"We'll meet on edges soon," said I
Proud 'neath heated brow
Ahh, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.
– Bob Dylan
It's in the nature of bubbles to burst. Soap bubbles do it without fail within seconds of their formation. But art bubbles? Predicting their demise – provided you believe that art is a market like real estate, stocks or corn and can therefore "bubble" accordingly – is decidedly trickier, as 2012 demonstrated.
Since the troubles of fall 2008 there's been a spate of predictions proclaiming the imminent collapse of the international art market that's been swelling for 15, 20, even, according to some, the last 40 years. Bursts happened in 2012 but they weren't of the cataclysmic variety hoped for or prophesied by the likes of U.S. art critic Charlie Finch who, in the spring, was asserting that by this month "art prices [would] be down, across the board by 50 per cent."
What did go down in December was the 17-year partnership between British artist Damien Hirst and his dealer, New York's Larry Gagosian, announced shortly after the end of the 11th annual Art Basel fair in Miami Beach. While dealer-artist splits are common, this was seen as emblematic, epochal perhaps since no two figures have incarnated the overheated international art market more than Gagosian, recently named the second most powerful art shaker in the world by Art Review magazine, and Hirst, No. 41 on the same list as well as the world's richest artist, according to The Times of London.
Just how emblematic the sudden split is is currently a subject of considerable debate. Hirst's career in the last three years has produced mixed results. On the one hand, a retrospective earlier this year at the Tate Modern drew 460,000 visitors, the second-highest attendance for a show in the London institution's history. On the other, his sales at auction have been soft. Has the Hirst bubble burst? And if so, is it a sign of a bigger burst ahead?
Certainly the fall auction season preceding the Gagosian-Hirst fallout wasn't the apocalypse Charlie Finch predicted. Records, in fact, were the order of the day, particularly for post-Second World War and contemporary art. On Nov. 13, Sotheby's New York reported its highest-ever sales total in the contemporary category, $375-million (U.S., all dollar figures except otherwise noted are U.S.).The next day, in the same town, Christie's did even better, selling works by dead guys like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Franz Kline as well as live-wires like Jeff Koons and Mark Grotjahn for nearly $415-million. It was, in fact, the second-highest sale, by dollar value, in Christie's history, regardless of category, bested only by the results of an Impressionist/modern art hammerfest in November 2006.
Any expectation (or hope) that a deflation might be in store at, say, Art Basel Miami Beach were dashed, too. Richard Prince, almost as emblematic and divisive figure as Hirst and a Gagosian artist to boot, saw his painting Nurse on Horseback, all of eight years old, sell to a European collector for $6.5-million.
Everyone agrees, it seems, that the market is ripe for some kind of "correction" or, as the more moralistically inclined prefer, comeuppance. But there's no consensus on what will serve as its harbinger. Indeed, the harbinger fluctuates from person to person, taste to taste, from one notion of inherent value to the next. Some, for instance, read the fact that three canvases by Basquiat, dead since 1988, set successive auction records this year as each came up for bidding as an irrevocable sign the end is nigh. To them, Basquiat is overwrought, overrated, overvalued. That a Basquiat can be auctioned now for almost $30-million while an Italian Renaissance masterpiece goes for $16-million is proof of a world at once out of joint and in need of a crash.
Others, though, think the Basquiat market is destined for greater heights. In a recent online post, New York collector Mickey Cartin recounts a conversation he had earlier this year with a fellow collector who "mentioned rather emphatically that Basquiat, as a market phenomenon, will soon be seen as the next van Gogh," with a per-canvas price range of $50-million to $250-million to reflect that.
Some correctionists, in the meantime, take solace from such talk in history and connoisseurship. Blake Gopnik, former art critic for The Globe and Mail and now an art writer with thedailybeast.com, claims in a recent essay he wasn't too exercised when the last version of Edvard Munch's The Scream in private hands sold at auction this year for $120-million. Munch belongs to the ages like Michelangelo and Manet. It's "when prices go nuts for artists whose reputations are still in play [that] trouble is sure to be looming." Gopnik notes how 50 years ago artists like Mary Frank and David Slivka were big sellers and much written-about but today are forgotten. Fellow New York critic Jerry Saltz casts his eye back even farther: yes, 85 per cent of shows of contemporary art are bad, he opined recently – "but 85 per cent of all art made in the Renaissance was bad," and aren't you happy we don't have to live through that?
Canadians, meanwhile, can only look with shock and awe, mixed perhaps with envy, relief or disgust, at the mania in the secondary art market occurring outside their borders.While our secondary market in the last decade or so has witnessed big expenditures on work by mostly dead, mostly white males like Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson, William Kurelek and Jean Paul Lemieux, the dollars fetched have been nowhere as big (or
delusional?) as those wooed by U.S. and British auctioneers.
Our recently concluded fall season sales of "important Canadian art" were, in fact, decidedly sober, even chastening: two of the three major auction houses failed, in each case, to sell more than 35 per cent of their lots. It's the sort of "correction" some wouldn't mind seeing south of the border, especially in the contemporary art realm where Christie's this fall, for example, had an astonishing 92 per cent sell-through.
The economist Herbert Stein once observed: "If something cannot go on forever, it won't." Soap bubbles clearly demonstrate the truth of that gnomic "law." So does the tulip mania that dazed the Netherlands for about a year in the middle of the 17th century. If the art bubble is truly a bubble, it won't go on – but just when it won't is anyone's guess.
10 NOTABLE ART-WORLD MOMENTS IN 2012
Horrors! A pastel-on-board of Edvard Munch's The Scream sells at auction in May for $120-million to Manhattan financier Leon Black. Munch (1863-1944) did four versions of his most famous work; this was the only one still in private hands.
Let it sprawl: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art presents the largest-ever survey of contemporary Canadian art in the U.S. The 10-month show – it ends in April next year – features work in every possible medium by 62 invited artists. "Challenging and quirky," opines The New York Times.
Time-share: Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada and the Power Plant in Toronto host much-anticipated, well-attended Canadian premiere screenings of The Clock, Christian Marclay's astonishing 24-hour video installation/meditation on time and cinema. Only six editions were available for sale and, with an assist from four Toronto art mavens, the NGC buys a half-interest in one, with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as co-owner.
Shuttered: Photoconceptualist Arnaud Maggs dies at 86 in Toronto but not before winning the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award and helping organize an acclaimed survey show at the National Gallery.
Art World Scavenger Hunt! Britain's Damien Hirst divides 331 of his signature dot paintings among 11 galleries worldwide, all owned by uber-dealer Larry Gagosian, and rewards those who travel to all locations with "a signed, personally dedicated spot print." 128 persons complete the challenge.
Past is present: Emily Carr, who died in 1945, becomes the first Canadian artist to get a posthumous solo show at the hugely influential dOCUMENTA in Kassel. It's the biggest dOCUMENTA since the event's inception in 1955, drawing more than 850,000 visitors over three months.
Money swears:Dead Troops Talk, a very tough 1992 war photograph by Vancouver's Jeff Wall, fetches almost $3.7-million at Christie's New York in May. It's the third-highest amount ever paid at auction for a photo, vaulting Wall past Stieglitz, Atget, Steichen and Weston.
Over(ture): Toronto art maven Ydessa Hendeles closes her esteemed gallery space in the city's downtown, ending a 25-year run during which the internationally recognized collector/curator/connoisseur presented a ravishingly eccentric series of provocative exhibitions.
West Coast Blues: There's widespread agreement that after 30 years in its current location, the Vancouver Art Gallery needs expanded digs. But where and how? The debate engages (and divides) all sectors of the city's arts community but no consensus emerges.
Life and art: After a hiatus of several years, Sobey Art Award-winner Annie Pootoogook resumes drawing; unfortunately, it's to cadge dollars from passersby on the streets of Ottawa where a homeless, pregnant Pootoogook and her boyfriend are living through the spring and summer.