Saturday, August 7, 2010

Artist as Brand-Name

Kelly Crow's 6 August Wall Street Journal article "Lust for Late" highlights higher sales prices for later works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and -- the artist featured in the piece -- Salvador Dalí.

I find the following passage interesting:

The fever for late-period works is being driven by market demands as much as scholarly curiosity. Typically, the pieces created by major artists late in life aren't as prestigious or pricey as their early breakthroughs or prime examples. The art world, like the field of fashion or mathematics, likes to discover genius among the young while often dismissing whatever comes after as repetitious or second-tier.

But as artists' top works seep out of the marketplace and into museums, collectors' tastes begin "migrating to the supply," says David Norman, Sotheby's international co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art.

I find it interesting because it adds evidence for the supply-and-demand factor in art pricing. Elsewhere I've seen claims that one reason auction prices for French Impressionists has been high for decades is that the supply of first-rate 15th through 17th century painters has largely dried up.

But there is another factor in play: buyer caution. If one is in the mood to spend a few million dollars on a painting, the potential investment value of that painting is hard to ignore. (The exception is when a buyer truly loves a painting and plans to keep it for as long as he lives.) So rather than risk money on a recent artist whose long-term investment potential is unclear, go for undervalued works by proven artists even if this means ignoring the opinion of critics and curators.

Regarding Dalí, Crow observes:

Few artists could reap more from a late-period revival than Dalí. The artist created at least 1,200 paintings between his art-school years in the 1920s and his death in 1989. Yet he was only 36 when the Surrealists in Paris expelled him from their circle, citing his outsize ego and political apathy. As a result, more than half of Dalí's entire output is considered "late."

After breaking with the Surrealists, Dalí toyed with a variety of different topics and styles, a surprising mix that's reflected in the upcoming show at the High Museum. These include his 1951 "Christ of Saint John of the Cross," a nearly 7-foot-tall, photorealistic portrait of the crucifixion that's owned by Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum and hasn't been exhibited in the U.S. for over 40 years. A pixelated rendering of Raphael's Madonna embedded within the outline of a huge ear in his "Sistine Madonna" from 1958 reveals Dalí's later fascination for trompe l'oeil. Other artworks tease out his boredom with Abstract Expressionism and his early nods to Pop, conceptual, video and performance art.

This assessment seems reasonable. Moreover, I don't consider his post-1940 paintings intrinsically inferior to his Surrealist efforts. In each era, he painted both good and so-so works. His drawing and prints are another matter, their value affected by uncertainty regarding fakes.

Actually, the business of artist-as-brand-name doesn't bother me. After all, how can an artist not be a "brand" if he is a professional whose main source of income is sales of his work. I can't think of any alternative, but if you can, please let us know in Comments.

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