Wanna know the truth about the art world? Then all you have to do is open to page 47 in the May 9, 2005, issue of New York magazine. There you'll see a large photograph of the dealer Matthew Marks, grinning like a Cheshire cat behind fashionable glasses. They're supposed to make him look brainy, but he's hardly what you'd call an intellectual: he's a power-hungry businessman.
Indeed, the article is about power not art: his power over artists. It's about the power of money over art, the power of money to make or break art. Marks is the money-sun that smiles with impish benignity on the artists who circle him in a magazine illustration like obedient little planets. They peer out at us from smaller photographs. After all, they're lesser creatures than that great creature called the dealer. They're part of his stable -- or is it harem? -- and he can ride them whenever he wants.
Do these "name artists," as the article calls them, get their "name" from their art or from the fact that they're represented by Marks? It's really debatable. The article was written to celebrate the fact that Marks "landed" Jasper Johns, "America's most important living painter." He must be, because "one Johns canvas, False Start, netted $17 million in 1988, which is believed to be the record price for a work by an artist alive today." Johns began his career exhibiting at Leo Castelli, and he's ending it showing at Matthew Marks, which leads the writer of the article to suggest that Marks is "Leo Castelli's true successor."
Is he? By his own admission, Marks doesn't "discover artists. Almost all of my artists showed with somebody else before they came to me." But Castelli discovered artists, among them Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, to name only a few. Castelli showed new, unknown artists, not old, all-too-well-known artists, many, like Johns (and also Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden) with nothing new to say.
When Johns first showed with Castelli, he was like a racehorse eager to show his stuff. Now he's like a show horse being put out to pasture. He's comfortably settled in his fame, like Kelly and Marden. The fame conferred by Marks has also made Nan Goldin, Robert Gober and Terry Winters comfortable with themselves. Sam Taylor-Wood, Marks' one true "originale," seems less and less original -- and more and more slick -- with each show. (Gary Hume is just boring.)
Only Andreas Gursky and Roni Horn haven't been softened by success, perhaps because they're edgy Germans. But even their work has a certain slickness -- a polish that lends it an air of faux perfection -- which seems to be the trademark of Marks' artists. Indeed, the more they show with Marks, the slicker they become. What slicker Abstract Expressionism than Winters' last show, what slicker Color Field painting than Kelly's last show, what slicker visual slumming than Goldin's last show?
Perhaps Gursky and Horn are also immune to Marks' ingratiating style, with its touch of condescension. Artists "like to think they're the center of attention," Johns says, and Marks "is capable of making artists feel that." Catering to their delusions of grandeur, Marks "spend[s] a large part of [his] day on the phone with them from home just making sure they're taken care of." It's a great strategy, but then there are the "rites of social derision," as the writer of the article calls them -- dinners at which the artists are expected to show up and render homage to Marks and his boyfriend Jack Bankowsky, former editor of Artforum. Will having a place at Marks' table give them a place in art history? Are the artists he exhibits the best artists of our time? Or are they perhaps just the current celebrity artists, bathing in the largesse of the current celebrity dealer?
Only time will tell, but then money has pre-empted the judgment of history, suggesting that it is meaningless.
Marks may be "conspicuously slavish in his devotion to his artists" -- false personalization at its insinuating best -- but there's clearly an ulterior motive to it. And there's also the "haughty remove" at which Marks keeps himself from the collectors on whom he's dependent. He's apparently "very good at imitating those silly people and the way they talk" or commenting on "what silly thing Aggie Gund" -- former president of the Museum of Modern Art, and thus a power that was and is -- "was wearing when he last saw her. She's a terrible dresser, and Matthew and Jack love to talk about it." It's all in the family -- the quotation is from art historian Robert Rosenblum, another member of the family -- but there's also the wish to humiliate and mock, perhaps because Marks and Bankowsky are neither artists nor art historians, but upstart art-bankers, which must make them feel inferior.
Marks is, in fact, anything but inferior socially, and he must have money to spare. "His father, Dr. Paul Marks, is a cancer specialist who between 1980 and 1999 was the head of Sloan-Kettering hospital; his mother is also a doctor and taught genetics at Sarah Lawrence." (Why doesn't she get a name in the article? A familiar sexism?) And, on the money side -- and also perhaps suggesting Marks' true taste, which appears to be for show business and spectacle -- "Marks spent hundreds of thousands of dollars (I'm not even sure how much; I don't like to think about stuff like this')" on a 2000 installation by a young English artist, Darren Almond, who built "the world's largest digital clock" out of a 40-foot-long shipping container.
Almond photographed the piece as it was transported via barge across the Atlantic into Newark Harbor. Marks funded the project on faith. Almond's drawings and photographs sell in the range of $7,500 to $15,000, and it will be "a long time before Marks earns back his investment on him." So there's a discovery that went bad, not that there was much good in it in the first place.
The spectacle of art and the spectacle of money, happily married, with Marks presiding over the wedding. No doubt the money Marks earned from selling "a large Richard Serra sculpture, consisting of nine black Corten-steel walls arranged in neat order" was spectacular, but when he saw the work in the backyard of the house of the Midwestern collectors who purchased it -- the Midwest is still virgin territory when it comes to skepticism about old New York masters (and new New York dealers) -- it looked less than spectacular.
"Look at that," Marks said. "It's just. . . on the lawn. It looks smaller when it's outside, I guess." Big is not necessarily better -- whether big art or big money (although big money is always better than big art) -- however much Americans think it is. Marks' disappointment with the Serra shows that he does, after all, have critical judgment, if only after he's clinched the sale.
Marks claims he doesn't attend to "stuff" like money, but that's nonsense: he's very aware of it. How can he not be aware of the fact that "in the late 90s [Gursky's large-scale photographs] broke records for prices fetched at auction for photography" after Marks took him on in 1996?
Marks' seemingly casual attitude towards money -- as though he puts art before money -- probably comes from having a certain amount of wealth in the first place, certainly enough to fund one small and two large galleries in Chelsea. It's a deceptive casualness, like the casually knotted bow-tie in the photograph that accompanies the article. There's the neat bow up front, but some strands of tie loosely dangle from it below, indicating a certain fashionable indifference to appearances -- but also the raw energy of Marks' ambition.
Appearance is everything in today's art world -- it's a world of first impressions with few lasting impressions -- and Marks' curiously photogenic appearance (is he a man trying to look like a boy, or a boy trying to look like a man?) suggests that money, art and the art media (let's not forget Bankowsky, whose years at Artforum were the years when Marks came to power) have become conspiratorially cozy with each other.
* * *
Marks is not a pious fraud, just a slick operator -- but one could say that a pious fraud is just what critic Peter Schjeldahl is. Writing in the New Yorker about the Max Ernst retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, he complains that ugliness in art enchanted the Surrealists." The words "ugliness" and "enchanted" hide a multitude of sins of ignorance. Schjdeldahl, a former sports writer, lacks the art historical knowledge to understand Surrealism and Ernst. He may not be Schjdeldahl's idea of a good painter, but then Ernst changed the idea of painting. And he did much more, as his automatism and hallucinatory images indicate. Schjeldahl is a pious fraud because he hides his limits behind a display of words. In his hands, words become slick, losing their credibility.