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Smithsonian Controversy Fuels Interest in Wojnarowicz Work

“Remind me to thank the Catholic League for making this artist so popular,” said Wendy Olsoff, co-owner of New York’s PPOW art gallery, which represents the estate of David Wojnarowicz (1954–92).

NEW YORK—“Remind me to thank the Catholic League for making this artist so popular,” said Wendy Olsoff, co-owner of New York’s PPOW art gallery, which represents the estate of David Wojnarowicz (1954–92). Olsoff was referring to the recent removal of Wojnarowicz’s four-minute video A Fire in My Belly, 1986–87, from the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Differences and Desire in American Portraiture,” which is on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., through Feb. 13.

The video includes a segment in which ants crawl over a crucifix, subject matter which sparked protest from the New York–based Catholic League. Several members of Congress took note, questioning why such work was included in the show, and on Nov. 30 the video was ordered removed by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough.

The controversy led both the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University to set up screenings of A Fire in My Belly, and helped to bring more attention to an artist who has had a somewhat limited following to date.

“This has certainly helped David become better known,” Olsoff told ARTnewsletter. Although “there hasn’t been a huge number of collectors calling in,” she said, several museums, art galleries and nonprofit art spaces have approached PPOW about exhibiting the artist’s work. With better name recognition comes higher prices, she added, and “we’re reevaluating prices on everything.”

Olsoff said prices range widely for works in various media. Early drawings, from the 1970s, start at $10,000. Black-and-white photographs, which were produced in editions of three to ten, are priced in the range of $20,000/85,000; sculptures are priced at around $35,000; paintings and collages sell in the range of $75,000/125,000; and installations (including paintings, sculptures and photographs) can sell for up to $250,000.

Olsoff says the gallery plans to reproduce Wojnarowicz’s videos in larger editions—the numbers are to be determined in conversations between the gallery and the artist’s estate—and they could sell for $1,500 or more.

Exhibitions of the artist’s work at the gallery have sold well, said Olsoff, who noted that buyers are mostly from the U.S. but there is interest from European collectors as well. The unique works remaining in the estate include photographs and some drawings and paintings. The gallery’s goal has been to place the majority of pieces it sells with museums or long-term collectors who are likely to donate them to museums.

Olsoff said the gallery handles some work on the secondary market, “but not the really good pieces. People hold onto them or donate them to museums. You don’t see the really good ones come up at auction.” The top public sale price for Wojnarowicz is $79,000, paid at Christie’s in 2008 for the painting Dung Beetles, 1986 (estimate: $50,000/70,000). Other top prices include $74,500, for the acrylic Dung Beetles II: Camaouflage Leads us into Deconstruction, 1986, at Christie’s in 2008 (estimate: $60,000/80,000), and $46,600, paid for the black-and-white photograph Untitled (Buffaloes), 1988–89, at Christie’s in 2007 (estimate: $6,000/8,000).

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