Masters & Subs. In Art Today MORE Is Less

Mario Diacono and Bob Nickas

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Bob Nickas, the New York-based critic and curator, and Mario Diacono, the Italian gallerist and writer—from the '70s to now having presented exhibitions in Bologna, Rome, New York and Boston—have had a nearly thirty year conversation about art and the state of culture and the market. In recent years, with the ascendance of art as an industry, as the art world functions more along the lines of the corporate model, their criticism and complaint, a see-sawing between hope and disillusion, has only intensified. Carried out in-person, often in visits to galleries and museums, as well as to studios, on the phone and in email, excerpts from their lively dialogue have never before been published. Here, a seemingly innocent question triggers a provocative and playful excursion for their mutual affection and art world disaffection. 

Mario Diacono:  Did you know that Barbara Gladstone has opened a space uptown to show and sell the "classics"?

Bob Nickas:  I've heard that she will have an exhibition of works by Pierre Klossowski. Quite a few galleries are opening, or have already opened, spaces uptown. This must in some way reflect the bigger money around art now. It needs a classier neighborhood. A gallery in Chelsea used to be a taxi garage. A gallery uptown was once a mansion. Downtown there are a lot of little piddly galleries next to the blue chip spaces, and in general there is a shopping mall feel to the area. If you're uptown, you aren't surrounded by B- and C-list galleries. You're close to the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum, to the perceived weight of Art with a capital A, to history and bigger price tags. The Met moving into the old Whitney building is adding to the expectation of a greater level of energy. The German dealer Daniel Buchholz opened a gallery in New York, and rather than choose a downtown location, he's on East 82nd Street, just four blocks away from the Neue Galerie. You can see Sergej Jensen and Egon Schiele back-to-back.

In New York, the old money has historically been uptown. Now it's everywhere. Galleries with deep pockets, or wanting to deepen their pockets, are both up- and downtown—Skarstedt, Gagosian, Boesky, Petzel, Hauser & Wirth, and now Gladstone. Down on Tenth Avenue, Paul Kasmin mounted an exhibition of Brancusi and minimalism, and now he's about to open a Max Ernst show. David Zwirner has a Morandi exhibition, with some loans from our friend Laura Mattioli. In Chelsea, Gladstone is presenting Jean Tinguely, and Andrea Rosen has Robert Motherwell, though it's hard to get too excited about that. Alison Gingeras recently organized an exhibition, The Avant-Garde Won't Give Up: Cobra and Its Legacy, which was in two parts. The first was here at Blum & Poe's uptown gallery, and the second was presented in LA, their primary base. The New York part focused on the movement's historic figures, and in LA their works were placed in dialog with contemporary artists such as Mark Grotjahn, Richard Prince, Dana Schutz, Julian Schnabel and Michael Williams. Even out in Brooklyn, a younger gallery with more 'hip' credibility than financial reserves, Clearing, recently presented an Eduardo Paolozzi exhibition.

Who knows where all this is heading. It's possible that the tonier section of the Frieze Art fair, Frieze Masters, has something to do with this more blue- blood shift.

MD:  I'm glad that you've mapped this new trend. The uptown migration of galleries equals the classics and deeper pockets. I think it's not only the Frieze effect that is pushing the galleries to scavenge among what's left on the market of the greats of the 20th century—and that generated the birth of Frieze Masters in the first place. There may be also a growing fatigue with the lack of deeper meaning in a large majority of the twenty-first century art that we have seen so far.

BN:  This is absolutely true. The rapid rise in prices and reputations for new art, art which has no real provenance except for its appearance at an art fair, and no substantial claim to historical movements, only its circulation within the market, especially when it goes to auction so soon after its creation, is worrisome enough. But then, when you look at many of these works, which offer no memorable images and certainly no iconicity, as you so often remark, we have to wonder: What's all the fuss? Will there be museum shows for this art, will it enter the history books, or only the vanity publications sponsored by the galleries to stroke the egos of their artists, to allay their insecurities, and make their clients happy? After countless printed and processed canvases, bleached and bland tarps, a Klossowski leaps off the wall and onto your eyes. After so much vacuity, there is definitely a desire to see images again, which of course is cyclical.

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What's new is that galleries now have multiple locations in a city, in different cities, in other countries, added to which are all the fairs they continuously traipse around to. This requires a much larger inventory of available works, an inventory that must constantly be replenished, while all these locations double and triple their overhead. You not only need more art to sell, you need more expensive works to pay for everything and increase profits. The "classics," or what can artificially be raised to classic status, will help galleries face all these challenges in their business and increase profitability. You can’t have cash-flow without art-flow.

MD: All this socio-economic structure you describe, in my view, is pointing to a new element that is taking hold in artmaking and selling: the transience of the artwork. As with everything else produced today, it seems that art now has to be consumed instantly and then either installed somewhere, placed in storage, or forgotten. This is the influence that fashion has had on art. Probably not just fashion, but systemic facts characterizing society today. As soon as someone invents a new product, if the product is very successful, a corporate structure is immediately created. The product has to be present in many different socio-economic realities. To sustain a growth that will have an impact on the market, the product cannot be shipped constantly from its birthplace to the rest of the world, but must be available immediately, in as many cities as possible. Is Starbucks a model that subconsciously Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and Pace have to follow in order to grow, and most of all, in order to make new and old artworks available to as many people as possible, in as many cities as possible? The widespread circulation of art as a product entails that it also must be constantly new, a novelty. With galleries having multiple locations all over the planet, I wonder what kind of influence this has, in the long run, on the artists and the making of art.

BN: For one thing, artmaking and art production are not the same thing, and today we are increasingly faced with production. If the system has expanded and sped up, then artists who want to get ahead must follow. One installs an invisible conveyor belt between the studio and the gallery. And if it demands more, how many ways are there for productivity to be increased? Very often the increase is in-built, or readily achievable.

Photography exists in multiple copies, more politely referred to as editions. An artist working with photography can have, say, an edition of 10. The same images can be shown by galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, Zurich and Berlin, and there are still pictures left for fairs in Miami and Dubai, and three in reserve. It's important in this respect to have works that can be held back, to later be sold at a higher price. Why would a gallery sell everything at its "introductory" offering? You don't need an MBA to understand that.

Sculptures that are fabricated can be editioned as well, though usually in smaller numbers than photos. Richard Prince's sculpture, Cowboy, the little boy dressed in a cowboy outfit, is an edition of three, priced at $3.5 million each. Jeff Koons must look back on his silver Rabbit, of which there are also three, and wish that it had multiplied … as bunnies do. Film and video can also be duplicated. Donald Judd had a line of furniture, which remains in production to this day, though at least this has its rationale. In fine art, you might say that painting and drawing at least remain unique, and yet this is not really the case. It's possible that only drawings involve the hand of the artist and maintain their status. Paintings that are printed can be made again and again, usually with little or no variation in the main image.

Paintings are now commonly produced in series. All too often, an artist has one idea that they milk. Has Lucien Smith made Rain paintings in such abundance as if to prove the old adage, “When it rains it pours?” There are probably more Panda paintings by Rob Pruitt than pandas in all of China. The artist "paints, shoots and leaves." Not only is there a supply-and- demand mentality; the artist comes to be seen as a one-trick pony running laps around the market's racecourse. Saddled up and ready to go, the artist will perform. Place your bets. And we thought the notion of a gallery having a stable of artists was a thing of the past. The artist in this system is too often a willing producer, producing more art, at a larger scale, and in editions or series. This is a production line, and not necessarily of happiness. In the era of MORE, why do we feel like we're getting so much less?

MD:  Probably because in art, more is less.

BN: The opposite used to be true.

MD:  That's right, and this was not only Michelangelo's proposition toward the end of his life, Cézanne also sporadically practiced it in his later years. They were leaving their works apparently unfinished. With Cézanne, most of the canvas was empty. The viewer completed the work. Some conceptualists in the 1960s pushed the envelope by making the objet d’art vanish altogether, leaving in its place a verbal description of what art could be. Vito Acconci, as you know, finally replaced art with the act. But the relation you posit, multiple galleries and artworks made multiple (photographs, sculptures and films), leaves un-serial painting exposed to extinction, unless pictures become so expensive that a gallery makes a profit if they sell three in New York, two in London, and one each in Basel, Miami-Basel, and Basel-Hong Kong.

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BN:  The era of MORE is equally based on the fact that there are more people with more ready cash. One of the places where they put their money, or invest it, and possibly launder it, is in art. Back in the '80s, you could count the active collectors on your two hands. Today, with money made hand over fist, we have an annual list of the Top 100 collectors in the world. With bad behavior rampant among buyers who are sellers, how soon before we see a blacklist of the bottom 100? The idea of "tops" and "bottoms" in the art market definitely has its libidinal side, and corporate cruelty is never far behind. De Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom meets the Philosophy of the Boardroom. In between, the growing mid-level of collectors can have a hard time gaining traction. I've heard about the abuse some newer collectors suffer when they go into galleries or a booth at an art fair. They won't be sold to. They are told that nothing is available. They are asked to consider a work by someone other than the artist they are specifically interested in, usually an artist the gallery has not been able to sell very well. To get what you want, you might purchase something else.

They aren't told this, of course; it's implicit. A substitution is offered. I recall in the mid-'80s when people went into International With Monument hoping to buy a Jeff Koons, and Meyer Vaisman would suggest that they consider a photo by Sarah Charlesworth. Now if you have a photo of hers today, bought from that time, you would seem quite prescient. Maybe he was doing those collectors a favor.

An art dealer once told me that collectors like to be treated badly. At its worst you have a theater of cruelty. More commonly you're merely toyed with, cat and mouse, a game is played. A sadistic dealer I know seems to do this just for fun, or whenever he's bored. Eventually, those mistreated or ignored look elsewhere. When the stakes are higher, you need an even bigger pile of chips just to get a place at the table. So mid-level collectors who are not being sold to have to be clever. Suddenly they don't want the work of a young, “hot” artist. They want mid-career artists who are undervalued. They speak in these terms, as if they were evaluating the stock of a company.

MD:  MORE applies not only to the growing number of so-called collectors, but to the exponentially ever-growing number of artists who have trouble finding a gallery to represent them. You have now more galleries with spaces in more cities; more galleries opening for business; more collectors trying to make a killing as they re-sell the works of young artists; more artists who disappear from the scene after a few years of visibility; more new artists trying to make a name for themselves; more people going to art school because to be an artist is more appealing than working 9-to-5 in an office; more nations producing more artists because the level of education has been growing worldwide. And while the artists of these nations one hundred years ago would create national or regional or tribal art, they are now all producing international contemporary art that is being shown in a growing number of biennials and triennials. The core of MORE is that a hundred years ago there were one billion people on the planet. Now there are seven billion, and art has practically entered the status of mass- production. Art not for the masses but by the masses. You have the sense that vis-a-vis this tsunami of new art being produced, it's almost understandable that some people—galleries, collectors—would want to retreat, at least in part, into a kind of aesthetic hortus conclusus. But this may entail its own fallacy.

BN:  The fallacy of the enclosed garden. I like the sound of that, even if what it signifies is this sense of retreat—to the gallery bubble and Szeemann's Live in Your Head. In terms of the growing number of artists, Diedrich Diedrichsen has spoken of "mass dandyism." This proliferation signals the dandy's final demise. Retreat ultimately leads to either retrenchment or surrender. Galleries moving uptown or establishing satellites elsewhere is a kind of retrenchment, a digging in, as we surrender to this new reality of art as a dandified service industry. Uptown migration reminds me of my favorite line from the movie Bonnie & Clyde. When Bonnie Parker is asked why they rob banks, she's amused by the reporter's naiveté, answering matter-of-factly with a broad smile, "That's where the money is." Robbing a bank is no doubt stressful, in some sense hard work—harder than making and selling art which already has a line at the door— but it's not a job. It's not, as you remind us, 9-to-5. It's more like 9 to 9:15. And while there are career criminals, you would never call them careerist.

MD:  What's characteristic of the moment is, more than a retrenchment into the Masters' enclosure, a bold strategy on the parts of the gallery masters to swallow up – aside from the contemporary artists – an ever-larger share of the market for Modern and possibly Classical art. I wouldn't be surprised to see sometime soon, in Chelsea or uptown, in addition to shows of Miró, Modigliani, and Monet, ones of second-rate Titians, Gainsboroughs, and Delacroix, not to speak of tribal African and Oceanic art, or of Chinese and Tibetan works. Of course, there are always historical forces behind the market forces, in this case, on the one hand, a meltdown of the aesthetic boundaries between art of various epochs and regions, and on the other the contemporary corporate model of mergers and acquisitions. In this situation, more and more artists will tend to comprise an interchangeable labor force, and the market structure will produce among them the equivalent of the 1% becoming super rich while the rest scramble by.

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BN:  I know enough artists who immerse themselves in their studios, or who have regular jobs and only time for their art at night and on the weekend, and it's them alone. But I'm familiar as well with those who keep banker's hours and manage a team of assistants who produce their so- called signature works. Here, the artist is the master of a workshop where they themselves may well be lesser craftsmen, draughtsmen, sculptors and painters than their subordinates, than those in their employ. These artists have achieved a level of success that enables this studio structure, a studio that makes Warhol's so-called Factory pale in comparison. Warhol once famously said, "Success is a job in New York." That was in the 1950s.

Today it has become something else entirely. Success and servitude are nowadays entwined. Offered bigger rewards, the artist is increasingly more tightly bound to the system, not only to produce more, but more of what can be sold. And in vast spaces they are compelled to scale up their works to fill them. Art suffers from an awkward gigantism. The elephant in the room is the artwork itself. Do artists make what they want to see, or what others want? Art made for the market is tantamount to art made by the market.

And this includes anti-market art, which since the '60s, and again in the '90s, has endeared itself to museums and biennial curators. Unmarketable art has always found a home, and why? Because it reaffirms the authority of the institution, the gallery and the critic. In short, the entire system. "We can show anything. We can sell anything. What we say goes." In other words: Kneel to the boss.

That's why I thought to title our conversation, Masters & Subs, because it not only plays off of Frieze Masters, masterpieces or their substitution— inventing modern masters—and the essential role of subordinates, but also the power structure in S & M, of masters and submissives. The masters dominate those who submit to them, and willingly.

MD: Your definition of Masters & Subs unwittingly raises the recurring subject matter of Pierre Klossowski, the artist that Barbara Gladstone is showing in her uptown gallery, which was the reason we started our conversation. This show foretells the near-future and beyond: the psychosophic artist of another era is ensnared in a psychonomic play, where the desire of a collector to find meaning in an artwork intersects with the need of a gallery to capture a greater share of the cultural landscape.

BN: An expansion of its territories, its holdings and its hold, its influence. An iconic Klossowski painting is the perfect image for this moment—a moment which will no doubt be sustained for some time—an eternally nubile body being gazed upon in a lecherously dispassionate way, a reproductive body, about to be taken advantage of, ravished as it were, but at what price?


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Pierre Klossowski, Roberte et les Collegiens V, 1974

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Pierre Klossowski, Roberte et Gulliver, 1971

Fig. 3
Frieze Masters 2015, photo by Linda Nylind

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Frieze Masters, photo from Selldorf Architects