You have just two days in which to witness its last gasp - or attempt resuscitation by injecting money. Bonhams is the auctioneer left holding the precocious but sickly baby and has chosen to attempt the kiss of life in the form of a week-long selling exhibition - instead of the knockabout auctions of the previous three years which seemed to weaken the patient's exotic constitution.
By midweek, a minor rash of livid but healthy red 'sold' dots had appeared at Bonhams. But not yet enough to guarantee survival. The trouble is that the taste of private buyers, the mainstay of the market, has become greyer as the recession has become gloomier. Those whose hearts leapt at bright, youthful fantasies four years ago now seek the reality therapy of sober figuratives. This is not good news for 21-year-olds bursting to paint blue, orange and yellow faces estimated at pounds 700- pounds 800 a canvas.
Nicholas Usherwood, appointed consultant by Bonhams, has tended the firm's graduate art sales since their inception in 1990, sometimes visiting 25 art schools within a month to spot talent. Despite seeing his auction sales totals drop over the past three years from 66 per cent to 45 per cent to 39 per cent and takings from pounds 92,080 to pounds 44,040 to pounds 23,410, he remains the genre's most enthusiastic champion. So when he says this could be the last stand for graduate art, you know he means it.
'It's a tricky one,' he says. 'At the same time you've got to follow your own star and yet also go with the taste of the buying public. These are conservative times, taste-wise.'
Just how conservative is shown by his graduate art auction statistics from the early days of the recession showing that prospective private buyers are not bowled over by the mere content of a painting - but by its size. Never mind the brave new vision, feel the width.
'As the recession began to bite,' he said, 'we found that people were reluctant to spend more than pounds 750 on a graduate painting. And if they did, they wanted more for their money. That is, bigger paintings. Size is a much stronger factor in people's considerations than is generally assumed.
'Showing off comes into it. They won't pay pounds 800 for a tiny 10in x 12in picture. They want something substantial to show to their friends.' Which explains why Bonhams' graduate paintings now tend to bunch in the 3ft to 5ft size. Graduates who think small will have to paint better.
Have any budding Hockneys been unearthed by private buyers - those protagonists of sensible art who one half expects to find unfurling tape measures in front of dour, optimally-sized figuratives? Two graduate painters - Peter Kennelly of Goldsmith's College, 28, and Mark Francis of the Chelsea School of Art, 30 - both sold out at the ground-breaking Christie's South Ken auction in 1989 (Mr Francis more than doubling estimates to fetch up to pounds 1,600). Both did well at early Bonhams auctions and are now with the Jill George Gallery in Soho.
Mr Kennelly is known for his dark, beetle-browed men with scars. A 4ft by 6ft 6in diptych of swimmers fetched pounds 3,500 at the Black Bull Gallery in Fulham shortly after the South Ken auction. Mr Francis uses muted colours for his abstracts which have a figurative, organic feel. A 6ft x 6ft canvas is priced at pounds 5,000. The Tate Gallery has bought one, as have the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the European Parliament in Brussels.
Fantasies by Alison Cross of Camberwell School of Art have sold, some strongly, in all three auctions (top price pounds 2,860 in the first), but in the 1991 auction an unsold and a pounds 770 lower estimate gave warning of the change of mood. She has, nevertheless, acquired buyers without the support of a gallery.
Buyers' banes: Simon Jones of Camberwell College of Art, who in two auctions sold one painting - Counting Pearls, with blue, orange and yellow faces, pounds 1,210 (est pounds 700- pounds 800) - has now disappeared abroad with a rock band. Another is Anya King, of Norwich School of Fine Art, praised to the skies by media critics but unsold at both the Bonhams auctions she entered.
Bonhams' three graduate-art catalogues, 1990-92, show the abstract/fantastic being ousted by the sensible figurative style predominant in the current selling exhibition. In the first Bonhams auction, Andrew Crocker of Goldsmith's sold all four of his fantasies such as Flying Man ( pounds 1,045, est pounds 700- pounds 900). In the second, with fantasy on the wane, his three sold well within estimate (his catalogue cover picture of Hitchcock- style birds made pounds 935, est pounds 800- pounds 1,000). In the third sale, none of his four works found buyers. Fantasy was dead. With realism back, in the same sale Winter Afternoon, Falmouth, by Ashley Hold of Falmouth School of Art - a meticulous rendering of the suburbs of Falmouth re-entered after failing to sell in the first auction - found a buyer at pounds 495.
Graduate minimalist art - job lots of hot-water bottles and the like, still favoured by the Goldsmith's academic coterie and art critics - has never shifted at auction. Now that exotic art is in disfavour, art students will have to go back to the drawing board.
Meanwhile, showcases for graduate art are dwindling. Fresh Art, the national fine art degree fair at the Business Design Centre, Islington, north London, hit by funding difficulties, will not reappear this summer. The sixth Northern Graduate Exhibition at Business Art Galleries in Windmill Street, London, in August will feature only three art colleges instead of the usual dozen.
Christie's thinks it has found a way of cutting through the complicated commerce of taste-making. Having tucked promising graduate art into its post-war art sales during the recession, it proposes 'Critics' Choice', a contemporary art auction on 23 September featuring works selected by leading art critics. To add to their woes, art graduates now face being hoist by their own critics.
'Artists of Promise', Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7 (071- 584 9161). Last two days: today and tomorrow (11am-4pm).
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