On 21 September one of the most highly anticipated exhibitions on the global contemporary art scene opened at the White Cube gallery in London, showcasing the work of British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage (born in 1984). Across the Channel he is in the process of becoming a national treasure, since he was appointed to design the new 1 pound coin which will enter into circulation from 2023 (See here an interview of Michael Armitage).
But Armitage has already been garnering attention for his paintings for some years now. He first conceived of a new medium: using Lubugo bark cloth from Uganda instead of canvas. It records the accidents and holes which he uses as part his compositions. Above all else his visual flair is exceptional. He composes in shimmering hues which look like they’ve been taken from Gauguin’s palette, with shapes arranged in spirals.
1.5 m pounds
His paintings generally refer to the social situation in Africa. Moma in New York staged an exhibition on him as part of its reopening in October 2019. In 2021 he was displayed in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo, and notably during the fair in Basel last June the Kunsthalle dedicated a major exhibition to his work. This is to say that the artist is currently recognized and sought after by the global contemporary art community. Armitage has a limited output, and at the age of 38 his works sell at White Cube for between 380,000 and 1.5 million pounds. It’s the museums, with the help of collectors, as part of the executive boards of these institutions, who are particularly targeted by the gallery.
Trajectory of overexcitement
The situation for Armitage is revelatory of a surprising state of affairs in the art market in general. Despite a chaotic and uncertain global context, the contemporary art market continues on its trajectory of overexcitement. There are effectively just over fifty-odd talented artists with established reputations who are highly sought after on a global scale, and even the wealthy collectors are no longer able to buy their work. Not for lack of money, but because demand is too high.
Prices regularly reach 500,000 euros for their new canvases, as is the case right now for the Romanian artist who lives between Berlin and Rome, Victor Man (born in 1974), whose hypnotic and mysterious portraits are exhibited with Max Hetzler in Paris until 29 October. This is why the usual players in the market are deploying unprecedented strategies to publicize their new talents. We have already written about the Docent app (see here the report about the app), designed to establish the digital profile of the tastes of collectors so as to satisfy them using artificial intelligence in collaboration with the world’s galleries.
Art Basel and the platform
Now the rumours around the market are humming with the possibility that the Art Basel fair will create a platform dedicated to the sale of contemporary art online. Until now the most powerful fair in the world, which will be opening on 20 October for the first time in Paris, has been content to offer in-person sites and optimal conditions for a selection of handpicked galleries.
Now it could be a permanent bandleader for online transactions. The multinational Zwirner gallery did not expect this in creating “Platform”. Even though it has its own roster of artists is it now presenting, exclusively online, a selection of little-known artists each month for a limited duration with the label “Zwirner”. A team of eight people is dedicated to the operation. The prices are those of artists starting out, between 2,500 and 6,500 dollars. The offering is primarily composed of figurative paintings, abiding by what is currently in fashion.
Last September the auction house Sotheby’s, wanting to expand their offering, recruited the former director of the Art Basel Miami fair, Noah Horowitz, who became the global head of galleries and private sales at the company owned by Patrick Drahi. One year later he has just announced “Artist’s choice”. He is proposing to allow artists and galleries to sell their works directly at auction.
In the classic system the galleries exhibit and sell the artworks and in the process generally pocket 50% of the price obtained. Then once their works have a strong enough audience they are presented at auction by collectors and are the subject of speculation. These are sums from which the artist gets nothing, with a few exceptions, such as in France where there are resale rights. “Artist’s choice enables artists to transparently establish their own market,” explains Horowitz. “Furthermore 15% of the product of the sale will be given to a charitable organization of their choice.”
In Vienna Amir Shariat has a new and very fashionable job. He is an artist’s agent for eight talents, including the American artist Kennedy Yanko (born in 1988) who will be taking part in the first Sotheby’s sale on 30 September which contains in total five “Artist’s choice”. For as Shariat explains, Kennedy already wanted to make a donation to the “Free a girl” organization which fights against the sexual exploitation of young girls. Her sculpture, which is on sale with an estimate of 60,000 dollars, is an abstract composition in crumpled metal, mixed with a coloured layer of material of her own invention, which she calls “paint skin”.
When faced with these new initiatives there are certain gallerists who prefer to keep a certain restraint. Jocelyn Wolff has a 1000m2 gallery on the outskirts of Paris in Romainville, and he is opening a small space in October on Rue des Saint Pères in Saint Germain des Près where he will be displaying drawings, among other things. The Wolff gallery’s star artist is the Swiss painter Miriam Cahn (born in 1949). She already has a long career and is currently exhibited, among others, at the Venice Biennale. At Cahn’s request, Wolff is seeking to control her prices. Her large drawings are presented starting at 10,000 dollars and her paintings go up to 300,000 dollars. “The market always tends to try and turn art into a currency. It’s a risky idea,” he concludes.
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