Why we’re not likely to get another Andy Warhol any time soon

An employee poses with 10 screenprints of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol at the exhibition ‘The American Dream: Pop to the present’ at the British Museum in London March 6, 2017. — Reuters pic
An employee poses with 10 screenprints of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol at the exhibition ‘The American Dream: Pop to the present’ at the British Museum in London March 6, 2017. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, Nov 7 — The art market for young artists has been shaky ever since the uncanny rise and precipitous fall of the last batch of bright young things a few years ago. Subsequently, the market has yet to fully coalesce around a single theme or style.

But it has been consistent about the way in which art-market stars are discovered. A surprising number of today’s prospects are the products of traditional MFA programmes; just as important, they are recipients of museum shows or prestigious fellowships.

See? That US$70,000 (RM295,715) art degree was worth something.

“I think the market — and the way we look at art — is heavily dependent on the graduate school system,” says Heather Harmon, an art adviser. “It’s been a phenomenon that’s been happening over the last three decades, but recently, in the last few years or so, it’s [become] far more prevalent.”

Pure pedigree

The closest thing to a scientific study of this phenomenon came about a year ago, when Ben Davis at Artnet published an excellent piece that scrutinised the top 500 contemporary artists at auction over the past 50 years and determined that 53 per cent of them had MFAs.

It’s in the more concentrated, younger batch of artists, though, that the emphasis on a “pure” art pedigree becomes particularly pronounced.

In the past three or four years, there have been increasing “conversations with collectors about museum and institutional support,” says Michael Gillespie, who co-founded the New York gallery, Foxy Production, which represents a range of young artists. “That’s come back as an important factor: Are artists supported by different constituencies, be they critical or commercial?” Before, he continues, “there was this idea that the market dictated everything. That’s changed.”

As proof, look no further than the upcoming November afternoon sale at Phillips in New York. It’s a traditional testing ground for popular young artists whose market dealers and collectors are attempting to turn mainstream: Lesley Vance, who’s represented by the influential Los Angeles gallery David Kordansky, has an MFA from California Institute of the Arts (“CalArts”) and a work up for sale at Phillips that’s estimated from US$25,000 to US$35,000.

A work by Diana Al-Hadid, an MFA graduate (represented by Chelsea gallery Marianne Boesky) who’s been the subject of four solo shows (PDF) this year, is on offer with an estimate of US$20,000 to US$30,000. 

Neïl Baloufa, who also went to CalArts, has a solo show planned (PDF) at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo next year; one of his works is up for auction with an estimate of US$5,000 to US$7,000. (Another of Beloufa’s pieces from the same series sold last month at Phillips in London for just under US$10,000.)

“A collector will buy an emerging artist for US$5,000 to US$10,000,” says Rachel Uffner, who has a namesake gallery on New York’s Lower East Side. “But to make that leap into something that’s more expensive, the relevance of the work institutionally — and, to a wider audience, internationally — will be important to collectors that want to spend more.”

Not just at auction

The majority of transactions take place on the primary, rather than secondary market, however. To determine whether or not the market trend is really taking place, in other words, it’s crucial to look beyond the November sales. “In these changing times,” Harmon says, “I’ve really started to look at what the next generation of curators is showcasing.”

But even in downtown exhibitions that feel particularly of the moment, such as the New Museum’s “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon”, the phenomenon persists. Thirteen of the show’s 22 artists who are under the age of 38 (an arbitrary cut-off, but probably the last time any artist could plausibly be referred to as “young”) were graduates of MFA programmes. Nearly half of those graduates were products of Yale or Columbia.

The focus on pedigree, Gillespie says, is proof that the art world — and art market — have “sobered up, and gone back to how, I suppose, it had been for a longer period of time.”

Not That Long

There’s irony to this, given that some of the most commercially successful artists of the last 50 years crossed over from other industries.

Andy Warhol, whose art regularly sells for tens of millions of dollars, started out as a commercial illustrator and only first exhibited his art (which initially mostly consisted of drawings of erotic male nudes) when he was in his thirties. Next week, Warhol’s 1986 work Sixty Last Suppers is on sale at Christie’s, with an estimate in the region of US$50 million.

Alexander Calder, whose untitled mobile will be up for sale next week at Sotheby’s with an estimate of US$3 million to US$4 million, went to school for engineering and turned to making art only as something of a fallback.

Jean-Michel Basquiat dropped out of school when he was in 10th grade; his introduction to the art market was via illegally spray-painting buildings in downtown New York. Next week, Sotheby’s will auction three of his works (which carry high estimates of US$5 million, US$10 million, and US$12 million, respectively) while Christie’s will feature a Basquiat painting estimated from US$25 million to US$35 million.

Unreasonable expectations

Those artists came of age at a time when there was minimal presumption that contemporary art could be an investment — or, at the very least, a store of value.

Thanks in part to unrealistic expectations set by collectors, and to unrealistic prices set by dealers who help to create those expectations, any argument for an artist’s market, at this point, seems to have to include that artist’s ostensible legitimacy.

At least, for now.

“People have really short memories,” says Uffner. “I’m sure there will be another surge of something, soon.” — Bloomberg 

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