Contemporary Art Market: Critics' outcry fails to deter the dealers

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The Independent Online
FEW contemporary art exhibitions have been received with as much anger as this year's 'Documenta' in Kassel, Germany, which closed yesterday. 'Nobody liked it,' according to Michael Werner, the leading Cologne dealer.

Despite that, the prestige of the show, billed as 'the contemporary art Olympics', has not failed to confer market cachet. Museums and private collectors are fighting to acquire the most popular exhibits. Anthony d'Offay, the London dealer, will shortly be exhibiting three mega-canvases by Ellsworth Kelly - odd-shaped monochromes - while he sorts out bids from European museums; he is also bringing to London the show's star newcomer, a New York video artist called Bill Viola. His study of a man splashing in a pool in reverse is already under option from the National Gallery in Berlin.

The first 'Documenta' was held in Kassel in 1955 and the town has since hosted further shows every four or five years. Each show has had a single curator who has presented his vision of the most important trends in contemporary art. As far as the market is concerned, it has proved far more influential than the Venice Biennale.

This year it was run by Jan Hoet, of the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Ghent, Belgium. It was the largest so far, with 190 artists represented. Two museum buildings were devoted entirely to the show, another five contained some exhibits, a temporary exhibition complex was erected in the park and further exhibits were spread all over town.

It was the most popular contemporary show on record, attracting just over 600,000 visitors in the 100 days since its 13 June opening - of which 1.9 per cent came from Britain. There were still long, patient queues in front of every building last week; it took a 30-minute wait to enter a cement cube constructed by Anish Kapoor in the town's central square; it contained a dark blue hole of unknowable depth.

Mr Hoet has been criticised for having no central theme, for including too many artists and jamming them up together, and for his erratic choice of exhibitors.

By general consensus, the installations and video pieces were the high points. Mr Hoet, as organiser, has had first choice of the exhibits. His Ghent museum is buying the Public Lavatory erected by the Russian installation artist Ilya Kabakov - movingly furnished as a dwelling place for fictional, homeless Russians - and a video piece concerned with loss of identity by an Irish artist, James Coleman.

The exhibition has generated massive tourist income for Kassel and the grateful city is retaining its favourite items. Man walking in the sky by Jonathan Borofsky, a steel pole reaching from street level to the roof of the Fridericianum museum with a plastic man walking up it, will be relocated within the city. And the Neue Galerie has posed itself an interesting curatorial problem by acquiring two works by Joseph Kosuth. They were created by printing philosophical quotations on cloths which Kosuth draped over the existing sculptures in the Neue Galerie passages, as well as writing on the walls. Will the gallery keep its sculptures draped in perpetuity?

Jeffrey Deitch, a leading New York art investment adviser and contemporary exhibition curator, said that 'aggressive collectors' were seeking out artists and trying to buy their 'Documenta' exhibits.

Some friends of his had bought the Charles Ray installation of wax body parts for more than dollars 100,000 ( pounds 56,000), he said. He was trying to buy a 'major piece'. In his view, 'outstanding works by younger artists' still looked good buys in today's market. After the multi-million dollar art prices of recent years, dollars 100,000 was not much for a work the importance of which was guaranteed by its inclusion in 'Documenta'.

That guarantee has long appealed to the German collector Peter Ludwig who has the world's largest collection of post-war art. This time he bought Attila Richard Lukacs's Eternal Tea House, paintings of a nude man inside a urinal, which he will loan to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne.

(Photograph omitted)

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