I can remember, as if yesterday, at 420 West Broadway seeing Leo Castelli in his office behind the glass wall. How very different is Larry Gagosian’s present gallery at 980 Madison Avenue, where his office is out of sight.
To understand the art market, you need to explain this swift change. What’s always fascinated me is how this market brings together two groups who normally don’t socialize: critics and collectors. There are the exotic-seeming rich people, as any reader of Henry James would know well; once at dinner, asking one collector where he lived, I got a listing of his homes: the Park Avenue apartment, the ranch in Ireland, the winter place in Florida, and so on.
Art dealers, too, are fascinating because they sell to collectors expensive artifacts that satisfy no immediate need. The challenge, then, is to describe the relationship between art and its market in a tactful way. Philistines, I grant, do speak about art exclusively in terms of economics. But you cannot understand contemporary art without knowing collecting. A century ago, our art market focused on Italian Old Masters. When young, James bemoaned that there was little visual culture in his country; by the time of his death, in 1916, thanks to Joseph Duveen and other dealers, that was no longer the case. Then, in the mid-20th century, Leo Castelli, Sidney Janis, Betty Parsons, and other dealers gave American contemporary art a center place.
Starting in 1947 with the return of Peggy Guggenheim, Jackson Pollock’s former dealer, to Venice, Michael Shnayerson’s BOOM: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Arttells the story of art dealing in New York. While academic historians have described the role of Clement Greenberg championing Abstract Expressionism, the rise of Minimalism and Pop Art, the importance of Artforum, the influence of Leo Steinberg and the critics associated with October on the discussion of Postmodernism, Shnayerson, who is good at getting people to speak frankly, devotes one short sentence to Greenberg and mentions other art writers in only anecdotal ways.
Focusing primarily on the dealers, he reports without judgment, delivering a determinedly neutral account. And so we get a great deal of good gossip about Castelli, Mary Boone, Gagosian, Arne Glimcher, and their successors. And so if you want to know what Gagosian’s office looks like, what Glimcher thinks of him, or how Boone treated her artists, then his book is an entertaining good read. Certainly I enjoyed it. You learn that some art dealers are from privileged backgrounds, while others (like Gagosian) are self-made. His account of collectors is frankly thinner. There is more to the story, I think, than their need to have something to talk about when guests come for dinner.
A great deal of art history writing fails to frankly discuss economics. But you cannot understand 17th-century Roman Baroque visual culture without knowing about Papal finances. And to understand why the American art market has boomed since Pollock, you need to understand why there are so many collectors and why some are so wealthy.
In 1960 Meyer Schapiro wrote: “The extraordinary prices paid for contemporary and older art seem pathological.” His example: $100,000 for an early Picasso. When Greenberg critically supported Pollock, his paintings were inexpensive, but nevertheless a hard sell. Then when Postmodernism appeared, Steinberg’s essay “Other Criteria” mattered, as so did Douglas Crimp’s famous 1977 exhibition Pictures, which presented a new generation of artists. We are thus accustomed to think that novel art forms are made accessible to collectors by bold critical theorizing.
We critics like to believe (or hope) that our critical judgments matter. Greenberg was important because he had an original theory and made the right critical judgments. But now, as Barry Schwabsky has said in his book, The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso, 2016), the critic is “superseded by collectors and curators.” Shnayerson’s most vivid passages come when he describes the relationship between dealers and artists.
Reading his account of Gagosian’s relationship with Cy Twombly, you sense how much his dealer loved him: “He just lived his own life and was totally an artist, all in, all of the time” (145). Arne Glimcher’s relationship with Agnes Martin was apparently similar. And William Acquavella’s first visit to Lucian Freud’s studio was love at first sight. But of course, unlike a critic, a dealer doesn’t spell out his judgment in words. Critics still are hired to do exhibition catalogues and reviews. But what if the system can function without us? We like to think that we are exceptionally good at making critical judgments. But can we really compete with the best dealers, who see so much more art than we do?
Shnayerson has almost nothing to say about what’s often striking to me as a working critic: the transformation of the gallery space. It’s not just that the galleries have become much larger, which he does say, but that they’ve become more varied, more architecturally sophisticated, and often much more luxurious. Museum going has become more expensive, and museums, at least in Manhattan, are more crowded, but the galleries remain free and, except of course at the opening, oddly empty. Years ago, when I went from the crowded Sigmar Polke exhibition at MoMA to the drop-dead gorgeous show at Michael Werner, 25 blocks uptown, I found myself there alone. People are intimated, I think, by the sense that galleries are exclusionary.
Shnayerson has gathered a great deal of information about the art market. He is very good at charting trends, and so someone who wants a clear sociological account will find BOOM invaluable. Ultimately, however, its biggest limitation is that, as a journalist and editor at Vanity Fair, he is not an art world insider. How can you report on baseball if you’ve never played the game? And how can you describe the gallery system if you aren’t a participant? I, an unworldly writer, learned by doing small jobs for two upscale galleries, and by accompanying generous dealers to art fairs and an auction.
Because I believe that there is some truly great contemporary art, I am often tolerant about the obvious moral problems of the present gallery system. But if you think, like Tom Wolfe, whose The Painted Word(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975) was a cynical take down, that the whole business is something of a hoax, then you’re like a village atheist writing a history of the Church.
Shnayerson quotes a would-be dealer, “If you pay me enough money I’ll shine your shoes right now.” But here, as elsewhere, he doesn’t give his own opinion. He tells us a great deal of what other people think about Jeff Koons and the other upscale artists, but he never says what he thinks. Nor does he offer a perspective on the obvious moral issues when it’s obvious that the grand galleries rely upon the superrich. Reporting that Jeffrey Deitch’s tenure at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was undermined because his appointment, as a former dealer, created conflicts of interest, he refrains from commenting on the plausibility of that claim. When he notes the critical response of Jerry Saltz and other critics to the artist Oscar Murillo, he doesn’t give his own opinion. Shnayerson, who calls Cheim & Read a “small” gallery, a surprising judgment to me, says very little about the truly small galleries, which historically have sometimes been important.
The ruthless collectors who a century ago created our grand museums felt a real obligation to serve the public. What’s striking here, by contrast, is the absence of any similar beliefs on the part of these dealers or their collectors. It’s as if we’ve returned to the days of the old regime. The mega-dealers are becoming more powerful, while the medium-sized galleries are marginalized, and the museums have to work ever harder to fund themselves. It’s abundantly clear that the present system is unsustainable.
Sometimes crowded art markets yield greatness: look at Rome in the 1590s, when Caravaggio arrived. But at other times, nothing interesting happens. Will our descendants look back in 70 years in the way that we look back on the golden years of Abstract Expressionists? That is impossible for anyone to know. Except, maybe, the art critics.