Artist Spotlight: In Memoriam, Robert Morris (1931-2018)

Robert Morris installation
Robert Morris Installation at Dia:Beacon, 2016 (recreating works from the 1960s).

To celebrate Morris’s prolific and varied career, I could talk about his roots as a founding father of Minimalism. Or I could marvel at his restless lack of complacency, that he continued to evolve and explore up to his last breath (he opened a show of new work at Castelli gallery four weeks before he died, on view through January 25). But instead of jumping into a full career analysis, I’m going to share one, illuminating story about the artist.

It was in my History of Aesthetics graduate class at Hunter College that I read that Morris (who, incidentally, also pursued an MA in art history at Hunter, and ultimately taught in the MFA program) issued a “certificate of de-authorization” when the architect Philip Johnson reneged on payment for one of Morris’s sculptures. In doing so, Morris declared the sculpture to be devoid of aesthetic content or meaning as a work of art.

Robert Morris - felt
An untitled felt sculpture/installation by Robert Morris, 2012.

The ballsy move presaged the Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA) and Banksy’s recent shredding shenanigans by decades, but also served as one of the most singular art theory anecdotes to get my wheels grinding: who has the ultimate authority to determine the cultural content of a work of art? Can the artist override collective consensus? Banksy’s intention to publicly destroy a work of art had the opposite effect; his sensationalized act made the work more famous and valuable (although Banksy seems perfectly fine with that: he did not disavow the work as he could have under VARA—which would really have made the work worthless—but instead “authenticated” it by renaming the work Love is in the Bin). Could Philip Johnson, or society at large, dispute Robert Morris’s dictum, especially before VARA (passed in 1990) gave him legal moral rights to disavow the work?

Robert Morris - resin figures
Robert Morris, “For Otto,” 2014-2015, linen and resin

And when the roles are reversed and an audience rejects the aesthetic content of a work of art (that is, consensus is that the work is not good or successful), who is responsible for that “failure”? Throughout the history of modernism, the general public and critics often did not comprehend—and rejected—modern art, and many avant-garde artists were broke and unsuccessful in their time. But it is essentially requisite for the avant-garde to operate on the fringes of society; and indeed, we have romanticized the bohemian “starving artist.” Society eventually caught up with the avant-garde, and “re-authorized” the aesthetic content and value of modern art, sometimes decades after the artist lived. So cultural authority is not only a question of “who” but “when”: what kind of staying power do artists and audiences have to pass aesthetic judgment?

In the words of Robert Morris (quoting Chekhov), “art should ask questions rather than give answers.” RIP Robert Morris, and thank you for asking the tough questions. You can also read his full New York Times obituary here.

Fall 2018 Auction Round Up: Algorithms, Women and Artists of Color Set New Records

The fall auctions—the barometer of art market strength—closed the 2018 year with a generally healthy showing: the major houses of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips racked up $2.1 billion in their New York Impressionist & Modern, and Postwar & Contemporary sales. This is stronger than the 2018 spring sales ($1.9 billion), but less than the 2017 fall auctions, in which cumulative sales soared to $2.3 billion, led by the astronomical $450 million selling price for Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Guarantees continue to be a rising trend that props up the high-end of the art market: according to ArtTactic, the value on guarantees for Impressionist, Modern Postwar & Contemporary art rose from a cumulative $554.2 million in the November 2017 auctions to $795.37 million for this season’s sales. For those who need an education, an auction “guarantee” is when third parties—or the auction houses themselves—put in an “irrevocable bid,” to use Sotheby’s terminology, guaranteeing that the work of art will sell, at a minimum, for the guaranteed price. If the third party is the high bidder, they win the work; if the bidding exceeds the bid, the third party will still make a percentage of the overage to their guaranteed bid. There is still much debate as to whether third-party guarantees help or hurt the art market (see these recent articles for and against the practice), but regardless of where your feelings lie on the spectrum, guarantees will likely continue to be common practice.

Van Gogh - jardin avec papillons
Vincent van Gogh’s 1887 Coin de Jardin Avec Papillons did not attract any buyers.

The Impressionist & Modern art market was a mixed bag this fall: according to ArtTactic, New York’s Impressionist & Modern evening sales were short of their cumulative low presale estimate by about $70 million, and were down 21.2% from the 2017 fall sales. It appears that the auction houses were aggressive in their estimates, as evidenced by a few high-profile flops: Coin de Jardin Avec Papillons by Vincent van Gogh (1887), and Pre-War Pageant, a 1913 colorful, abstract painting by Marsden Hartley, both failed to get a single bid. On the positive side, American modernist Edward Hopper set a personal record of $91.9 million for his 1929 Chop Suey in Christie’s sale of the collection of Barney Ebsworth (although as an American-made painting, this would not officially be counted towards the Impressionist & Modern statistics).

Hockney - Pool with Two Figures
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, set the auction record for a living artist.

The hottest market continues to be contemporary art, which accounted for more than half of the $2.1 billion sold in New York this fall (with sixty percent of the overall sales backed by a third-party guarantor). The biggest highlight was David Hockney’s 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which fetched $90.3 million, making it the most expensive work of art by a living artist sold at auction (shattering Jeff Koons’ $58.4 million record for Balloon Dog at Christie’s New York in 2013). Notably, the seller—British billionaire Joe Lewis— was so confident in the market strength of the work that he rejected some competitive third-party guarantees, and even offered the painting without a reserve (minimum acceptable bid). Although less of a household name, Jack Whitten, a recently deceased African-American artist, also set a personal record this fall, when his fantastic painting Ancient Mentor I (1985) sold for $2.2 million at Sotheby’s ($1 million beyond it’s high estimate). And Henry Taylor’s I’ll Put a Spell on You (2004) set a new record for the artist when it hammered at $800,000, four times its high estimate.

Whitten - Ancient Mentor I
Jack Whitten, Ancient Mentor I, 1985 set a new record for the artist.

These are just a few of the record-setting sales for African-American artists this year (see also my spring auction round up), and is part of a rising trend in the art world: the overdue reckoning of white men’s hegemonic stronghold on art to create a new cultural narrative that reflects a panoply of perspectives and voices. Museums are making a concerted effort to diversify their collections (and, in some cases, actively divesting themselves of all the extra “white guy” works), and collectors are paying top dollar for works by women and artists of color. In addition to the attention-grabbing shredded Banksy that sold at Sotheby’s London this fall (see footnote), British artist Jenny Saville set the record for the highest auction value for a living female artist when her self-portrait Propped fetched over 9.5 million GBP ($12.4 million) at Sotheby’s London. Although impressive, at about a tenth of the value of Hockney’s new record for a living artist, this made but a crack in the proverbial glass ceiling.

Saville - Propped
Jenny Saville, Propped (Self-Portrait), 1992, set the auction record for a living female artist.

And in other record-setting news: for those of you who subscribe to my e-blasts, you’ll recall that I previewed Portrait of Edmond Belamy as a lot to watch at the fall auctions. The first publicly auctioned, AI-generated work of art appeared in Christie’s October Prints and Multiples sale, exploding past its high estimate of $10,000 to sell for a whopping $432,000, perhaps heralding what could be a completely new collecting category. The sale raises interesting philosophical questions of authorship, and the nature of human creation. But the portrait is now at the center of a legal debate of its origin, as a 19-year-old Stanford student claims the creators (a French art collective called Obvious), stole his algorithm to create the portrait. Escándalo! Read more about it here.

Edmond Belamy
Portrait of Edmond Belamy, 2018, an AI-generated work of art.


Until next time, I wish you and yours a happy holiday season and New Year!

Footnote: I had a ton of people ask my opinion on whether Sotheby’s was “in” on this, so here it is: Sotheby’s would surely have performed an inspection of the piece, and there is no way they would not have noticed the shredding mechanism in the frame. Second, the work was installed above the phone bank in a rather awkward corner of the room, rather than center stage with the auctioneer, safely clamped down (which would have obstructed the shredding). This, compounded with the fact that it was conspicuously the last lot in the sale (and would thus not disrupt the whole auction if/when the event happened), suggests that Sotheby’s created the circumstances for the shredding to occur. I don’t believe that the auction house colluded with Banksy. As others have pointed out, it wouldn’t be Banksy’s style to collaborate with an institution; as a street artist, his whole MO is anti-institutional (exhibit A: the shredding was an anti-commodification performance!). But I think Sotheby’s suspected something might happen, and they knew that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Unfortunately, Banksy’s anarchic message was dampened by the fact that the shredder malfunctioned, leaving a half-shredded, but still satisfying, new composition. Moreover, the sensationalism of the event itself had the opposite effect of Banksy’s intention: the work is absolutely worth more following the stunt. But did Banksy really “lose”? This certainly helped his market. He could have disavowed the work under VARA (Visual Artists’ Rights Act), but he instead “authenticated” the work by christening it with a new name: Love is in the Bin. Everybody wins.

Martin Puryear to Represent the US at 2019 Venice Biennale 2019

Puryear_Brunhilde_1998_2000      Puryear_Bearing_Witness_1994_98

Every two years, the art world descends on Venice for the International Art Exhibition, one of the oldest and most respected art fairs in the world. An interesting aspect of the Venice Biennale is its nationalistic structure: a vestige of mid-twentieth century political chauvinism, participating countries each have their own pavilion* (a gallery), and select one artist (or on occasion, a few artists) to represent the cultural excellence of the nation. It is a major honor to be selected, and for the 58th Biennale di Venezia, the crowning laurel is going to the sculptor Martin Puryear. Puryear is the second African-American artist to represent the US at the Biennale (following 2017’s honoree, Mark Bradford).

Puryear was born in 1941 in Washington D.C., and from a young age, he enjoyed DIY and crafts projects. After college he traveled to Sierre Leone with the Peace Corps—a formative experience that would further his interest in indigenous crafts and working with traditional materials. He studied for a few years at the Swedish Academy of Arts, and graduated from the prestigious Yale University MFA program in 1971.

Puryear’s work resists easy categorization: rendered in natural materials such as wood, stone and metal, his shapes are reminiscent of nature forms as well as everyday objects. “I think there are a number of levels at which my work can be dealt with and appreciated,” Puryear has said. “It gives me pleasure to feel there’s a level that doesn’t require knowledge of or immersion in the aesthetic of a given time or place.” For the U.S. Pavilion, Puryear will create a completely new body of work, including a site-specific installation for the courtyard. The Pavilion will be curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Senior Curator of the Madison Square Park Conservancy (and with whom I had the pleasure of working on her Houdini: Art and Magic exhibition that she curated at The Jewish Museum in 2010! Congrats to Brooke). It is the first time that an institution devoted exclusively to public art is organizing the Biennale Pavilion show. To read more about the project, click here.

*Thirty countries have permanent pavilion buildings, including the United States. Newer members to the Biennale exhibit in other locations around the city. The number of participating countries is growing each year.

Images, left to right: Brunhilde, 1998-2000; Bearing Witness, 1994-98; images courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery website.

Spring Auction Round Up: Social Politics (Finally) Reaches the Art Market

There is no doubt that American society is in the midst of a new social upheaval. From, the renewed civil rights activism of Blacks Lives Matter, to the feminist surge of #MeToo, and the galvanized anti-violence and gun control crusade led by the kickass students from Stoneman Douglas High School, it’s undeniable: change is in the air.

But the conversation of inclusion and diversity has seemingly always fallen on deaf ears in the art world; for decades art institutions have stuck to a narrative of modern and contemporary art almost exclusively crafted and dominated by white men. In a recent study performed from 2016 to 2017, students at CUNY Guttman College surveyed forty-five of the top commercial art galleries of New York, and discovered that only 6.3% of all represented artists were black (only 4.7% were Latino and 8% were Asian; 30% of all surveyed artists were female).

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Njideke Akunkyili Crosby, Bush Babies, 2017. It set a record for the artist at Sotheby’s spring contemporary sale.

But in recent years, American art institutions have started listening to more these minority voices, and re-examining how they collect and display underrepresented artists beyond tokenism (read more about it in this 2015 New York Times article by Randy Kennedy or this recent op-ed by Olga Viso). And now recent auction records indicate that the collecting market is catching up: following last year’s $110.5 million auction record for a Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas, this spring season’s new records continue a rising (and hopefully permanent) trend in the art world that affirms the overdue cultural and historical value of works by artists of color.

On the sellers’ end, the Baltimore Museum of Art made waves when it announced it was auctioning some works by such modern art stars as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline, in order to create funds for purchasing works for the collection by women and artists of color. The Studio Museum of Harlem also sold works from its collection, but for the purpose of a new building project for its mission to collect and promote the black culture and artists. Their sale raised $16.4 million, and in the process set a new record for artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, when her Bush Babies sold for quadruple the high estimate, at $3.4 million.

Sothebys selling KJM
Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times on the auction block at Sotheby’s (photo from The New York Times).

Additional records were set for other African-American artists: Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times, a tableau of dark-skinned figures engaged in the leisure activities of the quintessential “American Dream,” sold for a staggering $21.1 million dollars to hip-hop and fashion mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. This sale broke the previous auction record for a work by a living African-American artist, which had been set only a few months earlier at $12 million for Mark Bradford’s 2007 Helter Skelter I, purchased by Broad Museum in Los Angeles at Phillips’ March sale. Barkley L. Hendricks’s portrait Brenda P also brought a record for the recently deceased artist, selling at Sotheby’s for $2.175 million. Other works by artists of color in Sotheby’s sale performed very well, exceeding their high estimates, including Julie Mehretu’s Conjured Parts (Dresden), which sold over double its estimate, for $3.4 million; Mark Bradford’s Speak, Birdman, which sold for $6.8 million, also double its high estimate; and Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #86, which exceeded its high estimate to reach $2.3 million.

Mark Bradford’s massive Helter Skelter I held the auction record for a work by a living African-American artist ($12 million) until Sotheby’s sale of Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times in May.

There’s no doubt that the art market is still largely shaped by the trophy-seeking collectors of the usual blue chip household names. But let’s hope these new curatorial initiatives and collecting trends continue to grow and support a diverse and inclusive narrative of modern and contemporary art.

Artist Spotlight: Danny Ferrell

For my inaugural artist spotlight, I’d like to introduce you to the work of Danny Ferrell, a Pittsburgh-based artist who was one of the great highlights of NADA this year (if you’ve never been to NADA’s art fair, it’s a great way to support small- to mid-size galleries and discover emerging artists!). Ferrell’s homoerotic portraiture has been likened to that of Kehinde Wiley, as both men challenge traditional notions of masculinity and sexuality.

Danny Ferrell, River Moon, 2017, at NADA art fair (photograph by Emily Casden)

Like Wiley, Ferrell turns unexpected, often marginalized figures into Adonises, softening each model’s image in romantic pastoral settings. His warm palette is sensuous and fresh, and I’m not the only one who was seduced by their beauty; Galerie Pact (Paris), which showcased the artist at NADA, said nearly every canvas by Ferrell sold out on the first day of the fair. So if you’re looking for a strong but affordable alternative to Kehinde Wiley’s million dollar paintings, keep your eye on Danny Ferrell!