In these turbulent times for the economy, geopolitics, public health, and society, you might be surprised to learn that contemporary art prices are at an all-time high. Within this context we see the opening of Art Basel from 16 to 19 June, the best fair in the world dedicated to 20th and 21st century art.
This year it features 289 galleries from 40 countries. “It’s a real return to normality without masks but with certain innovations, such as remote visits to the fair for collectors” explains the global director of Art Basel, Marc Spiegler.
The multinational Zwirner gallery is presenting at Art Basel, among others, the work of one of the most contemporary talented painters, the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans (born in 1958). In Basel, a painting by him from 2010 is presented for 2.8 million euros. At Zwirner’s Parisian space they have just opened a remarkable exhibition of his work.
“We are living through a period that is chaotic, existential. It seems difficult not to talk about it all,” explains the artist. As usual his paintings, although figurative, are difficult to read at first glance. They address the present day through a mixture of references to his autobiography, art history and current affairs.
We see for example a portrait of Fantomas, an old image of the Machiavellian hero which touches on the still fashionable obsession of those who want to run the world. A self-portrait of the painter bathing embodies, according to Tuymans himself, the current malaise of the old white man.
Infinitely delicate blended colours
This is all depicted with infinitely delicate blended colours and in blurred forms that are instantly recognizable. The works are on sale between 1.2 and 5 million dollars. The record price at auction for Luc Tuymans, 2.07 million euros, was attained in 2013. This means that Zwirner gallery perfectly controls the market for the artist without aligning itself with the prices at Sotheby’s or Christie’s.
Nowadays the million dollars is the unit of account for any recognized artist.
For the American painter and Pop Art veteran Alex Katz (born in 1927), recognition came later in life( Read here the interview of Robert Storr speaking about Alex Katz). In the hall at the fair reserved for the XXL format works, Art Unlimited, the gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac is presenting a meditative seascape by Katz, a painting measuring 4.8 metres long giving space to the sky and the sea in a spectrum of shades of blue. The work from 2007 is on sale for between 1.5 and 2 million dollars. If we refer to the artist’s record price (3.7 million euros) but also his age and the format of the painting, this is a “reasonable” price.(See here a report about Alex Katz at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris in 2021).
Fashion for very young talents
But we know that demand today isn’t related to years of experience. Right now there is a widespread fashion for very young talents. The New York art advisor Lisa Schiff, who among other feats has counted Leonardo DiCaprio as a client, believes that today the prices for contemporary art, especially for young artists, are too high.
“I don’t understand how people can pay up to 3 million dollars at auction for an artist under 30 who has never exhibited in a museum. Those reputations are not based on aesthetic quality but on investment bets and on word of mouth sharing of information. The highest price that it is acceptable to pay for a young artist is 25,000 dollars,” she estimates.
Marc Spiegler observes: “the question is one of sustainability. I have always observed that the young artists who recorded these price spikes had difficulty maintaining it in the long term.”
Among the very young artists who are sought after we find Issy Wood (born in 1993) who is also a musician. Nineteen works by the British artist have already sold at auction, with a record price, on 3 March 2022 at Phillips, of 532,000 euros for a hyperrealist painting on velvet. Represented by the London gallery Carlos Ishikawa she is now also promoted by a gallery known for its long story of engagement with figurative painting in London and New York, Michael Werner. Two paintings by Issy Wood have been sold at this booth, in the early hours of the fair, for 80,000 dollars each.
At Art Unlimited one of the most spectacular installations is the XXL showcase of New York artist Leonardo Drew (born in 1961). Made in situ, it looks like the result of an explosion or a fire. The work, on sale for 650,000 dollars, is composed of a mass of collected pieces of painted wood, which according to the artist is a depiction of the chaos of our times.
Anthony Meier from San Francisco has represented him for 14 years, but Leonardo Drew is also promoted by Goodman in South Africa and London and Lelong in Paris. His recent success hasn’t led to inflation in his prices, which is rare. At the fair his works are in more modest formats, like his sculptures made out of artificial hair, and are on sale for 95,000 dollars. His prices have increased by 15% over the past two years, according to Anthony Meier.
Nathaniel Mary Quinn
Leonardo Drew, like the New York painter Nathaniel Mary Quinn (born in 1977), is one of the African-American artists who is subject to strong demand today. The latter, now represented by Gagosian gallery and Almine Rech who are both showcasing his work at Art Basel, has developed a technique of twisting images that we might liken to Francis Bacon.
Assemblage of different features
He seeks to depict the movement of figures in painting. His portraits, which resemble assemblages of different features are, as he himself explains, the fruit of the search “for a harmony of disparate forms. An equilibrium between forms and movement.” He was the subject until 22 May 2022 of an exhibition at Le Consortium art centre in Dijon.
Gagosian and Almine Rech
His paintings at Gagosian, and at Almine Rech, sold on the day the fair opened for between 85,000 and 225,000 dollars. In 2018 when Benjamin Trigano’s M+B gallery in Los Angeles was representing him, his canvases sold for around 10,000 dollars.
Varied commercial interest
The advantage of a powerful fair like Art Basel is that it can present works with very varied commercial interest.
At Art Unlimited, those who are passionate about technology, and others, may be hypnotized by the holographic and cinematic very innovative work by the American artist Jordan Wolfson: “Artists Friends Racists” from 2019-2020, on sale for 600,000 dollars. It consists of 20 holographic images placed simultaneously in motion, which relay the artist’s obsessions (See here the report about his holographic piece).
Lastly, the most poetic and perhaps the least commercial piece at the fair is presented for 80,000 euros at Art Unlimited by the Japanese Taka Ishii gallery. It was made by Rei Naito (born in 1961), one of the most subtle visual artists from the Land of the Rising Sun. She became famous through her creation using water droplets at the heart of the Teshima museum complex. (See here a report about Naoshima and Teshima. See here an interview of Rei Naito).
Born in Hiroshima
Rei Naito was born in 1961 in Hiroshima. Her conceptual art invites contemplation.In Basel she has conceived an installation composed of a long and very narrow metal canal containing water, the symbol of life, and tiny mirrors reflecting one other, symbols of death, according to her gallerist. This is art made out of almost nothing…
The next event with Art Basel will be taking place in October in Paris, since the Swiss organizers have been appointed to establish a new fair to replace the Fiac. It will be called Paris +.
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