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art market abstract

by Charlie Finch  

Front cover

Richard Polsky
  Richard Polsky, 1998 ART MARKET GUIDE, Marlit Press, San Francisco, 208 pp., $20.
Richard Polsky compares his annual art market guide, whose 1998 edition is just out, to Bill James's Baseball Abstract, but it's more like Michael Barone's Almanac of American Politics, a bi-annual survey of the U.S. Congress. Full of useful and interesting information, it will provide raw material for an analysis of what makes the art market tick -- some day.

Like Barone, Polsky compiles all the inside dope on the top players. Thus, if you own a Joseph Cornell box, you've gotta display it on a table; Dan Flavin sculptures look ugly with the lights off; Eric Fischl can't draw very well.

More amusingly, in his search for logic in the wacky world of millionaire art collectors, the author presents his personal opinions as gospel -- Joan Mitchell is a great painter; Donald Judd stacks are a bargain; everything by Philip Guston is original; John Chamberlain is an Abstract Expressionist; and Joe Shapiro is a Minimalist. All debatable propositions that Polsky offers as givens.

His guiding maxim -- whether he knows it or not -- seems to echo one by Jenny Holzer (absent in this year's edition!): "Money Determines Taste."

As in his 1997 and '96 editions, Polsky gives a brief market analysis of top modern and contemporary artists. He lists each artist's auction record, their auction performance in the last season, and then characterizes them as "buy," "sell" or "hold."

Brice Marden is a "buy" because he's "currently producing the most important work by any artist in America." Eric Fischl, who is "still searching for the body of work that will put him over the top as a great American painter," is a "hold." As for Keith Haring, he's a "sell" -- he doesn't impress "thoughtful collectors who pursue work by historically significant artists."

You can see why art-world insiders like to read this stuff. It makes them feel superior.

Just a few examples. Last year he told his readers that Kiki Smith was a "sell." Perhaps someone took his advice when they unloaded her Pee Body sculpture at Sotheby's in May 1997 for a record $233,500, almost three times its high estimate. (By the way, in his analysis he wonders who bought the thing -- it was Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, as reported in ArtNet Magazine). Polsky's got Smith as a "sell" in the new edition, too, along with Elizabeth Murray and Cindy Sherman. I'm beginning to think he doesn't like women!

He gives Jean-Michel Basquiat a "hold," noting that the median price for one of his paintings "seems to hover around $250,000." His call here probably should have been "buy." Since his manuscript was completed, three (not one but three) Basquiat paintings have soared past the artist's previous auction record, most recently in London on Dec. 10, 1997, when Red Savoy (1983) sold for over $580,000.

How about an easy one? Polsky rates Johns a "buy," and indeed, Johns paintings did do well at Christie's Ganz sale in Nov. 1997, with two knocked down in the $8-million range. Johns' auction record, Polsky notes, is $17 million for False Start, paid in Nov. 1988; the top price for a Johns during the 1996-97 auction season now seems to be a bargain: $937,000 for a 14-in. square Target (1958).

But Bruce Nauman, another contemporary sure thing, is a "sell." Oops. In Nov. 1997 the artist's giant neon, Good Boy/Bad Boy (1986-87) went for $2.2 million, a new auction record for the artist.

Want to know a real art-world secret? People who spend that kind of money on art don't read books about it.

More questionably, Polsky's independence is compromised more than once. He opines that Art and Auction magazine is a "must read" without telling us that he contributes features to the magazine. Polsky praises Alexandra Peers of the Wall Street Journal to the skies, while using one of her blurbs on the cover of his book.

Consequently, one must look at Polsky's fawning treatment of Arne Glimcher, William Acquavella and Robert Mnuchin, among other dealers, with a jaundiced eye, mindful of Polsky's needs as a San Francisco private dealer.

Polsky's one new wrinkle this year is his most troubling -- long laundry lists of work by Stella, Warhol, etc., that are supposed to be his "selections." They read more like a private dealer's consignment wish list.

But don't think this review is a completely negative one. Polsky deserves kudos for undertaking such an analysis. It's a unique document, the like of which hasn't been seen since German critic Willy Bongard's Kunst Kompass of the 1970s.

Here's one more tip re the 1998 Art Market Guide -- buy it, maybe it will become a rare-book collectible.

CHARLIE FINCH is the New York editor of Coagula Art Journal and has coauthored the forthcoming Most Art Sucks from Smart Art Press.