Nicola Vassell braced herself for the possibility of receiving only a smattering of visitors when she opened her new, eponymous art gallery in New York’s Chelsea in late May. She’d resolved to mostly seek buyers online, or over the phone, for her debut show of Ming Smith photographs. Instead, the former Deitch Projects director who previously managed music producer Swizz Beatz’s collection spent hours threading her way through a diverse throng that included collector A.C. Hudgins and artists Hank Willis Thomas and Tschabalala Self. (It helped that New York authorities had loosened gathering restrictions the day before.) By night’s end, the dealer had sold the majority of Smith’s landscapes and cityscapes for up to $85,000 apiece.
“The pandemic has truly been a reset,” Vassell says of the rebooted art scene. “There is just a whole new conversation going on.”
Huge, shiny sculptures and wall-size photographs oozing luxury or cynicism are out, for now; earnestly expressive portraits and politically potent works by Black artists and women are in—particularly if the artists are young or can be deemed rediscoveries. Tastemakers are also pivoting away from abstraction or coy, conceptual art in favor of pieces that echo issues being raised in the realms of social justice and social media. Some collectors are leaning further into technology by amassing digital artworks, while other sets of buyers are coping by prizing ceramics, with their fragile, lumpen tactility. Demand for dozens of artists has been upended and it’s compelling the art world’s power players to reckon with the fallout.
Artists at the world’s top art galleries changed rosters over the past year, from established icons like Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman to newer stars like Joe Bradley, Sonia Boyce and Dana Schutz. Galleries in big cities chased far-flung buyers by opening pop-up spaces in resort enclaves like Aspen and Palm Beach. Auction houses similarly found themselves in flux, with longtime rainmakers like Amy Cappellazzo stepping down from key posts at Sotheby’s and Christie’s executive Stephen Brooks replacing Ed Dolman as CEO of Phillips. Auction houses are also hustling to capitalize on an entirely new asset class of digital artworks sprouting up as nonfungible tokens, or NFTs.
“We’ve all been sitting in our houses reevaluating what’s really compelling and important,” says Mark Moore, a dealer in Orange, California. “When I think about the music I like, my presets are all different now—and it’s the same with art.”
president of the Swiss mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth, says the pandemic compelled the art world to take stock of its own rituals and values. “We’re all facing down the same existential questions,” Payot says. “What do we do now? What kind of art do we need?”
Koons is perhaps the biggest emblem of the hierarchical shake-up so far. In April, he caused a stir when he left a pair of powerhouse dealers in Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner to join Pace Gallery. Yet even just before the pandemic, the market for his signature, glossy sculptures of everyday objects like balloon animals and ballerinas was volatile. In 2019, he hit a high when his mirrored, Neo-Pop Rabbit from 1986 sold at Christie’s for $91 million—making him the most expensive living artist—but since then only four of his works have sold for more than $3 million at auction. In past years he’s been known to employ more than 120 assistants; these days, he employs around 50 people, the artist’s studio said.
Koons’s move to Pace sparked fresh scrutiny of the artist from broader art circles such as independent art adviser Gardy St. Fleur, who says the decision makes the artist “look shaky, like he’s got to try to find collectors.” His production methods involve lots of technicians and time—and both were hard to harness even before the global health crisis. In 2019 and early 2020, Gagosian settled a pair of lawsuits from collector Steven Tananbaum and film producer Joel Silver over alleged non-delivery of Koons’s works that they had paid for but hadn’t received following fabrication delays. Lauran Rothstein, a studio representative for Koons, declined to discuss the matter beyond noting in an email that both collectors had contracted to purchase works and had made partial payments at the time of the lawsuits.
Gagosian said he sold over $1.5 billion worth of Koons’s art over the past two decades. He also said he was finalizing a plan for his gallery to pay the artist’s fabrication costs upfront rather than put buyers on payment plans in order to finance the production of their pieces by the artist—but he said the artist informed him that he was switching gears, and galleries, by email. “I’m not sure what he’s going to gain with this move, but time will tell,” Gagosian said. “I hope he does well, because I own a large inventory of his work.” Zwirner called the artist a “free spirit” and wished him well in the move. The artist declined to comment.
Marc Glimcher, his new dealer, says the artist did some soul-searching during the pandemic and decided he was ready to make a fresh start, adding, “It’s hard to manage markets when the expectations are very high—it’s OK for stocks to go up and down, but not so with art. Sometimes a regroup is a good idea.”
The market for some of the other titans of the pre-pandemic market—including Rudolf Stingel, Richard Prince, Anselm Kiefer and Mark Grotjahn—appears to be softening, according to auction records. Kevie Yang, who runs Phillips art advisory, says collectors still admire Stingel’s portraits, but demand has fallen off lately for his scrawled, Styrofoam abstracts. In May, Prince’s masked Lake Resort Nurse from 2002 sold at Christie’s for $3.9 million, followed the next month by the $12 million sale of another version from his Nurse series, underscoring his volatility. Kiefer and Grotjahn’s thickly layered landscapes and abstract Face paintings also appear to have plateaued at around $4 million and $3 million, respectively.
“In the past, collectors felt safe buying these established names, but now they want their collection to reflect their own time, right now,” Yang says.
Perennial favorite Cindy Sherman sits at the crosshairs of competing trends: As a woman artist, she should be in feverish demand, but large-scale photography like her recent, wall-size selfies appear to lack the political potency that’s highly sought after right now, dealers say. Thomas Struth’s photos of crowd scenes and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s empty theater images are in a similar slump. Payot, who represents Sherman at Hauser & Wirth now that her longtime gallery Metro Pictures has closed, says his team plans to showcase the artist’s early work in part so that younger collectors can discover her contributions afresh.
Pace has a similar plan to enliven Koons’s market, aiming to stoke broader interest in his earlier work by showing his balloon animals, basketballs and vacuum cleaners alongside other artists like Marcel Duchamp, Claes Oldenburg and even Donald Judd. Art adviser Anthony Grant says retooling the context in which people size up Koons’s historic contributions could give his entire oeuvre a boost.
The one area of the art market that needs no help in maintaining momentum? Anything created, now or historically, by women and artists of color. Gone is the homogenous desire to chase the wish list of a decade ago, which was dominated by white men, says Sotheby’s expert David Galperin. Until a few months ago, only the cognoscenti knew the work of New York painter Alice Neel, who died in 1984, but her survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art proved the surprise sleeper hit of the spring season, with lines stretching 90 minutes long to see her pensive portraits of friends and family. In May, a collector bid $3 million for one of her colorful still lifes, nearly doubling her auction record. Zwirner, who oversees her estate and will open a new show of her work at his New York gallery on September 9, says Neel appeals now because “she’s painted the world we live in.” Another artist enjoying a sudden comeback is Grace Hartigan, who died in 2008 but whose colorful abstracts sold in the 1950s for nearly as much as Willem de Kooning’s works. She made her Christie’s evening-sale debut in May with 1962’s “The Phoenix” selling for $687,500, over its $600,000 high estimate.
Other women to watch this year include Christina Quarles, whose colorful paintings of slithering bodies are currently on survey at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art after being delayed an entire year amid the pandemic. Quarles, who joined Hauser & Wirth in May, explores issues of gender and sexuality in her lush works—but she also uses software to map out some of her imagery. Avery Singer, one of the few artists on the rise, adds her own twist by using airbrush painting techniques to play with perception of spaces, as she did with her $4.1 million untitled, pink-tiled room piece that doubled its high estimate at Phillips in late June.
“What’s next after painting? Technology is bringing all that discourse to another level right now,” Yang, the Phillips art adviser, says. “And NFTs are the extreme manifestation of that question.”
Nonfungible tokens, or tokenized digital art whose ownership is recorded on a digital ledger called a blockchain, continue to polarize the art world. Dealers like Moore dismiss them as a Pandora’s box of cryptocurrency-fueled speculation, even as others hail them for stoking a revival in fascination for art seen on screens. The cryptocurrency markets surrounding the NFT scene remain a rollercoaster, but collectors seem eager to splurge at the high end for art—including $17 million worth of digital art sold at the Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” auction in June.
Elsewhere during the pandemic, the markets for some Black artists got so blistering—a Robert Colescott history scene sold to filmmaker George Lucas’s Narrative Museum of Art for $15.3 million in May—that some art advisers like St. Fleur say they have become “cautious” about a potential market bubble. He said some recent art school grads are even quitting social media platforms because potential buyers are “harassing” them with messages seeking art deals. “Younger artists of color are getting scared, and it’s disturbing because they’re achieving auction records before they get museum shows,” he says. Black art dealers remain rare, but that’s changing, too. Gagosian recently hired Antwaun Sargent as a director, and in October Zwirner is opening an entirely new space in New York, called 52 Walker, to show work picked out by new director Ebony L. Haynes. Vassell says she “felt like a unicorn” when she first started working in the art world nearly two decades ago, but now she regularly talks to a handful of other Black women she’s encountered who run galleries around the world. “We’re all in dialogue about this new chapter,” she says.
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