At the latest, this year's Armory Show made it once again official: as a center of art market, New York has split itself off from the sphere of production, once omnipresent. At the latest, this year's Armory Show made it undoubtedly clear: art please, but only without external political references. Since the crash of the new markets, art primarily counts as a prestigious investment, and New York is the longest counter for the trade and consumption of this luxury good.
How does the situation look from behind the counter? How has the art market changed? What should we understand under the "commodification of art?" Is the working profile of gallerists changing? Friedrich Petzel writes about recent developments in the art market around him.
In 1996, the New York art trade had just about recovered from the recession of the early 1990s. Once again there was a generation of artists that, even if it didn't form a coherent group, did follow a set of shared interests and accordingly was being shown in various galleries in New York and Europe. I'm talking here about Rikrit Tiravanija, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, Douglas Gordon, Liam Gillick, and others that were being represented by me or Gavin Brown, neugerriemschneider, or the other "young" galleries at the time. The exhibitions Skulptur.Projekten.Münster in 1997 and Traffic in Bordeaux also provided forums for these positions to be shown on a larger scale. Nicolas Bourriaud attempted to develop a theory for this new generation: called "relational aesthetics," it didn't always hit the mark, but all the same formed a guideline for the few attentive critics. The central idea of this theory, that the aesthetic experience of the beholder determines the object character of the artwork, shows traces that come form the debates around minimal art. In Bourriaud, these culminated in a theoretical mélange of happening and community service. The event forms the interdisciplinary framework in which the works take on the same functional character as fashion, film, DJ culture, and literature. In 1999, Bourriaud and Jerome Sands opened the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, with the intent of not just organizing a chronological sequence of exhibitions with no reference to one another, but establishing a new kind of Kunsthalle, where all disciplines can be experienced at the same time and individual artist strategies no longer have any significance.
Coming from Cologne, I certainly was used to collaborations and crossovers from Kippenberger and other artists. But my interest in Parreno or Sarah Morris was not the result of any vague nights of barroom talk, freely following the motto "Who makes the most beautiful mistake?"; my interest was in the analytic and aesthetic mediation of these artists without any mystification of the artist ego. When I then opened my gallery in 1994, I was at first firmly convinced that there was no money to be made with Pardo and his colleagues. I was (and of course still am) so thrilled by the possibilities that these artists opened up for me that I closed myself up to everything that seemed familiar from my past. Within the then dominant discourse, these positions seemed amazingly interesting, but also obscure and impossible to establish in the American art trade. The Young British Artists fever had taken hold of New York. In comparison to Damien Hirst, my artists looked like intellectual kooks. Only slowly-and the influence of Rirkrit Tiravanija should here not be underestimated-were these artists taken seriously and also found on the art market a new resonance. The real catalyst for the "new market," however, was the Sensation exhibition on young British art, with Charles Saatchi as the promoter of a new event culture.
The equivalent of this in New York in 1996 was Deitch Projects in SoHo. Jeffery Deitch made a name for himself as an art consultant at Citibank, where he played a role the acquisition of works by artists from Jackson Pollock to Basquiat. As a curator of the Dakis Ionanou's Deste Collection in Athens, he also organized exhibitions like Post Human. All the same, Deitch Projects is not a gallery like those usually managed in Europe or North America. While he does "represent" a few New York artists, he also invites artists from all sorts of countries to realize "projects" in his spaces. It's thus possible that there might be a young artist from Poland sitting as a dog in a cage and biting the visitors in their calves. Most of these artists are never seen again after their initial introduction. To this extent, Deitch Projects goes against the traditional pattern according to which the gallerist remains true to a group of artists over decades, developing a market and following a cultural strategy beyond the individual sales. But since there are now six hundred galleries in New York alone, this pattern is becoming ever more dubious. Most gallerists are in fact art dealers that see themselves forced after each season to produce the newest "one hit wonders" as the young geniuses of tomorrow. The tuition fees at art schools like Yale, Columbia, or the Art Center are so exorbitant that the 25-year-old artists hope to pay off their endless debts all at once with one or two exhibitions in commercial galleries. The success of Matthew Barney has led many artists to see their activity as a business, and, driven by almost tragicomic notions of life in the art world, they terrorize their gallerists with demands for advances and other financial obligations before anything at all has been produced.
At the same time as the founding of Deitch Projects, the exodus of the SoHo galleries to Chelsea began. With Matthew Marks, Barbara Gladstone, and Metro Pictures, the norms for the production and reception of contemporary art changed: everybody supersized! Under these new conditions, we in the Chelsea galleries became mid-sized art halls. One result of the high rents are the huge prices that have been demanded over the last five years. White Columns and Artists Space can no longer keep up, and find themselves marginalized. The collector-or here in the US the trustee of an institution--determines what's acquired, just because he or she is the only one who can afford the works. One might argue that this was always the case, but it's now taken on unbelievable proportions in America.
The auction houses have also taken on a new role as catalysts. It is true that Christie's and Sotheby's have gotten new competition with Philips, de Pury & Luxembourg. But apart from the scandals about price fixing, all these houses have made themselves accomplices in the hype, providing so-called guarantees for certain works. To mutually snatch away customers from one another, the auction houses promise the collectors a minimum price of X dollars if they offer to sell the lucrative product in the spring or fall auction. All results that surpass this sum are then shared by the collector and the respective auction house, thus lessening the risk for the seller that his or her work will be sold under the desired profit. If previously only very few works by young artists were offered at the auctions, today the works of Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, and Takashi Murakami have become the main attractions. Every house has to offer at least a few titles that between 1999 and 2002 were perhaps sold for $15,000 to collectors and now can be auctioned at profits of 1000 percent and more. This speculative potency is what keeps the market alive, making the auction house into an attractive meeting point for the art scene, the subject of daily conversation. It's then much more interesting if all the participants personally know the artist, even perhaps participate in the sale, than when a van Gogh is perhaps sold off for a few million. The artists becomes celebrities, Vogue magazine publishes just a few months later a special issue, "At Home with Rachel Feinstein and John Currin." Even the New Yorker, with its exegete of the new American sensibility, Mr. Peter Schjedahl, gushes about Elizabeth Peyton being the "moral conscience of this generation of artists."
The separation between entertainment and art production has more or less been abolished. Instead of a critical study of what constitutes an artwork, how an artist can set discursive theories into practice, how speculative reflections about the "nature" of art can be brought into an exhibition, what do we have? A party!
In the age of such "new infantilism," the work as an object must be something immediately graspable, of a personal, or better, intimate nature, and handmade with a love for detail. The New York Times tears apart with predictable reliability anything that has a political nature, seems conceptually coded, or somehow spreads depressing feelings. The exception here is often German art like that of Gregor Schneider and Jonathan Meese, artists celebrated as weird originals. The crazier the better, and the best is when artists always pull down their pants in public. Art criticism hardly exists anymore, and with the huge spectrum of current offerings the masses can only be gotten in a journalist way. The current Whitney Biennial was then simultaneously "reviewed" with the Armory Show, something that would have been unthinkable in 1993, when Elizabeth Sussman organized a Whitney that promptly drew invectives against the political correctness of the early 1990s, and half a generation of artists was indirectly condemned along with it.
A further symptom of this event culture is that art fairs in ever shorter intervals are attempting to attract collectors to the provinces. Even Karlsruhe now has an art fair! The original idea in the 1960s was to establish art fairs in Cologne and Basel to lower the inhibitions of those interested in buying art. The audience that was then interested in modern and contemporary art, then quite small, was to lose the fear of buying obscure works at exorbitant prices by having the possibility of direct comparison. The quality standards at the Basel art fair are still quite high, while other fairs, like the Armory Show, have taken on a ramshackle quality. The idea here was also to enlarge the audience with these new fairs, giving more customers access to what otherwise seemed a closed world. But this function of the fairs has been made irrelevant by the large number of art journals and the Internet. As a seller at art fairs in Basel or Miami, I only encounter a few customers that had not already heard of me or my artists. The competition between the fair locations Cologne and Berlin led only to the consequence that the Frieze Art Fair could establish itself in London. Every fall, one of these art fairs happens every two or three weeks. The level sinks automatically. Even worse, you get the impression that gallery exhibitions have become almost irrelevant. We sellers could go off from city to city every few weeks and sell off the easy goods that just fit on the walls, while the galleries get quieter and quieter. The collectors have long outspent themselves at the fairs.
In fact, the number of artists, gallerists, fairs, and biennials has multiplied the audience in comparison to the 1980s. For contemporary art, the result of this market, today as strong as ever, is that anyone with more than $150,000 a year has become a seller. The auction houses push the quite young collectors to sell their works just a few years later. Success proves this practice right. Once the inhibitions have been removed, anyone with the tiniest notion of how things work can make quick money with profit margins that cannot be achieved so easily in real estate or the stock market. We should remember here that we sell works for hundreds of thousands of dollars every month without needing any lawyers to work out complicated contracts. Just a telephone call, and the title changes hands. If the collector keeps to the often unspoken agreement to sell back one work or another to the original gallery for a profit, the gallerist can also earn more money on resale than the first time. In this way, some works change owners two to three times within five years, and only the artists see nothing of the profits. Only when a new public price record is achieved at an auction house can the artist demand to be included in resale profits. In order to slow the price spiral a bit, more and more galleries agree on so-called "resale clauses." These require the new owner to offer the gallery of the goods to be sold at first, whereby the gallery is supposed to name the fair market value and has the right to buy back this piece at the new value or to sell it to a third party. This kind of clause might not have rest on very secure legal foundations, but it is supposed to help establish good faith between the business partners. In brief, the galleries are attempting to cut off the air supply from the speculators.
Of course, the huge profits don't come to all galleries and all artists. In contrast to the 1980s, today there are a number of parallel art worlds. The true market leaders are only a small group of perhaps fifty artists that are exhibited by around ten to fifteen galleries in New York. Hardly any of these artists would be found at the biennales in Istanbul, Havana, or the Documenta. A few months ago, there was a roundtable discussion in Artforum on the question of globalism in which Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Franceso Bonami, and others expressed their views on the phenomenon of the expanding art world. I think the fact that curators travel around the world and no longer close themselves to the art production in other countries is something that's basically to be welcomed. But what often follows are invitations to artists from the respective contexts, be it China or Mexico, who are then imported to Kassel or Venice, where they nevertheless can achieve absolutely no further relevance for their activities in the international art market. After the exhibitions at the Venice Biennale are dismantled, the new discoveries are left to such an extent on their own by the curators that they can hardly expect any help in the further development of their ideas: the curators are already again in search of the new victims to fit into the next thematic exhibition.
On visiting one of these mega-exhibitions based on the curators' wanderlust, you get the impression that Jorge Pardo, Thomas Struth, or Mike Kelley produce for the market, while the real, culturally relevant art is made in Kenya. The symmetry of the respective conditions takes on comic aspects when some artworks are only produced for the next biennale on the buzzword "globalism," while the art market machine artists are already at work producing for the next art fair. Or, as a curator friend of mine recently put it, the Berlin Biennale has a lot of ideas and no art, while in New York you can see all sorts of art, but make out no ideas.
Is New York now only a point for trading art as a commodity? Do the artists here produce for nothing but a grotesquely distorted art market? Hardly. There are still hundred of serious artists living here from various generations. The 1980s are being slowly but surely rediscovered, and not only icons like Jeff Koons should be celebrated, but also Allan McCollum, Louise Lawler, Haim Steinbach, or Troy Brauntuch. Matt Mullican had just recently no gallery in New York, and is now being represented by a newcomer gallerist. Rikrit Tiravanija and Richard Philips not only have commercial success, but also a kind of "cult following." Again and again, young galleries are opening in places with rents that are not prohibitively expensive. Michel Maccaraone shows in a house ready for demolition in Canal Street perhaps the best European and American artists of their generation. On the Lower East Side, there are all sorts of new storefront galleries, the rent of which would cover my electricity bill. Jutta Koether has for example a huge number of small format pictures showing in Reena Spauling's Fine Art, and put on a performance where who's who showed up. There are also younger curators like Bennett Simpson who do not allow themselves to be impressed by institutionally prescribed diet, and think about the future of discursive art production. To paraphrase Kippenberger, art doesn't have to be young, just good: in this sense, a number of exhibition makers are speculated that the reverse compulsion towards entertainment art has to be corrected with mischievous means. In my space, we are at the moment showing new works by Stephen Prina that can be read as a delightful, quasi-affirmative commentary of the issue of "handmade" art. John Miller has at Metro Pictures again unpacked his brown sculptures and pictures, and thus belongs among the best can be seen at the moment. While the spaces of the Dia Art Foundation are at the moment being renovated and no exhibitions can be put on there, Lynne Cooke has realized with Dia: Beacon a fantastically beautiful temple for the art of the 1960s and 70s. Even the Guggenheim, after the excesses of the 1990s, has returned to concentrate on making exhibitions that once again make sense.
The spiraling press hype for contemporary art will not lose any of its force in the near future. The collectors want to buy, get involved, participate. I basically prefer this to sitting around alone in my gallery. I know the old stories: that the employees at Castelli burst out with joy when three visitors had shown up, that finally something happened. Those days are gone once and for all. Art is part of the culture machine, and its shows good taste today not to ignorantly condemn contemporary art. In a financial landscape where entertainers earn outrageous sums, our contemporary artists sell themselves at bargain prices. It would still be nice if artists and critics, gallerists and museum curators would once again return to the power of negation. The discrepancy between the new giddiness in American art and the imperialist attitude of the US government is breathtakingly shocking. It is time, for example, for Mike Kelley's collaboration with Paul McCarthy to be brought to America. Up until now, this work has only been shown in Vienna and Lyon. Now something like that be in the Whitney!
(Translation: Brian Currid)