London. David LaChapelle’s Seismic Shift, 2012, says it all: artists and collectors are reacting against the carefree works that were popular during the raging noughties. The large-scale LaChapelle photograph, on sale at Paul Kasmin’s stand at Frieze London in October, shows a room of familiar works by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, among others, rocked by the force of an imaginary earthquake. The image, by an artist who has been no stranger to the colorful, often flippant art that came to the fore during the art market’s recent boom, mirrors the marked shift in taste that prevailed during Frieze week.
The Frieze fairs themselves offered scant opportunity even to show works made between 2000 and 2010: the cut-off date for the new Masters fair was 2000, and although Frieze London is meant to lead straight on, dealers are encouraged to bring the newest possible works by their artists.
Cool spots and downward spin
Some pieces from the boom years made it into the Pavillion of Art & Design fair, but here, prime examples failed to sell. These included Hirst’s indulgently titled spin painting Beautiful Red Wing Vortex of Friendship with Pure White Splashy Creamy Milky Nuances and Splattered Bumble Bee Painting, 2007, which was prominent on Van de Weghe Fine Art’s stand ($585,000), and his spot painting Clonazepam, 2008 ($650,000 at L&M Arts). But it wasn't just Hurt, whose market has understandably dampened after his mammoth primary market sale at sotheby’s in 2008, who had a bad week. At Christie’s evening auction on 11 October, Piggies, 2006 by Paul McCarthy, Untitled (de Kooning), 2005, by Richard Prince and three noughties works by Andreas Gursky (Monaco, 2006, Fortuna Dusseldorf, 2000, and Jumeirah Palm, 2008) were among the unsold lots. At Sotheby’s the following evening, Soutatsu garden, 2000, by Takashi Murakami, and Bharti Kher’s Right in the Middle of it Al, 2008, sold- but only on one big apiece.
We’ve all become more serious because of what’s happening to the world, politically and economically,” says Alex Rotter, the head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York. Francis Outred, the head of contemporary art at Christie’s Europe says that this mindset has helped collectors to “sort the wheat from the chaff”.
Mirroring the mood of the market: LaChapelle’s Seismic Shift (Detail)
It is not just a shift in taste that is working against the poster boys and girls of the boom. It is also the sheer amount of supply from this era, when there was considerable pressure to buy. “In the 1960’s and 1970’s, people bought at a much slower pace. Now, because collectors are constantly presented with new works at shows, art fairs and auctions, they have been accumulating at a much more rapid pace,” says the art advisor Lisa Schiff. Now, she says, people who bought around five to ten years ago are reviewing their purchases, so the market is bombarded with more recent work to sell.
Outred agrees that there has been an outpouring of production running alongside the market’s growth, while buyers are now tempted by handmade work, rather than the factory-like output of certain artists, regardless of date. He cites Fred Tomaselli’s Organism, 2005; he believes that a YouTube video of the artist making the work from scratch helped it sell above estimate for €735,650 at Christie’s last month.
Although some may welcome the demise of art market speculation in churned-out-works, it is putting pressure on contemporary art’s sales in general. At the day auctions in London last month, an average of 35% of works went unsold, versus an already dreary 30% last year (day sales are a good indicator of the market’s health as they tend not to include the outlying big ticket items). Top-end works are more likely to be protected by those with vested interests, but the market beneath is not well-supported by mid-price buyers, some of whom have historically “tickled up” to become serious collectors. In addition, the market’s newest buyers from China and Russia were less active in salerooms and fairs this season.
There is a general feeling that the market is softening, although the major New York auctions this month may yet paint a different picture. At the same time, London is losing some of its individuality as the big-name galleries an auction houses all converge in its more homogenized centre.
Meanwhile, LaChapelle’s characterization of the decline of conspicuous consumption clearly resonates; all three editions of Seismic Shift sold for around $100,000 each.