The other day at a Christmas party, an artist told me an art dealer joke. Here's the short version: Devil goes to an art dealer, promises him wealth, success, everything, in return for his soul. Art dealer says, "What's the catch?"
Admittedly, it’s an old joke. It doesn’t really capture the 2013 zeitgeist—dealer-hating isn’t really the thing this year. Evidence for this questionable assertion would include the widespread adoption of the nonce word "gallerist," which was designed to separate the noble souls who grapple with the risky and difficult task of exhibiting new art from those barracuda who are simply in it for the money.
Money, however, does remain the enemy of choice for the art world in 2013. "The super-rich are ruining art for the rest of us… trashing one of our last hopes for transcendence," writes Jed Perl in the New Republic. Certain mega-galleries are like "death stars… hoovering up money and artists and monopolizing attention," Jerry Saltz says in New York magazine. And based on the writing about art in Artforum, fat with ads from galleries and art fairs, hell, you wouldn't even know the stuff has a price tag it.
Consider Nick Paumgarten's recent New Yorker magazine profile of David Zwirner, the 44-year-old, Cologne-born New York art dealer who has a staff of 120 people, several impressively spacious Chelsea galleries, and stable of top artists. His exhibitions are routinely praised. This year's additions to his lineup include the estate of Ad Reinhardt and the prolific 84-year-old artist Yayoi Kusama, whose current show at one of Zwirner’s spaces has visitors lining up outside on the sidewalk. Positioning Zwirner as the crown prince of the contemporary art market, the article renders him as particularly warm and fuzzy example of his profession, cultivating an atmosphere among his staff that is “eerily congenial.” Eerie, presumably, because the style of the stereotypical art dealer is so often rendered as cold-blooded.
None of this is particularly surprising, and so, in the quest to define 2013, what comes to mind is a maxim in French, the avant-garde's original language: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." That is, with each progressing year everything in the art world remains familiar enough, just bigger and grander, with more people and more money. The art world is once again in boom mode. Back in 2005, tongue only partly in cheek, I hazarded that prices would continue to climb forever. The same outlook seems just as viable today. Liquid capital floods into the art world, as the rich apparently believe that art is a good investment.
And so it is, if you judge by the headlines marking one auction triumph after another. Everyone knows the details, most recently the $142.4 million Francis Bacon triptych, the $58.4 million Jeff Koons balloon dog, and the $26.9 million Christopher Wool painting, sold right off the wall of the artist's Guggenheim Museum retrospective.
And more from 2013: Andy Warhol’s $104.5 million Silver Car Crash, a $58 million Pollock drip painting, a $50 million Giacometti head, a $46 million Norman Rockwell, a $44 million Barnet Newman, a $40.5 million Edward Hopper, and a $21.7 million suite of Cy Twombly drawings.
For what its worth, the dire consequences of supersized prices at the top end, widely foretold, have not yet been shown to have occurred. But that doesn't mean up is the only direction the market travels. Works by one retired star, Maurizio Cattelan, whose extravaganza at the Guggenheim Museum in 2011 was designed to be career-ending (if the artist is to be believed), performed relatively poorly. Unbought lots included the artist's famous self-portrait as a little boy on a tricycle, Charlie (est. $2 million-$3 million) and Spermini, another self-portrait, this one consisting of 150 smallish latex rubber masks of the artist (est. $2 million-$3 million). Cattelan's 2002 sculpture of two New York City policemen propped upside-down on their heads—a jocular reference to 9/11, according to the irascible art critic Charlie Finch—sold for $965,000, just under its $1 million presale low estimate.
The top end of the art market—and almost everyone wants a piece of it—is like a big casino. The record-setting Bacon triptych is something of a case study. According to insider gossip, the three panels were assembled for an investment syndicate in three months time by a couple of art dealers, who were given a budget of up to $80 million for the job. But no actual money was at stake, since before the deal was inked the syndicate had gotten an $80 million guarantee on the sale from Christie's. At a hammer price of $127 million, that's a nice profit at minimal risk.
One undeniable component of the boom is the mainstreaming of the art world. A Columbia professor of my acquaintance reports that he would survey his students back in the '80s as to whether they had been to a gallery, and only a few hands would rise. Now, he says, almost the entire class has attended some kind of art event.
Oddly enough, our era of headline art and celebrity culture hardly gives an accurate picture of the contemporary art scene. Art is always in the eye of the beholder, and that's not always reading the headlines. The real stuff happens underneath, incrementally, and is both local and global.
Walter Robinson is an artist and art critic who was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). His work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison, Dorian Grey, and other galleries. Click here to see his previous See Here column on Artspace.