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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|The 1998 Art Market Guide rated Cindy Sherman a "sell" primarily because auction prices for her photographs, which are issued in editions of three or five or 10 or more, were starting to bring prices more ordinarily fetched by paintings. At the time, the record for one of her photographs stood at $66,300. Now it's $269,750. Clearly, the demand for her work has grown exponentially.
But it's not just Sherman -- it's the entire market for color photography that's expanding. Currently, there are about a half-dozen other artists who are "in play." Some are overrated, such as Nan Goldin. Others are more deserving of acclaim, such as Moriko Mori, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth.
Getting back to Sherman, the question remains: why does she have the strongest market of them all?
If you analyze the reasons why an artist becomes sought after, Sherman seems to satisfy most of the criteria. One of the first qualifiers is that an artist's work is innovative. Here, Sherman certainly succeeds -- the chameleon-like transformation of her persona is an original idea.
Sherman also deserves points for influencing her peers. In numerous surveys at art schools, you often find her name at the top of the list of influences. Additionally, an artist is also deemed desirable if the work retains its edge but is also enjoyable to live with. Once again, Sherman's work qualifies.
Yet, the bottom line is that we are talking about editioned photographs -- not unique works. It's pointless to argue about whether or not a photograph should be worth as much as a painting, or vice versa. But there's something intrinsic to the art experience about standing in a room with something that's unique -- something that cannot ever be duplicated. Whether this should give the one-of-a-kind object a greater value than the editioned work is a debate that's eventually settled by the market.
In many ways, it's less frustrating to analyze Sherman's work than her market. When Sherman conceives a new series, she attempts to create a fresh identity that will communicate a mood or emotion to the viewer. But from this writer's perspective, all she does is persuade me to focus on the process rather than arouse my feelings. I'm more interested in how she applied her make-up and fake body parts than the end results.
When she shot her initial black and white "Film Stills," the work was more subtle and completely about atmosphere and mood. When she switched to color, she eventually turned to shocking the viewer with tableaus of the perverse and grotesque. At that point, the work had become gimmicky. The imagery degenerated into a personal challenge to see how many ways Sherman could change her looks. In fact, a strong parallel can be drawn with how William Wegman dresses up his Weimaraner dogs and then photographs them -- clever, but ultimately hollow.
I don't understand why the public finds Sherman so fascinating. Obviously the art market does. In her show this spring at Larry Gagosian's Los Angeles space, Sherman exhibited some medium-sized portraits of herself disguised as various middle-aged women. In one photograph, she looked like a suburban housewife who was about to host a Tupperware party. In another, she wore so much eye shadow and lipstick that she looked like a Chanel salesperson's dream. Naturally, these editions of 6, priced at $30,000 each, sold out by the end of opening night.
Sherman's prices continue to rise because many critics and museum curators have pronounced her work significant. Once the Museum of Modern Art purchased a complete set of her "Film Stills" -- for the magical sum of $1 million -- the rush was on. Now, her individual "Film Stills" routinely bring $50,000-$150,000 at auction. It's hard to believe that at her first show at Metro Pictures, these were originally priced at a mere $100.
A strong argument can be made to justify the prices of the "Film Stills." However, the prices of her more plentiful color photographs are another story. The best larger sized color photographs now command $75,000-$250,000 at auction. That's obscene. As I have pointed out in the last Art Market Guide, for that kind of money, one can buy prime vintage works by some of the greatest photographers who ever lived. For $75,000-$250,000, you can buy key works by Man Ray, Carlton Watkins, Edward Steichen, Diane Arbus and a host of others.
Cindy Sherman's rating has reluctantly been lifted from a "sell" to a "hold." You can't argue with results. On the other hand, I think her photographs, especially her color images, have found their high-water mark. I can't envision Sherman's color works consistently bringing more than a quarter of a million dollars. Then again, I've been wrong before.
Recommended Reading: Cindy Sherman 1975-1993, by Rosalind Krauss
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com.