Instagrammers Step on Oscar Murillo at MoMA

Will his manhandled canvases set even more auction records?

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Art-market phenom Oscar Murillo is poking fun at himself again, and Instagrammers are eating it up.

The Colombian-born artist, who is 29, appears in the Museum of Modern Art’s show “Forever Now: Painting in an Atemporal Age,” which also includes more heavyweight practitioners like Amy Sillman and Charline von Heyl. While several of his canvases hang on the wall, eight more lie unstretched on the floor, where visitors are welcome to handle them. One recent weekend, museumgoers walked on them and wrapped themselves up in the canvases like they were cloaks; cameras snapped away as tourists posed.

Ooh! What a thrill! So transgressive!

“By allowing his work to be touched by all,” a wall label reads, “Murillo challenges—not without humor—the fact that contemporary paintings by some artists have become so valuable and so sought after that they cannot be touched or even closely examined by the average viewer.”

Murillo’s Soaring Auction Price

“Some artists”? When is the last time any museum invited the average Joe to handle even its least valuable paintings? Murillo’s gesture is obviously aimed at his own high prices. In the space of a few months in 2013, Murillo saw his auction price soar from $37,500 (at his May 2013 auction debut at Sotheby’s) to $400,000 (at Phillips four months later). He’s become a prime example for those concerned about the high prices paid for young artists, especially the “Zombie Abstractionists,” as critic Walter Robinson dubbed them. (See Have Art Fairs Destroyed Art? Zombie Abstraction and Dumb Painting Ruled in Miami.)

Murillo’s art world in-joke seems to have escaped the attention of critics, even the highly sympathetic Jerry Saltz, who compared the Colombian’s touch to that of Julian Schnabel. (Not necessarily the most flattering comparison, but that’s another argument.)

I see this as the artist’s second gambit intended to comment wryly on his own white-hot market, and in New York, the belly of the commercial beast, no less. Last year at David Zwirner’s New York gallery, he created a small chocolate factory, an outpost of the Colombina factory where his mother once worked, and even imported Colombian laborers to staff it. The marshmallow candies they pumped out were free of charge (get it? Snag a Murillo for nothing!). According to the press release, it was an attempt to create “a catalyst for a consideration of socio-economic conditions in the United States, Colombia, and beyond.” But in the end it seemed more like an attempt to re-brand an artist whose market has gotten away from him. (See Will Oscar Murillo’s Colombian Chocolate Factory Stunt Damage David Zwirner’s Brand?) It was nice, at least, to always be able to pick up some tasty free candy while doing the gallery rounds.

The Art Market is Killing Art

The works on the floor have a funny echo of market effects on other floor-bound artworks. As a New York Times review of Carl Andre’s show at Dia:Beacon pointed out, while his works consisting of metal tiles on the floor were intended to be trod upon, in some cases, that’s no longer allowed. While many commentators wring their hands in the abstract over whether the market is killing art, as economist Felix Salmon pointed out on Twitter, here’s one concrete example of the damage.

Okay, Murillo often paints his tarp-like canvases on the floor, so there’s a little echo of the studio in seeing the works on the hardwood. And we’d be curious to know what prices these dirty canvases might fetch and whether the backstory will make them more appealing to collectors.

But the gesture rings false, as illustrated by one episode at the museum. As some young women cavorted with the canvases, they veered toward the ones on the wall, resulting in a “not too close” admonition from a guard. Those ones are apparently too costly to touch.


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