First-class stamps cost two cents more today, but don’t worry, the USPS “forever stamp” is also making its debut. Few of us still use stamps, but as a fan of snail mail I’m grateful for this concession, even if it’s been created for no other reason than to appease disgruntled postal workers who’re tired of explaining the price hikes to increasingly aggressive customers. The fact that I can buy one for forty-one cents today and use it, say, forty-one years from now (if the US pseudo-empire and its postal service still exist) sounds like a great deal to me, ne’er you mind that the image is of the cracked Liberty Bell and the line “USA FIRST-CLASS FOREVER” creates a somewhat pathetic kind of poem. That little rectangle of paper, ink, and adhesive will effectively appreciate over time, and I won’t even have to monitor the investment. This brings me to some other goods hitting the market this week that will soon cost a few gazillion cents more.
Tomorrow, 15 May is the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale, followed by Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale the day after. Both of these hot evening sales are accompanied by morning and afternoon sessions, which include works of implicitly less desirable/more attainable status. I’d not given the whole art auction universe much thought for a few years—ever since an insistent idealism about art hinted that my job assisting a private art dealer was perhaps better filled by an aesthetically disinterested economics grad—but having an outside glimpse of it again this past weekend was most enjoyable. Overlooking the apparently confused titles of these regal events (Jackson Pollock is a contemporary artist?) and focusing on some of the work, I left thrilled that these two premier auction houses deign to even open their doors to riffraff like me.
In the company of a painter I adore who’d suggested the trip, we first went to Christie’s, at Rockefeller Center. Strolling through two of the three preview floors, I was reminded how much Ruscha’s letters make me smile, and how Martin’s still verticals and horizontals can be too quiet for all but the most studied space. I’d expected to feel intimidated, but was glad to see that I wasn’t so out of place, remembering an observation Miranda July once made after discussing one of her short stories, something along the lines of “poor people who win the lottery don’t become different people, they just become poor people with tons of money.” So there we were, amid well-heeled and sandal-wearing families alike, lovers, art lovers, art investors, indifferent investors, and all sorts of folk keen to have a look at some incredible works before they’re sent to the auction block and disappear. Some will be whisked away into private homes forever, some will vanish into the buyer’s closet for a few months until they appreciate enough to be sent right back to the block, and a very few just might happily end up in a museum or collection where the public will still have access to them. After leaving that gallery I had worked at and moving on with life, the whole experience came vividly back to me last year as I unsuspectingly strolled through the National Gallery of Art and came across a piece the dealer I’d worked with had been offering when I left. It was like bumping into an acquaintance who’s moved away and you never expected to see again, and I was glad she’d (unintentionally) placed it where people could enjoy it.
Here I must take a moment to digress; for me, the real discovery at Christie’s was Matthias Weischer, one of the Leipzig School painters I’d heard a lot about but whose work I’d never seen in person. I considered getting the auction catalogue for this one piece, filled with echoes of De Chirico and other strange spaces I’d been thinking about lately, but wanted to travel lightly and knew there’d be other occasions to see him. Checking the Christie’s website I found some lofty, laughable text about it:
“In Familie O-Mittag…. all spatial bearings lost, viewers are left with the fascinating task of making sense of the layers of Weischer’s painting and grappling with the meaning of the inexplicable dark and foreboding coiled mass at the center of the work–a process which intelligently mirrors the manner in which many struggle to wade through the multiple strata of their everyday lives and wrestle with the often enigmatic recurring doubts of human existence.” I know nothing about dark and foreboding masses, but I love green boa-constrictor constructions, hovering floors, and dissolving bricks. And yeah, if it can mirror my struggle to wade through the strata of my everyday existence better than a little Lacanian analysis, maybe it is worth more than the $250–$350,000 estimate they’ve put forth… if only a fraction of that went to the work’s creator.
Leaving Christie’s and walking northeast to Sotheby’s singular palace (now quite contested real estate), a very different atmosphere greeted us. Joining what appeared to be a gregarious father-son duo asking if there were anything to see on the ninth floor during the elevator ride to the relatively new, rather sterile tenth floor, the space felt more like the new MoMA, as opposed to Christie’s more intimate spaces, until I turned a corner to see jewel-cases of diamonds tucked along a wall beside some of the paintings. As a big Marilyn fan I’ve nothing against diamonds, but their placement here seemed curious, even disruptive, next to the supposed works of art. The shopping mall atmosphere grew stronger as we descended to the lower floors, tucked into shadow behind the tall front atrium and connected by somehow incongruously loud escalators, where the paintings up for the morning and afternoon sales were cramped in around pre-Columbian artifacts, another branch of the diamond division, and some “Important Turner Watercolours from the Guy and Myriam Ullens Collection,” (as if Sotheby’s would sell anything that weren’t important).
The second preview, feeling more like an odd museum, had a more varied and vociferous public, and there was more mobile phone speculation to be overheard. Seeing an early Stella maze was a good welcome, and its blacks, greys, and whites good preparation for Richter’s charming Spanish nudies in the next room. As I looked at a Warhol flower piece set into one of Stella’s rainbow works thanks to the magical refraction of a prismlike Robert Irwin column, a young boy ran up, ducked between me and the column, and took my same stance to look through. He then called his parents, who’d just dismissed Not Pollock on the side wall, to do the same. The following room had Tom Friedman’s teeny self-portrait carved from Aspirin, and more Aspirin encapsulated in the transparent acrylic of a Tomaselli piece. Seeing on our way out that another, less fortunate Richter was relegated to a spot next to the escalator, then noting that it was a lithograph of a photograph of a painting of his, numbered 5 in an edition of 8, the relatively low $40–60,000 estimate on it made more sense. It was a fun afternoon.
The following evening I ran into my upstairs neighbors, two truly fine artists who’d ridden the ascending art market wave of the ’80s and weathered the consequential crash, and traded some not-so-fun reflections on precisely what is going on, where these works are coming from, going to, and why. These will be an exciting couple of days, and I’m glad to have had an inspiring peek at some beauties just briefly passing through.
Pevious Lunar Refractions here.
[Images courtesy of my camera, the USPS website, and Christie’s and Sotheby’s online catalogues.]