The Back Room: Choose Your Own Adventure
This week: a fork in art’s relationship to NFTs, bidders back away from Christopher Wool, Barkley L. Hendricks’s sly left turn, and much more.
Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.
This week in the Back Room: a fork in art’s relationship to NFTs, bidders back away from Christopher Wool, Barkley L. Hendricks’s sly left turn, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (2,011 words).
Top of the Market
If you were an art-world professional with a sincere interest in NFTs, then like me, you probably spent this entire week in what artist and NFT co-inventor Kevin McCoy called “a parallel universe” from your crypto-agnostic peers and colleagues.
From November 1–4, Times Square became the epicenter of NFT.NYC, a gargantuan three-day crypto conference. Between the official program and a robust slate of satellite events, the nonstop networking, socializing, and debauchery felt eerily similar to a major art-fair week.
Yet if you didn’t already care about NFTs, it’s unlikely you even knew this free-for-all was happening in the capital of the fine-art industry.
What does the minimal amount of crossover suggest about the relationship between the crypto space and the art world? After my interactions with McCoy and other people navigating the wormhole between the two, I came away with four conclusions…
1. Visual Art Is Only a Subculture of the NFT Space, Just Like It’s Only a Subculture of Traditional Commerce.
The biggest sales headlines still belong to visual artists like Beeple and series like CryptoPunks. But only about one-tenth of the 542 (not a typo!) official speakers at NFT.NYC were artists (including my highly in-demand colleague Kenny Schachter). Panel topics at the conference included NFTs’ impact on music, gaming, sports, fashion, finance, social media, standup comedy, whiskey, ocean conservation, women’s health, and more.
Quentin Tarantino made a surprise appearance onstage to reveal that he will tokenize his handwritten screenplay for Pulp Fiction. McCoy’s NFT platform, Monegraph, based its two big NFT.NYC week events around crypto projects with music star/superproducer Timbaland and Wu-Tang Clan member Mathematics.
McCoy explained art’s diminishing centrality to the NFT space this way: “The art world is a great world, and it welcomes several types of people. But crypto welcomes everybody.” The question is how many of these new entrants to the tent will morph into buyers of tokenized contemporary art.
2. Most Crypto-art Converts No Longer Care Whether the Art Establishment Ever Comes Around to NFTs.
For clarity, a subset of crypto-artists never cared about being accepted by the art world. Yet even many of those who did are now increasingly content to focus on creating their own structures with their own community rather than to seek outside approval from any other space, including the old-school art world.
The pan-industry stampede into tokenization has only made early-adopting artists more inclined to be insular. Multimedia artist and returning NFT.NYC speaker Olive Allen likened some of what’s happening to a kind of digital gentrification, in which the artists who made NFTs viable are now being pushed aside by profiteers seeking to leverage the tech in other areas.
She described this attitude toward her and her peers as, “Thanks artists, now go away! It’s time for big bros to do big business!” The weird energy has only strengthened the artists’ resolve to prioritize their own standards.
3. Some Serious Artists See NFTs as a Path to Immortality in the Next Phase of Culture.
The art establishment often portrays pro-crypto artists as naive to the highest ideals of art-making. But some artists have gotten serious about NFTs (including for their physical pieces) because they believe their work can only live forever if it can be seamlessly integrated into the metaverse, the wholly immersive digital realm where proponents expect most people to spend the bulk of their waking hours in the future.
Here’s the theory: The clearest way to prove the authenticity of an artwork in an all-digital reality is through tokenization—meaning the process of certifying its provenance on a publicly shared online database (i.e. a blockchain). And without certified authenticity, an artwork could not attract the same reverence, community-building power, and/or social currency that have made offline artworks timeless for centuries.
4. Much of the Excitement About NFTs Stems From Deep Disappointment in the Rest of the World.
Every crypto event I went to this week felt so genuinely optimistic and solutions-driven that it was jarring. The only way I could reconcile the rapture was by zooming out to the larger context.
Amid two simultaneous civilizational crises—COVID and climate change—political cooperation appropriate to the challenge has been all but X’d out by competing partisan and international agendas. The labor market remains awful, especially for young people, and especially within the art world. So-called deaths of despair had been escalating for years even before the pandemic.
With so much else about 21st century life feeling so broken, is it any wonder that thousands of people looking for some reason to hope could converge with evangelical fervor on a technology with a DIY ethos, a community spirit, and a rich vein of capital to tap? Personally, I don’t think so.
The Bottom Line
McCoy said it best: “In the crypto world now, everybody feels like they’re building the future.” No matter what you think of NFTs or the art most commonly associated with them so far, we should take notice of the fact that vanishingly few people would say the same about the traditional art world at this point—or, for that matter, much else.
In the latest Wet Paint, Annie Armstrong relayed rumors of a big technological problem in the fine print of Tarantino’s forthcoming Pulp Fiction NFTs—one that creators in all genres should take note of before trusting any particular tokenization platform to rebalance the scales of power in their favor.
Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…
- Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group, suffered a “criminal cyber-attack” that may have exposed users’ personal details. So change your Art Basel passwords if you haven’t already! (Artnet News)
- The first ever Art Week Tokyo debuted Thursday, with programming spanning some 50 galleries, museums, and other venues, as well as strategic advice from Art Basel (though, um, hopefully not on cybersecurity). The event will run through Sunday, November 7. (The Art Newspaper)
- The long-delayed ADAA Art Show opened to VIPs last night; heavy-hitting collectors spotted early on included Agnes Gund, J. Tomilson Hill, both Leonard and Ronald S. Lauder (separately, with their respective partners Judy and Jo Carole), and of course, KAWS. (The Canvas)
- Sotheby’s has lined up Monet’s Coin Le Bassin aux Nymphéas (1918), estimated to go for up to $40 million, at its Modern art evening sale in New York (November 16). The work last surfaced at auction in 1997, when it sold for $6.7 million at Christie’s to an American collector. (ARTnews)
- Bonhams publicly unveiled René Magritte’s Torse nu dans les nuages (ca. 1937), the marquee lot in the house’s New York-set sale of the collection of Amalia de Schulthesse (December 7). It will mark the first appearance on the auction block for the painting, which is estimated to sell for $6 million to $9 million after being “unseen for the last 70 years.” (Press release)
- Simone Leigh, who will represent the U.S. in the 2022 Venice Biennale this May, split from Hauser and Wirth less than two years after joining the mega-gallery—and with a solo show of her work still on view at its Zürich location. (ARTnews)
- Max Hetzler will open its fourth location in Berlin (in the former Blain Southern space) this Saturday with a solo show of André Butzer. (Press release)
- Lehmann Maupin’s newest director is Allie Card, who served as senior director of Metro Pictures for 20 years. She will focus on artist management and sales. (Press release)
- Can I interest you in a buyer’s guide to “Greater New York,” featuring seven artists ranging from street-trash-diorama sage Yuji Agematsu to the late UFO-channeling spiritualist painter Paulina Peavy? (Artnet News Pro)
- Inhotim hired Julieta González as its artistic director; she was formerly a senior curator at Museo Jumex and Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. Her appointment is part of a broader restructuring that also includes Lucas Pessôa and Paula Azevedo ascending to leadership positions. (ARTnews)
- The Pérez Art Museum Miami named a new board president: Luke Palacio, the managing director and head of Citi Private Bank for the American Southeast. His constituency will include seven new trustees: Julia M. Brown, Andrew Carton, Chelsea Hirschhorn, Victoria Rogers, Juan Toro, Daniel de la Vega, and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson. (ARTnews)
NFTs and More
- Augusto Arbizo is rumored to have left Van Doren Waxter after 22 years to join Allan Schwartzman’s growing army of art advisors. (Wet Paint)
- Christian Rosa, alleged trafficker of forged Raymond Pettibon works, may be on the lam in Portugal. If so, it proves yet again that becoming a fugitive from justice and bringing along anyone who will keep actively posting on Instagram should be mutually exclusive activities! (Vanity Fair)
The Disintegrating Wool Market
“During the early-to-mid 2010s, there was no hotter painter than Christopher Wool,” market demistifier Katya Kazakina wrote this week. But today he is a reminder that no fuel source can keep an artist’s auction prices ascending forever, even when their place in the canon is secure.
By 2015, Wool’s annual auction sales climbed to $115.3 million—up more than 3,500 percent from a decade earlier. In 2020, however, his sales under the hammer were cut in half (and then some). Last year, Wool’s work generated just $17 million at auction, with more than one-quarter of lots failing to sell.
What happened to his 2010s-era price support? And what does it mean for the seven Wool pieces collectively estimated to bring as much as $34 million in Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips’s New York salesrooms this month? Click through for Katya’s full unspooling.
“We approach it like dating, and try it for one year first, and see.”
—Art Basel Asia director Adeline Ooi on the company’s strictly advisory partnership with Singapore’s SEA Focus fair (January 15–23, 2022), in an interview during which she also shot down rumors that Basel is looking to debut a second fair in Asia. (The Art Newspaper)
Artwork of the Week
Barkley L. Hendricks’s FTA
Estimate: $4 million to $6 million
Selling at: Phillips NY’s “20th century and contemporary evening sale”
Sale Date: November 17
It’s possible that no exhibition title has ever captured the essence of an artist’s signature works better than “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool.” So it’s especially striking to see one of Hendricks’s unmistakable monochrome backdrops framing a portrait of a U.S. soldier, not one of the beautiful, stylish civilians so prevalent in his mature practice. Yet FTA (1968) was a preternaturally smooth fit on the walls of the artist’s aptly named survey for more reasons than just compositional consistency.
John McCord, Phillips’s senior specialist of 20th century and contemporary art, explained that Hendricks painted FTA at a “pivotal moment” in his Army tour during the Vietnam War, where he served between his education at the Pennsylvania Arts Academy and Yale. The sitter is one of the artist’s fellow recruits, whom Hendricks “cheekily” portrayed as a lieutenant rather than his actual rank of private. McCord called this choice “a play on the fact that this position was seldom held by people of color despite their comprising a significant percentage of the troops in Vietnam.”
The title extends Hendricks’s sly defiance. “Disillusioned soldiers and anti-Vietnam War activists alike reappropriated the Army’s slogan of ‘Fun, Travel, and Adventure,’ or FTA, as ‘Fuck the Army,’” McCord said. “According to Hendricks, he and his friends would chant ‘FTA all the way!’ while marching.”
It’s extremely rare for Hendricks’s paintings from the 1960s to mount the auction block. Case in point, FTA has been held for more than 50 years by the same collector who acquired it from Philadelphia’s Kenmore Galleries, which exhibited the work while the artist was still a student at the PAA. The conditions of its upcoming sale at Phillips’s 20th century and contemporary evening auction in New York mesh with the artist’s mindset while creating it, too; all sales proceeds will benefit “the pursuit of anti-racism,” according to Phillips. So yes, please, FTA all the way!
Additional reporting and writing by Naomi Rea.
Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.
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