In Pictures: Art-World Veteran Simon de Pury Looks Back on an Extraordinary Year of a Locked-Down Art Industry
De Pury looks back on a year of transformation.
Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.
Just over a year ago, the WHO declared Covid-19 as a global pandemic. Soon after, most governments initiated the first of many lockdowns. As someone who had spent the previous five decades traveling feverishly around the globe in the permanent pursuit of the next studio visit, art fair, auction, exhibition, or biennial, the pandemic was a shocking change.
The tragedy has left no one untouched. At the same time, the art world has continued, albeit transformed.
I acknowledge that I have been luckier than most, and that I cannot hope to fully chronicle a period that has brought so much sadness, sorrow, and misery to so many. What I can do is show you how my world, which is the art world, changed and responded to the challenges of the moment. I offer this visual diary to capture this change.
January 2020—A Mysterious Fever
On the eve of the annual Hahnenkamm downhill ski race, which is considered the most demanding in the Ski World Cup, Arnold Schwarzenegger hosted a gala in Kitzbuehel, Austria, to aid his Foundation for Climate Action. The former Governor of California navigated the evening with aplomb and a great sense of humor. He set a tone that made it easy for me as auctioneer to raise the maximum amount.
The minute I had brought down the hammer on the last lot of the evening’s sale, he shouted to his guests “let’s go to the after party!”. This would normally be the moment I was looking forward to most but suddenly I was taken by a strong fever and began to shiver and shake uncontrollably. I immediately went back to my hotel, took a hot bath, and stuffed myself with medication. For several days thereafter I felt incredibly tired and weak. In hindsight, I am certain that it was Covid except at that moment nobody was taking it seriously yet.
February 2020—Pathetic Fallacy
Like every year, the international jet set congregated in St. Moritz in February. The brilliant artist and designer Rolf Sachs had invited a merry group of friends to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dracula Club, which his father, collector Gunter Sachs, had founded in 1970. Parties were given at the Chesa Veglia, and in a number of spectacular private homes on the Suvretta hills.
When I took this photograph from the Suvretta Hotel, I was struck by the sky, which looked unlike anything I had seen in the years of going there. I remember thinking that it might be prefiguring momentous events happening in the world. Later it turned out that St. Moritz like other European skiing hot spots such as Courchevel, Gstaad, and Kitzbuehel had hosted the superspreader events for the burgeoning pandemic.
March 2020—Rude Awakening
This is the view from my Paris Hotel room into the interior courtyard at the Plaza Athénée. It looked totally lugubrious when it normally is the most enchanting view with the greenery of the foliage and the red awnings.
At 9 a.m. that morning, the concierge called to tell me that I had to leave the hotel. When I protested that I had booked another two days, he apologized and said that the hotel was closing as a result of the complete lockdown of the country ordered a few days earlier by president Macron. When I started my journey home to Monaco on completely empty motorways, I found an apologetic bouquet of flowers in the trunk of my car.
April 2020—Stark Raving Mad
After three weeks of complete lockdown in my small apartment in Monaco I was starting to go totally bonkers, and I had run out of things to photograph. This led me to post this naked selfie on Instagram. It prompted several acquaintances to call me to check on the state of my mental health
May 2020—Great Loss
The loss of great artists, musicians, writers, cinematographers, actors, photographers, architects, fashion designers has always punctuated our lives. With Covid, one has the impression that there are many more leaving us. A stoic gentleman once told me: “Cemeteries are filled with irreplaceable people.”
I won’t attempt to compile here the long list of extraordinary people who have left us. In May it was Christo who passed away. I have loved his and Jeanne-Claude’s work ever since I saw the wrapped Kunsthalle Bern in 1967. I took this photograph of him at the Serpentine Gallery in 2018.
June 2020—A Moment of Levity
Restrictions started being eased in most places at the beginning of the summer. Collector, photographer and entrepreneur Jean Pigozzi, who donated part of his collection of contemporary African art to the MoMA, demonstrated that you can’t ever be cautious enough!
Helmut Newton would have been 100 years old in 2020. I curated an exhibition with 100 of his seminal works for the inaugural exhibition at Newlands House, a new cultural center in Petworth, West Sussex.
Here I am sitting in front of two of his portraits of Catherine Deneuve. Ever since I was a teenager, she has personified my ideal of feminine beauty.
August 2020—Masked Nurse
I have always had a passion for the works of Richard Prince. I will never forget his first exhibition of Nurse paintings at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. This is probably his most coveted nurse, which I had the privilege of selling at auction a few years back when I was chief auctioneer at Phillips.
Back then it was bizarre to see these paintings derived from covers of medical romance novels. With Covid we have become so used to seeing nearly everyone masked that they feel particularly prophetic.
September 2020—Charitable Causes
In 2019 I conducted 36 charity auctions around the world. In 2020, only four. The Prince Albert II Foundation wisely didn’t cancel their annual benefit for the Global Ocean. The guests were socially distanced and the evening was hugely successful.
This photograph with Johnny Depp was taken backstage after he gave an impassioned speech for the environment. While auction houses were quick to adapt to online auctions, most charities have not, and are now faced with a serious shortfall in fundraising.
October 2020—Market Innovation
Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips responded to the pandemic by transforming their sale rooms into TV studios with the auctioneers taking bids from screens with their colleagues bidding from multiple locations.
This is a strong portrait of Dora Maar, which Picasso completed in 1941, one year into the Nazi occupation of Paris. It was part of the sale that Christie’s conducted in October.
November 2020—Disco on Wheels
The pandemic made me rediscover the joys of long road trips with my car. It is a disco on wheels that makes the many hours clocked driving pass very quickly.
A business trip to Barcelona offered me the chance of having most of the museums to myself. The Museu Picasso is a must, and in particular the series of extraordinary paintings he did in homage to Velázquez’s masterwork, Las Meninas.
December 2020—Everything Is Going To Be Alright (For Some)
Martin Creed’s neon work Everything Is Going To Be Alright on top of the Palace Hotel in Gstaad can be seen from afar. The irony of its placement on a posh and luxurious establishment was not lost on anyone.
January 2021—Rolling Into the New Year
Doing a little film snippet for the website of Rolls Royce allowed me to drive in a gorgeous brand new midnight sapphire Rolls Royce Ghost to the Fondation Maeght in France, which is one of my all time favorite cultural institutions.
February 2021—A Polarizing Figure
Damien Hirst’s presence in St. Moritz is inescapable this winter thanks to Robilant+Voena. His works are as polarizing as ever, and at the center of every conversation.
March 2021—Nifty Gateway
Kenny “Nifty” Schachter’s two key articles on NFTs in Artnet News explain to the non-cognoscenti—which means to nearly everyone, me included—the latest craze to hit the art market. When I contemplated a career in the art world lightyears ago, legendary art dealer Ernst Beyeler asked me “Is your attraction to art physical or intellectual?”. I answered that it was “purely physical.”
This is still the case today, so it will take me a little longer to wrap my head around the appeal of non-physical art.
Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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