Has the Market for ‘Zombie Formalists’ Evaporated?
Why no artist wants to be a market darling.
“No one wants to be a market darling,” an art dealer once told me.
It’s the art world equivalent of a one-hit wonder, where sudden stardom and outsize demand for a particularly hot artist creates intense pressure, and has the potential to create unsustainable spikes in his or her market and career.
Notwithstanding the fact that the particular dealer who told me this represented several certified market darlings, the recent round of mid-season New York contemporary auctions. “New Now” at Phillips on September 17, “Contemporary Curated” at Sotheby’s on September 29, and “First Open” at Christie’s on September 30 all featured a healthy sampling of buzzed-about names.
These include “flip artists”—named for the conspicuously speculative nature of the auction activity in their work—as well as those unfortunate ones who have been lumped into the so-called “zombie formalist” group—a term first coined by artist and writer Walter Robinson that was eagerly embraced by art world denizens like Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine and Christian Viveros-Fauné on artnet News, the latter of whom saw ample evidence of it on display at the last Art Basel in Miami Beach.
While prices that soar far above estimates at auction often underscore a particular artist’s heat index, they can also be problematic when they inspire “Emperor’s New Clothes”-style scrutiny and doubt. This seemed to be the case for a number of hot names at the recent sales, which can be seen below. We’re not calling it a meltdown, but the adjustment certainly feels like a cool-down when compared with previous seasons. Perhaps gravity is doing its work after all?
The 26-year old New York-based painter Lucien Smith has been featured on Forbes’s Art & Style list of “30 Under 30” not once, but twice. Noting that he “has shown at prestigious venues in New York, LA, Miami Basel, and London,” Forbes reported that David Zwirner “has named him as an artist to watch.” To date, half a dozen of his rain paintings have sold for more than $200,000 each and 15 have sold for upwards of $100,000 each.
In the catalog entry for the painting, Two Sides of the Same Coin (2012), above, Sotheby’s noted that Smith had “exploded as an international art world darling.”
At Phillips “New Now” sale, two works were offered. She sells seashells by the seashore. The shells she sells are surely seashells/So if she sells shells on the seashore, I’m sure she sells seashore shells (2013) is a newspaper and papier-mache on canvas that sold for $30,000 on a $20,000-to-$30,000 estimate, while another Untitled canvas from 2012 with a $12,000 to $18,000 estimate went unsold.
At Sotheby’s, Untitled (Tumbleweeds) (2013) failed to sell on an estimate of $15,000–$20,000. As part of its First Open online, Christie’s was offering the watercolor and silkscreen ink on canvas Seed Packet (Swiss Chard) (2012), with an estimate of $3,000-$5,000 and a starting bid listed at $2,400.
Thirty-five-year-old abstract artist Joe Bradley was the subject of a 2011 Bloomberg story titled “How Joe Bradley’s Prices Surged 1,100% In Five Years: Hot Art.” He currently has an auction record of $1.58 million, set at Christie’s London this past October for the large untitled work above. (It was £986,500 on an estimate of £300,000-£500,000).
Of 47 works in the artnet Price Database, two by Bradley have sold for more than $1 million each and eight have sold above $500,000 apiece. At Phillips’s recent sale, Nude (Bust) (2007), a canvas with pink vinyl stretched over it, sold for $221,000, substantially missing the low end of the $300,000 to $500,000 estimate, a telling sign that the consignor agreed to a reserve price—the undisclosed minimum at which he or she would sell the work—that was far below what they hoped for. Meanwhile, a smaller, acrylic on paper fared better than expectations, albeit at a far more modest price point. Study for Running Twins (2005), sold for $8,750 on an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000.
Prices for 33-year old Welsh artist Dan Rees’ abstract Artex paintings leapt to a high of $233,000 late last year, shattering the estimate of $65,000 to $75,000 (above). Four of his paintings have sold at auction for above $100,000 each at auction in the past two years.
At the recent sales, two Rees works were offered at Phillips. One was unsold on a $30,000-to $40,000 estimate, while another with the same estimate, barely made it to the low end, selling for $30,000 with premium. At Sotheby’s a work by Rees that carried a presale estimate of $6,000 to $8,000 sold for $5,000.
Analysis by artnet News found that Brazilian-born, Los Angeles-based 32-year old artist Christian Rosa was one of the best performing artists at auction in 2014. Another profile of Rosa on artnet News called him “a rising star.” The current record at auction is $209,000, set for a cerulean, Surrealist-style 2013 painting (above) sold at Christie’s new York last November. The price far exceeded the $60,000 to $80,000 estimate.
Judging from three works offered at auction recently, demand and prices appear to be going through an adjustment. Phillips offered two works, one estimated at $25,000 to $35,000 entitled From Nada to Prada (2013) and another Untitled (2014), for $40,000 to $60,000. The first failed to find a buyer while the second was sold for $33,750, again well below the asking price, even with the auction premium included. At Christie’s First Open, a work with Joan Miro-esque figures by Rosa sold for $12,500, well under the presale estimate of $20,000 to $30,000, and again signalling that the reserve was well below the low asking price.
It was a tough auction week for works by British-born, Toronto-based artist Hugh Scott-Douglas. Despite an untitled 2012 cyanotype on linen by the artist commanding $100,000 at Christie’s New York this past November—well above its $40,000-to-$60,000 estimate—it seemed there was no takers for works offered this time around.
At Phillips, a cyanotype on linen (2013) failed to sell on an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000, while another panel painting from 2011 was also left unsold on a $15,000-to-$20,000 estimate. At Christie’s First Open, Scott-Douglas’s Chopped Bill (2013), with an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000, was also unsold.
Earlier this year, T Magazine said of much-hyped 29-year old artist Parker Ito that his “signature style is a lack of one” prior to his opening at Chateau Shatto in Los Angeles. At Sotheby’s London in February 2013, one of his vinyl on enamel works popped to $93,600, well above the estimated $16,000 to $25,000 (£56,250 on an estimate of £10,000 to £15,000).
But demand was lackluster at recent sales, with Phillips barely clearing the low estimate to sell Inkjet Painting #21 (2013) for $12,500 on an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. Meanwhile at First Open Inkjet Painting #35 (2013) sold for an anemic $5,000, falling well below the low $8,000 estimate.
A More Realistic Market?
Prior to Phillips new “New Now” sale, specialist Rebekah Bowling told the New York Times: “There seems to have been a bit of a cooling and hopefully that means we’re heading toward a market that’s more sustainable.”
Following the sale we asked Bowling for her thoughts on the overall auction: “I believe this means that we’re returning to a more rational market with less speculative activity,” she said via email.
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