Are You Looking at Prices or Art?

Experts discuss how market appreciation is affecting art appreciation.

Waferboard 12, 1996, by Richard Tuttle, whose prices have taken off in the current market after a steady, low-profile career.


On a recent trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Picasso and American Art” exhibition, with two collectors in tow, PaceWildenstein president Marc Glimcher stood listening as the pair assessed the works: “‘This is great, this is terrible, this is worth $8 million, this is worth $15 million, that’s an A, that’s a B plus,’” he recounts.

Glimcher contrasts the experience with a visit to the Museum of Modern Art he made years earlier with another member of the collector’s family. “They were walking through—just like people used to do—looking at Pollock paintings, asking ‘Why is this art?’ I would so much prefer that. At least that is an inquiry into why it’s worth anything at all,” says Glimcher.

The more recent response, he says, is, as in a trivia contest, intended to broadcast how much you know about the value of art. “I can’t help but think that these collectors were sort of the American Idol of art appreciation.” They really just don’t know what they’re talking about, he says.

Fueled by the influx of newly wealthy buyers, sales have reached unprecedented heights in recent seasons. Auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips de Pury & Company hit more than $1 billion in a two-week period last fall. Adding to the frenzy is the proliferation of art fairs and the near-rock-star status of certain young artists. Attention to art itself and the dizzying status of the market has never been greater. Given the hype and the superheated market, it is natural to wonder whether anyone—curator, collector, dealer, museum director, or artist—can look at a work, appreciate it, and evaluate it in and of itself.

In a recent column on, critic Jerry Saltz asked: “Are we liking certain things because we know that other people are liking them? How is the market affecting the ways we see art? How does it affect the way curators and editors see art? Does the market create a competitive atmosphere that drives artists to produce better work, or does it foster empty product?”

Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, believes that all of these considerations play into one’s perceptions. “The idea that we don’t pay attention to the market is naive. Everyone is interested in money,” Eccles says. “It’s just like any other market—it’s driven by crowds. Art is a pure market force in terms of economic theory. Value is given by what people are willing to pay.”

Noting that auction audiences typically erupt into applause at the end of a protracted bidding duel—it happened last November when Andy Warhol’s Mao (1972) went for $17.4 million—Eccles says, “I always found it funny. What are they clapping for? The artist? The buyer? The fact that something sold?”

Gary Garrels, chief curator and director of exhibitions and programs at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, describes a recent phenomenon in today’s market. When there is a gathering interest in particular artists or works, “you reach a kind of tipping point where people become uncritical and are simply following the lead of other people,” he says.

In fact, as Gérard Goodrow, director of the Art Cologne fair, complains, “most people are not looking at the art, they’re buying with their ears… they’re buying names.”

There’s little doubt that, as one art adviser notes, it’s just human psychology that “something looks a lot better when it’s $1 million than when its $10,000,” he says. “By the same virtue, if you buy something for $1 million and it’s now worth $50,000, it doesn’t look as good.”

During the ’80s boom, prices for then-hot artists Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel had skyrocketed well into the six figures by the time the art market crashed. “A fast run-up in price often makes people suspicious about the artist,” says Amy Cappellazzo, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “Collectors got hostile to Schnabel and Fischl—there was a backlash—but it had nothing to do with the art.” (Prices for Fischl, Salle, and Schnabel have since rebounded—to varying degrees—at auction in the past few years, and some of Fischl’s prices are even in the seven figures now, higher than they’ve ever been.)

Tom Eccles notes that at the time of the market downturn, these artists had not changed anything about their work to cause a critical or collecting shift. They simply “completely fell out of the discourse,” he says. “Prices started to drop, and they weren’t written about critically for another ten years.”

When prices decline to well below what might be considered undervalued, demand starts to go down, says Glimcher. People ask, “‘What is wrong with it?’”

Douglas Cramer, a leading contemporary-art collector who is on the board of MoMA, says that he continued collecting during the market downturn and maintained his belief in the work of the artists he owned. Nevertheless, he explains, “in a subliminal way, it’s got to affect everyone. Anyone would be dishonest who said it didn’t affect how they look at art.” For example, he says, “I always liked the color-field painters of the ’60s and ’70s. Did I not buy any for 20 to 30 years when they were down? True, I didn’t. Would I think about buying one now? Possibly.”

No one walks into someone’s house, spots an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can on the wall and asks, “‘Why the hell did you buy that?’” says Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries. “They think, ‘You must have a lot of money. Is it a painting?’”

Warhol is a prime example of an artist whose rising prices in the ’80s began to draw the attention of wealthy buyers, thereby boosting the status of the work in the eyes of dealers and collectors alike. When prices for the artist first broke the $1 million mark at auction in the late ’80s, says Findlay, “a senior group of art dealers began interesting a senior group of collectors in his work. Ten years before, he was seen as this drug-addled bohemian artist doing silly silk screens.”

Findlay says certain collectors “only become interested in an artist if works by that artist have been demonstrably sold in a particular price category and perhaps—although subjective—a fairly high price category. If you presented the work of an unknown artist to them and said, ‘You can have it for $15,000,’ they might not look at it, either literally or with any degree of interest.”

Queens Museum of Art director Tom Finkelpearl accepts it as a given: “It’s an inevitable human response to understand that there is a certain degree of power in monetary value. You look at this four-by-five-foot piece of canvas and think, ‘It’s worth as much as a house,’ or ‘It’s worth ten cars.’ People compare it to their own lives and how they spend their money.”

The reported value of objects “inevitably shapes the way we look, perhaps sometimes in stunned disbelief,” says Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. “It makes us look two or three times at something that we might not have paid attention to. It makes us rethink our judgment.”

More than one expert used the reality-TV analogy to explain how the current market is affecting the way people view art. “It is hard to look at a newcomer and not try to envision the market potential—not only on the basis of the work but on the personal circumstances of the artist,” says Ron Warren, director of the Mary Boone Gallery. “Reality shows are perpetuating the fallacy that everything is a contest and, more significantly, that every viewer has a stake in the outcome. The question then is whether one has a stake in looking at art or an interest in it.”

Market shifts seem to happen with greater velocity nowadays, observes New York dealer Marianne Boesky. “What I find interesting today is that consensus among critics, curators, and certain key collectors can jump-start a brand-new career overnight and can resurrect a quiet, long-standing career equally fast.” As examples, Boesky points to Richard Prince and Richard Tuttle. Prince “had a steady and strong core following, but only in the last few years of a very long career have we seen his market appear to escalate overnight.” Prince’s top ten auction prices—the highest of which was $2.25 million for Tender Nurse (2002)—have all been achieved in the past two years. Boesky says Tuttle is also “someone with a sophisticated, more under-the-radar following who in the past few years has seen a jump in demand and price point.”

Immediate market success can have a dangerous effect on younger artists, particularly those fresh out of graduate programs, who seem to be under increasing pressure to meet exhibition and art-fair demands. Richard Solomon, president of Pace Prints and a former president of the Art Dealers Association of America, says the growing number of art fairs is “detrimental to artists’ careers and to the whole perception of the health of the art market.”

Traditionally, says Solomon, most galleries hold exhibitions of their artists roughly every year to a year and a half. “It takes that much time for an artist to develop a body of work.” With the demand for exhibitions and art fairs “every two months, it’s just not possible for quality to be maintained.”

In addition, the proliferation of gallery waiting lists—and the demands they place on artists—has also become a source of art-world debate. “It has to have some effect on artistic production,” says New York–based art adviser Mark Fletcher. “I think it would be very difficult for a young artist to say ‘no’ when the market is saying ‘yes.’”

Goodrow adds that waiting lists mean an artist “is caged in,” since collectors want something in the same style they already know. “If artists have to stick to that style, it blocks the path of development.”

Fletcher says he fears that the market’s high-speed consumption will limit artists, particularly figurative painters, from having enough time to develop and experiment. “I would be very careful about overzealously supporting painters at that early stage of their career,” he says. “They need years and years of time in the studio to understand the properties of paint and to advance their language.”

Younger artists and dealers, however, are cautious about the whims of the market. “No one wants to be a market darling,” insists New York gallery owner Zach Feuer, who represents artists including Jules de Balincourt, Danica Phelps, Dana Schutz, and Phoebe Washburn. Everyone wants to sell enough of his or her work to survive, he says, but “no one wants that kind of attention.”

Market success changes “how the work is read,” says Feuer. “I feel like there is a backlash to artists who are accepted in the marketplace. People suddenly criticize them as being filled with hype and forget to look at the painting.” As examples, he cites Schutz and painter John Currin, whose provocative work has achieved overwhelming market success but has frequently sparked heated debate among critics, curators, and dealers.

The big question remains, does market demand for a particular medium influence what artists make? Nowadays you see a lot more figurative paintings at galleries and museums, says one art dealer, because that is what the market is demanding. Dean Valentine, a Los Angeles–based media entrepreneur who is on the ARTnews list of the top 200 collectors, thinks the effects are already visible. “There are a lot of third-rate, junky figurative paintings,” he says, describing them as “Neo Rauch knockoffs.”

Of course, the copycat factor is nothing new. As William Feaver, a critic and London correspondent for ARTnews, observes, “There are always the followers-on, the parasites, who try to latch onto someone who seems to be successful.” Feaver says there is an “awful lot of imitation” of artists like Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol, “who exploit their brand very vigorously. You can always spot them as being sequels or a ripoff, kind of a secondhand version with something gimmicky—like sticking nails into yourself.”

Some artists seek ways around the constraints of market value altogether. Talking to London’s Observer last March, artist Jan Fabre said he stopped making salable objects and turned instead to performances. “You do a theatrical piece, and after two hours it has no economic value at all. I find that beautiful.”

Eileen Kinsella is editor of ARTnewsletter.

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