Sunday, November 30, 2008

Picasso at 20



It is because she looks like my grandmother.
Or whatever, it's over a century ago,
Or it is now, fogged in short memory,



Pablo Ruiz Picasso   —  "Portrait de Lola Ruiz Picasso"
[4/15~5/15]/1901  —  Oil on wood
14 x 8.75in. - 35.3 x 22.2 cm

Picasso in 1901 at the age of 20.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What's Next?

Biff Elrod, "Met Steps 2006", 2006
oil on canvas, 48 X 48 in, (122 x 122 cm)
Everybody saw it coming, nobody saw it coming. Really, in truth, it is unlikely that most artists and gallerists would have been able to foresee conditions becoming as bad as they are today. High ranking officials within the government were blind-sided by economic events because they chose to ignore the warnings which preceded them.

Many younger artists and gallerists have only experienced buoyant art markets like we have had for the past decade. For them to assume "that's how it is" is reasonable even though it is incorrect. So I can sympathize with their surprise and dismay as they experience the current unravelling in the art markets.

We only saw the seven fat cows in Pharaoh's dream.

But for those of us who are older, perhaps a bit wiser, there had been signs, voiced concerns over frothy prices reaching into the stratosphere. Never the less, the cheerleaders for the major auction houses, wined and dined the affluent, assuring them the trend would continue. "There is value there"

Prices continued to rise, and rise, and rise. All the while, the insiders of Sotheby's were unloading their stock, month after month, share after share, there was value there? In the face of their manipulative hubris, the house of cards has collapsed, Sotheby's, and the others as well, I suppose, are under financial pressure.

We now see the seven ugly cows in Pharaoh's dream.

Where do we go from here? What's next?

Forget about, the talk coming out of the bankrupt auctioneer's mouth. Yes we will continue to see "record prices" for great works of art but the truth lies in the second tier sales, the afternoons, where prices and dollar volumes have collapsed. There is no solace there, when the leaders of the art-commodity market, Hirst and Warhol fail to make the bid. Shame?

Forget about, the dwindling ranks of the billionaires, the Russians or the Chinese. Forget about, the rash speculators driving up prices of the young innocents, profiting from the flawless skin of youths ambition.

Forget about the money game, the social jukes between billionaires pitching pennies. Prices are falling and it is not, as Eli said, a "half off sale" it's a market with no bottom in sight. Prices will continue to fall.

Biff Elrod, "Puppet Show Crowd", 2005
oil on linen, 56 X 36 in.
Where do we go from here? What's next?

In the face of fleeting moments of fame, fashion or fortune we may forget the source of this wealth, the fount of Solomon's song, the creators of that which we love and desire.

It is the artists who are the sources, the artist who is a source. The artists who sacrifice everything to give us a unique insight into the very reality of our existence, into a moment of quiet pleasure, or just make us smile for no reason at all (Miro).

In the frantic quest for career, for fame and fortune, for social status, we forget. We forget that art stands as one of the highest, if not the highest achievement of humankind. That while we may consign it momentarily as flotsam in the world of commerce, it ultimately comes to rest, giving expression to the soul of our fleeting historical era.

What's next? That is always the question. The moneyed collectors, grayed at their temples, are making their play. Casting their chips at the high stakes table they reaffirm what we, as artists, already know. What was.

Biff Elrod, "Life by the Tracks ", 2008
oil on canvas, 72 X 72 in.
What's next? It's what is being done now, in the studios or on the streets, whatever or wherever, time and life allows. This is the new art, the art the moneyed collectors of the future will lust after, but for now lies sprouting in the furrows below their horizon line.

What's next? While the millionaires fret over their lost billionaire status, artists continue working despite circumstance. They work, as always, with their generation's hope for the future. The artist is the source, the fount of creativity.

In this new era, with markets now tempered by past follies, the collector will gain new status through insight not fashion. The critical community must again rise to the occasion by providing insightful guidance. They must stake their reputations, and give a personal opinion of what they believe in, despite the pressures of the marketplace.

A flood has washed over the land. What lies sprouting forth in the fields, are the hundred million dollar artworks of the future. They are not being sold by Sotheby's or Christie’s, but by gallerists and artists across the land.

I'm not impressed by the rich collector's "eight million dollar bargains". It is an expression of aging impotency, and the fear of death which distances them from "wasting" the money on 200 works by "less established" artists. The money is squandered on a monument to their death, the venture capitalist has finally become the vulture capitalist.

I am aware that in past downturns, the high end of the art market has held up best and the less validated parts of the markets have fared the worst. While there is little reason to expect that this distinction will change, it might. In this economic cycle, prices at the high end of the market went hyperbolic and will fall much farther than anyone is now willing to admit.

It may well be that, until the high end auction markets stabilize, the best investments might be among artists who are less established. Discerning collectors may find that the best "values" are also more affordable and have less downside risk.

It is a rare moment for new collectors, for collectors who are inquisitive and daring enough to acquire and enjoy artworks which haven't been diluted and branded into mediocrity.

Genesis 41:26
Biff Elrod, a NYC painter and friend.
Joan MirĂ³: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927–1937 at MOMA (recommended)
Edward Winkleman's blog post which inspired this commentary.
What Is Art For? NY Times, Daniel B. Smith writing about Lewis Hyde.
In Faltering Economy, Auction Houses Crash Back to Earth by Carol Vogel for the NY Times

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The November Art Anti-Auctions

Claes Oldenburg, "Fried egg in pan", 1961
Painted plaster and aluminum frying pan - 2 x 15.7 x 8 in.
Lot #189 - Est. $40-60k - Sold For $52,500

Saturday update: After taking a closer look at the results on and Chelsea Art it's clear that the fall auctions have been a disaster.Carol Vogel writes in the NY Times,
"The Warhol market has been disappointing all week, and Phillips was selling three undistinguished paintings. The first, “$,” a 1981 version of the artist’s dollar-sign image, was estimated at $350,000 to $450,000. (At Sotheby’s on Tuesday, “Dollar Sign,” from 1981, was put on the block at $2.5 million to $3.5 million. Three bottom feeders bid on it, and the designer Valentino bought it for $2 million.) On Thursday, not a hand went up, and “$” remained unsold, as did another Warhol, “Portrait of R. C. Gorman” from the 1980s, depicting an American Indian artist in profile. It was estimated at $400,000 to $600,000."
Three bottom feeders?? For this to be the case, we need to have established a bottom in the art market. We are nowhere close. The economic conditions are far worse that the 1990 period. Prices have at least another 25% of downside risk before one can expect any sort of stabilization.

This is not idle conjecture on my part, the art auction markets are intimately tied to the economy, and world economies are in a freefall. The US stock market has another 20% further to decline before there is even a chance of a recovery. See my other blog "FutureModern Finance" which tracks the US stockmarket for my ongoing commentary on the daily fluctuations.

Yes individual artworks, especially exceptional pieces, will potentially sell for good prices, but everyone in this business knows that the aggregate art prices were in the stratosphere and now they are going to come down. For a more exhaustive look at pricing trends, see my previous post State of the Art Market-Analysis where I examined the un-sustainability of certain price trends and what one might expect as a reasonable return over time.

There is no bottom in sight.

Sotheby's (NYSE:BID) is under pressure financially and its stock probably has an additional downside risk of about 50% (From $8.85 on 11/14 to the $4.30-$5.00 range, FYI, the 2007 high was $61.40)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Matt Mendelsohn at the Lincoln Memorial

Matt Mendelsohn, November 4, 2008
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

The poignant photograph above by Matt Mendelsohn accompanied his brief commentary, Memorial Day in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times.
I used to be a photojournalist. And so Tuesday night, as some 200,000 Chicagoans gathered around a brightly lighted stage under the gaze of the world’s news media, I headed to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, expecting to find a crowd and some news.

Instead, I found 25 or so people who had made their way in the dark to the marble steps of the memorial and stood silently around a lone transistor radio. On the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, they listened, some crying in the drizzle, as Barack Obama began his address before the Grant Park multitude.
After the debacle of the last eight years in Washington, it is no surprise there were fewer gathered here, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, then there were at St. Marks and 1st. Avenue in the East Village. Much will be said about this election as time passes. Matt Mendelsohn has recorded a moment which should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Let us begin

Barack Hussein Obama has been elected as the 44th president of the United States. He won!

Barack Obama won 52% of the popular vote nationally, and 62% of the vote in New York state.  Here in New York City he won an astounding 86% of the vote. As you might guess, the city came alive last night, people were partying in the streets from the Lower East Side to Harlem.

The crowds partying in the streets at St. Marks and 1st Avenue.

Coffee and the New York Times this morning.

I believe Barack Obama won this election because he is a righteous human being. He won, because the people of this nation want more than hope, we want to believe again in America, an America that truly is the land of the free and home of the brave. The land of opportunity, justice and equality. Tuesday's election was an historic step in that direction. There is much to be done. Let us begin.

Monday, November 03, 2008

John McCracken at David Zwirner

Visual Music.

This was a beautiful exhibition of new works by the Minimalist sculptor John McCracken. Of all the sculptors who found their start in the 1960's John McCracken has consistently made the most enigmatically beautiful objects. Objects which exist almost solely as a container for color. Each work in this exhibition is composed of a number of elements, executed in his characteristic style, and grouped together to comprise a whole.

Taken individually each part is a rectangular bar of solid color, polished to a glasslike finish allowing the surfaces to disappear and setting the color free as a solid experience. The color of each part is contained within the surface layer of resin, this allows the ambient light to penetrate the surface somewhat before being reflected back to the viewer, as a result the color is very deep and intense feeling.

In these new works composed of several parts, the viewer experiences the individual elements and the overall whole. The experience I have is somewhat between a rhythm and a chord, each element sounding a clear chromatic tone and then harmonically resonating with it's neighbors.

In spite of the physicality of all these elements, the works have an ethereal quality, singing in the space at a glance, then falling silent. This was a deceptively simple and extraordinary exhibition by a visionary artist.

John McCracken, 2008 Installation View
David Zwirner Gallery

John McCracken "Flare" 2008
Polyester resin, fiberglass and plywood
Overall dimensions: 96 x 72 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches
5 parts, each: 96 x 4 1/2 x 3 inches

John McCracken "Rhythm" 2008
Polyester resin, fiberglass and plywood
Image Size: Overall dimensions: 96 x 106 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches
7 parts, each: 96 x 4 1/2 x 3 inches

Installation View at the David Zwirner Gallery