During the previous six months, since the last installment of the Art Market Guide appeared, there have been significant changes in both the art market and the American economy. Last May's sales at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips brought a surprising number of records, including two Ed Ruscha paintings that handily broke the million-dollar barrier (Noise at $2.5 million and Space at $3.5 million), a Donald Judd that topped $4.6 million, and a Louise Bourgeois that soared to $1.4 million.
Still other records were set for Jean-Michel Basquiat ($5.5 million), Richard Tuttle ($1 million), Tom Wesselmann ($944,500) and Robert Indiana ($614,500). And then there was . . . Andy Warhol. While I hate to dwell on Warhol (there really are other artists!), his high profile and broad demographics make him the most reliable indicator of the health of the contemporary art market.
If there is any sort of trend in the Warhol bazaar, it's the surge in demand for the late work from the 1980s. While there's no doubt that his most historically significant work was done between 1962 and '67, collectors are coming to the realization that there is much more to Warhol than those five brilliant years. Throughout his much-maligned 1980s period, he produced a diverse group of works, including the "Dollar Signs," "Lenins," "Last Suppers," "Camouflages," "Marilyn Reversals" (1979-86), "Black and White Ads" (recently seen at Gagosian) and "Self-Portraits."
The "Self-Portraits," or "Fright Wigs," as they are generally known, will someday be considered the most important of all Warhol "Self-Portraits." While I say this with some prejudice, since I personally own a small example, nevertheless I believe this to be the case. Currently, most people consider the "mum voyeur" image from 1967 to be the quintessential Warhol self-portrait. These paintings portray Andy, with his fingers over his mouth, as an artist who is both a silent observer and one who harbors a deep secret. In May, at Sotheby's, a beautiful red and blue 22 x 22 in. example shattered the record for this series to sell for $1.7 million.
The "Fright Wigs," which feature Warhol with his hair standing on end as if he had stuck his finger in a light socket, carry greater resonance. One look into Warhol's eyes and you see an artist obsessed with death -- his own (he had survived an attempt on his life), in his paintings (the "Death and Disaster" series), and possible anticipation of his future demise (he was only a year away from the end of his life).
Recently, the auction market acknowledged the significance of these works. During the May auctions at Phillips, a huge red "Fright Wig" (108 x 108 in.), which was included in the premiere of this series at Anthony d'Offay in London, sold for $3.1 million. That same week, a yellow, smaller example (80 x 80 in.), that graced the cover of Sotheby's evening sale catalogue, catapulted over its $1.5 million-$2 million estimate to sell for $3 million. If these two prices are an indicator of the future market for late Warhols, then the best is yet to come.
Another recent factor in the growing demand for Warhols is the remarkable retrospective that opened this summer at MOCA Los Angeles (on view till Aug. 18). Even though this exhibition doesn't have the encyclopedic diversity of the 1989 overview at MoMA, it feels like a tighter, more coherent show. By including fewer works, the organizer, Heiner Bastian, has created a show that encourages the viewer to linger and really savor the paintings. Even though most observers are familiar with much of the imagery, it is still amazing how fresh everything looks. Just when you think you couldn't stand to see another Flowers painting, there are six more -- and they look fantastic.
Not that the Warhol market needs any help, but this fall, the United States Postal Service will release a postage stamp honoring him. The new commemorative will feature -- surprise -- a Self-portrait (from 1964).
Moving on from Warhol, it's interesting to note that Christie's has announced that it has decided to follow Sotheby's example and combine its post-war and contemporary art departments. Now, instead of having two tedious evening sales, Christie's will fold its finest selections from both categories into one evening sale -- just like Sotheby's. However, Christie's will separate its day sales. The morning sale will focus on post-war material, with the afternoon sale featuring contemporary art.
As for potential changes in the art market and how they might relate to the current difficult economy, there are a number of differing views. Despite the fact that prognosticating is hazardous, my personal take is that art will hold its value. I base this opinion on comparing what's currently happening with the market versus what happened during the last recession, which began with the May 1990 sales. Back then, the scene was dominated by speculators who bought indiscriminately. It didn't matter which Ed Ruscha you acquired -- as long as you bought one. Currently, the market has evolved into a pursuit of only those works by Ruscha with the right imagery. In other words, the art market is now about connoisseurship -- which is what collecting should be about.
Assuming the Dow doesn't do something catastrophic, like fall below 5,000, there's no reason to believe that the high prices we witnessed last May were an aberration. Skeptics might point out that Ruscha shouldn't be bringing $3 million for a major painting. But why shouldn't he? The reality is that key works from the 1960s, by the most important artists to come out of that era, are becoming exceedingly rare. In fact, one of the multimillion-dollar Ruschas, Noise, will likely enter the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's collection -- removing yet another major Pop painting from the market. This sort of scenario is happening over and over again on a monthly basis.
Despite the recent stock market woes, there is no reason why first-rate works of art by the better artists won't retain their value. Chances are the market peaked last May. Yet, even if art prices stay at their current level during the upcoming November auctions -- or even drop 10 percent -- it's still fine, because prices have risen tremendously over the last two years.
In the current state of rocky economic affairs, other than possibly buying a home, where else can you put your money that allows you to both enjoy it on a daily basis and still have it retain at least 90 percent of its core value?