Normally it makes more sense to write about an exhibition as it opens. But it may be more in keeping with the effect of of Hauser + Wirth’s Autumn show in New York of Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flat works that we take stock of the exhibition as it closes.
The reason is fairly simple. This is the most comprehensive and scholarly show of the Memory Ware Flat series that has ever been mounted. And Hauser + Wirth worked with the Mike Kelley Foundation to both organize the show and present it in the early days as John Welchman, the foundation’s director, and Mary Clare Stevens, who worked closely with the artist, were both available to discuss the body of work and the show at its opening.
The significance of the Memory Ware Flat show goes far beyond its scholarly thoroughness. The Memory Ware Flat series is the most commercial body of work from Kelley. It’s also the body of work with the most commercial potential. In this brief essay, we’re going to look at the market history of the Memory Ware Flats and the way in which Hauser’s recent presentation is setting up the works for what may be another market run.
Mike Kelley’s reputation as an artist has only grown in the years after his early death in 2012. Since 2015, Hauser + Wirth has represented the estate by mounting a massive Kelley installation in London and a show of Kelley’s equally ambitious Kandors in New York. (Another show of Kelley’s Kandors was also held this Fall in New York at Adam Lindemann’s Venus Over Manhattan.) His wide range of work, often in large formats or unconventional materials is difficult for the market to absorb.
The Memory Ware Flats deal with many of the important themes in Kelley’s work but also present themselves as domestically-sized, wall-friendly works of art that are both intellectually complex and visually arresting. According to Hauser, there are approximately 100 memory ware works. Some nearly two-thirds of those are Memory Ware Flats. Over the past 13 years, since the first of these works appeared at auction, public and private sales of the 60 or so works have increased in value and frequency.
In the last two years, prices for Memory Ware Flats have jumped in value to sell for prices in the $2-3m range. Through a series of four auction sales in late 2105 and early 2016, prices and so-called hammer ratios spiked briefly and then cooled. This is the second time the Memory Ware Flats have appeared on the auction market and broadcast a new level of pricing. Each of the previous runs was preceded by an influential gallery show.
From Dysfuncational Memory to Abstract Expressionism
Hauser + Wirth’s show out shines the three previous gallery shows at Jablonka Galerie in Germany and Skarstedt in New York. The Jablonka show took place in 2001. Skarstedt held two different shows in the Summer of 2007 and again in the Fall of 2012.
Both galleries took care to make connections between the Memory Ware Flats and the rest of Kelley’s body of work. Here’s how Skarstedt situated the works:
The title “Memory Ware” is a reference to the Canadian folk art practice in which common household objects such as bottles, picture frames, ashtrays and any variety of recycled trinkets are combined with sentimental keepsakes–buttons, beads, charms and pendants. Kelley refers to the artworks in this exhibition as “paintings,” frames filled with shimmering trinkets floating in a sea of grey tile grout. While the works were not pre-meditated, there are recognizable systems in place. There are works made entirely of similar sized buttons; others of garish gumball machine toys dispersed in the so-called “wild style,” and others of colorfully flowing beads.
Kelley’s concentration for this body of work grew from other projects such as Educational Complex (1995), Frame and Frame (1999), and most specifically Categorical Imperative (1999), in which a large installation was created from twenty years worth of unused art material. In the Memory Ware series he was particularly interested in the re-examination and re-use of materials and art practices rather than the sentimentality of the actual tchotchkes employed to make the works. Kelley once stated, “I playfully give new ‘life’ to unused studio material and discarded formal and thematic considerations in a manner similar to memory ware’s revitalization of cast-off objects.”
What differentiates Hauser + Wirth’s show has been the cooperation of the Mike Kelley Foundation and the support of the estate. Both Hauser and the estate have good reason to elevate Kelley’s reputation and connect his work to larger art historical trends, especially by situating Kelley within a tradition of high value works.
So where previous discussions of Kelley’s work emphasize his interest in alienation, false memories, childhood traumas and the sometimes deleterious effects of education, the Hauser show press release aimed at raising the Memory Ware Flats to the level of abstract art:
At first glance, the Memory Ware project would appear to be an anomaly in Kelley’s oeuvre. In place of the caustic with and satirical orientation that characterized much of his output, the Memory Ware Last in particular appear to emphasize decorative surface effects and maintain a content-neutral demeanor.
The release goes on to try to undermine that reading partly. But the ideas lingered and continued at the press preview where John Welchman, the head of the Kelley Foundation, emphasized the “all-over” composition of the works and their resonance of Abstract Expressionism.
Welchman compared the Memory Ware Flats to MoMA’s Jackson Pollock work, Full Fathom Five from 1947 that the museum identifies as including, “An assortment of detritus, from cigarette butts to coins and a key, are enfolded by the paint. Though many of these items are obscured, they contribute to the painting’s dense surface and churning sensation.”
As if the Ab Ex blue-chip hints were not enough, attention was drawn to the 2000 work called In Memory of Camelot that combined a framed newspaper referencing Jackie Onasis and a tiny doll depicting John John Kennedy’s famous salute from his father’s funeral. The whiff of Warhol remained strong in the room after that.
Priced to Be Remembered
Of course, these comparisons make sense when you understand that private dealers report that Hauser + Wirth has been whispering a ultimate price target—not now but some time in the near-future—for the Memory Ware Flats in the $6-8m range.
With these works recently peaking at $3m, those price levels might seem too ambitious. But a brief look at the interaction between these gallery shows, private sales and auction prices, suggests the path to a price above $5m is not so hard to see.
Jablonka Galerie held the first Memory Ware show in the Summer of 2001. Two and a half years later, the first Memory Ware Flat appeared at auction. Demand was clear. The work sold for 2.4 times the low estimate including the buyer’s premium. Memory Ware Flat #30 made $98k.
That set up the next work in May of 2005 which also performed well. Memory Ware Flat # 20 was estimated between $50k and $70k but sold for three times that low estimate including fees to make $148k.
These sales had only scratched the surface. Demand continued as the last of the works sold with five-figure estimates went on the block in November of 2004. Memory Ware Flat #15 sold for a very strong $321k or more four times the high estimate including fees.
That sale confirmed there was no going back in the Memory Ware Flat market. Estimate ranges were pumped up and sales continued in 2005 and 2006. Memory Ware Flat # 34 and Memory Ware Flat #2 were sold in May and November respectively. Both carried conservative estimates of $150k to $200k. Each sold very well. Memory Ware Flat #34 made $374k with fees. Memory Ware Flat #2 sold for $452k, a record price and a further signal that estimates were lagging behind the market.
In 2006, another two works were sold. This time the market and the demand started to converge. Memory Ware Flat #19 sold in May for $374k, just above the $350k high estimate. Then, in November, Memory Ware Flat #3 hit another all-time high. By November of 2006, the estimate range was a very healthy $400k to $600k. For the first time, a Memory Ware Work was unable to out-run the estimate range. #3 sold for $576k.
Kelley’s market was not necessarily settling. Contemporary art had seen steep rises in price during the same period from 2003 to 2007. Kelley’s Memory Ware works were clearly gaining relative and absolute value, meaning they were getting swept up with the fervor for Contemporary art but were emerging as particularly valuable works within the overall matrix of Contemporary art.
In 2007, Skarstedt gallery held its first show of half a dozen Memory Ware Flat works, including #2, #21, #29, #35, and #41. Memory Ware Flats #2 and #29 bear watching.
A year later, Sotheby’s was briefly back in the business of providing direct guarantees for works the auction house thought had hidden market potential. Although the art market had softened somewhat in the Winter of that year, strong commodity prices were still driving art sales in the Spring and Summer. That fall the world economy would seize up in a credit crisis but confidence still ruled the day in May.
Supported by Sotheby’s guarantee and estimated at an even higher range of $450k to $650k, Memory Ware Flat #2, which had sold two and a half years earlier at Phillips for $452k, was bought for $713,000. It is hard to imagine that any of the parties to the sale were ecstatic about the record price—the Skarstedt show had surely tracked rising prices but not accelerated them enough to outrun the estimate range—but no one had reason to complain about the transaction. The seller walked away with something in the range of a 30-35% return for 30 months of holding the work. As subsequent prices will show, the buyer was canny.
The remaining two sales that took place in the wake of the first Skarstedt show were surprisingly strong given the collapse of the contemporary art market during the financial crisis. A year later in May 2009, Memory Ware Flat #6 sold for $386k. Then, Sotheby’s tried something different. In February of 2010, they tested the market in London with Memory Ware Flat #48. Despite the continuing global malaise, Sotheby’s made a strong sale that would have been equivalent to $472k at the time of the sale. Clearly Memory Ware prices had stabilized in a relatively good place.
Nonetheless, the public market was no place to sell work by a living artist. Mike Kelley’s market would cool for another few years until after his suicide in 2012. That Summer, Skarstedt held a second show of Memory Ware Flats. This time Skarstedt had eight works on display, including #3, #35, #10, #21, #26, #29, #41, and #49.
Skarstedt made a strong case for the works and was able to place some well. On the private market, buyers and dealers were looking at the Memory Ware works in the context of Christopher Wool’s grey paintings and Richard Prince’s nurses believing the Memory Ware works could rise to the same price level (which would put them closer to Hauser’s whisper number.)
One private dealer claims to have sold four of the works in 2015 all in the range of $2m to $2.5m which would represent a tripling in value from the previous public high price achieved seven years before.
But we don’t have to take that dealer’s word for it. In November of 2015, Sotheby’s and Christie’s—sensing the market heat—both offered Memory Ware Flats in their Contemporary art sales. Christie’s went first with Memory Ware Flat #24 offered against a $1-1.5m estimate in the afternoon session (a move that sparked frustration among owners and sellers.) The work out performed estimates and confirmed the private prices—and depth of demand—by making $2.8m.
That night, Sotheby’s broke the $3m mark with Memory Ware Flat #29 which had been sold at Jablonka and Skarstedt previously.
Six monts later, Phillips sold a smaller version of the Memory Ware works for a solid $641k. Two days later, Christie’s wised up and put Memory Ware Flat #1 in the May 2016 evening sale which paid off with $3.3m as the final price.
The previous narrative can be usefully charted (above) to show the punctuation in the Memory Ware Flat market. The hammer ratio (red line) is simply the sale price including premium as a multiple of the low estimate. The green bars are the prices paid. You can see from the chart that the initial very low estimates were outrun by demand peaking in November of 2004 or three years after the Jablonka exhibition in Germany.
Another slight peak can be seen after the first Skarstedt show in 2007. The premium ratio spikes eight years later as a whole new price level confirms the private sales of 2015.
The only remaining question is the extent of the Hauser + Wirth show’s effect on the Memory Ware Flat market. Hauser’s superior access to the estate and foundation along with its commitment to provide a curatorial and scholarly apparatus around the body of work certainly bodes well. There’s also a catalogue coming of all of the Memory Ware Flats so potential buyers will be able to survey the whole landscape when considering the next examples that come to market.
Hauser is surely first in line to satisfy the demand generated by the show. How long will it take before some of those private buyers in 2015 are willing to sell? And at what level are they willing to sell? Above $4m or closer to the $6-8m whisper number?