Everyone wants in on the action and attention generated by Stefan Simchowitz ever since he appeared in Katya Kazakina’s story about Contemporary art flippers. Andrew Goldstein got the clever idea to run an interview with Simchowitz on Artspace wherein the LA-based advocate loudly pronounced his cultural leverage.
The story might have been dismissed for the stunt that it was—after all, what was noteworthy about Simchowitz was his bluster, not his activities—had not so many felt displaced from the spotlight. But today Goldstein couldn’t resist the lure of his own coup and followed up with an elaborate explanation of Simchowitz:
The reason that Simchowitz is proving so destabilizing is that, without making it overtly apparent, his approach to collecting and nurturing artists systematically abrogates—annihilates—a whole series of beliefs that lie at the foundation of the art world’s critical, institutional, and commercial structures. These beliefs are not codified anywhere, but they could probably be recited catechistically by anyone who’s worked in the art field for a bit.
The humidity seems to have distracted many from common sense. Kenny Schachter was happy to provide some in his own secret history of art flipping published in Gallerist:
Joseph Duveen, who died in 1939, is one of history’s most successful art dealers. The 2003 book Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time describes his taking out enormous loans to speculate on groups of paintings in estates then systematically selling off the material piecemeal to the industrialists of the time for tremendous profits. He surreptitiously took note of paintings on the walls of unaware party hosts and put the works into play without the knowledge or consent of their owners. The level and extent of Duveen’s art and commerce activities would humble Larry Gagosian. Later came the Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler, who passed away in 2010, long after funding his own museum in perpetuity, in Basel, Switzerland. He didn’t do it through connoisseurship alone. He financed and traded art like a commodity, a proto wolf of Wall Street.
When Ethel and Robert Skull divorced in the 1970’s and sold their contemporary art at auction for stellar returns, it pissed off Robert Rauschenberg and others but opened the floodgates for the glamorization of the bedfellows of recent art and ravishing returns. By the end of the 1980’s the contemporary art market had mushroomed to the extent that Julian Schnabel, who famously flipped burgers as a short order cook, was among the first to have his recently cooked art flipped for substantial profit. Taking a look at his present market should stand as a stark warning for all of the short-attention-span traders of today.
That artists themselves are in on the market game is a long tradition. Rembrandt was known to bid up his own prints at auction. His assistants, knowing his weakness for money, painted faux coins on the floor of his studio in an effort to get him to pocket them. Marcel Duchamp took his Rotoreliefs to a toy fair in what turned out to be a futile get-rich-quick scheme. And he wasn’t above art advising (cutting a Pollock down to size to fit the foyer of Peggy Guggenheim) and dealing (he bought a Brancusi collection in a 1925 estate sale and sold it piecemeal for profit). Warhol could only dream of the riches achieved by Damien Hirst, and not for lack of trying. But, contrary to common belief, demon Damien wasn’t the first artist to stage a solo auction of his own work. That distinction belongs to Francis Picabia, with a little help from his friend, Marcel Duchamp.
There’s really not much more to add to this, perhaps, but one comment from Goldstein is worth remarking upon further:
Artists are supposed to be pure, uninfluenced by market concerns in their pursuit of truth and beauty, and leave their dealers to dirty their hands with money issues and things like marketing strategies.
Goldstein’s assertion underlines the most serious problem that faces an overheated Contemporary art market. That problem is for the buyers of these works. When art is produced to satisfy market demands—instead of to satisfy the artist’s aesthetic interests—it becomes harder and harder to define as art.
Art & Money: The Great Divide (Gallerist)