Contemporary Art: Strength, or Frothiness?

They came like a one-two punch: First the Sotheby’s

auction, raising $254.8 million on Tuesday night, then the Christie’s

auction, raising $384.6 million on Wednesday night. The headlines, naturally,

went to the megastars: $72.8 million for Mark Rothko, $71.7 million for Andy

Warhol. But I’m more impressed by the depth of demand in the maket, with an

astonishing number of artists’ auction records being not so much broken as shattered.

The art world generally considers the Rothko to be overpriced, or rather priced

for provenance (David Rockefeller) rather than for anything inherent to the

work. I’m not so sure – Rothko’s a real blue-chip artist, and this particular

painting is stunningly beautiful. It really belongs in the Modern Art sales,

with pink period Picassos, rather than in Contemporary Art with Eva Hesse and

Richard Prince.

The Warhol, on the other hand, a disturbing and powerful painting from his

car crash series, is a truly contemporary work. Its astonishing price tag marks

Warhol’s official elevation to the ranks of the all-time greats, putting him

up there with Jasper Johns.

And buried beneath the Rothko hype was the news that a Francis Bacon pope had

sold for $52.7 million, obliterating the artist’s previous auction record of

$27.6 million.

Looking past the eight-digit sales to the mere seven-digit sales, however,

reveals the true frothiness strength of the contemporary art market these

days; it’s worth scrolling through the detailed post-mortems by Carter Horsley

(Sotheby’s, Christie’s)

for details.

At Sotheby’s, a particularly ugly Tom Wesselmann went for $5.9 million, more

than doubling the artist’s auction record. A good-but-not-great Basquiat would

have counted as a seven-digit sale except that it went for $14.6 million –

no previous painting by the artist has sold at auction for more than $5.5 million.

Rauschenberg, too, joined the eight-figure club, with his "Photograph"

selling for $10.7 million.

Christie’s was more impressive still. Cindy Sherman was surely very pleased

by the fact that one of her pieces went for $2.1 million, if annoyed that her

ex-boyfriend, Richard Prince, got even more, with one of his cowboys fetching

$2.8 million. There was also an interesting Sotheby’s versus Christie’s fight:

Sotheby’s set a John Baldessari record of $992,000, for instance, only to see

Christie’s shatter it by selling another Baldessari for $4.4 million. Christie’s

Prince was more expensive than the record price set the night before, $2.5 million

at Sotheby’s. And after And after Sotheby’s set an auction record of $1.1 million

for Cecily Brown, Christies beat it with a different one selling for $1.6 million.

Elsewhere at Christie’s, a gorgeous Damien Hirst pill cabinet fetched $7.4

million, a Lisa Yuksavage sold for $1.4 million, a Gerhard Richter sold for

$6.2 million, a Hiroshi Sugimoto sold for $1.9 million, a Donald Judd sold for

$9.8 million, an Eva Hesse sold for $4.5 million, an Agnes Martin sold for $4.7

million, a Susan Rothenberg sold for $1.5 million, a Richard Artschwager sold

for $1.3 million, and even a Marc Newson chest of drawers sold for $1.05 million.

All set new records.

It’s simply not feasible that all of these artists just happened to have their

very best work coming to auction at the same time. Rather, there has been a

wholesale rerating of contemporary artists which looks a bit like the wholesale

rerating of Nasdaq stocks in 1999. In 20 years’ time, a lot of these prices

are going to look idiotic – but some aren’t.

If you look at the art stars of the last bubble – Schnabel, Fischl, Longo

– most of them are still nowhere to be seen, as far as the auction houses

are concerned. Basquiat, of course, is the exception. With the present crop,

working out who’s the Fischl and who’s the Basquiat is the real multimillion-dollar


This entry was posted in art. Bookmark the permalink.