The art of Griftopia
Felix Salmon, Reuters
Dec 2, 2011 11:43 EST
I’m in Miami right now, for the annual bacchanal of conspicuous consumption that is Art Basel Miami Beach. There are two equally important things going on here (and by “important” I mean “not important at all”) – a tiny group of people spending huge sums of money on art; and a small group of people in extremely expensive shoes gossiping about who’s buying what.
But the money sloshing around the art world is, ultimately, small potatoes. Any one artwork might sell for an astonishing amount of money… (b)ut compared with the sums of money in finance, the entire contemporary-art circus is basically a rounding error.
(A) work of art about the way in which the entire financial crisis is utterly incomprehensible to anybody who doesn’t study it day in and day out for months. Everybody wants easy answers or villains, but in fact everybody was to blame, and Powhida’s piece is a great way of showing how difficult it really is to understand this stuff. The CFTC, for instance, has a prominent part in the work, and goes unexplained: if you don’t know what it is – and 95% of the people looking at the work will have no idea what it is – then you’ll begin to get a good idea of just how beyond your grasp the financial crisis lies.
Here at Art Basel, everybody is in their comfort zone – the art world knows how to buy and sell and backstab and gossip, and it does it very well. And wading into the belly of the beast, Postmasters has brought Powhida’s works down to Miami, the natural home for high-impact pieces for people with short attention spans. I doubt they’ll do very well. But you never know: if people are still feeling the pain on the condo they bought at the top of the market because they thought it would be nice way to make a profit while having a pied-à-terre down here, Powhida might just pique their interest.
When art galleries ratify forgeries
Felix Salmon, Reuters
Dec 3, 2011 12:50 EST
Patricia Cohen has uncovered the art-world scandal of the year: it seems as though Knoedler, the 164-year-old Upper East Side institution, closed abruptly on Wednesday in large part to protect itself against a $17 million lawsuit from Pierre Lagrange. Lagrange spent that sum on a Pollock which he then discovered contained two paints which had not been manufactured until after Pollock died. And now it seems that Knoedler regularly sold AbEx paintings procured by Glafira Rosales with the vaguest of provenance.
The point here is that the art market, like the stock market, runs on a combination of trust and storytelling ability. The most expensive artists are nearly always those who can be credibly placed into central slot in the history of art; one of the main reasons that Abstract Expressionists in general are so expensive is because they have spent decades as the very heart of MoMA’s collection, which presented them as the pinnacle of 20th Century art, the artists standing on the shoulders of people like Picasso.
When gallerists sell paintings, they tell stories not only about the work, but also about the story behind the work, conjuring up romantic notions of dealings between Robert Motherwell and Mexican sugar magnates, brokered by “man named Alfonso Ossorio”. So long as the institution selling the work is trustworthy, potential buyers tend to take such stories at face value – and, of course, they have a vested financial interest in those stories being true, the minute they actually buy the piece.
Freedman would also have found it much harder to sell all those Motherwells if she hadn’t had the full institutional credibility of Knoedler behind her. That’s how galleries can be such lucrative businesses to be in: once you’re established, you can literally add hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to the value of a painting, just by hanging it on your wall. A fake Motherwell in a garage in Switzerland is worthless; in an Upper East Side gallery, it’s priceless.
Until the forgery is uncovered, of course.
A metaphor our times.