Hot New Artists, Getting Hotter
COLOGNE, Germany — If the market for contemporary art is in danger of overheating, the first canary in the coal mine will surely be those fashionable young artists whose prices have been driven up by speculators over the past few years.
Midseason auctions of affordable works by emerging names are telling temperature gauges for the contemporary market. Phillips’s quarterly “Under the Influence” sales have, in particular, become events where benchmark values are set for works by young artists. Many of these artworks are privately bought and then quickly sold on, or “flipped,” by insiders before a wider audience gets to hear about them.
The 202-lot sale at Phillips in London on April 8, which included recent paintings by Parker Ito, Dan Rees, Lucien Smith, Oscar Murillo and other flippers’ favorites, totaled 1.6 million pounds, or $2.7 million, which was above the low estimate. Two-thirds of the material found buyers, with all the headline lots successful.
The top price was £56,250 paid by a telephone bidder for a 2012 “Artex Painting” by the Welsh artist Mr. Rees (born 1982), valued at £20,000 to £30,000. The work is one from a series of colorful abstracts made with household ceiling coating, and it proved to be the most expensive of four such works that have come on the auction market in the past eight months.
The Rees was typical of the so-called “process-based” paintings produced by the predominantly American- and British-trained artists who are currently generating many of the flip trades in the speculative lower end of the market. Consciously or unconsciously, these artists are perfectly in tune with our financial times. The 2010s, unlike the 1910s, aren’t a decade proliferating with artistic “isms,” but this kind of “Flip Art,” as it might be called, is just about the nearest thing in today’s fragmented global art scene that approximates to a coherent movement.
The Flip Art aesthetic practiced by artists like Mr. Rees, Mr. Smith, Mr. Murillo, Mr. Ito and other wunderkinder is instantly recognizable. They make abstract paintings that are a clever play on the act of painting. These abstracts often employ novel — not to mention cheap — painting techniques, such as using a fire extinguisher (Mr. Smith) or home improvement products (Mr. Rees). They’re often big, and have significant wall power. Equally important, there are plenty of them. Mr. Smith, for example, has produced as many as 300 of his paint-droplet “Rain” canvases, according to dealers. Mass production allows artists to make as much money as possible. It also enables contemporary art investors, nervous of notions of rarity, to buy multiple works and to track their price fluctuations, like a commodity, on databases such as Artnet. Flip Art, like Andy Warhol’s Factory-produced Pop Art, can be as reassuringly numerous and uniform as gambling chips.
Mr. Rees stands slightly aside from the group, having limited his “Artex” canvases to a series of “only” 35, according to Tamila Kerimova, Phillips’s London-based head of the “Under the Influence” sales. Few people besides the artists themselves have much of an idea how many paintings Mr. Smith, Mr. Murillo and Mr. Ito have made.
“We don’t know,” said Ms. Kerimova, referring to the number of shiny spray-painted 2012 abstracts called “The Agony and the Ecstasy” that Mr. Ito has produced. “That’s the whole point of these works,” said Ms. Kerimova. “They don’t have to be unique. They reflect our times.”
In interviews, the Los Angeles- and New York-based Mr. Ito (born 1986) has talked about his desire to make artworks that are as “undocumentable” and limitlessly “random” as Internet searches.
One of Mr. Ito’s vinyl-over-enamel “The Agony and the Ecstasy” paintings, which look different every time they are photographed with a flash, was featured on the front cover of Phillips’s catalog. It was bought by the London-based Iranian collector Kamiar Maleki for £27,500 — above the £15,000 upper estimate, but barely half the £56,250 achieved by another abstract from this series at Sotheby’s in February.
“I was surprised by the price,” said Mr. Maleki, 35, a Young Patron of the Tate, who specializes in collecting the work of emerging artists. He wasn’t concerned that he might be buying a painting that had already been flipped by trade insiders. “Auctions like this are an opportunity to buy, and I try to buy as cheap as I can,” he said. “I’m not just after a quick buck. I keep these works.”
CreditBen Hermanni/Peres Projets, Berlin
Mr. Rees, represented by the Berlin dealerTanya Leighton, was one of the artists on show the following day at Art Cologne in Germany. The 48th edition of the modern and contemporary art fair, which ran from Wednesday through Sunday, featured more than 200 galleries and attracted a predominantly German-speaking crowd. The Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell, were among a sprinkling of international visitors.
Three of Mr. Rees’s new “Gravelmaster” paintings, two at 32,000 euros, or $44,450, and one at €8,000, were quickly reserved by Ms. Leighton at the April 9 preview. She was one of several dealers at Art Cologne hoping to enhance the reputations of emerging artists by placing them in the serious-minded private and public collections that proliferate in Germany’s wealthy Rhineland region.
“It’s the biggest and best fair in Germany,” said the Düsseldorf-based art consultant Jörg Michael Bertz at the preview.
Though long overshadowed by Art Basel, with its surrounding infrastructure of top-class museums and Swiss bank accounts, Art Cologne has steadily improved its exhibitor list under the directorship of the Swiss-American former gallerist Daniel Hug. Nonetheless, it remains a regional fair where it’s unlikely you’ll find a €10 million abstract by Gerhard Richter, Cologne’s most famous local painter.
Collectors are drawn instead to works by artists such as David Ostrowski(born 1981), another Cologne-based artist who produces meditative abstracts. Over the past couple of years Mr. Ostrowski’s work has attracted increasing critical and commercial attention, but so far only one of his paintings has appeared at auction, selling for £86,500 at Phillips in February.
“We’ve kept his prices low so that his work is accessible to museums,” said Nick Koenigsknecht of the Berlin-based Peres Projects, who sold two large 2014 Ostrowski abstracts at Art Cologne for between €10,000 and €25,000 to what he described as “long-term” collections.
But in today’s art world, has visibility in the market become as valid a measure of success as being in a museum collection?
As Mr. Bertz observed, “once an artist appears at auction, people think they’re established.” That’s certainly how the Flip Artists got there.
Last November German conceptual artist Hans-Peter Feldmann was named the winner of the eighth Biennal Hugo Boss Prize, a bi-annual award bestowed by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for significant achievement in contemporary art, with an attached honorarium of $100,000. In a unique gesture to the museum Feldmann proposed the idea of creating an installation that would involve tacking 100,000 $1 bills to the walls of a large gallery off the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp. Via the NY Times:
“I’m 70 years old, and I began making art in the ’50s,” Mr. Feldmann said in a telephone interview from his studio in Düsseldorf. “At that time there was no money in the art world. Money and art didn’t exist. So for me $100,000 is very special. It’s incredible really. And I would like to show the quantity of it.”