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Art Market Watch


by Charlie Finch
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Alone among auction observers, Souren Melikian of the International Herald Tribune is predicting, in the wake of this month's record auction numbers in New York, a coming crash in the fine art auction market similar to the famous, long ago Japanese real estate bubble of 1989. Back then, coincidentally, Cy Twombly doodle pieces were especially desirable, as they were last week.

As one who, in these precincts, first predicted the current boom in contemporary [see my The Coming Art Boom, Apr. 7, 2009], let me put on my crash helmet and try to divine why Souren has soured on same. One odd harbinger is the severe downsizing of Cindy Sherman last week. The pictures from her still controversial 1981 Centerfold series, which stoked all sorts of feminist objections 30 years ago, went visibly soft, as buyers unilaterally decided that Cindy is not a million-dollar baby.

This may be because collectors have arrogantly determined that they, the ultrarich alone, will not only determine prices but also the narrative justifying them. Hence, a dull, stupid work like Andy Warhol's Gun (1981-82) becomes iconic, because, wait for it, Andy was shot! Someone must have just informed the Emir or a Russkie tycoon or whatever dope purchased it. In contrast, Cindy Sherman's body issues are ahistorically generic.

Another conclusion of wealthy buyers is esthetic. Here, Melikian concludes that art advisers are wielding a specific cudgel to eliminate "secondary" works by Alexander Calder and Arshile Gorky from the price geyser, thus narrowing competition to a few big-ticket pieces at the expense of the rest of the market, money which will now be spent on yachts and racehorses, rather than a full basket of masterpieces.

I would go further than Souren and argue that esthetic masters of a secondary quality such as Robert Mangold may be eliminated from the high-end market all together: too much inventory that "looks the same." This leads us down to younger artists and their evening sale potential. In her Artnet Magazine report on the Phillips de Pury sale, Rachel Corbett focused on two of them, Dana Schutz and Sterling Ruby, subtly highlighting their market weaknesses.

For Schutz, whose new show at Friedrich Petzel Gallery is weak in its flatness, thin paint handling, immature subject matter and recalibrating of familiar tropes, half a million may be her high water mark at auction. I foresee similar problems at future evening sales for Cecily Brown, Elizabeth Peyton, Karen Kilimnik and the like. We may not know much about all those unidentified winning bidders, but we can easily guess that they are sexist pigs. The only women they like are those they can give orders to on the phone, whether bidding or hooking.

As to Ruby, diverse practice is a big disqualifier in wealthyville, because it inhibits branding, as does appropriation (which Ruby does almost by rote). The rot that Souren Melikian currently detects in the golden vessel of record art prices begins with the odor of too much good art befouling the persnickety nostrils of rich arbitrageurs who reject it for one or two signifiers such as Bacon or Lichtenstein or Twombly.

When a rising tide lifts but one ship, perhaps its cargo of gold might, one day, sink.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).