Ah, 2005, what a year. Shall we start with the good news or the bad news? The bad news is pretty bad, so let's get it out of the way.
If you had to pick one word for 2005, it would be "cupidity," an ugly combination of avarice and ambition, especially when found at the very top of our most esteemed institutions. Worst of all is Paul LeClerc, head of the New York Public Library, and his advisor, John Wilmerding, a former curator and now trustee at the National Gallery of Art, who rushed to auction off the library's priceless art collection -- including two Gilbert Stuart portraits of George Washington, one once owned by Alexander Hamilton.
It's truly unbelievable -- New York's public library is flogging its 200-year-old paintings of the Father of the Country. What's next? The stone lions out front? They might bring a pretty penny! This astonishing crime, undertaken for a pile of silver, shames these so-called "custodians of culture" now and shames their legacy.
Cupidity is the word, too, for the leaders of our top museums -- the past and present directors of the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at least a half-dozen others. After decades of barely convincing denials, their institutions have finally been caught red-handed by the ten-year-long Italian investigation of the multimillion-dollar art plundering ring overseen by art dealers Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici.
While most of us want to have ancient art treasures at our local museums, it's not really necessary to turn our most cherished public institutions into ongoing criminal enterprises. The Met, to its credit if preliminary reports are true, is working towards a settlement in which cooperation, loans and scholarship would replace the frantic quest for treasure.
And it does seem a shame that the Museum of Arts and Design took a backdoor route to get approval to destroy Edward Durell Stone's delightful 1965 Moorish fancy on Columbus Circle, colluding with Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman Robert Tierney to avoid an official review. It's not as if the design museum, in its exhibitions, has demonstrated what might be called good taste. With all due respect, we'll take E.D. Stone over Ruth Duckworth any day!
Finally, a special citation for disgraceful behavior in 2005 goes to New York governor George Pataki and the right-wing press for their attack on art at Ground Zero. The right wing disgraces itself every day, of course, but in its absurd politicking over the 9/11 Memorial it purposely forgot that artists were among the victims of that tragedy. Artists were part of the World Trade Center community; they worked there, they had studios there and one of them -- Michael Richards -- died there. Contrary to the selfish claims of a handful of 9/11 relatives, art most certainly does belong at Ground Zero.
But on to better things, if that's what they are. Last year, in The 2004 Revue, we quoted art dealer and journalist Richard Polsky calling the art market "scalding hot" -- and the pot has continued to boil throughout 2005. As Charlie Finch wrote about the Armory Show in New York last March, desire for new art continues to grow, because "everybody already owns everything!"
According to Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Database, new auction records were set for more than 3,800 artists in 2005, from Canaletto ($32 million) and Constantin Brancusi ($27.4 million) to David Smith ($23.8 million) and Roy Lichtenstein ($16.3 million). The auction action has moved decisively from the Impressionists -- the best of that material is in museums and unlikely (in most cases!) to come to market -- to modern and contemporary art.
In 2005, an impressive number of "young Turks" have broken the $1 million-dollar barrier (in the art biz, which looks at least a century back for its inspiration, a "young Turk" is any artist who is still breathing). Thus, we have the new art millionaires, as determined by their new 2005 auction records: Cy Twombly ($8.7 million), Lucian Freud ($7.7 million), Chuck Close ($4.8 million), Andrew Wyeth ($3.8 million), Marlene Dumas ($3.3 million), David Hockney ($3.3 million), Louise Bourgeois ($3 million), Sigmar Polke ($1.7 million), Georg Baselitz ($1.6 million), Luc Tuymans ($1.5 million), Richard Prince ($1.2 million), James Rosenquist ($1.2 million), Christopher Wool ($1.2 million), Yayoi Kusama ($1.2 million) and Chris Ofili ($1 million). Honorary membership in the millionaire's club goes to Martin Kippenberger ($1 million), who died in 1997 at age 44.
Ah, it reminds us old-timers of the good old days -- you'd have a show, and hardly sell anything. Can you imagine?
What else happened in 2005? Well, we have kudos for our colleague Jerry Saltz, art critic for the Village Voice. What a troublemaker! He complained about art fairs ("adrenaline-addled spectacles"), called "Greater New York 2005" a "cotillion ball" that carried a "whiff of pedophilia" (so dedicated was it to young artists), said Damien Hirst's new paintings at Gagosian Gallery looked "inane," griped about the gossipy Artforum.com "Diary," compared contemporary art auctions to slave auctions and brothels, said the 2005 Venice Biennale was "big, baggy and bureaucratic" and damned the new Museum of Modern Art as a "beautiful tomb." On top of all this, he launched a new art category -- "clusterfuck esthetics."
Has he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism yet? Hey, you big-head bozos, are you paying attention?
Meanwhile, the Duchampian gesture -- a personal favorite -- was vigorously manifested throughout 2005. For his show at Paula Cooper Gallery, Rudolf Stingel left the space empty except for a black-and-white portrait of the dealer. At the Venice Biennale, Daniel Knorr added nothing to the Romanian pavilion (which still bore the traces of the show two years previous) and Tino Sehgal put nothing in his gallery in the German pavilion except white-shirted attendants who offered to discuss market economics with visitors.
The always dependable Mike Bidlo exhibited an entire suite of not-Rauschenberg erased not-de Kooning drawings at Francis Naumann Fine Art, and just this month, at Locust Projects in Miami, the young artist Justin Lieberman put up a show of "paintings" made from studio sweepings adhered to paper.
On the news front, 2005 had no shortage of premiere events. The year was kicked off by Christo & Jeanne-Claude's extravagant The Gates, Central Park, New York, an event that proved that everyone, yes, everyone now has a digital camera and is taking pictures. The sphinx-like Pop Art master Jasper Johns emerged to exhibit a suite of new paintings featuring the catenary curve at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea, a motif that Charlie Finch deciphered as a reference to hanging testicles. And RoseLee Goldberg launched the first-ever performance-art biennial, Performa05, in Manhattan in November.
The new hedge-fund billionaires made their muscle felt in the art market, personified by Steve Cohen, who reportedly paid $8 million (or was it $14 million?) to Charles Saatchi to buy Damien Hirst's emblematic sculpture of a shark in a tank of formadehyde solution. Speaking of extravagant purchases, the Judith Rothschild Foundation gleefully bought 2,600 drawings by contemporary artists for around $10 million, and gave them all to the Museum of Modern Art.
Last but certainly not least, let's remember our friend and colleague Steven Vincent, an art writer and journalist who met a savage end in Iraq last summer. Rest in peace, buddy.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.