Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art
By Michael Shnayerson
In her memoirs, published in 1960, Peggy Guggenheim deplored the state of the art market in America. Guggenheim was one of the great collectors of the 20th century, living in palatial exile in Venice, where you can still visit her collection — at her home, now a museum — but on a return to New York the previous year, she was dispirited by what she saw.
“The entire art movement had become an enormous business venture,” she wrote. Prices were “unheard of.” Many collectors, she wrote, buy only “what is the most expensive, having no faith in anything else. Some buy merely for investment, placing pictures in storage without even seeing them, phoning their gallery every day for the latest quotation, as though they were waiting to sell stock.”
By the end of the century, that faith would harden into creed. Guggenheim died in 1979, narrowly missing a stratospheric rise in the stocklike sale of art, and, with it, that of the man who would become its most exceptional stockbroker: Larry Gagosian, a gallerist whose dominion would come to span the earth. Gagosian is the grandest and, apparently, the highest earning, of the mega-dealers who gate-keep the grounds of contemporary art, deciding which museum, collection or egregiously wealthy client can get what and at what price. With more than a dozen galleries scattered across America, Europe and Asia to entice artists with dreams of global conquest — like Damien Hirst, who was so taken with the idea that he ran a competition, offering a signed print to any with the means or mettle to visit his concurrent shows at every Gagosian outpost in 2012 — Gagosian, together with a small number of fellow mega-dealers, has presided over an art market in a fantastically lucrative boom.
“Boom” is the title Michael Shnayerson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has taken for his history of the postwar art market, which is to say, a story of untrammeled growth and undreamed-of excess. “Dealers tell us that the day of the $10 million painting is at hand,” the critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1984. “Never before have the visual arts been the subject — beneficiary or victim, depending on your view of the matter — of such extreme inflation and fetishization.” In the decades since, the $10 million painting no sooner arrived at hand than flew out of it, headed for higher, much higher. Now records, itchy even in their impossibility, wait impatiently to be smashed. “Rabbit,” a 1986 stainless steel sculpture of a child’s inflatable bunny by Jeff Koons, a Gagosian artist, sold for $91.1 million with fees at Christie’s on May 15, setting a new record for work by a living artist at auction. It seized the title from a David Hockney painting, which went for $90.3 million last year.
If this seems unduly commercial, that’s because it is. “Boom” gently posits that the arc of the art market in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been yanked away from art and toward the market. Beginning in the 1940s, Shnayerson traces a move from connoisseurship to commerce, from the elegant Leo Castelli, whose gallery showed Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, to his rather more rambunctious protégé, Larry Gagosian. As a new guard of dealers rises, collaborating and competing with one another — Mary Boone, Gagosian’s rival for Castelli’s blessing, is one of a handful of female gallerists Shanyerson credits with challenging male domination of the field — it must also contend with the insatiable market it has helped to create. (Beware the Icarian heights: After pleading guilty to filing false federal income tax returns last year, Boone was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Her term began this month.)
At the outset, even the merit of today’s multimillion-dollar art was a matter of debate. “The quality of the American achievement is very far from being a settled question,” Hilton Kramer wrote in a scathing Times review of the Metropolitan Museum’s 1969 show of postwar American art, which included the likes of Pollock, de Kooning, Lichtenstein and Warhol — a question that was settled, in part, thanks to the work of boosters like Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis and Castelli, gallerists who championed and sold it. “Art, not money, was Leo’s motivation,” Patty Brundage, who worked for Castelli, told Shnayerson. “He wouldn’t have made it as a dealer today because it’s all about the money.”
Gagosian is not alone in driving hard bargains, but “Boom” credits him with an especial flair in raising the stakes. “No one had the foresight and guts to name prices that were three to five times what [the works] were worth,” the art adviser Allan Schwartzman is quoted as saying. “So that raised the bar.” Nor is Gagosian the only dealer “Boom” tracks from early days to global fame — David Zwirner, Gagosian’s major foil; Iwan and Manuela Wirth of Hauser & Wirth; and the father-and-son Glimchers, Arne and Marc, of Pace Gallery, get the fullest treatment of the many others — but he is its focus and its livest wire, a Faustian antihero “bumptious and cutthroat in his quest to make a deal.”
A shrewd operator who vaulted himself from the sidelines to the center — a self-taught Los Angeles poster seller made good, or rich, or both — Gagosian is an irresistible character in search of his own bildungsroman. Zwirner, who likewise operates a global network of galleries and is Gagosian’s chief rival for the best artists and estates, is a vaguer presence, as are many of the worthy gallerists who recur throughout, getting necessarily short shrift in what is already a baggy, scrupulously overlong history. Gagosian’s appearances at least have the benefit of burning off the fat. Lost inside “Boom” is a book it seems to want to be: a biography of Larry Gagosian. (Gagosian, like Zwirner, Wirth and Arne Glimcher, granted interviews to Shnayerson, though it is hard not to notice that most of the juiciest anecdotes are gleaned from reporting by others.)
Gagosian is the art world’s billion-dollar man — this is the generally accepted figure for his annual gross sales, outpacing all his competitors — and “Boom” sets about explaining how. When art becomes a commodity and an investment, premised on “the exciting if not always reliable notion of art as an alternative asset,” it is price, as much as merit, that begets price.
But what Shnayerson is less able, or willing, to wrangle with is why. In “Boom,” quantity speaks. Gagosian and his collector-clients snap up more, more, more, weathering crashes (in 1990, in 2008) and hiccups with bullish confidence. But there is barely a nod at art’s most ineffable aspect: quality. Shnayerson does note that Gagosian tends to pounce on artists other gallerists have nurtured and developed rather than to discover new ones (“strictly a retail guy,” in the words of the critic and curator Robert Storr), but in almost no case does he suggest why the multimillion-dollar men (they are indeed mostly men) of contemporary art earn their prices.
Maybe it’s folly to try. There may be no earthly or irreducible reason work by Christopher Wool, whose word paintings are given an excruciating capsule exegesis (“Wool was standing on a city street when he saw a white truck go by — a white truck with the words ‘sex’ and ‘luv’ spray-painted on it. Words! That was the epiphany”), should fetch $5 million in 2010, or $29.9 million just five years later. And Shnayerson writes as a witness, not a specialist or ethicist. But even if he believes that rising prices are a sign of rampant mania, “Boom” is oddly uninterested in the actual artistry of art, what — besides the attentions of gallerists goosing the market — separates the good from the dross. As any struggling artist can tell you, it’s not all on the block for $5 million a canvas.
And when it isn’t — for whatever reason — beware the reaper. “Gagosian is good when you’re hot,” Peter Brant, the collector and Gagosian client, told Shnayerson. “He’s not when you’re not.”
It’s enough to drive a “Boom” to bust. There’s a dark, sour suspicion at the heart of this history: that, for all the talk of the fabulous and the sublime, this world spins on spin. Shnayerson quotes the artist Peter Doig ($28.8 million at auction in 2017). “The auction houses talk of masterpieces,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a contemporary masterpiece. It can’t be decided in your own time, really. So, it’s all marketing.”
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