On Friday, I paid what I thought was to be my first and last visit to an old friend I’d never met before. Then, even though the thought of doing so again produced excruciating pain and disgust in me, I returned for a final visit on Sunday, assuming I would never see this sight again in my lifetime.
Both times, I went to the showrooms of Christie’s Auction House in Rockefeller Center. There, hundreds of works were on view, all to be auctioned in a sale that some say will generate $1 billion. This seems an omega point of auctions, a point one doesn’t return from or to, but it could be surpassed before long.
On both days, I was among a crush of highly styled buyers, international collectors, investors, speculators, and advisers of the highest strata of the art world. In one small gallery were installed an $8 million Picasso gouache, a $15 million Fontana, a $45 million Monet, a $50 million Rothko, a $130 million Giacometti, and the little canvas I’d take home, a sickly tremendous Picabia portrait priced at only $350,000. A lovely nearby 1998 Elizabeth Peyton is priced at a half-million dollars.
My stomach turned at the sight of a woman carrying a yapping Yorkshire terrier while heading out of this overcrowded gallery. Like most people here, she and her comfort dog were on their way to the main attraction, a masterpiece of late-20th-century painting. This work has been in private hands since being sold in 1956 — a year after it was painted. Except for possible loan exhibitions, it will be in private hands again after tonight, and for the remainder of my lifetime.
I set eyes on the beautiful reward by Picasso known as The Women of Algiers, an epic master class on the ways of painting, art history, color, structure, and form that will be sold tonight to a private collector for $140 million. (Barring an unfathomable utopian act of singular generosity, that is, whereby Christie’s realizes that this is more than just another painting for sale and makes certain that the work will be sold only to a purchaser who will donate it to a museum.) It can’t sell for less, as there’s already a reserve on the work. I was there to say good-bye to the Picasso and almost every other one of the hundreds of works about to go under the hammer.
The Women of Algiers is an onslaught of color contained within structural forms that create and break up, reconvening only to fissure and form again. Almost every shape merges with the next, extending itself and its neighbors, then congealing into something specific before fading again into something else. The painting is a glimpse at tangents that might touch only in infinity. Four women. Or perhaps three women, and a painting of another woman, pulse in a graphic field of interior space bracketed by black light on one side, curtains on another, tile floor and patterned carpet below, and coffered ceiling above. Everything Picasso has ever painted is here in abstract fashion. And dozens of new ways of painting and mark-making. Like the painting or not, it feels like everything he’d go on to paint is here, too. On the left is a giant, Cyprian-like seated woman. Her voluptuous breasts are corseted by some sort of laced red bodice that makes her a cross between a fertility figure, goddess, Medusa, caryatid, harem figure, and proprietor of this realm and the next. Her veil, headdress, or hair is a labyrinth of yellow, blue, red, and white intertwining coils. Not only is it the best headpiece I’ve seen outside Aztec art, it looks forward to Jasper Johns’s great crosshatch paintings, even to de Kooning’s last lucid looping lines. She seems to hover here. Not on the ground or subject to gravity, she anchors the whole world to her left.
Over her left shoulder is what looks like a mirror but is either a window or another painting, picturing a spread-eagle, arms-upstretched nude. The vagina in that picture becomes another eye looking out of the painting. Next comes a walking or serving figure. But everything on this side of the picture comes down to an incredible reclining odalisque on the bottom part of the painting. She comes from many places. Most obviously from the supine figure in Picasso’s own insurrectionary shot across the bow of the 20th century, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, from 1907. Art aficionados wryly know that she is also Picasso’s barbaric response (in the best sense of the word) to Matisse’s earlier revolutionary blue nude. From at least then on, Picasso stalked Matisse’s every move. In fact, Women of Algiers was painted just 105 days after Matisse died. When asked why he turned to exotic odalisques and harems, subject matter long associated with the Frenchman, Picasso commented, “When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me.” Matisse was sadly wise to this. Not long after Picasso paid him a studio visit in the South of France, Matisse wrote to his son that Picasso “saw what he wanted to see. Now he will put it all to good use.” Imagine being dogged by this Spanish monster your entire artistic life. No wonder Matisse was always trying to get away.
Unlike the wind sheer of sources in this work, its history is fairly straightforward — here in the auction house, they call it provenance. In June 1956, Picasso’s dealer, Henry Kahnweiler, sold this picture and nine others from the same series to Victor and Sally Ganz, often described as great American collectors. True, they bought masterpieces, but how great they were as “collectors” might be judged in other ways. In fairly short order the Ganzes flipped — I mean sold — ten of the paintings, keeping five. After selling one of them in 1988, all the rest were auctioned off nine years later. Technically speaking, not factoring time on loan to exhibitions, Women of Algiers has only been on public view for the last ten days.
I walked into Christie’s in a state of strange pathos. Excited about seeing such great art; sad because it was displayed under these crowded conditions, and because I knew almost everything I saw might not be seen again in public. I felt, I’m finished complaining about auction houses. Yes, the people who work there love art as much as everyone in the art world loves art. But I do think they’re at the center of a storm that’s raging out of control and is wrecking terrible damage to the world they love by creating a filter that fakes one way but goes the other. Under the guise of so-called “quality,” auction houses fabricate a pervasive psychic field that sees art in terms of price and profit. This seductive shallow field forces collectors with similar work or similar -isms to rush the same artists and -isms to auction the following season to reap ever-higher prices. Auctions are not only doing this with historical material; they’re now doing it with contemporary art. And this has escalated prices for new work artificially, exponentially, and in ways that I think are bad for everyone and can’t possibly be sustained. It all seems fake. If only two people on the planet can be made to bid against one another for anything, a prospect easily arranged with the smoke and mirrors of auction spectacle, PR, and spin, then prices will spin upwards with only a tiny handful of people creating this updraft. Of course, artists, collectors, dealers, even auction houses should make money from art — I’m a capitalist, even if not a very successful one. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the prices for all art, masterpieces included but especially contemporary, recent, and new art, are completely out of whack and ridiculously overpriced. I am sorry, but it seems sick to me to see new artists selling art out of their first shows for between $30,000 and $40,000. Something’s gotta give. Good-bye, Picasso, I thought.
That’s when the force of nature Sara Friedlander, head of evening sales, swooped down on me. Sara knows as much about art and loves it as much as anyone I know. She started a happy, hysterically funny harangue of me for my ten-year hissy fit about auction houses, me carrying on about high prices and how impossible it is now for any museum to even compete. We walked through the exhibition for a while, both of us barking at one another. At one point, we passed chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art Brett Gorvy, who said, “I love your Instagram. You sure hate us.” Yes! Thanks! A minute later, the mega-mega-everything-owner of Christie’s, François Pinault, sauntered by. I said, “Please don’t introduce me to him.”
But Friedlander was brilliant. She knew every detail of every work of art on view. She could write a book. As she rattled off fantastic facts of art history, she also kept me off-balance, regaling me with stories so fast I couldn’t write them down. I remember that when I asked if buyers were still willing to pay $10 million for a recent Jeff Koons painting of a lobster and centerfold, she laughed and said, “Tits and ass always sell. Dicks, not so much.” Then she pointed, “I mean, look at those tits.” When I said that auctions were all rigged, she said, “Auctions are the most transparent place to buy art in the world. Unlike dealers, who screen everyone and pick and choose who gets to buy work, anyone with enough money can buy anything here. Everything here has notes on what the work costs and if it’s on reserve.” When I said that auction houses always say that they present “exhibitions” when they’re really just installing whatever lots they have for sale, she said, “For sure! We’re all nerds who want to be curators.” Commenting on a woman who was wearing head-to-toe Alaïa, Friedlander speculated that her shoes cost more today than the original price of the de Kooning she was looking at. When I carped about all this art disappearing forever after auction, she said, in a tone that was distinctly silly boy, “A lot of it will be back here next season.” So will I, I suppose.