New arrival: new scene?
On 15 October there will be a Contemporary Art Auction in the heart of London. This in itself is nothing new. The auction houses have held auctions at this time seemingly forever, and with the attention that Frieze brought to London they grew in both revenue, and importance for the auction houses. What is interesting about the auction on 15 October is that it is being held, not by Christie’s or Sotheby’s but by Phillips. Furthermore it will be their inaugural auction at their new flagship showroom in Berkeley Square.
There is no expense spared on this showroom, the architect of the Lanesborough Hotel is charged with delivering a beautiful space worthy of the art they are showing; builders are grafting night and day to deliver the finest art experience in London. This is significant for a number of reasons. First it shows the seriousness of intent with which Phillips is pursuing this market; they mean business. Second it highlights the shift in client engagement required by the auction houses to make this category a success: this is no longer about delivering to the trade, but creating a retail experience that the client can enjoy. It is no coincidence that Larry Gagosian is set to open his latest London gallery space just behind Phillips, the retail experience has always focused on this area of London, and Phillips look set to capitalise on that.
Phillips is not the only auction house to have had a makeover. Bonhams unveiled what is, up till now, the leader in auction galleries and showrooms in London last year. They too have devoted attention – and resources – to how they retail themselves. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the Christie’s and Sotheby’s stronghold, that for so long has gripped the London auction scene might be about to be challenged.
What to see
October in London always means Frieze and this year attention is once again on Frieze Masters (Regent’s Park, 15–19 October). This is the third year and it is a vital year for the fair that is working hard to establish itself as ‘A contemporary lens on historical art’. When it opened it was the toast of the town, and everyone was intrigued to see how the contemporary juggernaut Frieze would manage to show arts from across historical periods. It was a tightly curated show that offered just enough to keep people interested, and made people yearn for the next one. The following show, last year, had some notable triumphs, not least the Calder mobile at Helly Namad and the Tomasso Brothers contemporary and airy display of classical sculptures. The indisputable highlight was Johnny van Haeften’s Bruegel, which had been tucked away in a family collection since an ancestor bought it direct from the artist’s studio 400 years ago. The fair, however, had a feeling of bedding down in its second year.
Frieze Masters grew out of a tricky time at TEFAF in Maastricht when, about five years ago, they appeared to lose their way and admitted contemporary galleries to boost their revenue. It was done in a confusing way, which was as much turn off to certain members of the audience as it was attractive to others. Spotting a gap in the market Frieze rushed in to offer an alternate version, and because it was in London who could resist, even if it didn't have the tulips in the aisles?
This year it will be worth going to see how they pull out all the stops, what they are focussing on and to see if they have mastered the problem of having a cornucopia of galleries without it overwhelming the visitor. According to the fair the galleries are selected on ‘the strength of their gallery programme but there is also attention paid to what they suggest they bring.’ From what we’ve heard the emphasis is very much on the latter this year, suggesting some galleries will be pulling out all the stops just to make an entrance. The talks that they have curated to accompany the exhibition show the seriousness of intent within Regent’s Park. They have, among others, Edmund de Waal and Phylida Barlow as well as a panel discussion on Collecting Beyond Contemporary chaired by Wim Pijbes, Director of the Rijksmuseum so they are not pulling any punches.
Now is the time to see if it really does live up to the hype and is the unique proposition the organisers say it is. You might just get to spend time in front of a work of art that changes the way you look at everything else.
Artist focus: John McLaughlin
With all the bright lights of Pop art seeming to take centre stage the cool rigours of Minimalism can often be overshadowed. Recently that has been changing. Agnes Martin has been a consistent feature of the Post-War and Contemporary auctions in both London and New York. The sale of works the Herbert Foundation by artists such as Carl André seemed to reinvigorate attention brought to artists of a Minimal persuasion so if you are looking for an artist who’s moment is about to come you could do worse than consider a Minimalist.
John McLaughlin (1898–1976) was an American abstract painter, based in California, who sought to remove his personality as much as possible from the canvas. He was heavily influenced by Zen philosophy from his time in Japan as a translator for US Army Intelligence. He is perhaps the most prominent of the ‘Hard Edge’ painters of the late 1950s who formed a counter movement to the emotionally charged Abstract Expressionists.
The Orange County Museum of Art have announced that they will hold a major exhibition featuring him in, One With Everything in March 2015. As attention shifts, with greater impetus to California as an artistic and creative centre in America and Minimalism’s quiet voice is making more noise, this could be the moment to start paying attention to the self-effacing John McLaughlin.
Market focus: Joseph Beuys
In a time when contemporary artists command headline grabbing figures at auction, it is interesting to consider just what makes an artist valuable and how value is measured. Of course, money is one way, but there are others and sometimes the market and connoisseurship don’t agree. Take Joseph Beuys. Very few artists have attained such critical admiration. He is still considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century yet in terms of market value he is nowhere. His highest value work sold at auction, Bett (Corsett) just scrapes over the $1,000,000 mark if you include the premium.
Yet, Tate Modern show his work continuously (Monument to the Stag is on view as part of their Artist’s Rooms) and put on a Beuys retrospective in 2005 that had critics daring each other into new levels of superlative praise: ‘Beuys as a figure matters, and his art matters more’. His work is in MoMA, Tate and the Guggenheim as well as many other important collections while in 1999 one of his most iconic works, his felt suit, sold for just £13,000.
Paradoxically, the museum collections might be at the heart of the problem. Beuys’s tricky sculptures are not small, but museums have all wanted a piece by this heavyweight European conceptual artist. The museums around the world have snapped up the best pieces and they are not letting them go. Stock in Beuys is minimal. Where is the next great piece going to come from? Well probably nowhere as it’s already locked up in a museum. Yet Beuys seems rare in the lack of trickle-down effect. Many of the great Freud’s are locked away and unlikely to come to the market anytime soon yet a suite of five etchings from an edition of 75 will still set you back around £65,000. A similar proposition from Beuys might only cost £5,000. The delicate ecosystem that contributes to the price of an artist – supply, strong dealer support and auction results to name a few – does not always align with the value of an artist. Is it time to reappraise the value of certain artists?
Auction surprise: Hendrick Goltzius
We thought it would be helpful to pick out a moment of interest from recent auctions. As we get ready for a new season we looked back at the summer to pick out a wonderful painting that almost seemed like it was going to be overlooked, The Artist’s Hand by Hendrick Goltzius. This extraordinary, daring drawing in pen and ink was estimated at £300,000–500,000 yet it sold for £2,658,500 – an extreme ‘come-and-get-me’ estimate.
There is no doubt that part of the reason this work did so well is the bold modernity of the image. Its stark lines and exquisite depiction of a fire-damaged hand would sit beautifully alongside almost any work of any period, making it a wonderful addition to a collection. That, however, doesn’t totally explain the discrepancy between estimate and sale price.
Goltzius is a fascinating, relatively-little-known Dutch artist from the late 16th century. His understanding of the body and representing the different tones of flesh and musculature are second to none. He requires a connoisseurial admiration. Perhaps, as well as bringing a wonderful drawing to light this result represents a strengthening of a particular sensibility in the art market, an area where, in this work, the appetites of the connoisseur and the newer buyer have come together.