Money talks in the short-lived but sweet "Women: A Loan Exhibition from the Collection of Steven and Alexandra Cohen" at Sotheby’s New York, Apr. 2-14, 2009.
Sure it does. Sotheby’s is one of our favorite temples of conspicuous consumption, and Cohen, well, he’s the billionaire hedgie with the hockey rink in his Connecticut backyard.
The premiere presentation ranges from Edvard Munch’s 1895-97 Madonna, the cover lot of a Christie’s London sale in 1999, to Richard Prince’s Graduate Nurse, which appeared at Sadie Coles Gallery in 2003. It features three Picassos, including the Surreal-period masterpiece Reclining Female Nude (1932) seen in "Picasso's Marie-Thérèse" at Acquavella Galleries in Manhattan last fall.
Also on hand is Willem de Kooning’s Woman III (1952-53), reportedly bought from David Geffen for $137.5 million, and Andy Warhol’s Turquoise Marilyn (1964), said to have been purchased from Chicago collector Stefan Edlis for about $80 million.
Paul Cézanne’s dour Portrait of a Woman (1900) sold at Christie’s New York in 2004 for $10 million, Marlene Dumas’ 10-foot-wide The Visitor (1995), a scene of prostitutes awaiting a customer that includes the viewer in their ranks, sold at Sotheby’s London for the equivalent of $6.3 million, and Lisa Yuskavage’s cartoonishly magisterial Night (1999-2000) sold at Christie’s New York in 2007 for $1,384,000, the artist’s current auction record.
"Women," then, looks definitely at home in the auction firm’s 10th floor exhibition galleries, and can’t help but resemble a collection of art-market trophies. Press reports put the value of the entire group at around $450 million. In this light, it seems all too appropriate that Cohen’s first big ballyhooed acquisition was a major game fish, Damien Hirst’s pickled shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).
Sotheby’s curators, bless their hearts, fought the good fight against the obvious primacy of capital over connoisseurship. "Very few collectors could embrace such a range," said auctioneer Tobias Meyer, complimenting Cohen on his "enormous openness of mind" and "thought-provoking juxtapositions" of works. Sotheby’s 19th-century expert David Norman noted that the presentation gave birth to "unexpected dialogue and formal connections," while curator Joachim Pissarro hazarded that "Steve is one of the only collectors I know who spans not one but three centuries" in a pursuit that is both "passionate" and "relentless."
All this is certainly true. And the artworks do redeem themselves, one at a time, as esthetic objects. But still, the marvel here is the assemblage, the collection of prizes, the host of "signs taken for wonders."
In this roiling cauldron of art and money, I imagine that for once the free play of Capital can become visible, manifest not in the specific qualities of the objects on view but rather in their complete arbitrariness. And the curatorial conceit, "Women," which seems so impoverished at first, can then be understood as a term in an elemental dialectic of human desire.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.