The New York Times intermittently rails against the vulgarity of the art market from its several quarters: critics, editors and art market coverage.
One would think that if the paper had a principled objection to measuring the value and importance of art by the price tag—(and that would not only be a reasonable but a welcome position)—that it would avoid using sales as a way to orient its readers toward an artist’s importance.
At the very least, we could hope that a sophisticated newspaper with an important position in art market news would be able to normalize across its other departments an accurate understanding of the art market itself.
Neither of those traits is present in this profile of photographer Sally Mann. Seeking to play up her Southern Gothic vibe, the Times devotes much of the space in its feature marking the Mann’s new show at Gagosian opening later this month to the photographer’s long-standing friendship with Cy Twombly because his studio became her subject.
The Times might have used many shorthand references to illustrate Twombly’s importance to the history of Contemporary art and to Mann as well. But the editors chose this:
Ms. Mann’s kinship with Twombly, whose wry, mentorly presence is woven throughout her memoir, began with her parents. Her father, a country doctor in Lexington for many years, first invited Twombly, then a high school senior, to dinner in the mid-1940s. As a hostess gift, the artist brought an abstract tabletop sculpture he had crafted from found wood and metal. (That 1946 sculpture was in the first room of Twombly’s 1994 MoMA retrospective.) Early patrons, her parents bought one of Twombly’s house-paint and pencil paintings in 1955 for $150, a transaction that may have occurred on the street. Last year, a 1968 “blackboard” painting set a new auction record for a Twombly work, of just over $70.5 million at Sotheby’s New York.
The reader is left with the impression that Sally Mann’s family is now in possession of a $70m ‘blackboard’ work or something quite similar. The truth of the matter is relatively easy to check by consulting Twombly’s catalogue raisonné.
A Twombly collector describes the painting as “very important historically, but not exactly market friendly. Price wise, it would be about 5 to 8 million dollars, maybe 10.” Buying a $150 painting from a local kid who had still not emerged as a public figure is a real act of personal or aesthetic commitment. Having your heirs be in the position to potentially sell it for seven or eight figures is a great story.
None of it, unfortunately, tells us much about Mann’s relationship to Twombly or her own work. And the Times’s readers would be better served by not perpetuating the silly idea that because one Twombly work once sold for $70m that all Twombly works are now priced in that range. (This is the kind of thinking and discussion around artists that gives us the recent Doige case.)
After Her Son’s Death, Sally Mann Stages a Haunting Show (The New York Times)