Attention from major art institutions usually increases an artist’s value, but simultaneous shows of Jeff Koons in Basel and Damien Hirst in London are having the opposite effect. Alarmists believe a subprime crisis is in the making.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the price of works by Koons rose spectacularly, culminating in 2007 when he broke the auction record for any living artist.
But the coronation by major museums of the “king of kitsch” has not boosted his market value. Following a string of sales that have fallen short of their estimated prices, Christies is being cautious in an upcoming sale in June. (see sidebar)
The same is true for Hirst whose major retrospective at the Tate Modern London during the Olympic Games has not arrested a dramatic downturn in his earnings. According to data from the British Art Market Research indexes, Hirst has consistently underperformed since 2008.
Ironically, Hirst himself contributed to this situation by flooding the market when he sold his works directly. He is said to have a personal fortune of over £200 million (SFr301 million).
Not so long ago, Koons and Hirst were the darlings of the art market. Buoyed by the new wealth that has invested lavishly in contemporary art since the 1980s, both artists responded by supplying art that is bold, spectacular and saleable. Neither actually makes the works themselves. Koons uses as many as 100 workers at a time.
“He knows exactly what will work,” Bernard Fibicher, director of the Fine Arts museum in Lausanne, said of Koons. “He also has a remarkable network, which helps in his elaborate orchestrations. Nothing is left to chance.”
The same network operates throughout the art world, Fibicher points out, which explains the overnight success of artists like Urs Fischer, the Swiss installation artist who lives in New York. Fischer can now be found everywhere that Koons has been, including in the same art collections.
“This monopolising tendency is a dangerous power instrument. It can make an artist emerge very quickly, but it can also make him disappear within a year,” Fibicher warned.
Julian Spalding, art critic and former gallery director, goes even further: He suggests that museum directors and dealers are actually in bed together.
In Con Art – Why You Ought to Sell Your Damien Hirst While You Can, a book that has stirred a hot debate in Britain, he explains that the withdrawal of public funding from museums in the 1990s allowed art merchants to rush in.
“Modern museums have become showcases for the art trade,” he told swissinfo.ch.
He cited the example of the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culturein Moscow, founded by Daria Dasha Zhukova, the life partner of billionaire Chelsea football club owner, Roman Abramovich. “It looks in every way like a public museum, but it is run by dealers,” said Spalding.
Collectors share their collections with the public not for altruistic purposes but to raise its value, including in monetary terms, he said, citing François Pinault, with his Palazzo Grassi in Venice, or Eli Broad with his museums in California and Michigan. The world is awash with collectors looking for visibility to guarantee a return on their investments.
Caroline Bourgeois, curator for the François Pinault Foundation, and responsible for the current crowd-stopping Urs Fischer exhibition in Venice, Madame Fisscher, refutes the suggestion that the Pinault collection is in there for the money. It owns and presents at least 70 per cent lesser known or yet-to-be-discovered artists, Bourgeois insisted.
As for the presence of so many works by Koons, she said with conviction: “Jeff Koons is an artist of major significance. He reflects our aspiration for a perfect society, including our idea of luxury.”
The “monopolising tendency” to which Fibicher refers, and that some qualify as quasi-incestuous, has blurred roles in the art world.
When dealers become collectors (Gagosian) or even museum directors (Jeffrey Deitch, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), artists become merchants (Hirst), collectors buy auction houses (Pinault) or sponsor their own shows in museums where they are board members (Joannou) or a former culture minister becomes art consultant (Jean-Jacques Aillagon in France), insider trading is a given.
The same people can impose their choices, and while they are at it, the prices as well.
The artists, according to Spalding “are just monkeys on the barrel”.
“Sell your Hirsts”
The result of “con art”, which he traces back to Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys and defines as “contemporary conceptual art”, has been reinforced by art education in Britain. In the 1970s, it became fashionable to think art rather than make it. “It was higher education on the cheap,” he said.
The result, he said, is “the black hole of western culture”, where the vacuity of art collectors is only matched by the emptiness of the art they collect. Legendary dealer Charles Saatchi was never anything other than a publicist, he said.
Spalding is convinced that a rude awakening is in store and that it will lead to the collapse of the art market. “Get rid of your Hirsts, quickly,” he repeated.
“Koons may be absolutely hollow, but he has more going for him than Hirst,” Spalding observed. As a marketing person who manages means of production and controls the apparatus, he is a “Marxist at heart”. But, he added: “Koons has ended up being exploited by his own system.”
The timing of his exhibition at Beyeler Foundation (near Basel) to coincide with Art Basel in June indicates that Koons is still very much in control.
Koons on show
Jeff Koons is on show at the Beyeler Foundation near Basel until September 2, 2012.
Koons museum solo shows include the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2000), Kunsthaus Bregenz (2001), the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, and on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In 2008, 17 Koons sculptures were presented in the gardens of the Château de Versailles. More recent shows include Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2008), the Serpentine Gallery, London (2009) and in Frankfurt, Germany at Schirn Kunsthalle and Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung until September 23, 2012.end of infobox
The cost of a Koons
In 2007, Jeff Koons broke all price records for any living artist. Hanging Heart (Magenta and Gold), one of the five different colour versions of a 2.6-metre tall stainless steel heart was sold for $23.6 million (SFr22 million). In 2008, Balloon Flower (Magenta) was sold in London for £12.9 million (SFr19.4 million).
During the 2009 recession, auction sales of high-value Koons works dropped by 50 per cent.
In November 2010, Balloon Flower (Blue) was auctioned by Christies for only $16.8 million.
In May 2011, Pink Pantherwas sold by Sothebys at a disappointing $16.9m, falling short of the estimated $20-30 million.
In June 2012, Christie’s London will sell Jeff Koons’s Baroque Egg, conservatively estimated at between £2.5-3.5 million. Previous ones sold for $5.4 million in 2009 and $6.2 million in 2011 (£3.3 and £3.8 million).end of infobox