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115 Years: The Manic Market of the Go-Go ’80s

Andy Warhol and Steve Rubell in 1984.


In 1987, when art dealer Paula Cooper told ARTnews the market was “good,” she was understating the matter. Here’s a wild ride through those transformative boom years.

January 1980

The . . . suggestion that art has become an industry—closer in character to the garment business than to violin-playing or the writing of sonnets—prompts another [suggestion], namely that it is looking more and more like a service industry, offering its favors not only to business and government but to the media. The ’70s were not distinguished for the originality or authority of their art criticism, but they were a rich font of art news. Sales records were constantly broken at the auction houses, with headlines the natural result of every escalation.
—“The ’70s,” by Franz Schulze


May 1980

The adjectives that describe the art market these days tend to be superlatives—words like “biggest,” “strongest,” “liveliest,” “grandest.” Auction houses boast of record prices at nearly every dispersal. Dealers speak of their “biggest year ever” and complain only of having too little to sell. Underlying the bullish atmosphere one senses a note of caution, coupled with questions on just how long the boom can last. But this has done little to alter the mood of the market. For now, optimism prevails. . . . “In the past the art market has been led by written art history. But today the market is revising art history. Many periods long overlooked have been reevaluated,” [New York dealer Eugene Thaw] said, and this has been reflected in the price of art.
—“The World Art Market Conference: Optimism Prevails,” by Terry Trucco


Summer 1980

Any chronicle describing the gradual creation of an artist’s market confronts the conundrum of what makes the art market work. Is it critical opinion? Publicity? Museum acquisitions? Annual exhibitions and retrospectives? Sales to collectors and auction records? None of these taken alone, but instead the momentum, the urgency and the avidity all these together inspire.
—“The Spectacular Fall and Rise of Hans Hofmann,” by Gwen Kinkead


Julian Schnabel on the cover of the April 1985 issue of ARTnews.

Summer 1982

Once [Julian Schnabel] took off, he enjoyed a rapid commercial success, engineered in part by a savvy young dealer named Mary Boone. Then came the imprimatur of the Godfather of New York dealers, Leo Castelli, who took on Schnabel as his first new artist in a decade. . . . The focus on Schnabel has been unusually acute. A tidal wave of publicity has attended his emergence—and, some say, helped to foster it. A feverish sense of the scarcity of Schnabel’s work was created by reports that his shows sold out before they opened and that collectors were waiting in line to purchase. His prices zoomed: the top price for a painting in 1981 was $40,000, up from $3,000 three years earlier.
—“Julian Schnabel: ‘I Always Knew It Would Be Like This,’ ” by Cathleen McGuigan


April 1983

[Sandro] Chia explained that he gets asked almost routinely about [Enzo] Cucchi and about a third Italian artist, Francesco Clemente. The “three Cs” . . . took Manhattan shortly after [the 1980 Venice Biennale], and now—now they get a lot of telephone calls from important collectors. . . . The biggest of Chia’s New York School–sized paintings are now selling for $60,000, or about $59,000 more than the Rothkos and Stills [one] could buy at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950, and three times what Chias cost three years ago.
—“The Last Hero,” by Gerald Marzorati


September 1983

Until now it would have seemed almost impossibly outlandish. . . . this four-year-old painting, by a 31-year-old artist no one had even heard of not so long ago, coming up for sale in the high-risk arena of Sotheby Parke Bernet’s auction of contemporary art. . . . When the hammer came down, the Schnabel had been sold to Maryland collectors Anita and Burton Reiner for $93,500, an impressive sum for the work of so young and so recently recognized an artist, however “hot.” . . . To many in the new wave of artists, the focus on hype by the media and parts of the art world is itself a distortion and disservice, threatening to draw attention away from the real issues posed by the art itself. “The art criticism isn’t about the art,” says [Keith] Haring. “It’s about this other thing—about the hype and the way the work is marketed and how much it costs and how fast it happens and how long it’s going to be around. They’re not talking about the art but about the phenomenon—increasingly making the phenomenon the thing.”
—“Making It Neo,” by Lisbet Nilson


Cindy Sherman on the cover of the September 1983 issue of ARTnews.

May 1985

Eleven Judds and 21 LeWitts, 23 Kiefers, 24 Clementes and 27 Schnabels: whatever one says about the collection formed by Charles and Doris Saatchi over the past 15 years, there is no denying its driving ambition. . . . Given the importance of the Saatchis’ collection, and the enormous resources they are able to devote to their acquisitions, it was inevitable that their actions would be closely followed. As [Leo] Castelli says, “What collectors like the Saatchis do has a tremendous influence on what other people do, and also on the market.”
—“Saatchi & Saatchi Go Public,” by Don Hawthorne


September 1985

“Artists are the focal point of the ’80s,” said [co-owner of brand new club the Palladium Steve] Rubell. . . . As artists become the subjects of increasing media hype, high visibility and upward mobility are defining their lives. What they wear and where they eat, live and play, as much as the art they make, are topics that attract the seemingly insatiable curiosity of a starstruck public.
—“Bright Lights, Big City,” by Deborah Phillips


March 1987

“The art market is good today,” [Paula Cooper] continues. “There’s a lot of money around. But many of the new collectors do not see art esthetically. They see it as a milieu in which to function socially, to score status points. Some people, I fear, collect for the wrong reasons. To them, art is a negotiable product in which they hope to double or triple their investment.”
—“SoHo Downtown Boomtown,” by Paul Gardner


February 1988

After the big auctions in New York this fall . . . sources agreed that the stock-market crash seemed to have had no major effect on the art market. “The market seems extremely strong,” said Joseph Helman, of the New York gallery Blum-Helman; “the amazing thing is that the stock market seems to have had so little effect.”
—“After the Crash: So Far, So Good,” by Richard W. Walker


Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in 1983.


January 1989

By the end of his short life, [Jean-Michel] Basquiat had achieved remarkable renown and financial success, and his works were in nearly every major private collection in the U.S. and Europe. . . . But Basquiat’s talent surpassed his notoriety as the rebellious young artist raging against the commercializing forces of society. Says Lowery Sims, associate curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan, “He has a new way of dealing with images and iconography that was original in spite of the hype.”
—“The Price of Fame,” by Andrew Decker


A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 72.

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