In Sickness and In Health: Why Art Fairs Are a Problem For Art
August 2, 2012
IN RECENT MONTHS, people who are avidly engaged with contemporary art have been checking their pulses so often that I can only conclude they are worried about their vital signs, not to mention the health of the galleries, museums, auction houses, art fairs, and sundry publications that help to sustain them. These health checks have become global in nature, with frenzied reports arriving from galleries in Beijing, auctions in Hong Kong, an art fair in Abu Dhabi. New Yorkers have certainly had their hands full this spring, what with four major survey shows of contemporary art vying for attention along with a couple of blockbuster art fairs. Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker seems to have spoken for many when, after surveying the Whitney Biennial, he announced with relief that this year’s installment was “decidedly among the best ever.” As for Frieze New York—the first North American installment of an art fair that has been a key event in the London season—the painter Chuck Close, a ubiquitous and much-loved figure on the Manhattan scene, offered a decidedly mixed diagnosis to a reporter from The Art Newspaper. “I love Frieze,” Close announced—and then added: “I don’t want my work to be in a fair—it’s like taking a cow on a tour of the slaughterhouse.” That does not sound at all like a healthy situation.
Perhaps the trouble everybody is having goes back to the question of what constitutes health. At a time when more and more medical professionals are raising doubts about the proliferation of tests that may in fact tell us very little, arts professionals cannot seem to resist their own diagnostic procedures. About this June’s installment of Art Basel, the mother of all art fairs, Carol Vogel reported in The New York Times that an American collector bought an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter from the Pace Gallery with an asking price of $25 million. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It all depends on your view of artistic and cultural well-being. And this is a problem in an art world where many people can no longer distinguish between the value of a work of art and the value of an authoritative presentation. This past winter Larry Gagosian mounted simultaneous exhibitions at his eleven eponymous world-wide galleries of Damien Hirst’s “spot paintings,” which may well have the distinction of being the most numbingly awful abstract compositions ever presented to the public. Each painting—they come in widely varying sizes and are done by Hirst’s studio assistants—consists of rows of same-sized but differently colored spots on a neutral ground. Does anybody really believe that the spot paintings are any good? I wouldn’t even compare them to wallpaper: it would be unfair to wallpaper. And yet the spot paintings constitute a phenomenon that certain collectors feel a need to embrace. Walking through the rooms in Gagosian’s three Manhattan galleries, where the spot paintings were protected by uniformed guards, who could doubt that all was well in Gagosian’s corner of the art world, which is a very large corner indeed?
The more fevered and overwrought the situation becomes, the more efforts there are to figure out what ails us. The middle of the market is pretty much moribund, and that is where most dedicated artists once hoped to find a steady, gradually growing response to their work. As for the high-end galleries, even as they bring in the bucks with their appearances at a half-a-dozen or more art fairs around the globe each year, they find their historic roles as arbiters of taste sadly diminished by a public that refuses to stand still long enough to decide what constitutes good taste or bad taste. The cost of maintaining a presence at the art fairs is punishing for galleries, and the galleries that are not invited to the major fairs or choose not to attend them are condemning their artists to a merely local reputation, which in some people’s calculus is now no reputation at all.
Art fair bashing, in any event, is as ubiquitous as the art fairs. In the catalogue of this spring’s Whitney Biennial, the curator Elisabeth Sussman was anxious to announce that the 2012 Biennial would be nothing like an art fair. She explained in a transcript of a conversation with her fellow curators that “you walk around those big art fairs, and it’s like product, product, product. I think we were really tired of that and felt like we had to interrupt it.” Sussman went on to say her goal was “to present something that was exciting in the moment but that couldn’t be bought, couldn’t generate a new trend in sculpture, say, or a new this or that—something that was just exciting in and of itself.” Am I the only one who hears a note of desperation in these comments? The need to explain where one stands—or does not stand—threatens to eclipse the experience of art itself…