Saltz on Stefan Simchowitz, the Greatest Art-Flipper of Them All

Stefan Simchowitz attend 3rd Annual Art Los Angeles Contemporary produced by Fair Grounds Associates, under the direction of founder and fair director Tim Fleming at Barker Hangar on January 19, 2012 in Santa Monica, California.
Stefan Simchowitz, Sith Lord. Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

The past year has seen collectors and auction houses creating their own art market. They’re essentially bypassing dealers, galleries, and critics, identifying artists on their own, buying works by those artists cheaply in great numbers, then flipping them at vastly higher prices to a network of other like-minded speculator-collectors. Thus, we’ve seen the rise of artists in their early 20s, male painters mainly, about whom the sole topic of conversation and interest is profit margins.

This annoying trend has been discussed in fits and starts — until this weekend, when the Artspace online magazine published Andrew Goldstein’s very long interview with the self-described “great collector” Stefan Simchowitz. (I’m one of his targets, though I don’t really care about that.) In 5,000 words, he manages to embody everything that’s gross about this new breed. Call it the New Cynicism.

Simchowitz is a Hollywood producer and the co-founder of MediaVast, a photo-licensing service that he sold to Getty Images in 2007 for $200 million. Simchowitz talks a lot about being the first to buy the work of many of the young artists now fetching huge prices — mediocrities like Parker Ito, Lucien Smith, Artie Vierkant, Oscar Murillo, and Mark Flood. On March 4, his Facebook status update began, “I LOVE LUCIEN. I LOVE OSCAR. I LOVE PARKER. AND SO DOES THE MARKET.” In case you’re wondering where this kind of hubris comes from, another one of his Facebook updates with a picture of him sitting on a chair that sported an enormous scrotum read only “You need big balls in the art business nowdays [sic].” In the interview, he trumpets his approach to art, his profits, and the famous people to whom he sells art, saying that he has “maybe 100 clients” including Sean Parker, Steve Tisch, and Orlando Bloom. He says his “whole approach” to the system is “intentionally oppositional. I want to change the system.” Like anyone with a bottomless bank account, a big ego, and bizarre ideas of what’s good for art, he wants to call the shots. Unlike just anyone, he’s starting to do that.

Simchowitz is nothing if not confident. “I have one of the great collections of my generation, of emerging contemporary art … I am ambitious, driven, educated, fully informed, and I also have a client base that is extraordinary. Many galleries don’t like selling to me, but at this point they don’t have much choice. The volume I do in sales is too great … any attempt to further control the system in opposition to me will asphyxiate them and asphyxiate the artist, because in the changing dynamic  the network of participants is very different, and I manage that network.” Guy sounds like a Sith Lord from the Brotherhood of Darkness.

Simchowitz’s eye for painting is pretty dead. He claims otherwise, saying he has an instinct for it that is “difficult to explain … I can just feel it … I saw it at the beginning with Lucien Smith. I was the first guy to buy a rain painting, and then I was the first person to buy two rain paintings. I can just see it. I can feel it. It’s weird.” Actually, it’s not weird at all. Smith’s rain paintings are MFA-clever and process-based. They look and act like a lot of modernist abstraction with some sort of twist; in this case, the artist paints them with fire extinguishers. Like many other middling collectors, Simchowitz is simply attracted to art that looks like other art. In this case, it’s easy-to-digest academic abstraction.

What he does have is a knack for hype. “I run an extraordinarily expansive broad network of people who listen to me, who follow me, who are interested in this sort of ideology that I set up,” he says. He wants to “to initiate the paradigm shift” and says that culture should be thought of as “oil in the ground; it needs to be mined, refined, and … distributed.” Disparaging stalwart gallerists like Gavin Brown, Michelle Maccarone, and Andrea Rosen as being part of “the traditional Mafia” (though I’ll admit that I giggled at that one), he says his “young guys … aren’t coming up through the system.” Instead he claims to bend dealers to his will, getting them to “decide which artists to represent, how to represent them, how to navigate the complexities of the new environment … what to do strategically.” He doesn’t mean this in a general or metaphoric way. “I introduced Jon Rafman to … a very good small gallery in London, which introduced him to Zach Feuer …I got the ‘Image Objects’ essay in Artforum.” I wasn’t aware that collectors now arrange Artforum essays on the artists in their collections (though I don’t doubt that he helped make it happen). The whole interview goes on in this way, with Simchowitz contending that he looks for “virality”* in art. He says he can “identify a movement … macro trends … power shifts at play.”

He criticizes me and others for griping about the excessive prices being paid for the work of Oscar Murillo, tossing out the silly accusations that it’s because the artist is “dark-skinned” and doesn’t come from inside the art clique. (In fact, it’s because Murillo’s work is a dull knockoff of Julian Schnabel and Joe Bradley with some Basquiat mixed in.) He even offers that I am writing about this subject sneeringly: that my audience “likes reading about fucking money, because people are greedy … at the end of the day the results are very positive.” So apparently, this is all your fault as well as mine.

His conceit does allow him to make a couple of fun points: Museums spend too much money “lavishing their boards of directors with fancy galas or building expansions …. or by doing shows that are managed by backward-looking institutional curators.” He doesn’t like traditional collectors either, attacking “rich old people … who have no connection to the work” and live in “houses in Bel Air and Beverly Hills that are designed by some bad architect and usually decorated by some second-rate interior decorator. They have ugly cushions.” Whereas, of course, he has taste. Digital taste: “At least these other people I work with are posting pictures on Instagram, hashtagging them, communicating the work to their friends, and trying to sell it to their other buddies … galleries want to sell the work and have it go to a dead space.” #delusional #deranged #absolutist.

This is the language of people who pass through the art world on their way from one industry to another. They bring their skill set, honed on IPOs and flips, to make some fast money, draw attention, and gain social currency. Simchowitz admits it: “The art world has become the new movie business — it’s the new cool … the de facto definer of social hierarchy in Los Angeles.” There’s a saying in the poker world that, if you don’t know who the sucker is at the table, it’s you. Any gallerist or editor who thinks that Simchowitz puts art first — or is anything more than an opportunistic speculator — is handing him money.

What’s fantastic is that he has revealed himself so thoroughly. Rarely do these animals come so far out of the woods. We’ve just seen just how ugly this breed of bear is.

*This quote has been corrected.

Saltz on the Great and Powerful Simchowitz