True Colors: A romp through the madness of the post-Modern Art market

March 23, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

An oil painting, Jasper John's "False Start," was bought by Robert Scull from the New York dealer Leo Castelli in 1960 for $3,150. At the Sotheby's Contemporary Sale, also in New York, in November of 1988, the same canvas was bought for $17 million by S.I. Newhouse. It was the highest price ever paid for a piece of 20th century art -- for exactly one week, until a Picasso went for $24.8 million.

In the same period, thousands of other art objects enjoyed similar explosions in paid price, many of approximately the same astronomical proportions. Yet even to an eye reasonably educated to art before World War II, much of what those paintings, sculptures and conceptions are all about is fearfully elusive.

Into those two inseparable puzzles now steps "True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World," by Anthony Haden-Guest, (Atlantic, 344 pages, $27.50).

Don't bother with it if you are totally bored by Big Money and by, let's say, the differences among Neo-Expressionism, Minimalism, Signature Style, Neo-Geo, Commodity Art, Appropriationist Art, Confessional Art, Victim Art, Pop Art, Photo-Realism, Hyper-Realism and/or Apocalyptic Cartoon Imagery (deliciously skewered by one critic as "enfant garde").

But if you enjoy chase-scene narratives, cowboy movies on paper, this is a rollicking, if often rocky, ride.

Art as commodity

From the 1970s, but especially through the 1980s, it often seemed there was no end to new money being drawn to art. Artists who a decade before had been waiting on tables were selling in the multiple millions and van Goghs were moving in the $40 million to $50 million range.

Modern art had become a speculative commodity with little reference to aesthetics. That market, firmly rooted in New York ,, City and running annually somewhere between $10 billion and $40 billion, did not even blink when the U.S. stock market took its October 17, 1987, Black Monday dive.

But by 1990 it was coming apart. In November major sales at Sotheby's and Christie's left 55 major works unsold. By January 1991 the modern art market had crashed. It has never come close to full recovery.

Haden-Guest's rather undaring assessment, almost at the end of this book: "Now that the Modern movement is history, it has become permissible to wonder whether art might not just be suffering from a short-term continuing exhaustion after the strip-mining of the eighties or whether it might be losing some of its heft permanently, as happened to poetry with the rise of the novel."

Haden-Guest is not a scholar, though he is knowledgeable about the art world and especially about the social rituals, pecking orders, career-launches, gallery-moves, entry of major collectors into the market and other such social history, often bordering on the burlesque.

Throughout much of these times, Haden-Guest was writing, often about art, for New York magazine, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Times of London. He is a wry and attentive New York-based journalist.

The part that he does best in "True Colors" is the interplay of personalities and the commerce of it all. What works less well is his dealing with the art itself, and its meaning or its search for meaning, though as a quick-read glossary of the fads and fashions of contemporary art, this book works reasonably well.

Certain names run in and out, more often dealers and trend-setting collectors than artists or scholars. The museums seem to have little to do with the stories, though European museums in the 1980s were more active than most American ones, or at least get more of the author's attention.

Haden-Guest's book will offend, and already has offended, a fair number of people with thin skins about pretentiousness, illusion or fad in the art world. Since there is much of all of those qualities at play still today, this will not be an immensely popular book among players. But they'll all read it for the gossip.

Money's the thing

It is political economy, of course, about which he writes, with money as a Main Thing -- arguably The Main Thing. But the economics, in the strict sense of dollars and francs, are a minor study compared with the underlying manipulations of image and power. At that, Haden-Guest is particularly fine, for he is unimpressed. For a man who has lunched and more so long and so often with these people, he has an impressive detachment, a clear eye and a reasonably clean pen.

Haden-Guest writes not a sentence that is draped in Culturespeak, in the preening abstractions so fondly babbled by the culture theorists. The dark side of his view, however, is that it tends to minimize the understanding of the seriousness of at least some of these artists. Sometimes, the imaginative comes off as novelty, the inspired almost as trickery. Though I have immense patience with people who simply "don't get it" with post-Modern art, there is more to much to it than Haden-Guest makes convincing.

I strongly suggest reading this book, if you choose to do so, with another at hand: "The 20th Century Art Book," (512 pages. $49.99) published in 1996 by Phaidon Press in London but distributed in the United States by Penguin. Better, a collection of catalogs or coffee table art books covering the same period. "Art Book" contains good reproductions of works by 500 artists, accompanied by bare-bones descriptions of their styles and interests. The 30 pages of color pictures in the Haden-Guest book are not useful.

Without a sense of the art itself, the story is far thinner. But even if you know the art well, this is a fascinating, and somehow profoundly ugly, story of vats of money with no place to go and a tribe of clever people who know very well how to exploit the people who have it.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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