It’s hard to tell whether Wade Guyton is inadvertently steering the conversation away from his art and toward his market or whether the artist has simply fallen prey to the Barbra Streisand effect where the more one tries to deflect attention to an event, the greater the interest. By now we’re all familiar with Guyton’s Instagram threats against the buyer of one of his sought-after flaming U works. The artist pulled back the curtain via a few picture posts to suggest he was creating a whole series of works from the previously unique printing of an image file. The implicit threat was that these works might find their way out of the studio and into the hands of collectors. (Though it isn’t clear that such an event would devalue the work that eventually sold within a hair’s breadth of $6m.)
Now the story that is reverberating from ArtBasel is another tale of Guyton trying to orchestrate his own market. Here’s what Carol Vogel wrote late last week:
One young artist determined to control his market is Wade Guyton, the American painter who produces canvases on inkjet printers. Last month, protesting an enormous price asked for one of his paintings at auction, he made copies of the 2005 image from the original disk and posted them on Instagram. (Prices for his paintings were stronger than ever anyway, with one bringing nearly $6 million.) Undeterred, for Art Basel he gave each of the five dealers he works with — Frederich Petzel from New York, Gió Marconi in Milan, Galerie Gisela Capitain from Cologne, Galerie Francesca Pia from Zurich and Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris — a black painting, all the same size and all made from the same disk. They each had a $350,000 price tag, and all of them sold either on Tuesday or before.
With similar all-black works selling at auction for $1m, it seems inconceivable that Guyton was not trying to draw attention to his market and how it functions. The price might have been fixed but the mechanics of distribution were still determined by other means: access to dealers, previous acquisitions or even a collector being savvy enough to know which of his regional dealers were present and where. Guyton’s ploy is not much different from—though almost the inverse of—Banksy’s own move of setting up a stall in Central Park and selling his works to passersby. Both draw attention to how the works are sold and to whom. For Banksy, the question was whether “civilians” would care about his art; for Guyton, the issue is who gets a work and by what process as opposed to an auction where the only thing that matters is spending the most money.
With that in mind, it is worth looking at Guyton’s recent auction history to see why it has become the backdrop for Guyton’s dramatic market maneuvers. The good people at Artnet provided Guyton’s recent auction sales. From 2008 until late May of this year, only 82 works by Wade Guyton have been auctioned. That’s a tiny sample numerically and all the following conversation needs to be conducted with the caveat that these are lumpy numbers.
Having said that, 2014 has been a watershed for Guyton. Twice as much money has been spent on his work in the first half of the year than in all of the previous year. That money went to pay for half as many works. So while Guyton’s overall sales volume has just about doubled or increased 100%, the average price of his works has gone up nearly four fold or 240%.
That kind of acceleration can been frightening and de-stabilizing and might, perhaps, explain some of the artist’s fixation on his runaway prices.
To make matters worse, the average prices are misleading here. With so few works sold at auction—17 in 2011, 16 in 2012 and 21 in 2013—It is a handful of works that is driving the price momentum. So far this year, three flaming U works of different sizes have sold for $1m, $3.5m and $6m. That $10.5m is more than half of the total. for the year and exceeds the value of all 21 works sold in 2013.
Not everything Guyton makes is going up in value either. Three stainless steel U sculptures have appeared at auction. Two years ago in London, one of the V.5 edition made a very strong £193k ($299k.) Perhaps responding to that strong price, another version sold a year later at Phillips in New York for $365k which is a decent advance on the previous price but not a dramatic change.
Unfortunately, a slightly smaller, earlier version of the sculpture was offered in May but found no takers even as the market fought over Guyton’s other works. That sales history may show that the number of collectors who want the U sculpture is not great enough to sustain price momentum or extend demand from one series to a similar one.
Whatever the explanation, the story validates Guyton’s skepticism about the market and his emphasis on maintaining good relations with his various dealers and their clientele. Now, if he’s lucky, this work on offer at Sotheby’s will sell nicely within estimates but without too much fanfare and allow the art world to get used to his new price level but not make such a big deal about it.
At Art Basel, Works With a Museum Presence (NYTimes.com)