ART MARKET / What's hot in Manhattan: Sex and race are the dominant themes in New York's galleries and salerooms. Geraldine Norman takes the temperature of contemporary art this spring

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In among the rats, cockroaches, Cadillacs, charity galas at the Metropolitan Museum, hamburgers and bag people that give New York its inimitable tone can be found around a thousand contemporary art galleries. Like it or not, this is the only city in the world where residents dig it, make it, talk about it and buy it with enough enthusiasm to give new art a central position in daily life.

May is the month of the big contemporary art auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's; the commercial galleries put on special shows to attract the out-of- towners. On this occasion there is also the Whitney Biennial, a regular exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art devoted to the best of the nation's contemporary art.

Manhattan in May is thus the place and the time to pick up what's happening to art in the Nineties. The main thrust is an accent on content rather than form; the day-to-day tragedies of late 20th-century life are favoured subjects, while artists use the ephemera of the consumer society as media - among them graffiti, photographs, pulp magazines, kitsch ceramics, video screens. Many of the works are elaborate installations, but saleable artefacts are created on the side to ensure the artists eat.

The Whitney show has been reviled in every newspaper and art magazine for its 'political' bias, but insiders consider it a very accurate reflection of what young art is doing in New York - where artists come from every corner of the world. It is an odd use of the word 'political'; here it is taken to mean an accent on race - the curator, Elizabeth Sussman, prefers to talk of 'marginal communities' - and sex. The latter counts as political because of Aids and government censorship of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe - the author of stunning photographs of black nudes, occasionally with an erotic content, who died of Aids four years ago.

It was gallery owner Wendy Olsoff who first told me that 'political' art was the hot ticket - and that was two years ago. 'Yes,' she laughed last week. 'It's taken two years to reach the Whitney.' Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington, daughter of the London dealer Godfrey Pilkington, run the PPOW gallery in SoHo, the old warehouse district 'South of Houston Street', which has been transformed over the past 15 years into an invigoratingly bohemian art community. The galleries that show young artists are concentrated there and they have become so popular that established dealers have moved to SoHo as well - Castelli, Sonnabend, Pace, Gagosian.

The new trend in SoHo that Wendy Olsoff drew my attention to this time round was feminist art. My other guru, Jeffrey Deitch, a leading art consultant, freelance curator and inordinately successful art dealer, agreed. 'Post-feminism,' he said, 'is one trend you can get a handle on right now.'

'Coming to Power, 25 Years of Sexually X-Plicit Art by Women' is the title of a show at the David Zwirner gallery in Greene Street. There is a 1966 sculpture by Yoko Ono on show called Object in Three Parts - Revolution - one Durex sheath, one Dutch cap and one pill on three pedestals, price dollars 20,000 ( pounds 13,000). Most expensive at dollars 75,000 ( pounds 49,000) is Louise Bourgeois's Janus of 1968, a double-headed penis cast in bronze. And right up to date are Lutz Bacher's black and white photographs of oral sex, in editions of three, at dollars 1,200 ( pounds 780).

Lutz Bacher is one of the women artists who have been featured at the new exhibition space Trial Balloon, which opened in March 1992. It is up two flights of linoleum stairs, in a large grubby room - hardly an effort has been taken to 'convert' it into a gallery. But Trial Balloon has become a cult focus of 'post- feminism' - it is run by an English artist, Nicola Tyson, only four years out of St Martin's. Last week she was showing a Californian lesbian called Nicole Eisenman; there was a giant wall painting of Amazons hunting Minotaurs - the latter clearly taken from Picasso, who Eisenman scorns as a sexploitative male. The other walls are collaged with bits of colour magazines and graffiti. Eisenman is 'hot'. The price for her drawings - she doesn't work in oil - has jumped to around dollars 1,000 ( pounds 650) in recent months, or around dollars 2,000 ( pounds 1,300) for the very big ones - she sometimes does five-footers.

The strongest sector of the New York market at the moment is at the young, cheap end of the spectrum. It is perhaps not surprising that the emerging SoHo artists who sell their wares at prices equivalent to pounds 500- pounds 1,000 are capable of selling out, where works by old-timers priced at pounds 20,000- pounds 200,000 (or more) are proving much more difficult to move.

The contemporary auctions, mostly focused on expensive old-timers, were lacklustre affairs. The art on offer ran roughly from the 1940s to the 1980s, and bidders were only prepared to compete if something was special - such as the Pollock drip painting that ran to dollars 2,422,500 ( pounds 1.6m).

An enormous crowd turned out for the evening sales, however - at least a thousand people. Most of them didn't come to buy; they could be called art groupies and their sheer number reflects New Yorkers' fascination with art. The secondary sales, held during the day, attracted a smaller turnout but more serious buyers, since prices were lower - there was plenty around dollars 5,000-dollars 20,000 ( pounds 3,000- pounds 15,000). The most popular buys were cut-price Eighties paintings and sculptures; auction prices are still much lower than those of dealers.

The exception to the rule was a doll's house crafted by Robert Gober in 1980, a faithful replica of the kind of clapboard Connecticut home he grew up in, which was bid to dollars 132,300 ( pounds 86,000) against an estimate of dollars 15,000-dollars 20,000 (about pounds 10,000). It was bought by Jeffrey Deitch, who points out that Gober is one of the only stars of the 1980s who has had a seminal influence on what younger artists are doing. His sculptures of objects such as beds, sinks and doors were all developments of the furnishings of his early doll's houses, of which this was a rare example; Gober's 'political' significance lies in presenting these everyday objects as reminders of the seething passions of the ordinary American home - he himself is white and gay.

Gober has made an understated but key contribution to the Whitney show, entitled Newspaper. What it looks like is a pile of old newspapers tied up with string. He has adjusted the stories and advertisements on those surfaces that are visible, however. They all treat 'that debate over the body and sexuality that has been at the centre of our cultural struggles', as the catalogue puts it. The younger artists in the show treat the theme in a louder, more obvious fashion.

The photographer Cindy Sherman is a case in point, the only artist who manages to appeal simultaneously to auction buyers, Whitney curators and the buzzy young dealers of SoHo. Her early images, where she photographed herself adopting various bourgeois roles, were selling nicely in the auctions; at the Whitney she had made a 'political' statement by showing close-up photographs of the penis of one elephant and the vagina of another; at Zwirner's in SoHo you could pick up her 1987 photograph of suppurating sores on a pair of big breasts for dollars 15,000 ( pounds 10,000).

(Photographs omitted)