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ESSAYS

Conrad Felixmüller

RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)

For the past ten years, the Galerie St. Etienne’s summer survey of “Recent Acquisitions” has been accompanied by a commentary on recent art-market trends. One of the most persistent trends during this period has been the pooling of ever-greater amounts of wealth at the top of the market. This phenomenon has been paralleled by the comparative stagnation of the middle market. (“Middle market” is a concept that is relative to the price points that prevail in a given collecting area; for example, a mid-level watercolor by Egon Schiele still costs considerably more than a top-tier watercolor by “outsider” artist Henry Darger.) At the same time, an investment mentality has created a feeding frenzy at the bottom of the market, as collectors compete for works by “hot” emerging talents, only to quickly drop the artists when they do not pan out. For those who remember a time when the art world was a slower-paced, smaller place, this new market feels unhealthy and aberrant. Yet while the current art market has its weak spots, the insular, narrowly circumscribed art world of yore was surely no less flawed. For better and for worse, globalization and its concomitant reshuffling of wealth are transforming the art scene.

 

At a time when monetary and aesthetic values have seemingly become inseparable, the emblematic event of 2006 may well have been Ronald Lauder’s purchase of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for a reported $135,000,000. The Klimt was, for a few months, the world’s most expensive painting, until its price was topped, in November of the same year, by the sales of a Jackson Pollock and a Willem de Kooning for $140,000,000 and $137,500,000 respectively. Yet the Klimt purchase generated far more media furor than the Pollock and de Kooning purchases, for a number of reasons. First of all, the Klimt’s price represented a greater jump from that of the pervious record holder, Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe, sold for $104,200,000 in 2004. And the Klimt, which had been restituted to the sitter’s heirs after a seven-year legal battle with the Republic of Austria, was a media star long before it was sold. Nonetheless, both in the U.S., and more surprisingly, even in Austria, there was a feeling among some critics that, while a nine-figure sum might be appropriate for a painting by Picasso, Pollock or de Kooning, this was an unseemly amount to pay for a work by Gustav Klimt. Lauder was accused of practicing checkbook art history, using his personal wealth to confer unwarranted importance on an allegedly minor artist.

 

However, at a time when collectors with unprecedented financial resources are spending unprecedented sums to acquire “trophy” objects, the price paid for Adele Bloch-Bauer I makes perfect sense. In fact, before too long, it may come to seem a bargain. The pertinent comparison is not one between the relative art-historical importance of Klimt and Picasso (or Pollock, or de Kooning), but rather between the relative importance of this Klimt and the three other nine-figure paintings. Adele Bloch-Bauer I is one of the iconic paintings of the early twentieth century. Almost all the comparable masterpieces by Picasso and others of the period are in museum collections and will never come out. But for the extraordinary circumstances of Holocaust-related restitution, Bloch-Bauer I would have remained permanently in the collection of the Österreichische Galerie in Vienna, where it had hung since 1941. Adele Bloch-Bauer I is probably the ultimate trophy painting in a trophy-obsessed world, and its like will probably not come to market again soon, if ever.

 

Amazement at the one-hundred-and-thirty-five-million-dollar Klimt stems from ignorance of current market dynamics, but the disgruntlement expressed by some journalists reflects a deeper dismay at the shifting balance of power in the art world. Increasingly today, art-world priorities are established not by critics, art historians and curators, but by collectors. Lauder’s purchase, after all, was not made in a vacuum; for some years now, broad-based collector interest has pushed Klimt and his compatriot Egon Schiele to the top of the modern-art market. But American universities and museums for the most part still stick resolutely to the art-historical narrative established during the Cold War period, concentrating chiefly on modernism in France and the U.S. Artistic events in countries that were, at any point in the twentieth century, enemies of the U.S. (e.g., Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia) are relegated to the sidelines in the academic discourse. It has been left to collectors to evolve a more objective approach to the development of modernism, one that acknowledges major contributions across the European continent. The positive results of this trend are exemplified by Lauder’s Neue Galerie New York, a museum that augments the efforts of the Museum of Modern Art (an institution also generously supported by Lauder) by showcasing Austrian and German art in a manner that MoMA neither could nor would.

 

But not all the results of a collector-driven market are positive. For the past century or so, the art world has been supported by four principal pillars: artists, collectors, dealers and the art-historical establishment (critics, academics and curators). From a wider historical perspective, the latter two entities are relative newcomers. The development of art history as an academic discipline, and of public museums, dates back only to the nineteenth century. Only in the twentieth century did dealers evolve from passive shopkeepers to proactive impresarios, promoting the often difficult efforts of the pioneering modernists with missionary zeal. Public resistance to modernism, coupled with the pressures of international capitalism, gave new importance to dealers and museums, both of which played key roles by superintending the distribution of new art and ratifying its seriousness. At varying points in the course of the past hundred years, the weight of the art world has shifted from one of the four pillars to another. Artists made the modernist revolution; dealers recognized and supported it before academia did; in the postwar period, critics became so dominant that Tom Wolfe lampooned their influence in his 1975 book The Painted Word. Over the long term, however, art-historical value is determined by consensus among all four art-world pillars. When any one of the four entities assumes disproportionate power, there is a danger that this entity’s personal preferences will cloud everyone’s short-term judgment.

 

Put bluntly, the danger of a collector-driven art world is that money will trump knowledge. Great collectors should ideally become nearly as knowledgeable as the curators and dealers who help them build their collections. But not all of today’s collectors have the passion or the time necessary to develop this depth of knowledge. Collecting, once the pursuit of a relatively small number of driven individuals, has become far more common among far more people. This expansion of the art market, made possible by the broader dissemination of concentrated pockets of wealth and by the globalization of art and related information, has drawn in players who do not have the focused commitment of the traditional collector. The exponential growth of the market, and the genuine gains realized by those who got in early, inevitably fuel the tendency, justifiable or not, to view art as an asset class comparable to stocks or real estate. Art has also become the greatest common denominator in the new global social order. Today’s rich are an international elite whose members can measure their cachet by the level of VIP services given them at Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. Anointed by the glamour that today attends the public display of great wealth, the art world has acquired the patina of trendiness that was formerly exclusive to the entertainment and fashion industries. The contemporary focus on trendiness and investment potential, each of which operates on a relatively short timeline, obscures the fact that lasting value in art accrues over the course of generations.

 

The corollary to a collector-driven art world is that the canon of ostensibly great artists is being largely determined by market forces. The huge prices that have been achieved lately at the top of the market are the result not only of new concentrations of wealth, but of the fact that many people are pursuing the same handful of artists and artworks. This is why the drop-off from the peak can be so steep, becalming the middle market and consigning lesser works and lesser artists to also-ran status. This is a market with a voracious appetite for alleged masterpieces, and little patience for historical or developmental nuances. It encourages superficiality: rather than collecting a single artist or group of artists in depth, collectors now often prefer to amass scattered masterworks: here a Matisse, there a Picasso, and then perhaps a Schiele. In an overheated environment, the art-historical establishment often finds itself chasing rather than guiding the market. The press must keep up with the latest trends, and coverage of social events and record prices often takes precedence over quiet critical reflection. Museums need the support of trustees, but the most powerful collectors no longer need the imprimatur of an existing museum.

 

If it sometimes seems that the art-historical establishment is missing in action, this is in part because, while the market has been aggressively constructing a new canon, academia has been busy deconstructing the old one. For several decades now, scholars have generally agreed that the white, male, Eurocentric canon that traditionally dominated Western art evolved from historical biases that are no longer morally or intellectually justifiable. Although this change in orientation has literally opened up a whole new world of aesthetic possibilities, it has discouraged academics from making qualitative judgments. Scholarship in areas that are useful to the marketplace, such as provenance and authenticity, has flourished, but overall connoisseurship has declined. Similarly, market pressures push dealers to become generalists, showcasing a hodge-podge of high-ticket items instead of specializing as they formerly did. Auctioneers, operating within a timeframe that seldom extends much beyond the next sale date, focus most of their energies on the highest priced lots. Novice collectors, justifiably wary and insecure, engage consultants who often know far less than the dealers and auctioneers. At every level of the art world, deeper knowledge and principled guidance seem to be in short supply.

 

There are no quick solutions to these problems, because they reflect an imbalance that can only be corrected over time. Such imbalances do, eventually, tend to self-correct. Current trends will fade, and inevitably many of today’s “hot” contemporary artists will recede into obscurity. Areas that were bypassed in the recent rush to the top may well come to seem far more interesting than they do now (not to mention more affordable). New standards and approaches will evolve for dealing with a more egalitarian, globalized art scene. In the meantime, our advice for collectors and would-be collectors is unchanging: Buy art because you love it. Educate yourself. Seek advice and guidance from experts, but don’t cede all decision-making to an advisor. Go to exhibitions at museums and galleries, go to art fairs, go to auctions, read, do your own legwork. Maybe the art you buy will prove to be a sound investment, but even if it doesn’t, at least you’ll have fun.

 

Just as our advice to collectors has remained relatively constant over the years, the Galerie St. Etienne’s approach to presenting art has not changed much. We try, in our exhibition program, to engage in an evolving art-historical dialogue and to provide a context for the art on view. The 2006-07 season was thus book-ended by two shows exploring the broader cultural scene in fin-de-siècle Germany and Austria. Our highly acclaimed fall show, More than Coffee was Served, examined the role of the caféhaus as a literary, social and artistic phenomenon. More recently, in the spring, Who Paid the Piper looked at the growth of the capitalist art market and the changing nature of patronage. Both shows were replete with masterworks by such artists as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, E.L. Kirchner, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, Emil Nolde and Egon Schiele. However, the goal was not to display these works as ends in themselves, but rather to use them to tell an interesting story. To coincide with the annual Outsider Art Fair, our winter exhibition traditionally deals with a topic in the field of self-taught art. Lately, we have chosen to show trained and self-taught artists side-by-side, in an attempt to test the boundaries between the two areas and to see if, indeed, any true boundaries still exist. This year’s theme was Fairy Tale, Myth and Fantasy, and the artists on view included Leonard Baskin, Ilija Bosilj-Basicevic, Marc Chagall, Henry Darger, Paul Klee, Alfred Kubin, Pavel Leonov, Michel Nedjar, Pablo Picasso, Vasilij Romanenkov Georges Rouault, Kiki Smith and Rosa Zharkikh.

 

Like most dealers, we have added a number of art fairs to our roster of activities, and recently the Galerie St. Etienne has opened the summer season by participating in the greatest fair of them all: Art Basel, Switzerland (June 13-17). As a result, our annual Recent Acquisitions show has come to resemble two mini-exhibitions, featuring self-taught art in the first part of the summer and then switching its focus to Expressionism. Typically, we rehang the exhibition around the Fourth of July, when much of our inventory returns from Basel. This year, the summer gives us an opportunity to showcase major new acquisitions in both the “outsider” and the Expressionist realms. Among the highlights of the show are a comprehensive selection of Weimar-era watercolors and drawings by George Grosz, the drawing Pièta by Oskar Kokoschka (a dramatic allegorical portrait of the artist with his lover, Alma Mahler), a rare, late still-life oil by Paula Modersohn-Becker, two stunning watercolor portraits by Emil Nolde, and a pair of watercolors by Egon Schiele, depicting the exotic dancer Moa (one of the artist’s most famous subjects) and her partner, the mime Erwin van Osen. Contemporary artist Sue Coe, known for her politically-charged drawings, has been experimenting with oil paint, and we are pleased to premiere her latest efforts: a haunting depiction of the execution of Saddam Hussein, and two canvases on the familiar (to Coe) slaughterhouse theme.

 

Printmaking, the medium in which the Expressionists created some of their most innovative works, has long featured prominently among the Galerie St. Etienne’s areas of specialization. Momentarily eclipsed by the booming photography market, prints today appear comparatively undervalued. While great Beckmann drawings have become extremely rare, the artist’s drypoints are accessible, fully realized artistic statements. Lyonel Feininger’s woodcuts are as aesthetically satisfying as his unique works, yet far, far more affordable. Käthe Kollwitz focused the bulk of her creative energies on printmaking, producing one of the most significant extant bodies of such work. Following in the tradition of the German Expressionists, the American artist Leonard Baskin created prints, sculptures and drawings that meld fluently together, ignoring the hierarchies that conventionally separate these mediums. Baskin, who will be the subject of a one-man exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne this fall, is featured in the summer show with a sampling of prints and monoprints.

 

Europeans dominate among the self-taught artists in this year’s summer exhibition. We are pleased to again feature the Serbian painter Ilija Bosilj-Basicevic, whose first American one-person how in 2006 was highly acclaimed. Rare paintings by the French artists Joseph Crépin and Augustin Lesage are among the highlights of the current exhibition, as are more extensive displays of work by Michel Nedjar, Josef Karl Rädler, Vasilij Romanenkov, Sava Sekulic and Rosa Zharkikh. Often overlooked by American collectors of self-taught art (who tend to favor artists from the United States), these Europeans represent an area that is ripe for deeper exploration. We are pleased to also be able to exhibit a selection of works by Henry Darger, Grandma Moses and Bill Traylor, though works by these American masters are increasingly hard to come by.

 

Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné or inventory numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.