Since we launched In Other Words two years ago, much has changed in the environment for art and its market—not so much in content, as in climate and comfort. There has been a kind of societal polar vortex that has had a chilling effect on discussions and open-mindedness.
Regarding the market, two years ago there was a general unease about where it was heading. Today, prices for many works of art have risen sharply, supply has tightened, demand deepened—and yet that same sense of unease lingers.
This anxiety is, I believe, linked more to the “what” than the “how-much?” —the market keeps getting safer in terms of where it feels comfortable placing its capital and its bets. Where just a couple of decades ago the market for contemporary art was driven by an overriding belief in art and its future, today it seems only satisfied by the kind of global consensus which is becoming increasingly difficult to define and locate.
An uncharted aftermath
It is neither coincidental nor unconnected that these two past years have also seen an unprecedented change in this country’s political leadership, leaving us as a nation increasingly unhinged from the relationships and affiliations that have historically created international stability. Art and America seem to be heading into an uncharted aftermath.
For art itself, we are experiencing a healthy reactive dose of “Network syndrome” (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”), with many mid-career artists making the strongest work of their life recently; several communities and constituencies taking control of their voices and reception; and even as the market in general is becoming increasingly safe about where it puts its capital, new stories (and convictions) are emerging for a number of artists who had been invisible or forgotten for decades.
Come see us in LA
(If you are at Frieze LA next week, please note the panel discussion at noon on Friday 15 February organized by In Other Words. Using the research we published with artnet News about the representation of African American artists in US museums and the international market, Charlotte Burns will moderate a conversation with major Californian institutional leaders—Michael Govan (CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Naima J Keith (Deputy Director, California African American Museum), Andrew Perchuk, (Deputy Director, Getty Research Institute) and Megan Steinman (Director, The Underground Museum)—about the ways in which they are working to broaden the canon and think specifically about local communities. (“Expanding the Canon” will take place in the Sherry Lansing Theater, Frieze Los Angeles, at the Paramount Pictures Studios, CA 90038. Click here for more information.)
At the same time, the art that inhabits the middle market is getting more voluminous and untethered, which is sad and unsettling; and as we have seen in the past, art that loses its support base, like people, often atrophies and fades.
Nonetheless, I currently feel a shift, more “toward” than “from”. I’m not sure I can be clearer than that at the moment. We see evidence of this in the way that institutional collecting is unexpectedly driving private collecting, especially in the work of overlooked and under-represented communities and cultures.
For us in the advisory realm, we are approached about new projects with fundamentally different priorities, viewpoints, and intentions than those launched in the wake of US and European postwar prosperity. And I see it in the strength of painting shown in galleries with increasing frequency.
A great redeemer of painting
Right now, I can single out two exhibitions as illuminating the recent past of painting and its rebirth for the future. In recent decades Elizabeth Murray might have seemed compartmentalized in a realm of cartoonish abstraction, but she is a great redeemer of painting, who emerged in the 1970s as an artist who, amongst others, found a new purpose in a medium whose death many had been mourning.
In the group show “1967-1980: Explorations” at Paula Cooper Gallery on West 26th Street, which closes on Saturday (9 Feb) amongst a lot of other great works of art are two fantastic early paintings by Murray, in which we see the painter finding a new purpose in the known language of abstraction, which had seemed to have already played itself out.
It was as though Murray found new purpose in the old and otherwise neutralized language. With her vibrant brush and palette, and playful twists of space through the simple bending of a line, pictorial space was being reborn.
Elizabeth was the first artist I interviewed as a young curator in 1977. I asked her about her process of making a painting and she spoke about the transformation of composition and color that took place through the course of making a work that sounded like the evolution of a relationship, or like the story of a mother bonding with her child. And therein I learned how to look at painting as a medium in a way I had never before really understood, as an expression of identity.
A new spark in art
And I saw this new spark in art again on Saturday, with an exhibition of new work at Gladstone Gallery on West 21st Street by Ian Cheng (“Ian Cheng: BOB” until 23 March), an artist working in what we can see as the newest iteration of painting through the highly inventive, engaging, and unexpectedly moving use of artificial intelligence to reinvent pictorial space and narrative.
Cheng has created an ever-transforming serpent-like creature named BOB, or Bag of Beliefs. BOB has a personality that has the same range of needs, impulses, surprises, eruptions, deaths, and rebirths as us his viewers, as he crawls through space, eats, shits, confronts and reacts with a comforting clatter not unlike that of mahjong tiles clicking across a table.
Viewers, and virtual viewers, can impact on BOB’s movements and emotions by way of an app that enables us to introduce conditions that change the course of BOB’s life (no actions repeat; they all take place in the real time of the animation we view on the wall-sized screen). This mesmerizing work has human emotion and pathos behind its narrative of birth, nurture, battle, and reinvention, and, like Murray’s 1970s paintings, this artist is just at the beginning of his journey. I have tended to shy away from most art made of advanced technology, as it has tended to be high on tech and low on expression. But this work is something else—I could hardly tear myself away.
In many ways we are living in a time that is as disruptive to the value system of contemporary art as was the 1970s, though I fully expect this journey will have very different outcomes. I think Cheng is one of the artist’s leading us to our “to”.