It’s time to get serious

Some things are eternal. The tides rise and fall; swallows fly south every year. And the art market closes down for the summer. The international round of fairs, auctions and events is more reliable than our climate-changed seasons, and after Art Basel in early June the important fairs are over until the autumn, leaving just next week’s crop of sales and auctions before art-world doyens can head off to their yachts, islands and beaches, exhausted from the whirligig of the past few months.

And it has been quite a whirligig. At every fair – plus, this year, the Venice Biennale – the air has echoed with the moans of the weary, footsore from pacing the halls of New York, Hong Kong, Venice and Basel with hardly time to repack the suitcase in between. And that’s only to name the main events. But it has an advantage – which is that the pace of events, and their geographical spread, provides a good chance to take the temperature not just of the market but of contemporary art itself.

Far from fatigue in the marketplace, the latest sales, and results from Art Basel, show that the blue-chip end of things remains buoyant. And far from being calmed by the plethora of events, demand intensifies. Marc Spiegler, director of Art Basel but once a journalist himself, told me it was he who first identified the “Venice effect” – viz, in a Biennale year, collectors and enthusiasts are fired up by the pavilions and displays where works are not (technically) for sale, and immediately want to seek out some of the artists they have encountered; “see it in Venice, buy it in Basel” is a mantra that now works well for Spiegler in his role as the fair’s director.

At Basel, the quality of the work and the generally restrained, dignified atmosphere led commentators to draw conclusions about prevailing trends. “Collectors now want quieter, intellectual art with more depth,” Swiss gallerist Bob van Orsouw was quoted as saying. He added: “The years of the loud, funny works are over.”

He’s evidently on the mark about that trend, and many observers of an unmissable work in Venice might have wished it were even more true. Marc Quinn’s mauve, supersized, inflatable Alison Lapper, a disabled pregnant woman rendered as a party balloon, is a tasteless eyesore dominating the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore. Everyone found it loud; no one I met found it remotely funny; mainly it seemed strangely old-fashioned. The days when some art fair booths looked like a kindergarten after the kids had got bored – lots of bright trashy stuff chucked around the place – seem very 20th century.

Instead, across the fair landscape, there seemed to be a mood of new seriousness. I detected two contrasting strands: a kind of conservatism, a kind of adventurousness. Gallerists of all sorts reported increasing numbers of buyers on a quest for domestic-scale works by well-known artists: elegant abstract painting, in particular. No surprises here – but at least this work might be lived with, not dumped indefinitely in some freeport.

‘Lynching Tree’ (2013) by Steve McQueen

On the other hand, collectors have also been showing a fresh and sometimes surprising response to artists making hard-hitting, explicitly political work. As one dealer put it: “A few years back, the shock factor at the fairs was all about erotica. Now, it’s all about world events.” At the Venice Biennale that’s not so surprising: arguably, non-commercial national pavilions should be looking beyond the marketable and certainly beyond the decorative to allow artists to explore more dangerous themes. And some shows, both within the official event and parallel to it, do just that: Edge of Arabia’s show of younger Saudi artists feels more urgent and vibrant than more well-established work. Venice is also showing the art world’s political darling, Ai Weiwei, whose “Disposition”, in which viewers look through peepholes at models of the artist and his guards in his days of imprisonment, is strangely more affecting for being shown in a church.

But the commercial world showed guts where tougher work is concerned, too: among many other hard-hitting pieces, Art Basel’s Unlimited section offered for sale Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s “The Sound of Silence”, about photojournalist Kevin Carter, whose image of a starving child in the Sudan won him a Pulitzer; and Thomas Dane Gallery sold Steve McQueen’s “Lynching Tree” (2013), a lightbox showing a deceptively tranquil woodland scene, in fact a gallows tree once used for the punishment of slaves in the Deep South. But surely only a museum would want such a thing? Not so: it went to a private Lebanese collector for a cool €65,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, is the apparently unstoppable demand for works that are considered “blue-chip”. Dealers and auctioneers alike agree that the problem of supply escalates in step with the increasing number of would-be buyers, which outstrips even the output of living artists, let alone those no longer around. As more people buy art (and more dubious sense is talked about art as an asset class) the answer to this conundrum appears to be simple – to promote an increasing number of “names” into the 24-carat category. To take just one example, the best works by Joan Mitchell, whose name only a few years ago would cause many people to look puzzled, are now fetching up to $5m. Mitchell is in my view a superb artist, long overlooked and rightly re-evaluated – but quite a few others moving into the million-dollar category provoke more questions.

So only time will tell, of course, whether buyers will have made a sound investment – if that was what they were after. And whether some of the newly high-priced artists will stand the test of history – but, with the speed of today’s market, who’s got time to wait for that?

Upcoming sales

‘L’Ours Blanc’ (1922) by François Pompon, at Sotheby’s European Arts auction, July 2

European Sculpture and Works of Art: Medieval to Modern

Sotheby’s London, July 2

One of Sotheby’s broadest categories, its European Sculpture department offers items from the 14th to the 20th centuries. It features significant pieces of medieval religious art – one highlight is an early 14th-century French ivory triptych depicting the life of the Virgin Mary. This stellar piece of Gothic craftsmanship is expected to fetch £3.5m. Taken from the private portfolio of philanthropist Dr Gustav Rau, its sale profits will go to Unicef – the cause to which Rau bequeathed his considerable art collection before his death in 2002.

‘A rearing horse, held by a lavishly dressed groom, in a stormy landscape’ from the Prague school (late 16th-century), at Sotheby’s Old Master & British Drawings, July 3

Old Master and British Paintings

Christie’s London, July 2-3

Christie’s July 2 evening sale offers a range of Old Masters – its highlight is an interior scene by Jan Steen, depicting the artist indulging in oysters while being propositioned by a serving maid. A similar Steen work went for £5.6m at Sotheby’s last year: Christie’s estimate this one could fetch £7m-£10m. Also up for sale will be works by Canaletto, Poussin, Cranach and Lawrence. The next day’s auction offers Italian Renaissance and baroque works alongside 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings and 18th-century English examples.

Old Master and British Drawings and Watercolours

Christie’s London, July 2

Christie’s London day sale features numerous European schools from the early 16th to the late 19th centuries. Its highlights include two watercolour views of Rome by Giovanni Battista Lusieri (est. £400,000 each). But the most collectable work on show is a striking Goya ink sketch of a hunter and dog, which could sell for £1-1.5m.

‘Curved Form (Bryher II)’ (1961) by Barbara Hepworth, at Christie’s Modern British Art auction, July 10

Old Master and British Drawings

Sotheby’s London, July 3

The headline collection here consists of 18th-century French drawings that once belonged to Georges Dormeuil (1856-1939), including works by Watteau, Greuze, Boucher and Fragonard, while elsewhere in the sale a brown ink sketch by Goya, depicting two men carrying bundles, is expected to fetch £1.6m.

Entertainment Memorabilia

Bonhams London, July 3

Bonhams’ memorabilia sale in Knightsbridge offers such eye-catching items as a “fertility idol” (est. £10,000-£15,000) from the set of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a 12-string electric guitar (also est. £10,000-£15,000) once owned by David Bowie.

Fine European Furniture, Sculpture and Works of Art

Bonhams London, July 4

Fancy owning a 17th-century gem-studded ebony cabinet? Now is the moment: inlaid with marble and precious stones, this ornate piece (est. £80,000-£120,000) is the highlight of Bonham’s 218-piece auction.

Samuel John Peploe’s ‘Black Bottle, Napkin and Green Apples’ (c1916), at Christie’s Modern British Art sale, July 10

Modern British Art

Christie’s London, July 10

Paintings and sculptures by LS Lowry, Ben Nicholson, Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth are the notable works going under the hammer in this auction of a mere 37 lots. Quality takes priority over quantity: elsewhere, the reputation of the now trendy RB Kitaj is put to the test once more, this time with the sale of a surrealist colour abstract inspired by Max Ernst (est. £30,000-£50,000) and one of his distinctive painting-drawings, a sombre depiction of Francis Bacon’s head (est. £20,000-£30,000).

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