Play-by-Play, Day-by-Day: A Recap of Frieze and the Auctions

Xin Li. (Patrick McMullan Company)
Xin Li. (Patrick McMullan Company)

Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator and writer. His writing has appeared in books on architect Zaha Hadid and artists Vito Acconci and Paul Thek, and he is a contributor to the British edition of GQ. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Every time you get on a plane prior to an international art event, it’s like participating in a communal crossing of a like-minded tribe. There are artists, private dealers, gallery workers and owners, auctioneers and museum curators. Oh, and collectors, better known today as spec-u-lectors.

On my last trip, returning from Miami Basel, I was confronted by a wild group of boozing collectors comparing drugs and gallerists, who were all banned prior to takeoff. Sadly I was too, though it was guilt by association: I had yet to have a glass. (Who said art has grown into a mature industry?)

My most recent trip took me to New York for Frieze and the auctions. Since moving to London 10 years ago, I’ve rarely returned to the city , other than for an exhibition I curated in 2008 for Zaha Hadid at Sonnabend, on the eve of the recession. And wow have things changed, and mightily.

My inauspicious welcome back was an incredulous taxi driver who was loudly mortified that I tipped less than 15 percent, whereas in London the knowledgeable drivers are grateful for anything. I’ve been away longer than I thought.

I checked into my hotel and dashed to the fair, which was like any glad-handing corporate function, as much about collecting people as art, though there were just as many that appeared to tuck in their chins and look away to avoid making eye contact with one another—or was it just me they were ignoring?

Vo's work at Goodman. (Getty Images)
Vo’s work at Goodman. (Getty Images)

One standout was the overhead hanging of shabby chic gold leaf on found cardboard pieces by market darling Danh Vo at Marian Goodman. There were Budweiser boxes and flags (it’s hard not to be drawn to art with flags, post-Jasper), and shards of text. People are furiously hoarding Vo’s work ahead of his François Pinault show, which will run during next year’s Venice Bienniale: insider trading in the creative sector.

Wyatt Kahn at T293, one of the current boy wonders (there are many more than girls still, sadly), puts uneven pieces of stretched linen back together like a puzzle, loosely resembling the form of a broken rectangle. There is so much fervor surrounding his nascent market that the dealer nearly bit my nose off when I asked him about the price. His reaction was worse than my taxi driver. This artist, who has never had a work at auction, trades for up to $200,000 already. Some coming of age now may not even realize that it wasn’t always like this.

How quaint it used to be, when dealers and artists were happy to be selling art, rather than spending their lives concocting fakakta ways of avoiding it. But it’s a new world today, and art is the only business where something sold primary might simultaneously be worth 10 times more in the secondary.

Another boy wonder, Artie Vierkant, born in 1986, is considered a so-called Post-Internet artist by some, though this (commercial) moniker always confuses, as it belies the fact that those in the category often use the Web as their source material. Mr. Vierkant is also another young’un yet to come to auction, but his prices are more down to earth, at $15,000 to $25,000 for constructivist collages on mirrors using colored metal magnet shelves from an unrealized patent that is filed online. The works were beautiful, compelling and functional, if you were so inclined. But they were sold out, so never mind.

That night I had dinner with a dentist/collector/art-deal facilitator I met off Facebook (one must adapt to the times) and was sat right beside the gallerist who nearly chewed my head off earlier that day. Though I’ve admittedly never seen it, my life seems to resemble a scene from High School Musical.

Installation view of Kahn's 2013 show at T293 in Rome. (Courtesy T293)
Installation view of Kahn’s 2013 show at T293 in Rome. (Courtesy T293)

At the auction previews, the art world was out in force, from old-school buyers to the new breed of (very) short-term investors. It was a self-congratulatory romp. Even a childhood friend I bumped into for the first time in decades said he makes more today buying and selling paintings than from his main business—soon he’ll be advising, no doubt. He probably out-deals me already.

In fact, it was the school pal that broke the insta-legendary news to me of Wade Guyton’s Instagram posts that depicted endless recreations of the very computer-printer-derived work coming up for auction later during the week. Was the artist lashing out against the speculator he considered to be unduly profiteering off his work, attempting to undermine the market by flooding it? The intrigue! Word percolated like wildfire as to the why.

On an unrelated Guyton matter, I had a tipoff though a mysterious Facebook account, like an Internet Deep Throat: “Kenny, the multi X at Phillips was restored. Phillips knew about it, yet sent condition reports downplaying the damage. Write about that!” I went wading through old Wade files from years past (I showed him in the 1990s) and found the very painting on offer and an ultraviolet image of a stain that resembled an invisible upchuck.

A little more digging (you need Kroll Associates nowadays) unearthed a friend who had actually tried to have the work withdrawn, attempting to protect the artist’s market from suffering a potentially bad result for the wrong reason. Another acquaintance protested: “Who cares if there was wine spilled. I mean if it was fixed and taken care of.” I began to wonder if he owned that very work. He continued: “In ten years and after multiple sales nobody will know about any of this; and nobody will care if he is in art history books.” Well, in 50 years the (for now) imperceptible Jackson Pollock splotch may rear it’s head and then perhaps someone might be a tad surprised. The work made $2.17 million on a bid from the floor and though it was unclear whether he was the purchaser, it elicited a high-five from Leo DiCaprio in a skybox above.

Some of the rhetoric you overhear on the sales floor is as priceless as the paint on the walls, like an expert discussing the “sightline, planes of color and dramatic upward motion of the brushwork flowing into the top of the composition,” regarding a Rothko, to which the collector replied, “Sometimes the photos of the work look much better than the art itself.” The flummoxed specialist was left, wind out of sails and sale, to say, “Yes, yes, you are right.”

And then there were the actual sales. In its two nights of contemporary auctions, Christie’s totaled $880 million to Sotheby’s $350 million, which is what you’d call a proper ass kicking—in all, a paradigm shift of a world record. The reason Sotheby’s got their ear-Loeb boxed (it’s been two solid years of being clobbered now) is as follows. After gradually gaining ground in the recent past, Christie’s had a breakout round of great sales followed by the corporate conqueror Dan Loeb trying to exploit the weakness in Sotheby’s shares and force change. Markets (and collectors) follow trends of upward momentum, of which Sotheby’s seems to have enjoyed little of late, hence the further trouncing. Among other reasons…

It didn’t hurt that Christie’s wielded a secret weapon. Hailing from the Asian office and stretched longer than a thin sheet of taffy was the inimitable former supermodel Xin Li. The ravishing, dark-haired beauty could be cast as a Bond girl, a Bond villain and Bond himself at the same time in the same movie and save a fortune for the producers in the process.

How can anyone read fiction, once you’ve witnessed Xin somehow handle four phones, with what appear to be only two hands? The auctioneer addressed her on just about every lot: “Xin, you are in?” Her name happens to rhyme with “in.” No one seemed able to resist her, to the tune of $215 million in sales.

There were plenty of murmurs after the auctions that the Chinese have issues regarding their actual willingness to pay, but I say, once the hammer goes down (and the figure goes up on Artnet’s price database), it doesn’t matter if they pony up the money or not—unless you are a shareholder, Mr. Pinault (who owns Christie’s) or a consignor, of course. It’s the public price perception that counts.

Various bits and bobs stuck out. Alex Israel rose from being an auction house employee to having his first work ever offered hammered down for more than $1 million. I can’t imagine that’s not a first. And Tauba Auerbach, who’s made a gradual, steady rise, shot up nearly 100 percent to $1.8 million, the great female hope against the Colen club (whose members include Messrs. Grotjahn, Guyton, Lowman, Bradley, Israel, et al).

And there was no escaping Tauba’s dominance this spate of sales; I was cornered in my hotel lobby to view an Auerbach on the floor above me. When it rains (as in Lucien Smith rain paintings), it pours. So don’t fold on your Tauba fold paintings just yet: better to stay out of the way of a raging bull (market).

Sotheby’s displays art on a human lazy Susan, with the male equivalent of a beauty at a car show on a revolving platform who waves her arms at a shiny new vehicle. I had a vision of the device, on which paintings are displayed over the course of a sale, spinning violently out of control till the attendant puked on a Picasso. After Sotheby’s dismal performance, which caused the stock to tank (further) the following day, Marc Glimcher said they should post a sign: “Under New Management.”

And then there was the friend I call the master underbidder, who acts like a fluffer in porn: he juices up the prices, then does a runner by sitting on his paddle. At least mega-museum moneyman Eli Broad is a well-mannered shark. Leaving a sale after bagging a work, he said to a famous collector seated in the front row in front of me, “I’m sorry.”

Installation view of 'Casting Modernity: Bronze in the XXth Century' at Mnuchin. (Photo by Tom Powel Imaging, Inc., courtesy Mnuchin)
Installation view of ‘Casting Modernity: Bronze in the XXth Century’ at Mnuchin. (Photo by Tom Powel Imaging, Inc., courtesy Mnuchin)

Although I staged a show entitled “I Hate NY” in London, I now realize how much I miss the city. On a single floor of a single New York building you see more galleries than you could see in a single day in London, and they are thick with people (well, London wins on that front). Going from space to space, I must have resembled a pimpled porcupine due to the constant chills brought on by the sheer quality and diversity of works on view throughout Manhattan.

One prestigious, high-profile young gallerist I visited, rather than celebrating that a sale was filled with some of his stuff, blurted out: “Did you see Xin, did you see her? I am in love with Xin.” Not too sure how much she (or that dealer) knows about art, but she’s become an instant artistic sensation.

Then there is the Larry G. behemoth, a juggernaut so staggering you can’t count his venues in New York alone. And we’re all the better for it. Behind his bookstore were Cady Noland’s 1990s works with silkscreens and cut-out aluminum supports, looking more contemporary than what’s contemporary. Throw in a smattering of historical Ruscha printed matter and works on paper and Richard Prince, in the galleries above, and that’s just Gogo. By the way, Mr. Prince’s “Canal Zone” paintings were surprisingly fresh and stirring, until I found a staircase and encountered a whole lot more. At that point they imploded into too much saying too little.

Basquiat, Twombly and Schiele at Joseph Nahmad was a profound, sublime show that no museum would or could touch (or afford). There is no sufficient way to view that collection of works other than to bring a sleeping bag and move in. There was a lifetime of material to uncover, all in the most intimate and approachable form, works on paper. Extraordinary is not strong enough a word—it was modest and profound at the same time, no easy feat.

Along the same lines was “Casting Modernity: Bronze in the XX Century” at Mnuchin Gallery. While in the process of getting stood up over the course of waiting 39 minutes for a meeting in the gallery that never transpired, I noticed a saleswoman appear out of the woodwork after spotting a collector in her security camera and alighting from a hidden room to intercept him. Despite being left to metal-detect alone, from Jeff to Giacometti, I was reminded of what’s to love about art and art galleries.

Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld is an unmarked-from-the-street gallery “as well as,” according to his website, “an independent curatorial platform.” Whatever that may signify. Showing there was yet another hot, trendy artist named Hugo McCloud, who looks like more Richter-light. The painfully cool Upper East Side brownstone was endlessly hip, and unattended to boot, so I ended up sneaking into Mr. Roitfeld’s bedroom and living room and having a right snoop around, checking out his collection of Mark Flood, Leo Gabin and a who’s who of the new.

I was always a curator who hated doing studio visits: being forced into an emotional dance, having to fulfill impossible expectations while expressing things I wasn’t ready to speak about. But I decided to do one despite myself, back in Brooklyn where I practically used to reside. Today, visits are as much market recaps as art talks, a big change from the past. I heard of buyers buying without wanting to look—that’s a convenient time-saver—and dealers hoarding works out of a show without notifying an artist so as to unduly profit on resales. All the while, as this studio encounter was transpiring, there was a girl peeping behind a stack of canvases, watching as an uninvited guest. She happened to be the artist’s less-successful studio mate. What happened to Johns-Rauschenberg camaraderie?

I went to the Whitney for the biennial and MoMA for Polke without recognizing a soul. Auction houses, purists will be sad to hear, feel more like home today: it’s where all the familiar faces are. I also attended an exhibition on a horse farm that was like Woodstock, without the hippies and for rich people, but fun all the same.

As I waved good-bye to New York and Lucien Smith’s career, after seeing his lousy new paintings at Skarstedt, and Kate Moss, whose likeness dishearteningly adorned my hotel lobby and was unceremoniously plopped down in front of Christie’s by way of an enormous outdoor Marc Quinn sculpture, I began to take stock.

Upon my return to London, my Victor Vasarely-collecting neighbor (mentioned in these pages in the past) kept sticking his head over the fence, interrupting my art recapping for some market insights. What were the lessons to be learned from the current art market, he queried? I recounted collector and Koons seller Stefan Edlis’s comment, “Buy low, sell high.” But there’s something for everyone in art, from connoisseur collector to collector of coin.

Oh and about those Guytons? Sotheby’s might have flamed dramatically, but not Wade’s flaming Us (and his other paintings), despite his best attempts to the contrary. It’s good to know an artist bent on self-destruction has no impact on his market. His work accounted for a cumulative total of $12,985,000 over the week. Play-by-Play, Day-by-Day: A Recap of Frieze and the Auctions