Compelling Scenarios Part 2

Flying Dutchman, 1961–62. Oil on canvas, 80.75 x 80.75 inches (205.11 x 205.11 cm). Collection of the Linda Pace Foundation.

Joan Mitchell entitled her painting “The Flying Dutchman”. The title comes from a story of a cursed ship that must forever sail the seas without landing. The ship, if encountered, brings doom to those who have seen it. For my money this narrative perfectly describes the teleology of the Modernist Era – Process and Market – no beginning, no end, no other history, the loop – from a to b and back again. The cycle of the painting’s production, the abstraction formed through the processes of that production, the “imitation of imitating”, the strokes, the drips, the smears and scrapes, the eternal self-referentiality of the subject matter, the Modernist Process has to be completed through us. As an artist, a viewer and a participant in this work, one must reprocess the processes, leave the work in flux, “unfinish” it in order to state that it can be finished. One is doomed. One must remain forever at sea, a Flying Dutchman. In the larger Market there are no theoretical changes. There’s just stylistic rapprochement, gentle upgrades, cross-platform programming, institutionalization – all done in the Modernist way by and for the Modernist Market so that artists can feed from its golden cord. And like Joan’s painting history is truncated and looped, falling back on itself, regurgitating itself, explicating itself. For the Modernists there aren’t other compelling scenarios, different outcomes, or new visions. We are Flying Dutchmen one and all…


On the world economic stage there have been a number of recent historic changes that have brought the art world, its studios and markets, to where it is now. 1991 was an auspicious year. The successful first Gulf War followed by the collapse of the USSR rearranged world power structures and the flow of capital. There were massive outflows of cash from Russia, China, India and South America as new oligarchies formed and banking systems collapsed. Additionally, over the last 25 years the UK, the EU and the US have become the beneficiaries and protectors of this global capital providing easy access to their markets, their finances, and their governments in order to partake in and benefit from what Clem called the golden umbilical cord. Process has been hard at work…


The first Armory Art Fair occurred in 1994 nearly 7 years after the ignominious collapse of the high flying stock markets of the 1980s. By 1989 the market value of most of the hot art collections had flattened like pancakes. A Domino Effect began with selling frenzies at the auction houses. The problem was – no one was buying. Collections and reputations for nearly all the major players – collectors, galleries and artists – were in ruins. Some would never recover. For the next 6 or 7 years the art market kind of flailed along – galleries closed, artists disappeared, production in the studios was nonexistent. No one really gave a damn and the art world changed. No one had any money so in stepped the installations, the performances, the video monologues, what used to be called PC Art, and lots and lots of photography. But these things didn’t really sell. They were ephemeral. The galleries determined that something had to be done.

The original Art Fair was intended as a shot in the arm for the anemic and moribund art market. In fact it was more a “happening” than it was a serious selling fest, though sales were made. That first fair at the Gramercy Hotel was a surprising success – part party, part spectacle and part trade show. Over the next few years the fair grew by leaps and bounds, and it seemed that everyone wanted to get in on the party. By 1999 the fair had professionalized, moved to the Armory on 69th Street, and took on the name Armory Show after the original from 1917. That was a stroke of marketing genius, because the fair linked itself to a watershed historic moment – the arrival of Modernism in America. The rest has been fait accompli. The Armory Fair jump started the art economy, brought new artists into the business, and most importantly, became a must-do-stop on the grand tour of the New World Order gypsy tribe of oligarchs and hedge funders looking to quietly clean their cash.

When Art and Money get together it’s a heady experience. We, and I mean all of us, gush in satisfaction or disbelief at the prices of Modernist Art. But what has been sexier for the owners of this new art has been the unregulated market itself. The trade, the bid, the power to push one’s aesthetic decisions into history – Wow! If you’ve ever been to one of these auctions you can practically smell it in the air – rapacious anxiety and sweaty pheromones. It’s a race for glory with the largest purse winning. (You don’t get this kind of rush in the real estate markets.) The galleries, however, are bit more earthy. No rules, no oversight, no pesky competitors – everything can be done in the backroom with a handshake. You can sweat the gallerists eye to eye, bargain for 20 percent less. This is Process, this is what Action Painting is for the Modernist. Clem’s formula applies right through the whole game, from studio to collector. Process and Market are one.


There have been other consequences as well. The biggest was the need for precedent, something on which all markets thrive. There must be product, proven product that investors want to use. So all eyes began to turn to the astounding glut of contemporary art that has piled up since the 1950s. And all of it, ALL OF IT, had to be made useful and viable as precedent. It had to be seen as a part of a continuity to shore up the market. Even if the work is not of the “top tier” and the artists unknown, they too could play a part. They would be the 2nd generations, the middle classes, the yeomen of academia. They would be the  proof that those who are feted, collected, and auctioned, those whose prices would reach astounding levels in the market, were actually worth the price. They would be the base of the pyramid.

The other problem was the Western Pre-Modern Canon, the Old Masters. How would we deal with that? So the market used the simplest solution it could and just ignored it. Old Master works did not come on the market that often anyway. They were difficult to resell, and they just weren’t that sexy anymore. Anything before 1900 doesn’t really matter to the quarter auction Market or the Processes that keep that market stable. So, for all intents and purposes Art History starts with the Americanization of Modernism and the beginning of the Modernist era. It worked! The institutions followed suit and have concentrated on the dissemination of Modernist ideology and doubled down on the Professionalization of Art Production. In other words, the Art Markets have institutionalized Clem’s theoretics. And Art History, the grand version of it, is for tourists and yokels. At the turn of the new century Neo-Liberal Modernist work began to churn through the Art Markets in a big way for larger and ever larger sums of money.

All of this money has had a big effect on how we make art and how we interpret it.

Part 3 to come…

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