The Big Con: Walter Robinson and Chris Dorland Discuss the Art Market in Chelsea

Walter Robinson with a Jeff Koons sculpture.COURTESY YOUTUBE

Walter Robinson with a Jeff Koons sculpture.


Last night a crowd of concerned art citizens packed the tiny Five-11 gallery in Chelsea for a talk between painters Walter Robinson and Chris Dorland, who currently has an installation in the new storefront space.

The talk was cheekily titled Marketwatch, after the Wall Street Journal website, and after a brief introduction in which Dorland accurately described Robinson as the art world’s “much cooler and smarter Forrest Gump” for his ubiquitousness throughout New York’s art history, the two got started.

The talk danced around the topic of the art market (which, you’ll remember, really doesn’t exist, as a “market” per se, just a lot of little markets some with no overlap whatsoever) with Dorland making diversions into why modern art writing is no good (Reading great, dense art writers like Sanford Schwartz is good, he said, but also like “eating fois gras,” nobody wants to do it every day) and generally taking the view that money has come to have a great influence on the current landscape of what’s being made today. On this point Robinson generally agreed, but also didn’t see too much wrong with that, despite having coined the term “zombie formalism” to describe just this kind of situation. (“You want something meaningful and that’s kind of a real illusion, isn’t it?” he said. “Isn’t that sort of what the end of Modernism was supposed to put to bed? But we keep going anyway. Like why I paint cheeseburgers instead off trying to think of some new way of going about it, some simulation of originality. [Clement] Greenberg called it novelty art.”)

“They’re all little Daniel Loebs,” Dorland said of the new collectors, “They’re activist investors and they send around thousands of photos and they can actually raise the prices for younger artists. That’s probably very gratifying for a young artist, and for a young collector.”

“That’s good for us!” Robinson said. “That brings money into the business!”

“I’m not saying it isn’t,” Dorland replied.

“Oh, sorry,” Robinson said, “I’m not used to being on panels where I’m not in an antagonistic position.”

Dorland saw artists as having to market themselves more, and compared old headshots of Jack Goldstein, Anne Truitt, Lee Lozano and Robinson himself (“I call that my ‘Bob Guccione’ look,” Robinson chimed in) looking very cool and aloof to those of Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami (pictured with Pharrell Williams) and Jeff Koons goofing off in front of their art works. In between was a nice reactionary one of Frank Stella “looking like one of Robert Longo’s ‘Men in the Cities,’ very Mad Men,” Dorland pointed out.

But business is business and business is good. Robinson recalled recently watching a movie about Robert Scull in which you saw the avant-garde collector in his taxi garage before all the “beatniks and bohemians” who drove his cabs and you could see that Scull had “launched his art collections with the coins he could squeeze out of these guys and their taxi meters.” Then came Eli Broad who made his money with “cheap houses for working class people” and insurance, with Robinson claiming that both were basically businesses based on fear: “You gotta have a house and you’re afraid you’re gonna get sick and die.”

Compared to those causes of wealth, Robinson said he saw Steve Cohen, who takes his money from “super-rich investors,” as fairly palatable.

“The professional avant-garde is like The Sting,” he told the audience. “We’re doing a big con on someone like Steve Cohen, getting him to give us 25 million dollars. Don’t tell him okayyyy?”

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