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Art Market Watch

by Daniel Grant
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“Installation pieces are problematic,” said veteran Chelsea art dealer Renato Danese, an understatement if there ever was one. He was talking about the kind of 3D artworks that sprawl throughout the gallery space, and may well be site-specific.

They are also problematic for another reason -- they can be hard to sell. “It’s almost impossible to sell a whole installation,” said Vanessa Rubinick, manager for the Hauser & Wirth art gallery in Zurich. Installations are too big and ungainly for most collectors, and tend to be more expensive than art considered “houseable,” to use a term of art.

Dealers hope that such white elephants might inspire the purchase of more manageably sized works in the back room. Otherwise, when the gallery exhibition ends, most installations are disassembled and either returned to the artist’s studio or put in storage.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that disparate elements from some of Terence Koh’s installations may be sold as individual artworks. “It’s not that unusual,” said Ron Warren, director of the Mary Boone Gallery, which represents the artist. He noted that individual elements from a large installation are priced just as “any other single work by the artist.”

Koh divides up the installations himself, and titles the parts. “He gives them generic titles,” Warren said. For instance, various pieces of the large-scale Koh installation “White Light,” which was exhibited in its entirety at the Kunsthalle Zurich in 2006, were sold to various private collectors. In 2008, one of those sections -- Untitled (White Light #1) -- went to auction at Phillips de Pury in London, where it earned £67,250 (it had been estimated at £50,000-£70,000).

Often enough, installations are composed of works that were conceived as single objects. With the late neon artist Jason Rhoades (1965-2006), “some large-scale installations have been sold in pieces, as they were meant to be,” said Julia Joern, who does press for the David Zwirner gallery in New York, which represents the Rhoades estate. The same is true for sculptor Matthew Barney, who installs groups of individual artworks, often used as backdrops for films, and sometimes as setups to be photographed, too.  

Of course, not every artist’s installation lends itself to being split up. “I couldn’t sell parts of my installations, because one part wouldn’t make any sense without the rest of it,” said sculptor Tim Hawkinson. “With my installation Uberorgan” -- a kind of giant bagpipe measuring almost 300 feet long -- “it was all one big mechanism, so you couldn’t take it apart.”

By contrast, Tom Burckhardt’s 2005 “Full Stop,” a full-scale replica of an artist’s studio -- made in cardboard -- which was exhibited at DiverseWorks in Houston and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., was composed of dozens of individual sculptures, which were sold individually to collectors. The work debuted at Caren Golden Gallery in Chelsea, and included small objects like a flashlight or tape measure ($200 each) as well as large sculptures like a bookshelf loaded down with art-making tools ($6,000).

“The items were all representations of autonomous objects and could function as stand-alone pieces that recall the whole,” Burckhardt said. “My piece lent itself to being separated in the way that a painting, video, or sculpture just can’t be.”

The entire installation was $40,000. “We ended up making several times that amount by selling off pieces individually,” Golden said. “Lots and lots of invoices to write, but it was worth it!”

Another artist who sometimes sells portions of her installations is Sandy Skoglund, who makes brightly colored, surreal room installations filled, for example, with hanging baby dolls or toy fish. Her primary market is in photographs of these setups, she said, but “I have also sold small installations, as well as large installations, to collectors and museums -- primarily to museums.”

Skoglund’s dealers also sell “individual elements, individual figures, and small fragments that are broken away from the large installation.” Individual figures can cost between $1,000 and $18,000, while the larger “fragments” are priced $15,000-$35,000, and they are titled according to the larger piece from which they originated, such as Child Figure from Fresh Hybrid.

Occasionally, a Skoglund installation is too ephemeral to last, such as “The Wedding” (1994), in which the walls were covered with strawberry jam and the floor with orange marmalade. “The only objects left are the handmade ceramic roses that are each made individually from fired clay and then glazed.” Those can be purchased.

Not all dealers greet the idea of selling components of an art installation with open arms. “I have never heard of an artist's installation being treated like a buffet,” said Miles McEnery, a partner at Ameringer McEnery Yohe gallery in Manhattan.

Andrew Fabrikant, director of New York’s Richard Gray Gallery, called the practice “ridiculous. The dealer wants to chop it up to sell in sections, and the artist agrees to that? It’s not serious.” He cited Renaissance altarpieces, where individual panels make no sense outside of the whole.   

On the other hand, multi-media artist Sean Foley, whose work currently is the subject of a year-long exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and who sold a component of a larger installation to the Portland Museum of Art in 2009, saw nothing wrong with selling art “a la carte.” “I’m of the iTunes generation, where you can go into an album and pick a song out and just keep that.” For her part, Skoglund claimed that she views the elements of her installations “as sculptures within a larger sculpture.”

Brooklyn artist Judith Hoffman also noted that selling elements from an installation was, simply, more practical. Storage of large works is an issue, as is shipping, and the installation itself. She now makes “collapsible” works that are more easily moved, and has turned from metal and wood to lighter materials -- paper, in many instances -- because the resulting objects are “easier to carry.” And, she is willing to sell elements of these large works, because “I want to make money.”

That sense of practicality is not new. Back in 1938, the then unknown Mary Anne Robertson “Grandma” Moses had some paintings displayed in a local drugstore window, where they were spotted by New York art collector Louis Caldor. Caldor wanted the paintings in the window and more as well, and Moses’ daughter-in-law told him that “Grandma” had another ten at home.

In fact, the artist only had nine paintings, but she sawed one large picture in half, reframing it to make ten. Problem solved. Not much different from today’s installation artists.

DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other works.