The impulse came from the galleries
Museums and private collections in recent years have invited us to revisit the Western cultural codes that have shaped art history and the art market, giving more importance to artists from Africa and the African diaspora.
Over the past 10 years, influential international galleries have integrated African-American, African-British and African artists, whose work often deals with issues of identity, race, culture and politics. David Zwirner works with Kerry James Marshall, Njideka Akuniili Crosby and Noah Davis. Hauser & Wirth supports a number of African diaspora artists including Amy Sherald, Lorna Simpson and Mark Bradford. All this led to an increase in prices for the work of these artists.
When an artist enters into partnership with a powerful gallery
Currently, the connection between signing a contract with a major gallery and rising prices is literally instantaneous. Amy Sherald signed with Hauser & Wirth Gallery in 2018, the same year Michelle Obama commissioned her official portrait. Prices for her work in the secondary market immediately rose to six figures. Signing with the Zwirner Gallery in 2013, Kerry James Marshall crossed the $1 million threshold in 2014 with his canvas Vignette (2003), which sold for $541,000 in 2007.
Marshall was born five years earlier than Basquiat, but he it took much longer to achieve recognition and status as an icon of American painting. Today, since his work Past Times sold for $21.1 million in 2018, he is the most expensive living black American artist of our time.
Auction houses also began to take an active position.
The latest to date is the Say It Loud virtual exhibition hosted by Christie’s in the summer of 2020. The exhibition showcased the work of emerging and young black artists and was the first event hosted by Christie’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in a new department dedicated to “diversity and inclusion initiatives”. Christie’s transcends the boundaries of an auction operator and uses its market leadership as a “positive force” by offering a series of exhibitions and educational programs to “strengthen the voices of black artists.”
In search of novelty
Galleries are always on the lookout for young talent, new and original work, uniqueness and profitability. All that is required is the involvement of one of the major galleries (or not so major ones) for the artist to immediately come out of anonymity and for the demand to inflate like a balloon. Auction market prices can skyrocket in the blink of an eye, especially if collectors are queuing up at prestigious galleries. There is no shortage of super-fast success stories, and in recent years their number has increased: examples include the stories of the Irish artist Jeneve Figgis, the Frenchwoman Julie Curtiss, or the American Jonas Wood. But while some artists achieve extremely positive career development, others suffer from exceptionally erratic demand.
Zombies and sharks
As is the case in all volatile markets, some have made a career out of positive momentum, and a small number of smart business people have been able to drive young artists’ prices up to high levels very quickly. Naturally, such cases are difficult to identify, as they involve power and structures, unconventional (if not illegal) methods, and an unclear number of beneficiaries, but suffice it to say that skyrocketing prices for works by very young artists often indicate an overheated market distorted by speculation. Stefan Simhowitz, who has been dubbed the “shark of contemporary art”, is now blacklisted by several galleries that refuse to sell him work. This collector-consultant-dealer has certainly played an active role in the careers of several artists, but not everyone likes his methods. The press calls him a “predator,” a “cynic,” a “speculator,” accusing him of buying at a low price and quickly reselling, seeking to make as much profit as possible, treating works of art as a commodity. Simhowitz himself calls himself a “patron of the arts”. And his clients see in him the genius of capitalist adventurism.
According to some sources, Stefan Simhowitz was at the center of the 2012-2014 speculative bubble known as zombie formalism, which included young abstract artists. This term, coined by art historian Walter Robinson, describes paintings reminiscent of American Abstract Expressionism, of which Clement Greenberg was theorist. The “zombie” element refers to the reincarnation of a somewhat forgotten aesthetic of the work of Pollock, Maurice Louis and Frank Stella, while the “formalism” refers to the appealing elegance of a simplistic painting style without any new artistic intent. This style refers to artists such as Jacob Cassai, Alex Israel, Oscar Murillo and Seth Price, whose prices soared to hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2014, but then the market for their work collapsed, and they returned to their original figures of several tens of thousands of dollars. .
Market distortions of this kind are detrimental to the credibility of the market: the so-called “new” trends in abstract art, pumped up by investors trying to make a quick buck, are not good for the art market as a whole. For those artists who have not yet enlisted the support of influential galleries, it is difficult to recover from such instability.