Play-by-Play, Day-by-Day: A Recap of Frieze and the Auctions


Every time you get on a plane prior to an international art event, it’s like participating in a communal crossing of a like-minded tribe. There are artists, private dealers, gallery workers and owners, auctioneers and museum curators. Oh, and collectors, better known today as spec-u-lectors.

On my last trip, returning from Miami Basel, I was confronted by a wild group of boozing collectors comparing drugs and gallerists, who were all banned prior to takeoff. Sadly I was too, though it was guilt by association: I had yet to have a glass. (Who said art has grown into a mature industry?)

My most recent trip took me to New York for Frieze and the auctions. Since moving to London 10 years ago, I’ve rarely returned to the city , other than for an exhibition I curated in 2008 for Zaha Hadid at Sonnabend, on the eve of the recession. And wow have things changed, and mightily.

My inauspicious welcome back was an incredulous taxi driver who was loudly mortified that I tipped less than 15 percent, whereas in London the knowledgeable drivers are grateful for anything. I’ve been away longer than I thought.

I checked into my hotel and dashed to the fair, which was like any glad-handing corporate function, as much about collecting people as art, though there were just as many that appeared to tuck in their chins and look away to avoid making eye contact with one another—or was it just me they were ignoring?

One standout was the overhead hanging of shabby chic gold leaf on found cardboard pieces by market darling Danh Vo at Marian Goodman. There were Budweiser boxes and flags (it’s hard not to be drawn to art with flags, post-Jasper), and shards of text. People are furiously hoarding Vo’s work ahead of his François Pinault show, which will run during next year’s Venice Bienniale: insider trading in the creative sector.

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Sturtevant, 1930-2014


Never really related to Sturtevant, but read this with an opening mind to try and understand it better, and found something to like and admire; though still wouldn’t really want one hanging. Rather than look at art that forces me continually to ask questions with every glance, I’d rather drift in and out of a more open-ended reverie …You like?

Won’t See You Tuesday… What if "If I Live" Dies?

Mark Grotjahn "Untitled (In and Out of the Darkness Face 43.01)", 2011, Courtesy Christie's
Mark Grotjahn "Untitled (In and Out of the Darkness Face 43.01)", 2011, Courtesy Christie's

The current resale market for contemporary art has the attention span of a teenager. To switch metaphors, it’s a nuclear hot potato. How many of today’s 25 hottest will be tomorrow’s stone coldest? It’s always in the back of my mind that the pretty young painting things of today can suddenly become progeroid, stricken by a premature aging ailment in their early market lifespans.

Which brings us to “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday.”

A year ago, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation raised $38.8 million for wildlife and the environment in a blockbuster auction called “The 11th Hour.” Christie’s  billed the sale as “the most important wildlife charity auction ever staged.” Organized by the actor and up-and-coming contemporary art specialist Loic Gouzer, “The 11th Hour” notched 13 world auction records for recently made art.

As we all by now know, on the heels of that breakout event, Christie’s gave the 33 year-old Mr. Gouzer (credit) carte blanche to assemble another contemporary evening sale, “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday…” to take place next Monday. It’s not for charity. Its title riffs on a line in a 1990 Richard Prince painting.  The sale was designed to convey angst and employs a promotional video with a skateboarder racing through Christie’s storage, but its effect has instead so far been farcical and slapstick—downright preposterous.

As we also know, Christie’s, in an act of market machismo, scheduled “If I Live” for the very evening on which the Phillips auction house had scheduled its one contemporary art evening sale of the week. Phillips, seeming strong-armed, has since rescheduled. Roll up your sleeves—welcome to the age of auction-house cage fighting.

More to the point of today’s art market, over 40 percent of the 36 lots in Mr. Gouzer’s sale carry guarantees, meaning that the auction house has assured a consignor—or has itself been assured by a third party—a sale at a predetermined price. (Guarantees are so rampant these days that auctions are beginning to resemble dog and pony shows where the juiciest lots are presold and paraded around the world as no more than a masquerade for propping up prices, headline filler and showbiz.) Three of those guarantees are in-house and 11 come from third parties. Given all of this, it’s tough to predict that “If I Live” will be a multi-car smashup.

Still, just as a thought exercise, let’s do a play-by-play of the evening as a hands-down disaster.

It’s near fisticuffs in the presale hustle for seats (for the hoi polloi, anyway) as Geneva-born Loic Gouzer, handsome as a movie villain, glad-hands the rich and famous, as well as the merely rich, as they file into the salesroom. The name-branders are out in force: Leo, Toby, Jay-Z, Kanye, Katy Perry (who recently declared her intent to collect) and Harry Styles (who hopes the art market will travel in one direction). As soon as the swells settle down, the roulette wheel is spun, the cards are dealt and the dice rolled: they come up snake eyes.

The room is as silent as John Cage’s 4’33”, the mood as sullen as a grey Richter monochrome. Would-be bidders squirm in their seats. Larry and Pharrell sit motionless on their paddles; from Leo, there is not a tiger’s whisker of movement. The only sound is of manicured nails tapping iPhones, relaying the shock and horror.

Sure, the guaranteed lots are being hammered down, but other than the chandelier phone bids hitting the prearranged targets, the air remains undisturbed. Up and down the aisles roll the tumbleweeds of fleeing audience members.

The display system next to the rostrum swivels, and here comes Christopher Wool’s 1990 32-inch ink-on-paper, CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER, carrying an estimate of $1 million–$1.5 million. And there it goes, sinking in deathly silence, eliciting not a single bid. Amazing to think that Christie’s auctioned Mr. Wool’s 1988 painting Apocalypse Now for a record $26.5 million only a fortnight ago. And what’s to become of If You (Can’t Take a Joke), estimated to sell for $20 million–$30 million at Christie’s second evening sale in a few days? (It seems I wasn’t wrong, after all, when I wrote in 2006 that Mr. Wool’s market was pulling the wool over our eyes!)

Now Joe Bradley’s Blonde is up. Made just three years ago, it sports the hefty estimate of $500,000–$700,000—after all, his aptly titled painting Muggles made a record $682,500 at that Leo DiCaprio charity fest. Both works resemble a pigsty of a preschool romp or the remnants of a teenagers’ all-nighter. Blondes are supposed to have more fun, but not this one—she ends up in the gutter, unsold.

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The perfect pairing: Frieze-Gap

photo: courtesy Frieze New York
photo: courtesy Frieze New York

The perfect pairing: Frieze-Gap, soon to be known as the day the art world jumped the shark, the red flag, and the market top. "Frieze Art Fair Partners With Gap Inc. allowing shoppers to experience Gap product in a unique and exciting environment." Exciting environment? Unique? Another Frieze art fair? Surely such sentiment must have originated in marketing dept from someone whose never been.

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"Die Kunstwelt ist wie eine Mafia, es gibt ein ungeschriebenes Gesetz des Stillschweigens", sagt Kenny Schachter. Auf seinem Monopol-Blog bringt der britische Kunsthändler Licht ins Dunkle und macht die Mechanismen des Marktes transparent. In englischer Sprache