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Market Values

Why are wealthy collectors getting fed up with abstract art?

On a snowy, sleety evening last November, inside the auction room at Phillips on Park Avenue, Henry Highley was waiting at a lacquered podium. Potential buyers filed in slowly, closing their umbrellas, unzipping their parkas, and making their way to their seats with their paddles. This was the evening sale for contemporary and twentieth-century modern art, one of only two of its kind each year that the New York office puts on and thus its success is vital to the house’s survival. It began brilliantly for Phillips. Highley, the house’s auctioneer and head of contemporary art evening sales, has long been a rising star in the auction world: youngish and British, he is able to, mid-auction, toss out the varieties of delightful quips that might push an elderly woman from the Upper East Side to bid, say, an extra $100,000 on a single work. “The whole room is focused on you, madame, willing you,” he said. “Are you sure?” he pressed another waffling bidder, before coyly playing to his ego: “You look like someone who doesn’t like to lose out on things.”

The first lot, a moderately sized painting by the American artist Christina Quarles, which depicts two women, one of them bent over the other, sold for more than quadruple its high estimate. The second, another figurative painting—this one by Kaws, a newly bona fide favorite of collectors—also blew through its high estimate, more than tripling it. In fact, the auction went well until an enormous, abstract, blocky painting by Alberto Burri came up. It was meant to fetch at least ten million dollars, but after Highley’s drawn-out attempts to up the bidding, it didn’t sell at all. The same happened with “Number 16,” a Jackson Pollock drip painting with a posh, Rockefeller provenance.

After he quietly concluded the auction, Highley looked dejected. The Burri and the Pollock would have made up a significant portion of Phillips’ revenue. Without them, the initial excitement around the Quarles and the Kaws had been tempered, and Phillips, generally seen as a rising underdog to Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the contemporary art market, feared that they’d doomed themselves.

But not all had gone impeccably well at the Christie’s sale in Rockefeller Center either, which included an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning that had to be withdrawn, likely because of a lack of interest. (For an auction’s major works, the house’s specialists tend to know who will and won’t be bidding on a work.) And at Sotheby’s, whose contemporary sale had happened the evening before, two significant abstract paintings—by Kenneth Noland and Susan Rothenberg—failed to sell.

Lately, abstract art has been on the decline in the market. The contemporary evening sales at Phillips, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s that took place in London this March and in New York this May showed that the results of last autumn weren’t an anomaly. Major abstract paintings by Burri, Mark Bradford, and Rudolf Stingel all failed to sell as well.

At the same time, figurative contemporary art has been on the rise. Relatively legible, politically obvious works by the likes of Gerhard Richter and Adrian Ghenie all sold for strong prices over the past few major sales across the three houses. Over its recent evening sales for twentieth-century and contemporary art, Christie’s has relied on certain sunny, figurative paintings, like those by David Hockney, with two of his works selling for a combined $139 million in the autumn sale. Phillips, in turn, has begun to rely on the simple messages and pop cultural sensibilities of Kaws. For Phillips’ most recent New York evening contemporary spring sale in May, one of their biggest lots was a Kaws painting that depicts SpongeBob SquarePants with Xs on his eyes. It sold for an incredible $6 million. The Xs are a signature of Kaws—a simple criticism of Pop Art, popular culture, and what we allow ourselves to see and not see in contemporary society. It’s this figurative didactism that the art market seems to currently crave.

Art that is popular often points to the social desires of its time. Recently, social expectations have been overturned by a shifting political scene, and, with it, the style of art that sells has changed, too. Here is a man diving into a bright pool; here is a cartoon character with his eyes shut to the difficulties of the world. The art that is doing well in the market provides a place of escape from society. Right now, that’s an escape to rules and boundaries and to easily digestible culture. But the inverse is also true: when there is greater social stability, even ennui, as there was in mid-century America, the preferred art becomes that which allows for a flight into messiness and multiple interpretations. Crucially, however, this current turn toward the figurative and its stabilities seems to be particular to the rich, to those who are actually buying the art. It has not always been so.

The art that is doing well in the market provides a place of escape from society. Right now, that’s an escape to rules and boundaries and to easily digestible culture.

A central question throughout the study of art history is whether society changes tastes and thus creates a certain type of art, or whether a ground-up, burgeoning style of art changes society? Of course, neither view is entirely correct, and neither is strictly wrong. Art can be influenced by a social politics, but it also performs those politics. Artists are not, as the German artist Hans Haacke wrote in the 1970s, “immune to being affected and influenced by the socio-political value-system of the society in which they live.” Artists, furthermore, are sometimes able to lead a public discourse in a direction that political leaders simply cannot. Understood in reverse, this explains why revolutions begin by toppling statues, destroying cultural symbols. It’s not a surprise that the Nazis began by stealing and often destroying Picassos, Mirós, and Légers. The annihilation of art was the first and fundamental act of oppression; this they did before building Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. The destruction of art, in these cases, came before the destruction of humans.

“If one places the artwork outside of its historical context, whether in its origin, or its effect,” Hannah Deinhardt wrote in her 1967 book (published in English in 1970) Meaning and Expression Toward a Sociology of Art, “one can give no explanation of the facts of the various arts, the many-sidedness of artworks.” Art reflects the past, present, and future of the place and time in which it was crafted. But it is not exclusively a reflection of society; it creates society as well. “If one sees the artwork exclusively as the expression and result of uniquely determinate historical conditions,” Deinhardt continued, “one runs the danger of reducing the activity of art and the artwork to nothing more than a mere exemplification of economic, religious, social, or political forces, and overlooking the specifically artistic or leaving it unexplained.”

In other words, art has long been neither Shakespeare’s mirror nor Trotsky’s hammer. It has been, instead, a kind of cycle or at least a back-and-forth. As a result of this movement, various styles have lived and died in the past century, but throughout it all a material link between art and society has held. Take, for instance, how the social mayhem caused by the Second World War, seemed to have killed abstract art, the messiest of forms. In 1940, with the war just beginning, the English critic Wyndham Lewis wrote in The New Republic: “In all its forms—not only in its purest absolute—abstract art is no more.” The idea that abstract art had fully died would of course prove to be an outrageous claim. Abstract art had not died any more than art itself had died. Some of the greatest abstract artists were still to come or to make their best work—Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Helen Frankenthaler, Clyfford Still, and on. But Lewis was right to see that the sociopolitical circumstances of the time no longer lent themselves to this style of art. Lewis goes on to write that abstract art had become too full of “boredom,” that “the last war hastened its end,” referring to the end of the First World War. Perhaps abstract art wasn’t what the art-viewing public wanted and needed in a time of social chaos. “It was never very hardy, I am afraid,” he laments.

There would be many more “deaths” of various art trends throughout the century. To some, painting itself had been snuffed out in the late-1970s. The countercultural, hippie ethos of the 1960s and early 1970s had more or less come to its end. Post-modernism as a defining cultural philosophy had caught on. The end of history, as Jean Baudrillard saw it, was an illusion; instead, with the collapse of progress as an ideal, we became mired in endless cycles of repetition and forgetting. Art, in response, began to break free of its formalism, and painting as a medium was rejected in favor of more overtly political acts of art that countered the direction of society. “In New York at the end of the 1970s, many people thought painting was all washed up,” wrote Roberta Smith, in the New York Times. The art that was being made was grappling with the political ideas and implications of the then-faded counterculture.

The land art movement, for one, grew out of environmental concerns, but it was also driven by an anti-capitalist impulse. Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” on the Great Salt Lake in Utah could not, by its very nature, be sold or exhibited. It was made of black basalt rocks and earth, and it resurfaces from the lake only now and again. Not only, therefore, could it not be sold or institutionally shown, it also questioned the preciousness around an object of art itself. Feminist art returned, too. Judy Chicago made “The Dinner Party,” the famous installation piece where the place-settings of thirty-nine iconic women throughout history are set around a triangular table. And performance art took hold, as the body became both political object and artwork. In 1972, for his performance piece “Seedbed,” Vito Acconci intermittently masturbated for a fortnight, unseen, beneath a gallery space at 420 West Broadway in Manhattan, articulating his feelings and fantasies through speakers set throughout the gallery.

But by the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, globalization was accelerating, mid-century democratic social ideals were falling, and the neoliberal agendas of Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan were defining an art market in which, it seemed, almost anything could be branded and sold. Young, coolish artists like Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and David Salle, presented as self-aware and ironic, were eminently bankable, their willingness to socialize a core part of their marketability.

Now it is the social situation and reactions of elites that has come to define what art is and isn’t valuable.

Some critics at the time were displeased at their success. The art theorist Benjamin H.D. Buchloh called the neo-Expressionism painters “ciphers of regression.” The infamously salty Donald Judd wondered if Schnabel would ever “grow up.” But, more interestingly, other critics were surprised they’d become successful at all given the progression of art history. The assumption had been that a coterie of non-painters called the “Pictures Generation” would have been the more likely successors to Abramović, Smithson, and the installation and performance artists of the previous decade. Painting was not supposed to have come back into vogue. But these critics misunderstood—or simply didn’t see—what had then only recently come true: Money was these works’ politics; they were as political as anything from before. For the first time in history, the market was explicitly deciding what art would be successful. While the art of the early- and mid-century had been a response to society—a way of countering societal powers, in the chaos of war, in the lack of progressive ideals amidst the apparent “end of history”—now the most viewed and beloved art was aligned with those social powers. Propelled forward neither by its own internal mechanisms of style nor by reflecting society, the art world became almost totally subservient to the art market—absorbing and even propagating its prerogatives of form, style, and content. The link between contemporary art and the masses became frayed and now, as at the autumn and spring contemporary evening auctions, it is the social situation and reactions of elites that has come to define what art is and isn’t valuable.

The three major auction houses were all founded between the mid- and late-eighteenth century. But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that they became what we know them as now. What happened first is that art became a vehicle for investment. Major institutional investors, like the British Rail Pension Fund, began to use the art market like a stock index, putting, in their case, some 40 million pounds into various “art portfolios” that were overseen by Sotheby’s. Especially with booming individual Asian wealth from the late-1970s onward, individuals also began to play the art market. Price points for art were sometimes set, too. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were caught colluding and price-fixing in 2000. (They were fined $512 million.)  One year prior, seeing a gap in what had become a significant market, Bernard Arnault’s French luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton bought Phillips, merging with the charismatic art dealers Simon de Pury and Daniella Luxembourg to form Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg in an effort to help break up the duopolistic dominance of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. (Arnault ditched a majority stake in 2002, de Pury left in 2012, and Phillips de Pury & Company is again just Phillips.)

Biennials and art fairs began to flourish, too, and art became global with galleries opening two, three, even a dozen or more outposts across the world, from New York to Paris to London to Basel. Larry Gagosian, in 1979, set up his own gallery, which has since become the exemplary art-marketing machine: his galleries, of which there are sixteen across the globe, are routinely able to host glossily curated shows that almost instantly raise the financial value of the works on display. Gagosian represents some of the truly great contemporary artists, like Richard Serra, John Currin, and Cy Twombly, but the gallery also frequently throws together transparent money grabs—like paring the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami with the fashion designer Virgil Abloh or the American artist Alex Israel with the writer Bret Easton Ellis.

What is considered financially valuable in the art market is now relatively predictable. Deeply beholden to the market, art has since become largely a reflection of elite society and its tastes. What had once been a response to power was now in power itself. This is part of why “political” and “relevant” art is now so popular: it offers the pretense of a connection between art and society. Even worse, what is considered correctly “political” and “relevant” is left up to a cadre of gallerists and dealers, a turn that allows the social and political claims of art to flourish even as they’re adjudicated by a market with a vested interest in countering meaningful socioeconomic change.

Certain artists have tried to take the value of their artworks into their own hands, attempting to wrest their art away from the grips of the market. Gustav Metzger, an outspoken critic of the English contemporary art market throughout the 1950s and 60s, saw the powers of the market even before they were as intense as they are now. He wrote a 1959 manifesto about “auto-destructive art” in which he said that converting art into a monetary asset was one of capitalism’s greatest evils; although, of course, that is the central idea of capitalism: to turn everything into an asset and to exploit it for as long as it will last.

Almost nothing in modern life can escape the market, but art has—or perhaps had—long been the sole refuge, a medium through which one might think and communicate without a clearly defined monetary value being applied to it.

Almost nothing in modern life can escape the market, but art has—or perhaps had—long been the sole refuge, a medium through which one might think and communicate without a clearly defined monetary value being applied to it. Metzger tried to make art that could act as “a desperate last-minute subversive political weapon,” especially as an “attack on the capitalist system (an attack also on art dealers and collectors who manipulate modern art for profit).” He made “auto-destructive art” in which he sprayed acid on his artworks so that they would slowly destroy themselves. Then, for four years, between 1977 and 1980, he didn’t make art at all, wanting none of it to be consumed or used by the market.

More recent artists have made similar attempts. Richard Prince renounced the authorship of one of his works, attempting to render it worthless in the market. The work was one that had been commissioned by Ivanka Trump in 2014—a photo of herself, posted to her Instagram, that Prince had left a comment on and then had blown up to wall-art-sized proportions. In January 2017, shortly before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Prince tweeted, “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This [is] fake art.” He also returned the $36,000 Ivanka had paid him.

But these art-acts are too small in scale to mark a significant attack on the market. It is the artistic equivalent of a few hundred people conspiring to do a bank run—the bank can easily handle it. And Prince, naturally, is also represented by Gagosian.

Might art ever again be separated, even in part, from the market? What of criticism? There was a time when a few positive words from Clement Greenberg meant an artwork’s value would rise precipitously. Now, even if Roberta Smith or Peter Schjeldahl were to, for instance, relentlessly mock Alex Israel, Takashi Murakami, or any of the other profoundly boring, hyper-marketed artists of our time, it’s hard to imagine that even making a dent in their market. The art market has risen far above the critics, far above normal people. It exists in its own cloud of business acumen. An art advisor now performs many of the same duties as a financial advisor.

One might think that this recent turn away from the abstract and toward figuration points toward the idea that society wants truth from its art in a time of social distrust; that we, as a society, want accuracy and clarity in a time of scams and fakeness. (The current Venice Biennale is, after all, titled “May You Live in Interesting Times” and is about “fake news” and “alternative facts.”) But what the public wants is essentially unrelated to what those who buy major artworks want. With the past few major contemporary auctions, it may seem that art is responding as a ballast to the sociopolitical scene—in our political chaos, figurative art is on the rise. Instead, the art that’s being bought is more of a reflection of the comforts found in the highest reaches society. At the socioeconomic top, bad news can be hard to find—taxes have been lowered, the stock market is doing well, environmental regulations have been stripped. The calming, conservative artworks that are doing well in the market are not reacting against the social turmoil of our time so much as they are reflecting the relative satisfactions of the rich.

Most of us, though, are living through a moment that feels similar to the paranoia of the 1950s or the demanding optimism of the 1960s, with its calls for socialism and its wave of young people poised to call for foundational change—to politics, to how we deal with the climate, to how wealth might be distributed. Rarely is any of this even implicit or subtlety referenced in the current crop of art going to major galleries and auction houses. Because who, after all, would represent that kind of art? Which is also to ask, who would buy it?