Market Monday: Figure Study
This week, a few numbers helped crystallize just how distorted the industry has become...
36,000: The total in US dollars reportedly returned to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner by Richard Prince this week, when the artist decided to disavow the "Instagram portrait" he'd created for the incoming First Daughter back in 2014. Prince broke the story himself through a series of Wednesday tweets (most notably this one and this one). The move provoked a deluge of press coverage and public adulation, crowned by Jerry Saltz's anointing Prince's action both a blueprint for how artists can "fight" the Trump family and a potential inflection point in the history of conceptualism.
All that being said, let's consider three points for context. Number one, given that Prince is one of the select few superstar artists so in demand that he's able to hop from one high-end gallery to the next at will, without officially joining anyone's roster, it's not as if spitting 36K back at arguably the free world's least popular collector represents any real sacrifice on his part. Number two, the Trump family's brand of politics has been clear since at least 2011, when The Donald initiated the birther controversy against Barack Obama during his first exploratory run at the GOP nomination. It may be true that Prince, like so many others (myself included), didn't anticipate back then that the Trumps would become the paradigm-shifting force they are today. But he didn't have any problem doing a commission for them (despite his preferred semantics) two years after their patriarch called the landslide results of the 2012 presidential election "a total sham and a travesty," then moments later declared that the "House of Representatives shouldn't give anything to Obama unless he terminates Obamacare."
Which leads us to point number three––the most important of all from an art-business perspective. Assuming rates haven't risen dramatically since 2014 (when, as a reminder, the Prince-Trump sale actually took place), $36,000 is about the cost of five full-page, four-color ads in the front section of ARTFORUM. By paying roughly the same price to de-authenticate the Ivanka portrait, Prince has already saturated the media well beyond the level that any number of traditional ad buys could have accomplished. On top of that, the move has begun tempting people in the industry to re-contextualize Prince alongside the most respected and principled disavowers in art history, such as Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, and Cady Noland. None of the above means that Prince isn't sincere about his protest. But it also means we shouldn't forget that good politics can also be very good business––and that no artist knows how to play the publicity game better than he does. [Vulture]
78: The current age of renowned squiggle squire Brice Marden, who this week decided to jettison 20+ years of representation by the highly respected Matthew Marks in order to board Gagosian's globe-spanning fleet of luxury liners. Although Marden praised Marks on his way out to the yacht party, he explained his decision to Robin Pogrebin in blunt terms, saying that he "just felt [he] needed a change" and thinks he'll "be able to use [his] time better this way."
Since I can't remember the last time I heard someone prioritize change for change's sake 16 years after they became eligible to begin collecting social security, I'm going to go ahead and assume this move is about Marden's legacy. Of course, Matthew Marks is no slouch when it comes to art-world influence. But the fact is that, via his long and ever-growing track record of presenting blockbuster historical exhibitions, commissioning museum-quality scholarship, and making lucrative sales for works by late-career and deceased greats, Gagosian has the muscle to lift Marden onto a far more visible plinth in the pantheon of postwar art––even if the artist only gets to make the journey inside an urn. [The New York Times]
And finally this week, 23: The life span, in months, of Feuer/Mesler, the upper-midmarket, Lower East Side joint venture between gallerists Zach Feuer and Joel Mesler. The two announced their merger back in March 2015, and their final show as a tandem will close February 5th. Immediately thereafter, Feuer/Mesler director and partner Lauren Marinaro will take over her ex-employers' space, as well as much of their roster, to open Marinaro Gallery at 319 Grand Street two weeks later.
It couldn't be less controversial by now for me to say that 21st-century economics all but forces today's gallerists to expand at gunpoint or get brain-splattered. But that's precisely what makes Feuer/Mesler's demise more significant than that of just another once-proud single-location gallery: They TRIED to scale, and it still didn't work. Remember, the Feuer/Mesler merger originally encompassed two Manhattan spaces––319 Grand and the former site of Mesler's Untitled Gallery, at 30 Orchard Street––plus (in my calculus) their upstate gallery Retrospective, which Feuer and Mesler partnered on 13 months prior to the official merger and continued to operate until mid-2016. In less than two years, then, three spaces became two spaces became one, before the names above that last door disappeared from the gallerist ranks completely. Mesler will reportedly now focus on making artwork instead of dealing it, while Feuer extends what was meant to be a "year-long sabbatical teaching bike-repair to special-needs students."
Is Feuer/Mesler's closure proof that the partnership couldn't have worked if its namesakes had decided to keep pushing? Not necessarily. But it's also telling that, at least for the time being, both men have decided to abandon the gallerist life completely rather than tweak their strategy. And as every day seems to make clearer that you have to either build or join an empire in order to make a living in contemporary art, don't be surprised to see more and more respected figures decide that no potential victory on this battlefield is worth the fight anymore. I'm sure it's good for their souls. But I doubt that it's good for the industry or the arts. [artnet News]
That’s all for this edition. Til next time, remember: You don't have to botch any actual math to be the loser of a numbers game.