Painting by the Numbers (Douglas French)
Thursday December 13th, 2012
Times are tough on Main Street. Still, cheap money flows to the top 1%, wherever they live. For example, the fall season for the art market has been solid. Foreign buyers can’t get enough unique pieces for their collections. The auction house Sotheby’s had its best night ever on Nov. 14, racking up $375 million in contemporary art sales.
While not to the level of contemporary sales, the impressionist market had sales of $244.5 million at Christie’s and $203 million at Sotheby’s.
“I’ve been an art dealer for 25 years, and what we can see season by season is that there are so many new collectors from all over the world,” New York art dealer Christophe Van de Weghe told The Financialist. He added that international collectors, especially from Russia, Pakistan, and India, are looking to add to their collections.
Foreign billionaires jousting for the art world’s top treasures is just one of the plotlines in Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood. Wolfe just couldn’t bash the art market enough in The Painted Word. By his own account, he wasted months researching this area to include in the plot of A Man in Full, only to not use the material. However, he returns to this fertile ground to weave the tale of Russian billionaire Sergei Korolyov donating $70 million in forged art to the local museum.
Last month, Sotheby’s was able to peddle Mark Rothko’s Royal Red and Blue for $75.1 million. This painting looks to me as if were painted with a roller from Home Depot. This is a piece that Wolfe’s alcoholic forger Igor could no doubt copy with ease.
“But if you mean, could I do painting like theirs…” an inebriated Igor tells reporter John Smith, “Anybody could!” Yes, he painted Malevich, Kandinsky, and Goncharova blindfolded… and no doubt while smashed.
One must say, Rothko’s colors are quite vivid, bringing to mind something Elliott Wave maven Robert Prechter wrote about the art market in 1985: “Bright colors have been associated with market tops and dull, dark colors with bottoms.”
At the Sotheby’s auction, a Jackson Pollock from 1951 went for $40.4 million. Now, I’m looking at a picture of this painting as I write and can only wonder… What?
Pollock, Wolfe writes in The Painted Word, was “a nameless down-and-out boho cubist,” but lightning struck when Solomon Guggenheim’s niece Peggy picked him out of a group of floundering painters. She put him on a monthly stipend, pushed him in the surrealist direction, “set him up on 57th Street with his first show,” summoned critics to write rave reviews, and so on and so forth. “Consummation was complete, and Pollock was a success before the last painting was hung and the doors were opened and the first Manhattan [Remember Manhattans?] was poured on opening night.”
“Pollock’s strength,” wrote critic Clement Greenberg, “lies in the emphatic surfaces of his pictures, which it is his concern to maintain and intensify in all that thick, fuliginous flatness which began — but only began — to be the strong point of late cubism.”
Say what? “Thick, fuliginous flatness”?
Is it just me, or are these works of art just squiggly (and, in some cases, straight) lines in various colors? But then again, maybe I’m just too relaxed. Researchers at Loyola University say that if abstract art baffles you, try going to the museum after, say, bungee jumping.
The latest issue of The Socionomist reports that the collegians conducted a study using 85 college students, having some watch a scary video, some view a happy video, some do a lot of jumping jacks, and others do just a few jumping jacks. Then the students were shown images of abstract paintings. The students were then told to rate the paintings as “inspiring,” “imposing,” or “stimulating.”
What they found was “only fear increased participants’ appreciation of the works’ sublime qualities,” writes Chuck Thompson. According to the Loyolaians,
“At its core, fear is an emotional mechanism that increases survival chances by motivating fight, flight, or freezing responses to threatening situations. Fear seizes one’s attention, halts current plans, and increases vigilance.” Art can grab our interest only when it is able to “trigger our evolved mechanisms for coping with danger.”
The artist who most grabs the market’s attention is Picasso. Picasso’s work went through a number of phases that, to the mind of The Socionomist’s Alan Hall, reflected the social mood of each particular period. Picasso’s Blue Period portrays loneliness, despair, and poverty. Stock markets in France and the U.S. were down during this period and rebounded in the artist’s next phase, known as his Rose Period. His themes were much more pleasant during this period, and he used vivid colors such as in the GarÃ§Ì§on Ã¡Ì€ la Pipe, one of his highest-selling paintings.
Cubism began in 1907 and continued to 1913. As the DJIA was hitting a low in 1907, “Picasso began a gradual shift to a more abstract style, first expressed in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which signaled the nascent stages of cubism,” Hall writes.
The market in the U.S. and France went nowhere and Hall contends there were both bull and bear traits within cubism. After World War I, Picasso experimented less with cubism and reverted to traditional styles.
According to Wolfe, Picasso didn’t become Picasso until 1918 when, at age 37, he painted the scenery for Diaghilev’s Russian ballet. From then on, he was no longer the poor artist painting in an attic with a candlestick in one hand and a brush in the other. He became a social lion and remained that way.
Housing and stock prices crashed around the world in the late 1920s and Picasso entered his surrealist period, making pictures of morphed and distorted figures. “Much as he did near the 1920 low,” Hall writes, “Picasso fully shifted his style near the negative mood extreme in 1932. His distorted figures took on a bear-market roundness.”
In 1937, Picasso unveiled Guernica, his abstract portrayal of the destroyed Basque town. “The mural is a massive melange of chopped up, disturbing cubist images,” Hall explains. “Newspapers of the time reported that the initial crowds to view it wept bitterly.”
The greater the fear, the more abstract Picasso’s work became.
The Elliott Wave theorists see trouble ahead for the financial markets and brisk demand for abstract art.
I’m not sure what today’s artists are painting, But after a short swoon with the financial crash of 2008, art buyers are buying. Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold this May for $120 million. Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust sold for nearly $106.5 million in 2010. Nearly half the top 20 highest-priced art pieces in the world have sold since 2010, including works by Picasso, Rothko, and Warhol. This surely makes a certain dapper novelist dressed in white snicker and roll his eyes.
“Sometimes, art goes wild,” write Bill and Will Bonner in their book Family Fortunes. “An artist may struggle to survive, giving his paintings away for a bowl of soup or glass of wine.” But then father and son deliver the kicker. “Years later, for no reason that bears much analysis, the artist becomes a sensation. His works fetch millions.”
No reason, indeed, except that cheap money has to go somewhere. No matter where the money ends up, or where the rich guys live, the easy money seems to chase the same silly paintings.
Douglas E. French is senior editor of the Laissez Faire Club. He received his master's degree under the direction of Murray N. Rothbard at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, after many years in the business of banking. He is the author of two books, Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of Money, the first major empirical study of the relationship between early bubbles and the money supply, and Walk Away, a monograph assessing the philosophy and morality of strategic default. He is founder and editor of LibertyWatch magazine. Write him.