Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show

Keith Haring at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 1982. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris

Gallery shows: light of my life, fire of my eyes. I love and long for them. I see maybe 30 a week, every week of the year. Much of what I know about contemporary art I learned from hanging around artists and from going to galleries. Bad shows teach me as much as good ones. A great thing about galleries—especially for someone who spends most of his time alone at a computer, typing—is that they’re social spaces, collective séances, campfires where anyone can gather. I’m a blabbermouth, so in galleries I turn to strangers and blurt whatever I’m thinking about whatever we’re looking at. If they don’t think I’m a creepy geezer, they’ll tell me what they’re thinking, too. Then I see whole new things. As disembodied as they can be, galleries are places where one can commune with the group mind. We have more of them than any other city does, and admission is free.

The clustering of hundreds of galleries in several neighborhoods has meant that a huge swath of the art world is continually being presented at our doorstep. That is changing, and changing fast. These days, the art world is large and spread out, happening everywhere at once. A shrinking fraction of galleries’ business is done when collectors come to a show. Selling happens year-round, at art fairs, auctions, biennials, and big exhibitions, as well as online via JPEG files and even via collector apps. Gallery shows are now just another cog in the global wheel. Many dealers admit that some of their collectors never set foot in their actual physical spaces.

The beloved linchpin of my viewing life is playing a diminished role in the life of art. And I fear that my knowledge of art—and along with it the self-knowledge that comes from looking at art—is shrinking.

Artists and dealers are as passionate as ever about creating good shows, but fewer and fewer people are actually seeing them. Chelsea galleries used to hum with activity; now they’re often eerily empty. Sometimes I’m nearly alone. Even on some weekends, galleries are quiet, and that’s never been true in my 30 years here. (There are exceptions, such as Gagosian’s current blockbuster Basquiat survey.) Fewer ideas are being exchanged, fewer aesthetic arguments initiated. I can’t turn to the woman next to me and ask what she thinks, because there’s nobody there.

Instead, the blood sport of taste is playing out in circles of hedge-fund billionaires and professional curators, many of whom claim to be anti-market. There used to be shared story lines of contemporary art: the way artists developed, exchanged ideas, caromed off each other’s work, engaged with their critics. Now no one knows the narrative; the thread has been lost. Shows go up but don’t seem to have consequences, other than sales or no sales. Nothing builds off much else. Art can’t get traction. A jadedness appears in people who aren’t jaded. Artists enjoying global-market success avoid showing in New York for fear any critical response will interfere with sales. (As if iffy international art stars could have their juggernauts stalled by a measly bad review or two. A critic can only dream.) Ask any artist: They’re all starting to wonder what’s going on.

I don’t even mind so much that the role of the critic is diminishing. Clement Greenberg was a bully, anyway. Primacy always belongs to art and the artist. I’ve tried to keep overhyped careers in check, and had no effect whatsoever. In fact, so many shows in so many places mean that we now have an overload of writing about art. Joseph Beuys said, “Everyone is an artist.” Now everyone actually is a writer. Like exhibitions that can’t get traction, commentary also has a hard time gaining a foothold, unless you yourself enter the arena of spectacle, becoming something of a spectacle yourself. (Believe me; I know.) Adding to this, a generation of academically trained critics were taught to believe they should write in impenetrable language and refrain from opinion and negative criticism.

This is not to say that art is not selling. Websites for high-end sales and auctions are burgeoning. We read of sites with technology that allows collectors “to visualize artwork in 3-D space without ever leaving your desk,” an “animated gif display,” an “online sales platform,” “sortable JPEG images.” We hear of an “online collector profile and gallery … to list your preferences and to view our art selections tailored to you.”

When so much art is sold online or at art fairs, it’s great for the lucky artists who make money, but it leaves out everyone else who isn’t already a brand. This art exists only as commerce, not as conversation or discourse. Art dealer Kenny Schachter has noted that “the higher and higher prices are for fewer and fewer artists.”

Those sales platforms are proliferating, too. Paddle8 advertises that it provides two types of online auctions. Another, called Artspace, recently raised $8.5 million in expansion capital, including money from the Russian collector Maria Baibakova, who also owns a “platform for cultural production.” Still another site, Artsy—co-­founded by Dasha Zhukova, partner of billionaire Russian collector Roman Abramovich—says it will “make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.” The CEO tells us, “The more you use Artsy the more we learn about what you like. Over time, we can better suggest things for sale that you might like. Even if there are no works by an artist for sale today … in the future, if the work becomes available, we’ll notify you.”

The auction houses are in on the new game as well. Christie’s, in partnership with a company called Y&S, now provides “a venue for emerging artists not yet represented by galleries” and “creates a bridge between young artists and a young audience.” Translation: “We’re cutting out dealers. Come on down. Make a killing.” Thus, unrepresented artists go straight to auction. Work that is sold this way exists only in collector circles. No other artist gets to see it, engage with it, think about it. The public functions of the gallery space and its proprietors—curation, juxtaposition, ­development—are bypassed and eliminated. All these people supposedly want to help artists, and they probably think they are doing so. But they’re engaged in something else, and it makes being around art less special. Too many of the buyers keep their purchases in storage, in crates, awaiting resale. Mediocre Chinese photorealism has become a tradeable packaged good.

I’ll admit that there’s something democratizing about all this. All those buyers can judge for themselves what they like and put their bank vaults where their taste is. The paradox is that art is not inherently democratic. It’s a kind of meritocracy—albeit with the interior high-school rules of some other nebula. Today, those with the most money are the only ones whose votes count. Although I love that young broke artists who can’t travel to New York or Berlin can look at art online, think about what it means, and use this information in their own work, seeing art in the flesh really gives you something unique. I have only once gone underground to see cave paintings. But that one cave made an enormous difference in my life.

So far, thank goodness, the galleries themselves are not disappearing, but that day may be coming. Owing in part to the Chelsea condo-and-office boom, even the successful ones are fighting for their financial lives. The excellent Postmasters Gallery just saw its West 19th Street rent raised to $30,000 a month and will have to move. Other mid-level Chelsea dealers are being priced out as well. Longtime gallerist Casey Kaplan told Bloomberg News, “You won’t find much experimentation if the rents continue to escalate …those kinds of galleries won’t be here.” Postmasters’ owner, Magda Sawon, has explained that “mid-range galleries are going to just vanish from Chelsea,” adding, “the whole middle is basically pulverized.” Even if they survive, I wonder whether a much bigger shakeout is about to happen, one that makes art resemble any mainstream business—just another culture industry that’s eaten itself alive.

Or whether it’s about to go supernova. The galleries that are best suited to this new world are the massive multinationals, whether for reasons of territoriality, market share, or dick waving. I love big galleries as much as I do small ones, but I often wonder if these jumbo spaces aren’t often aesthetic elephant graveyards—places where ambitious artists and the movements of the sixties and seventies go to die. Many feel impersonal, and the art can look lost in them. David Zwirner’s new building on 20th Street adds 30,000 square feet to his space. (I still can’t figure out why part of his new floor is shiny travertine.) The multinational Hauser & Wirth just added what looks like a blimp hangar on West 18th Street. Last I heard, Larry Gagosian, the biggest elephant of all, has eleven spaces around the world. Perhaps the others are all supersizing themselves just to compete with Larry. Or maybe they want to inherit artists from older established galleries like Gladstone and Marian Goodman. But shouldn’t these dealers be looking for young talent rather than vying to show Lawrence Weiner and Shirin Neshat? Maybe everyone will all eventually share Richter and Prince, who will just relocate every five years.

Bigness isn’t inherently bad. The dealer Gavin Brown has said that giant art is suited to our age: “When we are able to fly around the globe in 24 hours, and that is a common occurrence … these large-scale works might be an unconscious attempt to rediscover awe.” I agree. But bigness raises prices, and big galleries encourage it. That’s not about awe; it’s about money. The shows themselves should be smaller, too—I see many exhibitions that would be twice as good at half the size. Even Rubens would’ve had a hard time filling these supersize spaces, let alone doing it once every two years. Duchamp said, “I could have made a hundred thousand readymades in ten years easily. They would have all been fake … [A]bundant production can only result in mediocrity.” Many artists are now in “abundant production,” seducing collectors on the prowl for stuff to fill their oversize atriums. I’m not sure that a lot of what they’re making is art at all, and if the artists aren’t making art and the collectors aren’t collectors, the galleries selling this product to these people aren’t really galleries anymore, either.

Art doesn’t have to be shown in New York to be validated. That requirement is long gone. Fine. But consider this: At a Chelsea opening, a good Los Angeles dealer chided me for not going to art fairs, not seeing art in L.A. and London, and not keeping track of the activity online. He said I “risked being out of touch with the art world,” and he was right. It got me down. As recently as four or five years ago, I could have crowed that because I see so many gallery shows every week, I know what’s going on. That’s slipping away, if it isn’t already gone.

I brooded for months over this. Then I started thinking it through, and instead of focusing on the “being out of touch” part of what he said, I started thinking about “the art world.” Something clicked and brightened my mood. There is no “the” art world anymore. There have always been many art worlds, overlapping, ebbing around and through one another. Some are seen, others only gleaned, many ignored. “The” art world has become more of a virtual reality than an actual one, useful perhaps for conceptualizing in the abstract but otherwise illusory.

Once we adjust to that, we can work within the new reality. If the galleries are emptier, the limos gone, the art advisers taking meetings elsewhere, and the glitz offshore, the audience will have shrunk to something like it was well before the gigantic expansion of the art world. When I go to galleries, I now mainly see artists and a handful of committed diligent critics, collectors, curators, and the like. In this quiet environment, it may be possible for us to take back the conversation. Or at least have conversations. While the ultrarich will do their deals from 40,000 feet, we who are down at ground level will be engaging with the actual art—maybe not in Chelsea, where the rents are getting too high, but somewhere. That’s fine with me.

Looking, making, thinking, experiencing are our starting point. Art opens worlds, lets us see invisible things, creates new models for thinking, engages in cryptic rituals in public, invents cosmologies, explores consciousness, makes mental maps and taxonomies others can see, and isn’t only something to look at but is something that does things and sometimes makes the mysterious magic of the world palpable. Proust wrote, “Narrating events is like introducing people to opera via the libretto only.” Instead, he said, one should “endeavor to distinguish between the differing music of each successive day.” That’s what we do when we look at art, wherever we look at it, however much noise surrounds it. In galleries we try to discern “differing music,” and it’s still there right now. I love and long for it.

Five Shows That Changed the Way I See Art

1. Keith Haring at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 1982.
The moment when I understood that all kinds of art could go mainstream. The opening had a “We’ve arrived” vibe.

2. Vito Acconci at Sonnabend Gallery, 1976.
When I saw Acconci’s table-gangplank-sculpture thing extend out of the gallery window over West Broadway, I decided to move to New York.

3. Kara Walker at the Drawing Center, 1994.
Vengeance was nigh in Kara Walker’s giant wall silhouette of slaves and slavers eating and having sex with one another. It was like the end of Heart of Darkness made flesh: “The horror.”

4. Matthew Barney at Althea Viafora Gallery, 1990.
Seeing one video sculpture by Barney in a large, crappy group show, I thought, Oh my God! This is one of art’s futures. My art-critic wife looked a bit, shrugged, and said, “Boys … It’s pretty male.”

5. Pipilotti Rist at Luhring Augustine, 2000.
Rist’s trippy video installation cast such a spell on me that I saw the show nineteen times. I wrote about it but forgot to say I was in love with it. I also met future art dealer and force-of-nature Michele Maccarone there.

Note: Readers should keep in mind that I arrived in New York in 1980, visiting sporadically before that, and missed many of the formative shows of the seventies. (I was eking out a living as a long-distance truck driver, then working as a chauffeur for a rich person well into the nineties.)    

*This article originally appeared in the April 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show