Never Mind the Griping, Here’s the Art Market

What do Gerhard Richter and Jacob Kassay have in common?

In an interview, Mr. Richter once said that Marcel Duchamp had “killed painting,” and that in response he had dedicated his own lifetime to trying to resurrect it. And resurrect it he did by painting photography-based figurative works with creepy WWII German imagery like his Nazi uniformed uncle Rudi, and the Allies’ methodical bombing of Cologne. A roomful of paintings of the tragic government authorized murders of the Baader Meinhof terrorist gang weren’t my personal favorites, but they certainly are haunting. Mr. Richter has always alternated between this dark and disturbing photography-based  practice and abstract paintings made with sponges with which he  “squeegees” paint in exquisite colors across the layered canvas. (Some of these have sold for over $10 million.) Seeing the exhibition, I understood for the first time this counterpart to his figurative work—how the beautiful color abstractions serve as a kind of therapy for someone buried in his own nightmares and the weight of art history. The show successfully alternated between the two styles in a way that made me understand how he kept his sanity while suffering from such haunting memories.

But in a rare press conference he gave before this show he said, referring to the $10-14 million pre-sale estimate on his 1982 candle painting, Kerze (Candle) which was to be auctioned at Christie’s during Frieze week, “it’s just as absurd as the banking crisis.” He then added, “it’s impossible to understand and it’s daft.” Regarding the art market, he managed to throw it, too, a solid undercut by saying that though the market had changed in the last few years, “it became worse.” Strong words from a man who shows at the famous Marian Goodman Gallery where collectors line up for his work, and pay over a million dollars a painting. If an artist doesn’t like his prices, I would suggest he fix the situation by lowering them, or by giving his work to public institutions so that the precious canvases no longer have to serve the whims of the haute bourgeoisie.

In short, I don’t agree with Mr. Richter. His work is fantastic, and so it’s well worth whatever someone can afford to pay for it. Frankly I only wish I could live with a few of those beautiful works in my own living room.

A few weeks ago, in an article in the New Yorker, Jacob Kassay, the young artist whose work has been setting shockingly high prices at auction recently with his silver paintings, said, “all collectors have is money.” I find that somewhat insulting, coming from a 27 year old painter, one who only hit our radar screen because his works shot from $10,000 to a $250,000 in under a year. I caught up with him this week in London, where he had been granted a full show at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); quite an honor for a kid London had almost never seen, or even heard of.

The show was worth seeing because, contrary to the critical view that he is simply copying Swiss conceptual artist Rudolfs Stingel, Mr. Kassay instead spoke, in a lecture, about his references to the under-appreciated minimalist painter Jo Baer as well as the venerable Ellsworth Kelly. The good looking and well spoken young man expressed his interest in light and reflectivity as well as perception, dimension and space. If he succeeds in forging a career, he will join a new generation of artists who are revisiting Minimalism; if not, he’ll be a glowing silver flash in the pan, but one we’ll not soon forget.

I myself haven’t made up my mind about him. I would prefer to wait to see, and give him time, but the hype and the hoopla are definitely big-time fun. I managed to throw a dart at him during his talk by asking him if he had been misquoted with respect to “collector’s money,” to which he answered that he stood by his statement because he needed to protect himself from issues of money and the market in order to focus on his practice. It’s a refrain we’ve heard before, and it sounds nice if you’re willing to pretend you’ve forgotten that the only reason everyone’s talking about you is because you’re a twenty-to-one winner on the auction block.

Between dealers and auction houses that are flooding the market, and artists who complain that their auction prices are too high while they indirectly benefit from them, how can I help but wonder how people who live in glass houses manage to throw so many stones? In fact, Richter has even used panes of glass to make sculptures that refer to the visual blurring of perception, all referencing, of course, Marcel Duchamp’s famous Large Glass. I found them interesting but unconvincing; he’s just not a good sculptor. And while I don’t care for Kassay’s moaning about all the auction interest the world has heaped on him, I thought his installation of silver paintings at the ICA was original and even promising.

Never Mind the Griping, Here’s the Art Market