Portrait of Maya #10, which sold for $528,200.
In a first, during the “The Now” sale, Sotheby’s allowed live bidding in cryptocurrency on two works by Banksy (Trolley Hunters and Love is in the Air). While the live bidding was conducted in Ether, the winning bidder can settle their tab in crypto or USD, so frankly I’m not sure what the point was. Alternating the currency during bidding seems arbitrary, and in this case a stunt to pump up interest in cryptocurrency. (Not to mention I think that bidding in crypto is incredibly messy, because crypto’s market is still so volatile and unstable. But perhaps that’s another blog entry…)
Sotheby’s fall season also got a nice boost from the collection of the late Douglas S. Cramer, a TV producer who died in June. Works from his collection will be sold throughout November and December, but the Contemporary auction in particular benefited from some standout works of his, including the biggest prize of the night: Roy Lichtenstein’s Two Paintings: Craig… (1983). The artist gifted the work to Cramer in 1992, and it was a gift that kept giving many times over, earning almost $20.4 million, surpassing its $12–18 million estimate.
Two Cecily Brown works from Cramer’s collection—Spree (1999) and Bend Sinister (2002)—each exceeded their pre-sale expectations, with the former earning almost $6.6 million (the second highest record for Brown), and the latter over $6.3 million (a third Cecily Brown, Untitled (Trapeze) unfortunately under-performed, bringing only $806,500 against a $1.5–2 million estimate).
My personal favorites from the contemporary auction include two wonderful collages by Romare Bearden which bookended the sale: The Street (1975) and The Cardplayers(1982), with the former setting a new record for the artist when it pushed past its $500,000–700,000 estimate to achieve just over $1.1 million. (Personally, I think it’s insane that a national treasure like Romare Bearden doesn’t have a market even close to the stratosphere of some of today’s popular yet completely mediocre and overrated contemporary art. But what can you do…)
I also loved Charles White’s large charcoal and crayon work Nobody Knows My Name #2 (1965), which exceeded its $400,000–600,000 estimate to bring $867,000; Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1959), which scored $6.2 million against an estimate of $5.5–6.5 million; and Robert Indiana’s athletic 5 (1964), which broke through its $250,000–350,000 estimate to achieve $528,200.
The total revenue for Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale came to $119.2 million.
Finally, the modern sale. The real show-stopper was a double-portrait by Frida Kahlo, with Diego Rivera painted onto her mind’s eye in a self-portrait. Executed in 1949, the tears on her cheeks refer to Rivera’s infamous infidelity. The portrait sold for almost $34.9 million, not only shattering Kahlo’s previous auction record ($8 million) but also breaking the record for any artwork sold by a Latin American artist—a distinction previously held by none other than her husband, Diego Rivera. Sweet revenge for Frida!
Another record was broken that fateful night: Pierre Soulages, one of my favorite artists, is perhaps best known for his monochromatic black paintings, but in this case it was a black-and-red 1961 canvas that set his new record at $20.1 million, crushing the painting’s $8–12 million estimate and Soulage’s previous record of $10.6 million (set in 2018).
One of the other big attractions of the night was Claude Monet’s Coin du basin aux nymphéas, a classic late work from the artist’s famous garden at Giverny. This 1918 canvas’s gorgeous abstract composition feels decidedly modern, and sold for $50.8 million (the pre-sale estimate was not published). A few more Monet’s were included in the sale that are more squarely 19th century Impressionist works, but seemed to make the cut for the modern evening sale.
Other favorites of mine from the sale include a stunning and tame Symbolist landscape by Edvard Munch ($5.32 million) and a classic German Expressionist work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (I’m a sucker for Kirchner), which sold for $2.9 million. In total, Sotheby’s modern auction took in $282.8 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $192.2–266.9 million (remember pre-sale estimates are hammer prices, the final total includes buyer’s premiums to the auction house).
I’ll admit it: I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post. Partly because, frankly, I still don’t 100% understand CryptoArt, and I wasn’t sure I should weigh in on the topic until I had a better grasp of it. But no matter how much I read about it, there are still some head-scratching aspects of this new art/economic frontier. But perhaps the best way to work through my own incomprehension is to talk it out right here.
And I’ll also admit, part of the reason I’ve avoided publicly talking about CryptoArt is that it forces a difficult conversation of what is “good” and “bad” art, or just whatqualifies as art–a meta question that has been debated among philosophers for millenia. While I don’t like openly disparaging certain artists or genres, as an art expert, in this case critique will be unavoidable. I recognize that, to some readers, I will sound curmudgeonly, maybe even snobbish, and technologically short-sighted–I must own it. Only time will tell if this is truly the future of art, or a fad that will go the way of Beanie Babies. Either way, I do apologize in advance for any sensibilities I may offend, and I welcome any comments that may elucidate some of my issues with CryptoArt (keep it respectful, please).
First, let’s just define “NFTs.” For its largely uninitiated audience, Christie’s actually provides a helpful “NFT 101” page where they define NFTs, or non-fungible tokens:
An NFT, or ‘non-fungible token’, is a unique, digital certificate that is stored on a blockchain and provides certain ownership rights in an asset, typically a digital one, such as a digital work of art. NFTs provide a powerful tool to establish and demonstrate ownership rights in the digital asset space where it is often hard to demonstrate such rights given how quickly and easily digital works can be replicated. NFTs are described as ‘non-fungible’ because each one is unique and of different value. This is in contrast to ‘fungible’ assets such as dollars or Bitcoin, which are identical and interchangeable.
Of course, the obvious, immediate benefit of NFT technology, then, is the function of the NFT as a digital “Certificate of Authenticity” and ownership. After decades of exhibiting their art on the unruly and unregulated internet, artists can now “mint” their digital art–ie create an NFT on the blockchain, certifying a unique and protected work. Additionally, artists can attach a stipulation of royalties to the NFT, so they make money on any subsequent resale of it–the absolute best outcome of blockchain technology, in my opinion.
But how unique and protected is the artwork? Herein is my first point of confusion: I took a screenshot of all the NFT works you see in this blog post. In what I thought was a remarkably ironic gesture, Sotheby’s even had a download button so anyone can save an mp4 file of Kevin McCoy’s Op art gif Quantum, which sold in their “Natively Digital”: curated NFT sale for a staggering $1,472,000 (below). Is there, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, an “aura of the original” in the metaverse (a crypto neologism I had to add to my vocabulary) if anyone can save an identical digital version online?
I have read some articles which liken the NFT artwork to an original painting, and any non-NFT copies are like posters of that painting that you see in dorm rooms. But this is not an accurate analogy: what differentiates an original painting from reproductions is the medium–the painting is a completely unique oil on canvas. The posters are glossy prints based on a photograph of that painting, churned out by the thousands–and the respective visual experience of the painting and poster is vastly different. With the digital artwork, the medium is pixels on a screen–whether an “original” or a screenshot of it (ie “reproduction”). The visual experience is essentially the same.
In reading more about the NFTs offered at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, I also learned that the digital artworks themselves often do not exist on the blockchain, but rather are hosted on servers “off-chain,” and the NFTs “point” to their offsite location. (This is to say nothing of physical assets, for which some claim NFTs can still be applied for “authentication.” But I think any art appraiser would tell you, that’s as uncertain a claim as a physical piece of paper that says “Certificate of Authenticity.”)
In the case of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, the condition report noted that “to avoid domain squatting, Namecoin [where he originally minted the NFT in 2014] was designed to include removal of pointers after 36,000 blocks. Accordingly, this specific Namecoin entry was removed from the system after not being renewed, and was effectively burned from the chain.” This concept alone was surprising, as I thought the appeal of blockchain technology was that it was full-proof and lasted forever.
It seems to me, then, that the blockchain doesn’t actually protect the artwork–it protects the certificate of authenticity and ownership (ie the NFT itself). And the utility and relevance of the NFT doesn’t actually come into play until a transaction is required–ie someone wants to sell the artwork. So I can enjoy my download of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum just as much as the guy who paid $1,472,000 for it. I just can’t sell it.
Or can I? If anyone can register NFTs, what’s to stop me from creating an NFT for the McCoy file I downloaded from Sotheby’s website? I can claim that undulating octagon as an original Emily Casden, and sell it with an NFT certifying it as my own–like a digital Sherrie Levine. Is there a blockchain police that cross-checks NFT artwork for fakes and forgeries? Sure, I’d be breaking copyright laws, but so far I can’t see how an NFT can prevent copyright laws from being broken.
Now before you think I must truly be some close-minded and conservative old hag, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against digital art itself. I think every medium of art–whether it is oil on a canvas, notes of a song, or pixels on a screen–can convey powerful meaning. I have seen digital artworks on my laptop that have moved me as much as any painting in a museum. And it’s worth noting that it is possible to sell limited edition digital works, and many galleries have been doing so long before NFTs existed. But, as with painting, or music, or any medium of art, there is a spectrum of quality: the good, the bad, and the stuff that just isn’t art. Which brings me to my next general “issue” with the NFT market…
The first NFT sold at auction–Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold at Christie’s in March for a jaw-dropping $69.3 million–was admittedly cool in its scope: a digital drawing every day for 5,000 days (from May 2007 to January 2021). The full collection allows one to see his evolution as an artist in a way that has never been documented and collated quite like this. But upon closer inspection, the digital illustrations were, let’s say, underwhelming. On the one hand, given the pressure of his daily output, the mediocrity is understandable; the famously prolific Picasso painted an average of two paintings a day, and certainly not all them are masterpieces. But largely, Beeple’s art is a product and paradigm of the Instagram age: easily digestible, pop culture pictures that have enough cynical wit to make you “like” them in your feed, and then keep on scrolling.
In a wildly over-the-top catalogue essay for Kevin McCoy’s five-second gif video Quantum (above), recently sold in Sotheby’s curated NFT sale “Natively Digital,” the Sotheby’s specialist says that Quantum is as historically significant as the modern masterworks that changed the course of art history. I will quote it at length, because it is so hilariously ridiculous:
In the long timeline of art, there are few works that serve as genesis blocks to their own chain of history. They are seismic forks in direction; forks that usher in new movements that block by block, mint by mint, usher in new art histories. These works close chapters on the art histories that came before, while anchoring a new flowering of human creativity. These prime movers occupy a singular position in art history. They came first...Pulsing with color, a riotously raw beacon to a new era, McCoy minted Quantum – unwittingly placing it within this vaulted pantheon of firsts. Timestamped July 1907, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles ushered in the chain of Cubism. December 1917, Malevich’s Black Square stands as the genesis block of Abstraction. April 1917, Duchamp timestamps the era of the idea [ie birth of Conceptualism]. 2nd May 2014 21:27:34, Quantum stands alone in the precision of its timestamp – immutably, verifiably, trustlessly pure. [Trustlessly?]
Mind you, there is absolutely nothing creatively innovative about Quantum as a work of art: all of its points of reference–Minimalism/Op art, animation art, video art–existed for decades before it was created. So why does the Sotheby’s specialist include McCoy in the pantheon of the creative geniuses Picasso, Malevich and Duchamp? Because Quantum was the first NFT artwork added to the blockchain. Was this a significant technological event? Sure. So was the company that bought the first website domain name in 1985. Do you know who it is? Do you care? Didn’t think so.
Lastly, there’s CryptoPunks, Larva Labs’s digital collection of 10,000 8-bit style “punks” that was minted (ie added to the blockchain) in 2017. It was a smart entrepreneurial endeavor: their pixelated style appeals to a nostalgic generation raised on Atari video games, and the distinguishing attributes of each unique character–men, women, zombies, aliens and apes with various combinations of hats, glasses, cigarettes, facial hair, etc–feed the “collect-them-all” mentality. But I would argue these definitely fall in the collectibles category, not art.
There is certainly nothing wrong with collectibles; they can have legitimate appeal and value. Exchanging coveted assets within a subculture of likeminded fans can be exciting; the hunt to acquire the rarest of your treasures can be a lifelong thrill. But that does not art make. I’ve been staring at these CryptoPunk avatars for several hours, and I’m just not detecting a heartbeat. Art has to have something to say. Are they cool? Yes. Fun? For sure. But these are the digital equivalents of trading cards, dare I say Beanie Babies (which would be bad news for whoever bought CryptoPunk 7523 for $11,754,000 in Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” sale last month).
Ultimately, my point is this: I think the mania over NFT technology is hyping up some absolutely mediocre art and collectibles. To be sure, there have been some really interesting digital works that have been minted as NFTs, but they did not need to be minted to be interesting, and could have just as easily been sold as limited editions without blockchain technology. And much of what I am seeing minted and traded as NFTs are just not that interesting. I think M.H. Miller said it well in his recent New York Times piece:
Creating absurd neologisms and claiming that something fairly unremarkable (an NFT artwork generally amounts to a mediocre digital illustration that comes with a certificate of authenticity) is in fact — to borrow a phrase from Sotheby’s, a “complex, groundbreaking technology” — is the way of both the tech and art industries, and this ugly symbiosis is one of the reasons it’s frightening to see the former so successfully manipulate the latter. If this is the future, what a bummer for all of us.
The good news is, I don’t think this is the future for all of us. I do firmly understand and believe that blockchain is a groundbreaking technology that has major implications for our future technological landscape–I think it will inevitably be part of our lives the same way the internet did. But I do not think that art is going to go purely NFT on us. Digital art is merely one of many mediums of expression; we still live and exist in a physical plane, and so does much of our art. And as of now, NFTs really can’t do much for physical artwork.
So, before you jump onto the NFT bandwagon, ask yourself a few questions: first and foremost, do you like the art? Does the price reflect the quality of the art? Or possibly the hype of NFTs? If you’re not sure, do some research (or hire me to help you!) to better contextualize the piece within the artist’s market.
In case you missed it: the Art Basel /UBS Global Art Market Report came out in March, and noted that global sales for art and antiques in 2020 were down 22% from 2019 ($50.1 billion). But if the spring 2021 auction season is any indication–with several 8-figure lots and many broken records for artists–we’ll be returning to a pre-pandemic market in no time.
Before diving into the sales themselves, I’d like to say a few words about a few words–literally. There have been some interesting category changes in auctions that signal the power of words to reflect the changing landscape of art collecting. As I reported in my December 2020 blog post, last year Christie’s and Sotheby’s used the occasion of the pandemic to experiment with format, offering a confusing array of day sales, evening sales, and global relay sales.
This season, Christie’s announced that it would be doing away with its “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” designations all together, and instead offered a “20th Century” evening sale, and a “21st Century” evening sale. These adjustments are semantic rather than literal, however, as the 20th century sale still includes works dating back to the 1880s (ie Impressionist/Post Impressionist), while works dating back to the 1980s are included in the 21st century sale. BUT, to still make things confusing, the “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” titles still apply to the day sales (insert shrug emoji).
Sotheby’s has also jumped on the rebranding bandwagon, dropping “Postwar” from its auction headline, so it just reads “Contemporary Art evening sale,” even though the sale does still include postwar art. In another notable case of wordsmithing, Sotheby’s has also taken “Old” out of their “Old Masters” sales, so the auction instead is simply called “Master Paintings.” I must say, this is one rebranding strategy I can understand: the word “Old” certainly has more negative connotations than, say, the word “Impressionist.” And it can’t hurt the struggling Old Masters–excuse me, the Masters–market. It completely worked on me as clickbait.
Now, on to the sales themselves. As always, I focus only on New York because, frankly, it would be overwhelming to cover sales in Europe and Asia too. (NOTE: I have addressed this season’s NFT works and auctions in a separate post). Christie’s 20th and 21st Century evening sales together grossed over $691 million; in the 20th century sale, 98% of the lots sold above their low estimate–many surpassed their high estimates. And some standout pieces helped push the sales past the half a billion mark.
A few artists also had new auction records in the 20th Century sale: Alice Neel, no doubt buoyed by her current retrospective at the Met, set a new record when her 1966 canvas Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room sold for over $3 million, nearly 4 times its high estimate of $800,000 and doubling her previous record. She was followed in the next lot by Barbara Hepworth’s Parent II sculpture (1971), which burst past its high estimate of $3.5 million to sell fora record $7,110,000. New auction records were also set for Grace Hartigan and Alighiero Boetti.
As for Christie’s 21st Century evening sale (ie Postwar and Contemporary sale), the masterpiece that drove the sale was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In This Case (1983), which inspired competitive bidding all the way up to $93,105,000–the second highest auction price for the artist (illustrated below).
A whopping ten artists–six of whom are people of color–had sales records broken in this 21st Century sale, continuing the collecting trend for black contemporary artists. Jordan Casteel, who exhibited a lovely show of portraits at the New Museum last year, set a new record with his portrait Jiréh from 2013 when it sold for $687,500. Nina Chanel Abney’s 2015 canvas Untitled (XXXXXX), painted in the aftermath of the shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement), catapulted beyond its pre-sale estimate of $200,000 – 300,000 to sell for just under $1 million (illustrated below). And (white guy) Jonas Wood also set a record when his colorful still life Two Tables with Floral Pattern (2013) achieved over $6.5 million, more than 50% over the high estimate of $4 million (illustrated below).
Now, on to Sotheby’s evenings sales! While Sotheby’s had a few standout works, their auctions were decidedly less robust than Christie’s: together the Impressionist & Modern and (Postwar) & Contemporary sales brought $439,639,200, more than a $250 million less than Christie’s equivalent sales. In the Impressionist & Modern category, the big ticket item was Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas, a classic late water lily canvas (1917-19), which brought $70,353,000.
A few other works that sold well include Leonor Fini’s delightful self-portrait with a scorpion (Autoportrait au scorpion) from 1938, which soared to three times past its high estimate ($800,000) to sell for $2,319,000; and Diego Rivera’s exquisitely elegant Retrato de Columba Domínguez de Fernández (1950), sold more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring $7,445,250 (each illustrated below).
Several other works in the Sotheby’s sale, however, sold around their low estimate or, in some cases, below it. Paul Cézanne’s fruit still lifes are usually top sellers, but the Nature morte: pommes et poires that was in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern auction sold for $19,969,350, a far, far cry from its $25 – 35 million estimate (illustrated below). Fritz Glarner’s Relational Painting Tondo No. 65 (1965) also sold well below its $600,000 – 800,000 estimate to bring $403,200 (illustrated below). And Les Coteaux de Thierceville, temps gris, a typical landscape by Camille Pissarro, sold for $1.472 million, just under its $1.5 – 2 million estimate.
Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale generally fared better than its Impressionist & Modern evening sale, although overall the offerings did not excite bidders as much as the equivalent Christie’s sale did. The big ticket item was Basquiat’s Versus Medici (1982), which just about sold at the high end of its $35 – 50 million pre-sale estimate ($50,820,000)–not quite as impressive as the $93 million Basquiat at Christie’s, but the highest grosser of the night for Sotheby’s.
There were some impressive sales, however: newcomer Salman Toor has had an explosive few years, capped with his recent wonderful, intimate solo show at the Whitney Museum, which included The Arrival, the third lot in Sotheby’s sale. With a modest pre-estimate of $60 – 80,000, the 18 x 14-inch painting sold for a whopping 10 times its high estimate, finally bringing $867,000. This was the auction record for the young artist until Girl with Driver sold a few weeks later for almost $890,000 at Phillips in Hong Kong. (Mind you, Girl with Driver is 60 x 78 inches, so, inch for inch, tiny little The Arrival takes the cake!)
A few other highlights of the sale include Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), which reached $15,315,900, surpassing its $9 – 12 million estimate. Charles White’s The Ingram Case (1949), depicting the incarcerated Ingram family (whose murder trial of a white neighbor underscored the institutionalized racism of the time), is as timely and evocative now as ever. The powerful drawing achieved $1,472,000, more than double its high estimate ($500,000 – 700,000). As with Christie’s contemporary auction, the high prices achieved by these few artists reflect the continued strong interest in artists of color.
Last but not least, another noteworthy highlight is Banksy’s famous Love is in the Air (2005), depicting a masked protester throwing a bouquet of roses (rather than the expected molotov cocktail). With a pre-sale estimate of $3 – 5 million, the canvas ultimately brought nearly $13 million. It was the only lot in the sale that accepted cryptocurrency as a form of payment.
And speaking of cryptocurrency, I bet you’re all wondering why I haven’t addressed this season’s auctioned NFTs yet. I have written a separate post regarding the NFT craze here. Enjoy!
A rather odd experiment has come out of the COVID pandemic—although it’s unclear if it really has anything to do with the pandemic—and that’s the merging of departments to create a sale of mixed 19th, 20th and 21st century works. With a few rare exceptions—da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundiand a T-Rex fossil were both recently sold in contemporary art sales—the decades-long modus operandi of the auction world has been to host sales in the category of Impressionist and Modern art separately from Postwar and Contemporary art. This year amidst COVID, Christie’s started a trend of doing a global “relay” sale, which starts in Asia in the evening, and seamlessly continues in New York the same morning. Now, this December, Sotheby’s offered its first Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sale, based in New York.
But, to make it more confusing, Sotheby’s also still offered its normal day and evening sales in New York in the separate categories of Impressionist and Modern, and Postwar and Contemporary (October 28th). Christie’s also still offered daytime sales in both categories in New York (December 3rd and 4th), and a few hours before the global relay sale on December 2nd, Christie’s also held a Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sale in Hong Kong, with offerings from an international but largely Asian-leaning roster of artists. Then there was a “separate” auction at 8 pm for a single work of art: Sanyu’s fantastic Goldfish (1930s-40s) which sold for about $21,950,000 (170,170,000 HKD). Then the relay auction—”20th Century: Hong Kong to New York”—finally officially began at 8:30 PM.
What was the point of these mixed sale experiments? There is undoubtedly a utility to separating art by category, so that a collector of, say, Cubism, knows to follow the Impressionist & Modern sales. But, given that the “connoisseur” collector seems to be a dying breed, perhaps the auction houses think it makes more sense to separate buyers by price point, and organize their sales not by date/style, but by quality. This is, in fact, how other auction departments can function—a jewelry or furniture department will separate out its “exquisite” from its “fine” property, for example (and technically, the house’s daytime and evening sales already do this separation of “fine” and “exquisite”). But will this condensing of 150 years of art really make a difference for the art market? Or does this model only further commodify art, and further stratify collectors: the ultra-wealthy collectors and everyone else? All I know is, it’s been highly confusing trying to track these sales, and I’ll go crazy trying to recap all of this, so we’re going to focus on these hybrid sales to see how they did.
At Christie’s in Hong Kong, where daily reported cases remain low, the auction house hosted a hybrid format of live auction—with dealers and collectors in the audience—and remote bidding via phones and online. With New York’s infection rate tipping towards 5%, bidding remained remote. The sale started off fairly strong in Hong Kong, with a handful of world records set for artists: Dana Schutz’s 2017 Elevator—which was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial with her controversial painting of Emmett Till—sold for more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring about $6.5 million (50,050,000 HKD), shattering her previous record of $2.4 million set last year.
Baba Diop (2019), a portrait by the new art world darling Amoako Boafo, sold for $1.14 million (8,890,000 HKD), shattering the record his painting The Lemon Bathing Suit (2019) set in February earlier this year at Phillips in London $880,900 (675,000 GPB). Like many emerging artists, Boafo has expressed displeasure that collectors are flipping his works for such steep profits. And the very much under-appreciated French postwar artist Georges Mathieu set a new record for his explosive Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria)from 1978, which brought $2.23 million (17,290,000 HKD).
The New York leg of the auction was a more muted affair, with several works hammering at or below their pre-sale estimates, including Andy Warhol’s Small Campbell’s Soup Can(1962; $6 million with fees), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée (c. 1917; $2.19 million with fees), and Robert Rauschenberg’s Drawing for Dante’s 700th Birthday (1965), which, even with the buyer’s premium, didn’t break its low estimate of $1.2 million (it sold for $1.014 million). Is it possible that the lack of live audience made for less energetic bidding than the Hong Kong side of the sale? Possibly.
The real winner and standout piece of New York’s offerings in the relay sale was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s stunning painting of his favorite model, Carmen Gaudin, called Pierrusefrom 1889. The painting came from the collection of automotive mogul Henry Ford II, and had never been offered at auction before. The provenance no doubt helped the painting burst past its estimate of $3–5 million, selling for just over $9 million with fees.
Sotheby’s hybrid sale, spanning 150 years of art, had a healthy total hammer value of $52.9 million against a cumulative pre-sale estimate of $40.1–58.6 million. The sale started off with a bang with Barkley L. Hendrick’s excellent Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, which broke through its pre-sale estimate of $2–3 million to sell for just over $4 million with fees—a new record for the late artist.
The next headline grabber was Alexander Calder’s fabulous mobile, Mariposa (1951). This piece came from the corporate collection of Neiman Marcus, which is selling off its holdings since filing for bankruptcy. The mobile sold for more than double its high estimate, or $18 million with fees.
The other big surprise of the evening came with Matthew Wong’s Pink Wave, a 48 x 60-inch oil on canvas dated to 2017. Tragically, the artist committed suicide in 2019 just as his career was taking off. But, as one might expect, the death of the artist makes for a finite inventory, which has accelerated his market: Pink Wave exploded past its pre-sale estimate of $300,000 – 400,000 to sell for $2.35 million with fees. Believe it or not, that makes it only the third highest auction result for the late artist.
Despite these marquee prices, the success of Sotheby’s hybrid sale is misleading: one might be confused by the mention of Milton Avery and Edvard Munch works in the press release, neither of which was included in the sale. Artnet reports that nearly twenty-percent of the entire sale was withdrawn prior to the auction, ostensibly because tepid pre-sale interest augured poor results. No bueno.
Are these hybrid sales worth it? I’m not yet convinced, but obviously it’s a new experiment that needs further testing.
2020 was a challenging year for the art world—galleries and art fairs certainly reported lower sales, and many arts professionals find themselves under- or unemployed. But, as we have seen with the ever-widening wealth gap in this country, the ultra-wealthy have been doing just fine. Sure, some have tightened their purchases and prioritized other investments in this economic downturn, and the market reflects some of that conservatism. But with artist records still being broken, and many millions still spent on blue chip artists, the .01% are still keen to buy art. Unfortunately, only .01% of galleries and artists are benefitting from this patronage. I may be one of the few art advisors you’ll hear say this, but here it is: we need the market to continue to contract before the art world implodes.
As it did for its other two iterations in Basel, Switzerland and Hong Kong, Art Basel of course had to take its Miami Beach art fair online due to COVID. But apparently the pandemic didn’t stop sales; according to a few media reports, Art Basel Miami Beach’s online version generally sold better than other virtual art fairs this year. Could it be the promise of the vaccine that spurred consumer confidence? The fact that the election is behind us? Or were the offerings just more enticing to buyers at Art Basel Miami Beach? Hard to say.
It turns out that scouring online viewing rooms (OVRs)–which are no different than websites, but they’ve kindly included pricing in a nice and very rare touch of transparency–is just as exhausting as going through these massive art fairs in person. Alas, my eyeballs were sore before I could see every OVR, but I’ve included below a few highlights from what I saw, and, when available, pricing info.
Andrew Edlin Gallery of New York offered some lovely postwar works, including this cosmically explosive 1957 painting by Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), for between $50,000 – 75,000 (24 x 24 inches). The American artist (1910-1983) was a private, outsider artists whose art was not discovered until after he died.
This stunning photograph by Kwame Brathwaite (American, b. 1938) at once draws on classic Northern Renaissance portraiture, but also feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Philip Martin Gallery (Los Angeles) sold the work in the range of $4,000 – 12,000, a great deal if you ask me, especially since the artist has an upcoming retrospective at the Blanton Museum of Art (June – September, 2021).
Pae White‘s intricate, luminous 42 x 42-inch mixed media work Luna (2020), caught my eye—and someone else’s, because it was sold by the time I saw it. White (American, b. 1963) calls these works “Paper Tapestry Paintings,” and her dealer, Kaufmann Repetto Gallery of Milan and New York, notes that the shimmer is achieved with car enamel over paper clay on wood panel. Preeeettty….
Can’t afford Joan Mitchell (whose untitled 1956 painting sold at David Zwirner for $1.2 million), or the other mid-century abstractionists? Try Elizabeth Neel (American, b. 1975), the granddaughter of famed figure painter Alice Neel (whose Estate Zwirner also represents, and sold Neel’s portrait of Aaron Kramer for $750,000). Salon 94 was selling some lovely pieces by the younger Neel at ABMB, including this fantastic acrylic on canvas, Scanning the Meridian Sun (2020, 46 x 76 inches). Sold by the time I saw it, so price unknown, but other abstract works by the artist were in the range of $45,000 – 65,000.
Where’s the party? Nicholas Party is blowing up right now: his 2014 StillLife of pears set his auction record at Christie’s this month, bringing about $1.35 million (10,450,000 HKD), and at Art Basel, artnet reports at least three works of his selling, including this arresting pastel on linen Portrait with Red Flowers (2020) from Hauser & Wirth for $300,000.
I do love me some American regionalist art. Hirschl & Adler‘s “Of the People” online exhibition featured figurative artists who “have grappled with the human condition in all its multi-faceted depth and complexity.” Among the lovely collection of 20th century works was this impressive 1953 canvas by Jules Kirschenbaum (American, 1930-2000), titled Without the Hope of Dreams (86 x 39 inches), available for $135,000. (Image courtesy of Hirschl & Adler, New York.)
I wish I could cover more, but alas, there’s just too much good art. I’ll leave you with this numinous and mesmerizing video work from Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani, b. 1969), Reckoning (2020; ed. of 7 + 2 APs). Available from Sean Kelly Gallery for $75,000. I have admired Sikander’s mosaic works, but this is the first video work I’ve seen. I dig it. The artist has a traveling show opening at The Morgan Library in New York in June 2021.
These are just some of the common descriptors for Elijah Burgher’s arresting work. The artist (b. 1978 in Kingston, NY) creates intricately executed drawings and mixed media works that blur queer imagery with mystical iconography and ritualistic themes. Before Burgher’s work, I had never considered the confluence of queerness and the occult, but operating as they do on the fringe of bourgeois society (like the avant-garde), and relying on coded forms of expression and interpretation, the queer and mystical make logical bedfellows.
Burgher works in both abstraction and mixed imagery of portraits overlaid with abstraction. There is something holy and innocent about his portraits, and his colorful language of abstraction, called sigils, are “private motifs readable only to the maker unless shared with others and, even then, only for as long as they can be remembered,” writes curator Claire Gilman. “A product of twentieth-century occult magic (although variations have been used since the Neolithic era), sigils were adopted by the artist and his friends ten years ago as a way of encoding queer desire. In this sense, they relate to the queer community’s privileging of secrecy and private initiation.” But in their vibrant display, the sigils do not alienate the viewer, but invite us to investigate their meaning.
For years the artist’s preferred medium was drawing–a medium that, with its gestural presence and record of time, is a ritual of creation itself. As a medium typically treated as an “exercise” or preparatory stage to painting, Burgher feels that drawing deserves more credit as an end in and of itself: “A drawing’s content is always held at arm’s length, not only because of the structure of representation, but because of the aforementioned promise of application–in the future and elsewhere, in real time and space, in life,” the artist wrote in 2013. “This is drawing’s link to magic.”
Dr. Clare McAndrew—cultural economist and mastermind behind Art Basel/UBS’s market reports—and her team recently released a special mid-2020 survey on how the COVID pandemic has impacted the gallery sector. Let’s take a look at the data.
As one might expect, “the business model of galleries—based fundamentally on discretionary spending and strongly dependent on travel and in-person contact—is uniquely positioned to struggle in the present realities of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states. With lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, in 2020 many art fairs that attract international audiences moved to online viewing rooms, and nearly half of gallery exhibitions were cancelled or postponed.
As a result, comparing the first half of 2020 to the same period in 2019, galleries reported a 36% drop in the value of their sales, with a median of 43% (see fig. 1). Smaller galleries, with a turnover of less than $500,000, reported the largest declines in sales. Asia was hit harder than other parts of the world.
Galleries had to permanently lay off or furlough between 27–38% of their employees in the first six months of the pandemic (fig. 2). Some were able to rehire about 5–9% of their staff. Small and mid-size galleries were already in precarious financial positions before the pandemic hit, unable to keep pace with what Jerry Satlz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries. And according to the Art Basel/UBS report, some galleries, especially in smaller markets, felt that public or government assistance was harder for them to come by than their peers in larger markets.
Unsurprisingly, in lieu of attending fairs and galleries in person, online sales rose from 10% of total sales in 2019 to 37% of sales in the first half of 2020 (see figs. 3 & 4). Whereas previous data indicated a spending cap of about $100,000 for online sales, according to the new survey, high net worth individuals (HNWI) are now willing to spend seven figures through online sales, as galleries that average $10 million-plus sales reported 38% increase in online sales.
Although overall sales were significantly down (fig. 1), a whopping 92% of the surveyed HNWI said they bought a work of art in 2020; 52% said they had paid prices in excess of $100,000 (fig. 5). And despite economic hardship endured across the country, 59% said the pandemic had increased their interest in collecting (31% said “significantly” so). They are certainly taking advantage of the “buyer’s market.”
As a result of their downward sales, and the apparent eagerness of the HNWI individuals to continue to purchase art through the pandemic, “the majority of galleries also shifted their focus in 2020 from widening their base of buyers to ensuring that they maintained relationships with existing clients who are seen to be critical to their survival,” the report states.
Art Basel/UBS report is unsettling to me, because the art world is a microcosm of the larger gross income inequality of this country. Let us remember that the economy is in a recession due to COVID. Millions of Americans are on unemployment, and according to Feeding America, 54 million Americans face food insecurity in 2020 (including 18 million children). Not only have many Americans gotten poorer, but, remarkably, the wealthiest have continued to grow their wealth in this recession: The Guardian reports that America’s billionaires grew their wealth an extraordinary $637 billion in just a 3 month period, from March to June—that’s equal to three quarters of all Black wealth, and more than all the wealth of our country’s 59 million Latinx people.
Similarly, Dr. McAndrews’s report demonstrates how the devastation of the pandemic impacts those at the bottom of the art world pyramid, so to speak—small galleries, art industry employees, and artists—while the wealthiest Americans remain largely untouched by the economic impact. For decades, the art world has structured itself to cater to the ultra-rich, and the galleries’ own admission in this report that they are focusing their energies on maintaining the relationships of their clients that are “critical to their survival,” underscores how the market is structured to cater to and depend on the ultra-rich.
Most art world professionals are probably relieved to see such healthy spending: after Sotheby’s online sale in June, one art advisor proclaimed to the New York Times that there was “absolute confidence in art as an asset class.” But the truth is, this apparently flourishing market is only benefitting a very, very slim portion of galleries, artists and buyers, as another art advisor noted in The New York Times: “Sales are down across the board, but there’s an incredible amount of wealth chasing the rarest of the rarest…There’s a real disconnect between who’s hurting and who isn’t.”
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “When it’s better for everyone, it’s better for everyone.” Such a simple but poignant statement. Just like the grander picture of American late stage capitalism that we find ourselves in, we must recognize that this gross income inequality and wealth hoarding is unsustainable. Art is for everyone, and we need to create economic and business structures that support a healthy middle class, small businesses, and the staff and artists who depend on them. It’s simply better for everyone.
To download a free copy of the full Art Basel/UBS report, click here.
If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.
In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.
Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.
To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.
Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.
I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.
I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.
Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.
I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.
A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.
“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.
In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, lithographic poster.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1893, lithographic poster.
In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.
In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.
Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.
In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.
I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.
And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.