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Saltz on the Trouble With Mega-Galleries

Adel Abdessemed’s Telle Mère tel Fils, at David Zwirner in 2009.

By far the most common topics of discussion and consternation in the art world these days are the four behemoths. Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, and Pace are the bull elephants of the field, galleries that galumph everywhere all the time, Hoovering up artists and money and monopolizing attention. With their enormous spaces, multiple branches, well-oiled business models, massive staffs, PR networks, market power, and endless capitalization, they are overwhelmingly present. They take up hundreds of thousands of square feet in New York and much more across the globe. Each started small, and each has transitioned from the complex personal visions and eccentricities of its founders into an enormous corporation. All four stand for success, celebrity, spectacle, supply-side abundance, gall, merchandising, and monomania. Call them ­conquista-galleries. Or Death Stars.

They’re growing, too. Hauser & Wirth opened its second location here in January, in the gigantic former Roxy, and is starting on a great big L.A. space, has hangar-size rooms in Zurich, and will next launch an entire arts center in England, adding to the three galleries it already runs there. David Zwirner—who built big on West 20th Street last season—recently restored a building in London. In March, Larry Gagosian announced the opening of a 22,000-square-foot London trading floor—his third in that city and fourteenth worldwide. The sun now never sets on Gagosian. I know three of the megadealers themselves—Zwirner, Gagosian, and Hauser & Wirth’s Iwan Wirth. (I don’t know Pace’s Arne Glimcher, and I’ve never actually known who Hauser is, now that I think about it.) All three are as smart and passionate about art as anyone I’ve ever met. Each could argue you under a table, with a smile. Each shows great artists. All have done the hardest thing a gallerist can do: discover, rediscover, and nurture important artists.

Yet something happens to people when they sign with the megas. Too often, the artists are brought in at mid-career, and—like 34-year-olds signed by the Yankees—they are poised for a decline. Every show of living artists in these galleries is ushered in like a career retrospective, a quasi coronation, with everything often already sold or spoken for. There’s no space for debate about the merits. Many of these shows are too big by half, filled with dross. No matter. PR staffs crank up; bells and whistles go off; critics give wet kisses and write jargon-filled texts that disguise the fact that what is written and what is written about are often both meaningless, or they take the easy way out and just write screeds. The artist is a brand, and the brand supersedes the art. The scale and pace of these places often turn artists into happy little factories with herds of busy assistants turning out reams of weak work. It’s the new Capitalist Realism.

Artists don’t automatically decline when they join mega-galleries. Some bloom, some don’t, but something always happens. Takashi Murakami’s work didn’t turn into candy-colored blancmanges when he left Marianne Boesky Gallery for Gagosian. He presumably would have gone into overproduction regardless. Being in a gallery with unlimited funds, space, and clout simply looks to have increased his options, sped up his decay, and stunted his vision. This applies to a lot of artists under 50. Ten years ago, the endearingly crafted embroidery paintings and sweet videos of Francesco Vezzoli were bewitching. After joining Gagosian, he went horribly wrong, unleashing his inner terrible artist and creating one of the worst shows seen in these parts for some time. I remember some dark, overconstructed church interior decorated with paintings of movie stars and models who were crying embroidered tears, and another huge room with a banal video. It was epically innocuous, the Godfather: Part III of art shows.

The publicity-loving bad boy Dan Colen is only now recovering from his 2010 misfire at Gagosian that included an upside-down skateboard ramp, a long row of kicked-over motorcycles, and paintings made with chewing gum and confetti. Since leaving Petzel Gallery for Gagosian, Richard Phillips, a great guy, has been producing portraits of Lindsay Lohan and former porn stars, as if he were creating his own corporate brand of Gagosianism tailor-made for the exact clientele who shops at Gagosian. Adel Abdessemed’s Telle Mère tel Fils (Like Mother Like Son), at Zwirner—the big knotted airplanes seen on these pages—was merely a colossal piece of sculptural baloney, a billionaire’s cornball bauble. (By the way, I’ve been mentioning only men because not only are these galleries owned mainly by men—that’s mainly whom they show. Rest assured, there are mediocre women artists in these galleries as well.)

Or consider painter Mark Bradford, who was sustained through painterly ups and downs at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. And I do mean downs: During Bradford’s exhibition a year ago, his dealer, Michael Jenkins, somehow made his way to the gallery through Hurricane Sandy and propped up the paintings on file cabinets, keeping them above the waterline, saving them from destruction, and sacrificing the gallery’s paperwork to do it. It apparently wasn’t enough, though. Bradford has since moved to Hauser & Wirth. 

The megas (like all galleries) say their job is to nurture talent and help artists succeed, but if you look at what they do, it is more like branding: Find a buzzy artist, no matter how iffy, and get his or her name out there. Pace co-owner Marc Glimcher recently told the New York Times about his failed pursuit of a blue-chip artist. “Everybody wanted to take on Julie Mehretu; we all went to her studio … she’s a bona fide, couple-of-artists-in-a-generation-type genius.” I know Mehretu; she was a student of mine. I like her. But she’s no “couple-of-artists-in-a-­generation” artist. Her work is handsome but mediocre. She is, however, an artist who is salable, and that’s why Glimcher declared in another Times story, “We’re all chasing the same artists.” As the artist Rob Pruitt observes, “Most dealers see what’s hot and decide to show that.” By now, these galleries are essentially exploiting the potential of artists who have been carefully nurtured for years by other galleries. And often ruining them.

If any doubt lingers about the potentially pernicious effects joining a mega-gallery can have on a younger artist, look no further than Matthew Day Jackson’s New York debut, up now at Hauser & Wirth (the artist’s third gallery in less than a decade). This dolefully atrocious show looks like a relic from 2004, when Damien Hirst was in the final stage of moving from truculence into blowsy bathos. Supplied with unlimited means and more space than he knows what to do with, Jackson falls flat, going pointlessly huge and painfully obvious. He displays a long wall of anatomical models in vitrines, employs Hirstian titles like Alone in Relationship to the Absurd—a tragic sign that he knows what’s happened to his vision. The painter-critic Walter Robinson recently wrote that work like Jackson’s “lacks any sense of mystery and is a sign that the avant-garde sensibility is now so commonplace, widely known, and understood that it actually approaches the status of kitsch.”

The galleries where artists’ careers are really built from scratch are being forced to expand lest they be overwhelmed or picked clean by the megas. Even the matchless Marian Goodman says that it “seems to be the right time” to open a London branch, adding that she’s “not out to conquer the universe like some of the men.” Several mid-size galleries are said to be contemplating mergers. I hear that Los Angeles’s Blum & Poe has Tokyo and New York branches in the works. Emmanuel Perrotin, who has spaces in Paris and Hong Kong, recently added one on the Upper East Side. He told the Times, “[W]e are driven above all by a fear of losing artists if we don’t develop at their rhythm.” I can’t help thinking that the rhythm he’s talking about is illustrated by a sculpture in his current show: a giant blue metal cube that spits money at viewers.

Mind you, this isn’t a market rant. Even in 1964, happenings guru Allan Kaprow decried, “If the artist was in hell in 1946, now he is in business.” Mega­-galleries do as many good and bad shows of contemporary art as any gallery. I go to and write about some of these. All this has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, without moralizing. Still, mega­-galleries do so many more contemporary shows of so many more artists of a certain ilk in so many places at once that the experience starts to feel preplanned and cynical. Often, in this context, even good work takes on deleterious meanings: hype, hubris, commodity fetishism, hyperefficiency, expeditiousness. The artist Carissa Rodriguez recently compared galleries to “bleached anuses” in porn, meaning (I think) that they’re unnaturally sterile.

Again, none of this is to say that everything the megas do is bad. Over the last several seasons they’ve also been staging more and more museum-level shows of historical material. These are often great exhibitions that, in an era when museum budgets are strained, we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. The John McCracken survey now at Zwirner is outstanding. But we have to ask what kinds of pseudo-museums these institutions are, because in mega-­galleries, quality, quantity, availability, opportunism, and marketability are often interchangeable. One’s never sure whether these are shows of available product, stuff floating around the secondary market, collectors liquidating assets or looking to pump and dump, or the deeply felt personal passion of the dealer. One month the megas show gigantic installations of shiny crap and bric-a-brac. The next month they’re showing Reinhardt, Rauschenberg, or De Kooning.

Don’t blame the dealers or the size of the spaces. These galleries are businesses, doing what businesses do. Any artist who signs with one of these places knows exactly what he or she is doing. Artists always claim to do only what’s creatively best for their work, yet in many cases going with a mega is the opposite of what they need. I imagine freaked-out artists, having made the leap, thinking, What have I done? How do I get out of here? If it weren’t for their marketability, half of these artists wouldn’t get offers from anyone.

An aesthetic crisis looms. To grow so huge, these gallerists have had to increase their overhead and output of energy enormously, while decreasing their artistic complexity, capacity for chaos, and quick and fresh thinking. The megas have reached a dangerous stage where they’re using the same amount of energy that they’re generating. In nature, this break-even moment is called the “compensation point,” the time in a plant’s life when a branch consumes the same amount of energy as it produces. When the compensation point is passed, the plant cuts off growth to the branch, and it dies. It’s time for all of us to do the same. With exceptions for their historical shows, and those few living artists who escape the vision-squishing force of these places, mega-­galleries have reached their compensation points. Said simply, mega-galleries are a system too big not to fail. That, or they’ll rule the Earth for a million years.

*This article originally appeared in the October 21, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Abel Abdessemed/Adagp Paris 2013; Abel Abdessemed/Adagp Paris 2013