Chip McGrath has a great story in the New York Times that captures the hopefulness, heartbreak and critical hauteur that surrounds the career of an artist. In this case, a failed Abstract Expressionist painter who had been Willem de Kooning’s student, Raymond Spillenger, has his work discovered by his sons after his death. Is there a market for work that was once passed over? McGrath tries to tease the possibility:
When Mr. Spillenger’s two sons, Paul and Clyde, started cleaning out his apartment a few months ago, they found the remnants of a career even they hadn’t fully comprehended: hundreds of paintings and drawings stacked against the wall or stuffed under the bed, works that probably no one except their father had ever looked at. By most standards, including his own, Mr. Spillenger was a failure, and yet his failure is just as revealing as success, a lesson in the elusiveness of art world fame.
And like some lucky failures, his may even turn out to be temporary. A retrospective Spillenger exhibition is being scheduled for early 2016 at Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C., where he studied, and some of his work may appear in a Black Mountain show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston next fall. It’s possible that his paintings could begin to sell in a way they never did when he was alive. As the critic and author Mark Stevens pointed out, prices in the art world are currently so crazy that even the remnants of Abstract Expressionism, or what he called “the scraps,” may now have value.
But John Elderfield, the powerful curator who once ran MoMA and now works for Gagosian only offers grudging hope:
Mr. Elderfield, who has seen Mr. Spillenger’s work only in photographs, wrote that to his eye the older paintings relied a little too much on the “10th Street touch.” His images “announce themselves as daring, but compared to de Kooning and Kline, and some others, they really are not,” he wrote. “In such cases, the gap between the apparently and the truly daring artists is one that becomes ever larger and more evident as time passes. So it is not surprising to me that, if they were not taken up at the time they were made, they would not have been appreciated later.”
And yet, as Mr. Stevens suggested, there could be a market for someone like Mr. Spillenger, who didn’t have a market while he lived.“It does happen that, as work by truly daring artists becomes less available, the marketplace and the critical entrepreneurs start looking for substitutes,” Mr. Elderfield wrote. “So maybe Spillenger’s paintings will find an audience after all.”
Raymond Spillenger of the New York School Gets Noticed (NYTimes.com)