The Art Detective

Her Art Was Once Viewed as “Obscene.” Now Martha Edelheit’s Nudes Are Finally Gaining Acclaim After Decades in Obscurity


I am rooting for Martie Edelheit.

At the age of 91, she’s finally emerging from years of obscurity. Her mind is clear and her body agile enough to enjoy every small step of it all—a bustling opening, a post-opening dinner at the fashionable restaurant Il Buco—while leaning on a cane, or a friend’s arm. Small, fierce, outspoken, Martha Edelheit keeps pushing forward, with new 11-foot paintings and a planned return to New York City, her hometown.

I first encountered Edelheit in the context of another story, which explored the asymmetry of market acclaim for female artists based on the findings of the Burns Halperin Report.

As I wrote in December: “The overwhelming majority of women, especially women of a certain age, are ghosts as far as auction sales go. The reasons for this vary, from the market’s preference for painting over conceptual and performance art to lack of access to the gallery system to individual choices to slow artistic production during child-rearing years.”

Edelheit came to my attention because she wasn’t listed among more than 2,000 women surveyed in the report. That’s because not a single one of her works has come up for auction since she started making art some 70 years ago. 

Martha Edelheit, Tattooed Lady (1962). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody via Eric Firestone Gallery © Martha Edelheit / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Martha Edelheit, Tattooed Lady (1962). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody via Eric Firestone Gallery
© Martha Edelheit / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

But things are changing. This week, Edelheit’s solo show “Naked City: Paintings from 1965-1980” opened at Eric Firestone Gallery in Manhattan, with prices ranging from $20,000 to $500,000. Her 1962 painting, Tattooed Lady, was a recently a star of “New York 1962-1964,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum exploring the rise of Pop Art. A limited-edition print based on this work and priced at $2,200 just came out on Her Clique, with half of the proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood and Doctors Without Borders. Next month Edelheit’s early abstract paintings will be part of “Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70,” a survey of an overlooked generation of 81 international women artists at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Martha Edelheit, <I>Women in Landscape</I> (1966-68). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Women in Landscape (1966-68). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“A lot has happened for her in the past five years,” said Eric Firestone, listing strong sales from her first exhibition in 2017, multiple museum acquisitions, scholarly texts, and upcoming institutional shows.  

Edelheit’s figurative paintings still shock, irk, dazzle. The naked body is there to behold in all its glorious detail— every pubic hair, skin roll, and nipple—on a scale that succeeds in being both monumental and intimate. The models look relaxed as they lounge and recline, enveloped by verdant foliage or sumptuous fabrics. One canvas, Women in Landscape (1966-68), consists of three panels and measures almost 17 feet across.

“She’s taking gestures, poses, compositional framework from the Renaissance and redoing them around these concerns of the body and the self,” said art historian Melissa Rachleff, who included Edelheit in “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965,” at the Grey Art Gallery in New York in 2017. “When you look at her works compositionally, you see Dürer, you see Rubens, you see Botticelli.”

Edelheit said her interest in the naked body has been keen since childhood. She was one of those girls who immediately undressed and dismembered a new doll. “I was looking for genitals,” she said. “But all dolls were neutered.”

Martha Edelheit, <I>David x 2</I> (1971). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, David x 2 (1971). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Her early works in the 1950s were abstract paintings that owed color sensibility and compositional patchwork to Michael Loew, an American artist who lived on the island of Monhegan in Maine. Edelheit and her first husband, psychoanalyst Henry Edelheit, visited Monhegan in the summers.

“We were sharing a house,” she recalled. “He had a studio on the first floor, and we were on the second floor. There was a balcony, and I would look down and watch him work. And I learned more about painting by watching him work than I learned any from any class. He was what they called back then a Neoplastic painter, a disciple of Mondrian.”

In New York, Edelheit was becoming part of the avant-garde scene, a member of the Tenth Street artist-run space and its offshoot the Reuben Gallery, where she had her first solo show in 1960. She was friends with Susan Sontag, the first person she met as a University of Chicago undergrad, and artists Carolee Schneemann and Rosalyn Drexler. Her male peers included Claes Oldenberg, Lucas Samaras, Jim Dine, Robert Rosenquist, and Allan Kaprow.

Installation view, "Martha Edelheit: Naked City, Paintings from 1965-1980" at Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Installation view, “Martha Edelheit: Naked City, Paintings from 1965-1980” at Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“As she befriended artists who were engaged in performance and happenings, those exchanges opened up a space of possibility for her to consider the body,” Rachleff said.

Despite her active exhibition history, Edelheit sold very little art and was rarely reviewed while “the boys all got galleries and moved uptown and into the museums,” she said.

It didn’t occur to her that this had something to do with gender because she didn’t see herself as a female artist—she simply thought of herself as an artist.

The feminist movement opened her eyes to gender discrimination. Initially reluctant to join it—she was “dragged in kicking and screaming,” she said—she became an active member.

“I was forced into it because of what was happening with women artists,” she said. “Not just me, but all the women artists I knew.”

The overt sexuality of her artworks—later dubbed “radical eroticism” by art historian Rachel Middleman—was also a complication.

In 1966, a New York Times critic spent more than two hours at her exhibition at Byron Gallery uptown only to inform the gallery owner that he “can’t review that obscene woman,” she recalled. “Charles Byron had a show in his office of a guy who did postcard-size landscapes. So, he did a review of that.”

An event that had a profound impact on Edelheit’s life and art took place in 1957, when her younger brother, Robert Ross, suffered a horrific motorcycle accident while on vacation in Sweden. He spent months in a coma and years in rehabilitation. A Korean War veteran, he was treated in U.S. military hospitals that were filled with crippled servicemen. What she saw there while looking after him found its way into her works on paper from the early 1960s.

Her “Children’s Games” series of ink drawings are filled with headless, limbless figures doing horrible things to themselves and each other. Masked amputees appear in her ink-and-watercolor works like Bird House With Baby (1962) and Dream of the Tattoo Lady (1961). The chains and masks in these works are suggestive of sadomasochism.

Martha Edelheit, <I>Self Portrait with Tools</I> (1975). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Self Portrait With Tools (1975). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“I wasn’t thinking about S&M,” Edelheit said, explaining instead that “masks were a way of not having to show the emotions of the figures represented.”

The circus, which she loved as a child, was another frequent theme.

“Back then, before you walked into the circus, there was what they called the freak shows,” she remembered. “That’s where you’d see the world’s tallest man, the world’s fattest woman, a two-headed dog or a two-headed cow.”

That’s where she also first saw tattooed people.

“I was hypnotized by them,” she said. “The idea of painting your body, of marking your body forever was really a powerful image for me.”

Martha Edelheit, <I>Boating Central Park</I> (1973). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Boating Central Park (1973). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

She began exploring tattoos in earnest in 1962 with a series of “Tattoo Paintings.” She painted tattoos on mannequin hands, arms, and legs as well as in her “Back Paintings” of 1972 to 1975. Several of these works are now on view at Eric Firestone Gallery.  

Tattoos were not just a decorative trope, according to Jennifer Samet, who works closely with Edelheit and organized both of her shows at the gallery.

“The paintings become this arena in which she can depict not only their bodies, but their ideas and dreams,” Samet said. “She used imagined tattoos as a way to tell those dreams.”

Edelheit spent the past 30 years in Sweden, where she moved after her first husband died and she remarried. She met her second husband, Sam Nilsson, years earlier, after her brother’s accident. A budding journalist, he would go on to become the head of Swedish public broadcasting and a prominent figure in the media and culture circles. Edelheit unexpectedly found herself in a new role, attending Nobel Prize galas and having dinners with the country’s king and queen.

“It’s like someone handed me a movie script,” she said. “All of a sudden I had a closet full of evening gowns.”  

Her art had to adjust as well. She settled in a remote area on an island, with the nearest bus stop seven kilometers away. This wasn’t the kind of place where she could ask a neighbor to strip and model for her.

Martha Edelheit, <I>Seals, Central Park Zoo</I> (1970-71). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Seals, Central Park Zoo (1970-71). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“I think it was Rubens who said, ‘I paint what’s in front of my nose,’” she said. “And I looked out the window and what was in front of my nose was sheep. So, I did. I’ve been working with sheep and landscape for the last umpteen years.”

She used materials she found in her environment, making canvases out of chicken wire and papier-mâché and creating a lot of wire sculptures of sheep.

Now another change is looming. Following Nilsson’s death in 2020, Edelheit wants to return to New York. She spent several months in the city coinciding with her exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and Eric Firestone.

The stay brought back the memories of all the people who used to be part of her life, the models who became her friends, the 5,000-square-foot studio at the Hotel Wales on Madison Avenue and East 92nd Street (where she paid $125 a month in rent).

Once again seeing the paintings she created in that studio has been intense.

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The L.A. Art Scene Is Expanding in Time for the Frieze Art Fair Amidst a Billionaire Scion’s Bold Investment in an Up-And-Coming Area


While reporting my doom-and-gloom column last week, I spotted a glimmer of hope: Los Angeles.

So I decided to follow up on it.

Indeed, the art scene in the City of Angels has been undergoing a major expansion, and anticipation is now building around the Frieze L.A. art fair in mid-February—an event that is poised not only to be a celebration of the West Coast art capital but also the year’s first stress test for U.S. galleries writ large. The fair is going through its own leveling-up, with a larger new venue in Santa Monica and 120 exhibitors, 20 percent more than at last year’s edition. Coinciding with Frieze are at least four other art fairs, as well as openings and other festivities by newcomers, including a cluster of New York galleries, led by David Zwirner, which is flocking to East Hollywood. (Although that opening is being delayed, more on that later.)

The locals, meanwhile are doubling down. L.A. mainstay Hauser & Wirth, for instance, is opening a new 5,000-square-foot location in West Hollywood with new paintings by George Condo priced at $2.6 million to $2.8 million. Nearby, homegrown François Ghebaly Gallery will launch a 3,000-square-foot branch, its second in the city. Entrepreneur Stefan Simcowitz’s recent opening of a gallery in Pasadena is followed this week by a new space on the ground floor of the Mohilef Studios downtown.

George Condo, Psycho (2022). Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Thomas Barrat

“There’s a lot of momentum,” said Mills Moran, co-founder of the local Morán Morán gallery and the Felix Art Fair. “L.A. is growing.”

Some of the excitement can be traced to a new art hub sprouting in East Hollywood. Dubbed Melrose Hill, the area was first populated by vendors servicing Paramount Studios and later furniture showrooms, whose column-free, high-ceiling layouts seem readymade for contemporary art galleries. These days, streets appear desolate, with empty lots and trash on the sidewalks.

Turning the area into a walkable, artsy, and cool destination is the passion project of Zach Lasry, the 32-year-old son of Marc Lasry, the billionaire hedge fund manager and co-owner of NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks team.

“He was just very motivated to make the neighborhood something organically interesting,” said Allegra LaViola, owner of Sargent’s Daughters gallery, which signed a five-year lease with the younger Lasry. “He liked the idea of a neighborhood that had a little bit of a New York vibe. You get out of your car, you can go to this restaurant, go to this coffee shop, go to this gallery, to a cool boutique—instead of getting in a car, driving to one thing, getting out of the car, getting back in the car, going to another thing.”

Morán Morán was first to sign on, opening a gallery near a gas station on N. Western Avenue in August 2021, with a 10-year lease. The 5,000-square-foot space with skylights was an upgrade from its former 3,000-square-foot quarters in West Hollywood.

“We were really early,” Moran said. “We saw Zach’s vision. It wasn’t hard to visualize. They’ve been acquiring property there for a long time. Our conversations started before the pandemic.”

Others followed. Clearing opened a temporary space in September. Sargent’s Daughters and Shrine, who share a space east of Dimes Square in New York, are moving in next month to coincide with Frieze L.A. James Fuentes will follow in March, across from Morán Morán.

James Fuentes, Los Angeles.

New York gallerist James Fuentes’s new Los Angeles outpost. Courtesy of the Gallery.

The biggest kahuna in the area, of course, is David Zwirner, whose limited liability company paid $6 million in 2021 for a building at 606 N. Western Avenue and another $1 million for a two-bedroom house with bars on the windows around the corner last year, according to property records.

The gallery had planned to launch its first West Coast flagship in time for Frieze L.A. with a long-awaited show of Njideka Akunyili Crosby. But the chatter mill is abuzz that the 15,000-square-food project by Selldorf Architects got mired in construction delays, and won’t open till later this spring. A spokeswoman for the gallery confirmed that it’s not debuting during the week of Frieze but declined to elaborate.

Moran said that his new neighbors are discussing coordinated openings to draw people to the up-and-coming area. Safety may be a concern, at least initially.

“There’s so much homelessness, it’s actually dangerous,” said Simchowitz, the art establishment’s perennial gadfly. A homeless man threw an iron bar at his car when he was in the area this week, he said.  

I raised the issue of safety with some New York transplants.

“It reminds me of Delancey Street, where the gallery is in New York,” said Fuentes, who signed a 10-year lease in Melrose Hill. “I never felt like I needed to be extra-concerned.”

 

Jemima Kirke, Bride in a Dark Room (2017) will be in Sargent’s Daughter’s first L.A. show, “Death of Beauty.” Courtesy: Sargent’s Daughters

LaViola said that she always takes safety into consideration, leading her to install a buzzer at her New York gallery, but that she wasn’t too worried about Melrose Hill.

Lasry’s plan to create denser foot traffic is part of what drew her to the area, she said. Affordable rent, a feature of a fringe locale, was another. “I would pay the same price for 500 square feet on the Upper East Side, where I would be on the third floor, as for the ground floor in Los Angeles, where we could renovate to our own specifications,” she said.

 

“Knowing that there was this built-in association was really key,” LaViola said.

Alison Knowles, The House of Dust Edition (1967). Courtesy of the artist, James Fuentes, and LACMA.

Alison Knowles, The House of Dust Edition (1967) will be part of “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952–1982” at LACMA. Courtesy of the artist, James Fuentes, and LACMA.

Los Angeles has been increasing in significance for Fuentes, who has been cautious not to overextend during his 15-year gallery career. But a generation of budding collectors has made L.A. their home since the pandemic, taking advantage of remote work policies, resulting in a new pool of clients. The area is famously home to many artists, useful for the expanding gallery, and proximate to Asia. Fuentes’s artists show in the city’s world-class institutions. One, Alison Knowles, will be included in a group show about the rise of computer technology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next month.

“I am so careful with these types of decisions, and I spent a lot of time analyzing it and considering it,” Fuentes said about his move. “I am going into it with optimism.”

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As the Met Prepares an Action-Packed Fall Season, Museum Director Max Hollein Talks Deaccessioning, NFTs, and Chuck Close


The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Midnight Publishing Group News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.

 

The 12-foot-tall statue of Athena Parthenos has been a silent witness at the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the past five years. It greeted millions of visitors in the Great Hall, waited for them to return during months of mandatory lockdowns, and welcomed them back when the museum reopened a year ago.

This week, the marble goddess of wisdom from 170 B.C. was dismantled in order to be sent back home to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. In her place, two ancient Maya stone monuments, known as stelae, were erected. Lent by the Republic of Guatemala, they are life-size replicas of the ancient indigenous American rulers K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II and Queen Ix Wak Jalam Chan (Lady Six Sky). 

A newly installed Maya stone monument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2019, photography Wilson Santiago.

A newly installed Maya stone monument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2021, photography Wilson Santiago.

At a press conference on September 2, Max Hollein, the Met’s director, shared the spotlight with Guatemala’s minister of culture and sports. Hollein, 52, an Austrian art historian who has been at the helm of America’s largest museum since 2018, spoke of the privilege to share “these treasures with the thousands of visitors who walk through the museum’s door every day.” He invited New Yorkers “who come from the region to connect with the rich histories” and evoked “the greatness achieved by ancient Indigenous artists.”

The Met’s leadership says that the 8th-century limestone monuments—one 6.5 feet tall, the other, 9 feet tall—represent a broader transformation that’s been happening at the museum in recent years. There have been challenges, too, from a spate of high-profile curatorial departures to a $150 million revenue shortfall that the museum plans to address in part through controversial deaccessioning. (That process is progressing, we reveal, with the help of a high-profile market figure). 

Earlier this week, I caught up with Hollein to take stock of the past 18 months and what is in store for the nation’s most closely watched art institution. 

Felipe Aguilar, Guatemala's Minister of Culture and Sports, at left, and Max Hollein. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2019, photography Wilson Santiago.

Felipe Aguilar, Guatemala’s Minister of Culture and Sports, at left, and Max Hollein. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2021, photography Wilson Santiago.

Athena is gone and Lady Six Sky has entered the Great Hall. What was the impetus to replace the Greek goddess with an ancient Maya queen? 

Athena was a loan from Berlin, and it needed to go back at some point, so we felt now was the time to make that change. It was important for us to show in the Great Hall not only the Greek and Roman manifestation as a birthplace of culture, but also Mesoamerica.

The two stelae are, in a sense, great signals and ambassadors for what is happening at the Met in the next couple of years. There’s a major show that we are preparing on Mayan culture, but maybe more importantly, the transformation and complete renewal of the Rockefeller wing, which holds very important collections of objects from Mesoamerica.

With the ongoing reckoning over race and inequality, what’s the role of an encyclopedic museum such as the Met?

This is a major topic for us. The Met, like any other museum of a similar size or scope, has history embedded in the institution. We saw in the last 18 months, through Black Lives Matter, a new reckoning with history in America, in a way that probably America, in that context, has not experienced before. And we have to be part of that by scrutinizing our own history, our own institutional biases. If you come to the museum right now, we have re-installed the mezzanine floor that we use for the contemporary collection. You will see recent acquisitions from the last probably three years; there’s a significant diversity of artists, with a significant number of Black artists represented. It’s been a priority for the institution. 

Beyond programming, there’s the question of how we make sure that the institution as a whole can become more diverse and welcoming. That means whom we hire, what kind of positions we develop. In the curatorial area, we hired our first curator for Indigenous art. We established a position of chief diversity officer. 

People walk through galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

People walk through galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Met has now been open for a year at reduced capacity. How has the pandemic affected your programming? 

When we were able to reopen, it was important for us to create an environment where our visitors feel safe, where our staff feels safe, but also to provide a very welcoming and decisive experience, especially for the New Yorkers, because at that time that was really our audience.  

We made the decision not to say, “Well, if only half of the people can visit us, if we don’t have any tourists, we want to only have a reduced program.”

If you think about the Jacob Lawrence show, “Making the Met,” the Costume Institute, the facade commission… just recently we had Alice Neel. We want to make sure that we aren’t doing exhibitions just because things look beautiful, but because they are bringing you into a more complex understanding of the world. Our shows are becoming more charged, more loaded, filled with different opinions, broader discourse. Like the Medici show [“The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570”], [which presents] a correlation between art and art-making in propaganda.

What about the shows that are coming up?

The Costume Institute’s show, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” is a survey of American fashion based on the quote by Jesse Jackson from the Democratic Convention that America is not the blanket one piece, but a patchwork of many different colors and textures.

“Surrealism Beyond Borders” is an enormously important exhibition this fall. It will show that Surrealism is actually the one “ism” that went totally global as a style and lasted until now. 

And then we will have an exhibition on Walt Disney and his relationship with the decorative arts. We’ll see how much the American audience encountered French decorative arts through the lens of Disney. 

We are also going to present our initiative to create a period room of our time. It will focus on the theme of Afrofuturism. If you look at our period rooms, our most current one is Frank Lloyd Wright, from the early 20th century. So it’s going to be an interesting transformation of our period room program. 

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 27: People wearing face masks visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art as it reopens to members after the pandemic closure, on August 27, 2020 in New York City, NY. (Photo by Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images)

PeopleVisitors in line for the Alice Neel show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on August 27, 2020. (Photo by Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images)

I remember the long, long line of people waiting to get into the Alice Neel show earlier this year. You had limited attendance to maintain social distancing. It was such an eye-opening exhibition, perfectly pitched and a discovery of an incredible, creative life.  How was the attendance?

It was our biggest show in terms of the attendance in the past year. I think it was 179,000 people. There was a big rush at the end. It really resonated with the times and with New York audiences. It showed you not only one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but also the artist as an activist. 

Did you have an inkling it would be a blockbuster? And how has the concept of a blockbuster show changed during the pandemic?  

I don’t like the term “blockbuster show.” I think that what we are doing is very ambitious shows that ideally reach the widest possible audience. I don’t think you would have labeled [Alice Neel] a blockbuster show, even though it was our most popular show of the year. 

We do close to 50 shows a year—some bigger, some smaller. Each of them is an outcome not only of our scholarly work, but also of our perspective on what’s relevant right now, what is important to understand. Our projections of how many people can visit make no difference in regard to whether this is an urgent or important show. 

Banner for "Alice Neel: People Come First" outside the Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Ben Davis.

Banner for “Alice Neel: People Come First” outside the Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Ben Davis.

Several prominent curators left the museum this year. Keith Christiansen, chairman of the Department of European Paintings, just retired. Then there’s Helen Evans, a longtime curator of dazzling Byzantine shows, and most recently, “Armenia!” and Doug Eklund, who organized the groundbreaking “Pictures Generation” show in 2009. Is this a generational shift, or house cleaning?

We have about 140 curators, and, more often than not, a lot of them stay at the museum for a long time, which is great. Of course, it’s important for an institution to move people within the institution—up and forward. And basically, that’s what’s happening. 

Keith, as you know, did the great Medici show and then retired. He had a long, long career and was planning to retire. And then Doug made a conscious decision that he wants to move on. But I don’t see any of that being connected with any kind of transformation or change. It’s an evolutionary process.  

The Met's Modern and contemporary galleries. From left to right: Amy Sherald, <i>When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be (Self-imagined atlas)</i> (2018); K.G. Subramanyan, <i>Studio Table With Figure I</i> (1965); Kerry James Marshall, <i>Untitled (Studio</i> (2014); Stanley Whitney, <i>Fly the Wild</i> (2017); Center vitrine: Ron Nagle, <i>Watermelon</i> (1983); <i>Contessa</i> (1983); <i>Untitled</i> (1991). Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met’s Modern and contemporary galleries. From left to right: Amy Sherald, When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be (Self-imagined atlas) (2018); K.G. Subramanyan, Studio Table With Figure I (1965); Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio (2014); Stanley Whitney, Fly the Wild (2017); Center vitrine: Ron Nagle, Watermelon (1983); Contessa (1983); Untitled (1991). Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met has an active acquisition program. But it is also planning to deaccession art, taking advantage of the two-year window, through April 2022, during which the Association of Art Museum Directors has permitted members to sell art in order to raise money for collection care as opposed to only for acquisitions. Can you fill me in on the latest about your deaccessioning plans?

I have to say one thing just to avoid any misunderstanding. We are not intending to sell any works to create [acquisition] funds to acquire new [artwork]. We have significant endowment funds that are earmarked just for acquisitions. During the pandemic, when the AAMD loosened the guidelines, it’s useful for any institution to consider—in our case, not only because our collection is so vast, but because even in a year when we might have a significant operational budget deficit, we still have significant funds with which to acquire art through our endowments. So it seems appropriate to use the proceeds of our regular deaccession program to support salaries for collection care staff in this exceptional year. And that’s what we are doing. 

The Met is projecting a $150 million revenue shortfall over two years. Are you planning to sell $150 million worth of art?  

No, no! The magnitude of our deaccessioning program differs from year to year, but it’s around $10 million. The works we use for deaccessioning are duplicates, multiples, copies of the same thing [we have] in better quality. We have identified a couple of the works.  

Can you tell me which works you’ve identified?

No, we will announce that as part of the process. It’s going to be a normal process and normal object selection.

Installation view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, on view June 26–October 11, 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Installation view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, on view June 26–October 11, 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

I heard that one of the people who is advising you on the deaccessioning is Tobias Meyer, a private art dealer and former star auctioneer at Sotheby’s, whose clients include billionaire collectors Ken Griffin and David Geffen.

In every acquisition and deaccessioning, we use the best expertise that we have and we can get. Tobias is not only someone who is engaged with the museum on multiple fronts, but we use his expertise in different ways. He’s on the visiting committee for European sculpture and painting and has been a donor of work, helpful in identifying the works we might want to acquire, and also advising on the works we might consider for deaccessioning.

NFTs have been such a big story this year, in terms of the technology’s impact on the market, art community, and artistic production. Will the Met be minting NFTs anytime soon or adding them to its collection?   

It’s an interesting development, but it’s not our role to be the first emergency responder to the newest trends in art and society. We’ll see where that develops, and at some point, I’m sure there will be a work that could be part of the Met’s collection. But currently there’s nothing on the horizon for us. And we are not creating any NFTs. 

The underlying blockchain technology is something that will transform a lot of areas: how we do business, how we create authentication records, and probably also provenance, databases, et cetera. So, in that sense, blockchain technology is extremely relevant and important for us.

Chuck Close, Lou Reed from his "Subway Portraits" at the 86th stop on the new 2nd Avenue subway line. Courtesy of Governor Cuomo's office.

Chuck Close, Lou Reed from his “Subway Portraits” at the 86th stop on the new 2nd Avenue subway line. Courtesy of Governor Cuomo’s office.

Let’s talk about the low-tech stuff, like wall text. Artist Chuck Close died two weeks ago. He spent the final years in the shadow of sexual harassment allegations. The Met owns many of his paintings. None are on view at the moment. Do you plan to show his work again, and will the wall text reflect the accusations? 

Our Chuck Close portrait of artist Lucas Samaras has been hanging for the last couple of years [until March]. You do need to make a differentiation between the artwork and the life of an artist. Where these two get completely intertwined, it’s important to acknowledge the complexities. 

I don’t want to only talk about Chuck Close, but in general the idea that you can only look at an artist’s work where the life of the artist is impeccable seems absurd. It would be a really complex way to look at it.

We love seeing Caravaggio’s work; it’s so powerful and extreme. On the other hand, of course, he was a convicted murderer and had to flee from [Rome]. So, one has to be very careful. If the artwork came into existence or is part of the allegation or misdeed, then you have a different situation. But if you have a portrait by Chuck Close of Richard Serra then it’s different. 

And changing the subject a bit, it is on the other hand also really important that the artwork itself can be disruptive and challenging, even morally challenging. I keep using the example of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salo because it really shook me when I first saw it. It deals with fascism on the level that no other work does. And, of course, Pasolini led a complex life. But I think it’s an absolute masterpiece that needs to be shown. 

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The Lockdown Made Collectors Even Hungrier for Paintings of the Human Form. Is Figuration Fatigue Coming Next?


The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Midnight Publishing Group News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.

 

Reflecting on the contemporary art market’s voracious appetite for portraiture today, an art dealer recently told me over coffee: Imagine all these collectors waking up one morning, looking around their homes, and asking themselves, “Who are all these people?”

It was a joke, of course. But it got me thinking: Is there figuration fatigue on the horizon? 

There’s a glut of figurative art out there: on social media, in galleries, auction salesrooms, and museums. Building up prior to the pandemic, the desire for figurative paintings, and portraiture in particular, has only accelerated over the past 16 months. Recently, Asian collectors have been driving up prices for works by Dana Schutz and Amy Sherald, Amoako Boafo and Emily Mae-Smith.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie's.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Human figures appeared in all but three of the top 30 contemporary and ultra-contemporary artworks sold at auction in the first half of 2021, according to Midnight Publishing Group Analytics (two of the three exceptions depict plants and trees). 

“It’s hard to get away from portraiture,” said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, whose family museum will display new figurative works by three artists in December. “It remains powerful. Every generation has its own version.”

Artists have been depicting the human figure for millennia, starting with cave paintings. But the current obsession has been fueled by a number of factors. As museums and private collectors alike work to fill gaps in their holdings by artists of color, and particularly Black artists, whose work has been undervalued for decades, portraiture has emerged as an important genre. 

Some, however, wonder if the single-minded focus of profit-motivated collectors may keep them from engaging with the true breadth of cultural production. “People want to check these boxes and say they participate in the moment,” said art consultant Rachael Barrett. “They want something recognizable, something people can easily spot on a wall. I think there’s going to be fatigue of that. I do hope that the range of artistic practice of the artists of color becomes more appreciated.”

Installation view, "Hugh Hayden: Huey" © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Installation view, “Hugh Hayden: Huey” © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

There are signs this is already starting to happen. At Lisson gallery in Chelsea, Hugh Hayden has created three chapel-like spaces filled with meticulously sculpted, sawed, and woven objects such as reclaimed church pews, basketball hoops, and school desks.

Nearby, Gagosian mounted “Social Works,” an exhibition that focuses on community engagement in Black art practice, with monumental sculpture, video installations, and even a functional farm. Theaster Gates contributed a display of 5,000 records amassed by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who was influential in Black queer circles in the 1980s. House music fills the gallery and a DJ on site is busy digitizing the archive for the duration of the show. 

Works of this scale and complexity would be hard to appreciate, or even grasp, on Instagram, the social media platform that contributed to the saturation of figurative art during the pandemic. Portraits were much easier to digest and acquire because people knew what they were looking at.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

“Even sculptures, in lockdown, it’s hard for people to take this leap of faith and buy something digitally,” said art advisor Ed Tang. “Unless you are standing in front of it, looking at it from various angles, it’s difficult to commit to it.”

In a moment of social isolation, figurative imagery was comforting. “There was a desire to see ourselves in some way or another, to see the context around the human figure, socially, historically, or just on a physical level,” said gallery owner Franklin Parrasch. “The drive for figuration is part of the replacement of the socialization process.”

As physical interactions with art resume at museums, art fairs, and biennials, audiences may swing toward something more challenging.

“The way people are looking at art will change,” Tang said. “Can you imagine going to Venice and seeing figurative painting in every pavilion?”

While it’s hard to say what the next big trend will be, the pendulum seems to regularly swing between abstraction and figuration. And while some artists make work that responds to prevailing ideas and taste, many do what they do independently of them. Sometimes, it takes decades to understand the significance of a particular work or artist. A recent rehang of New York’s Museum of Modern Art radically paired Faith Ringgold’s 1967 American People Series #20: Die with Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

“We didn’t have the same versatility of context in the ‘60s when this work was being made,” said art advisor Allan Schwartzman. “Figuration was seen as dated.”

Installation view, "A Thought Sublime." Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Installation view, “A Thought Sublime.” Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

While pure abstraction remains somewhat out of fashion these days, the landscape, which hasn’t been a hot genre in decades, is making an appearance in several shows, including “A Thought Sublime” at Marianne Boesky and “Ridiculous Sublime,” organized by advisor Lisa Schiff.

“It’s something of a relief from all this figuration,” said art advisor Wendy Cromwell. “It may be a bridge back to abstraction for some artists and collectors.”

Some artists are fusing the figure and the landscape. Matthew Marks gallery sold out its current show by 31-year-old Julien Nguyen, who makes haunting portraits and jewel-like allegorical scenes inspired by the Bible, Renaissance painting, and anime. (The waiting list for his work is growing.) Prices ranged from $30,000 to $50,000.

A block north, at Cheim and Read gallery, the late Matthew Wong’s ink drawings depict his signature lone figures in exquisitely rendered mystical spaces. Several sold, with prices ranging from $275,000 to $450,000.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Many see figuration fatigue as linked to the pure volume of material, some of which is bound to be of lower quality. “Bad figurative painting is everywhere,” critic Dean Kissick wrote last year in an essay on a wave of painting he called Zombie Figuration. “It crawls into every room, from museums to galleries, to cool young project spaces, to the world at large.” 

Others simply long for a more sophisticated and critical level of discourse than a social media post that says: “Hey I just got this artwork. I bought it online. What do you think?”

“And there are 400 likes or kisses,” Parrasch said. “It’s never anything deep enough to create an argument. What we have is clicks and underdeveloped thoughts.” 

But weaning off the figure will not happen overnight, said Ron Segev, the co-founder of Thierry Goldberg gallery on the Lower East Side.

“Collectors who are coming to me want figurative work,” he said. “I can’t convince people to buy abstract paintings right now. But you can see that there are some artists out there who are working against the trend. One of these artists will start a new one.”  

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Why the Biggest Blue-Chip Art Collectors in the World Are Pumping Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Into the Sports Memorabilia Market


Billionaire investors have a new collecting passion—and it’s not for undervalued Modern masters or emerging art stars. 

Steve Cohen and Dan Sundheim, known for their blue-chip art holdings, are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into sports collectibles, a niche market that’s been on fire since the pandemic.

The art world, myself included, is catching up with the craze. While I know my 1932 Picassos and 1982 Basquiats, I am a complete neophyte when it comes to rookie cards of Mickey Mantle, Wayne Gretzky, or Mike Trout.

Apparently, I am not alone. 

Art adviser Anita Heriot unwittingly found herself giving a crash course on the topic to her new British colleagues while getting them up to speed on the portfolio of one of her top clients. The collector’s holdings included works by Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, but the most valuable and fastest appreciating asset was a trove of trading cards.

This was unfamiliar territory for a group of art advisors. “What are trading cards?” Heriot said her colleagues asked. 

A baseball signed by Babe Ruth that was put up for auction in October 2016 at Christie's New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A baseball signed by Babe Ruth that was put up for auction in October 2016 at Christie’s New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Pocket-size trophies featuring legendary and contemporary athletes as well as their sneakers and jerseys, bats and balls have soared in popularity, taking the sector from $1 billion to $10 billion almost overnight, according to research by Goldin Auctions, a rapidly growing house for sports memorabilia.

Boosted by wealthy millennials, fractional ownership companies, and growing digitization, baseball, basketball, and hockey cards have fetched as much as works by Calder and CondoFor actor Rob Gough, buying a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card for $5.2 million was like getting the Mona Lisa. 

“Money is cheap and people are hedging against inflation by buying hard assets,” said Chris Ivy, the head of Heritage Sports, which sold more than $100 million of sports collectibles in 2020. 

A popular hobby in the 1980s and 1990s, sports cards are now considered an asset class. “People who are now in their 40s and 50s have disposable income to invest in these cards,” Ivy said. “When the pandemic hit, they were bored, stuck at home.”

Those who as kids had trading cards spilling out of shoeboxes in their closets now collect for both sentimental and investment reasons. It makes you feel young again,” said Ralph DeLuca, a consummate collector of trading cards, vintage movie posters, and contemporary art. And the fact that something that brings them pleasure from their youth is also an amazing investment vehicle if you handle it right is very intriguing to people.”

Capitalizing on the rising demand, investors such as Cohen Private Ventures, Sundheim’s D1 Capital Partners, and Blackstone Group, whose CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, is a major art collector and museum patron, are investing in companies that manufacture, sell, and appraise these collectibles.

“It just shows the strength of the market,” said Simeon Lipman, a veteran pop culture specialist and appraiser. “You see a lot of big guns jump in because they see an opportunity.” 

Last week alone, two significant investments were announced.

Dan Sundheim. Photo by Sylvain Gaboury ©Patrick McMullan.

Dan Sundheim. Photo by Sylvain Gaboury ©Patrick McMullan.

Collectors Holdings, a company formed by Cohen, Sundheim, and entrepreneur Nat Turner, acquired Goldin Auctions for an undisclosed price believed to be around $200 million.

Meanwhile, Blackstone agreed to buy Certified Collectibles Group, which authenticates and grades items for sale, and has been valued at $500 million. 

The arrival of some of the world’s biggest collectors into this space makes sense given that some of them own sports teams. Cohen owns the New York Mets and has been vocal about collecting memorabilia. Sundheim bought a minority stake in the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets from Michael Jordan in 2019. Both collectors declined to comment.  

“You see a big crossover between sports memorabilia and watches and some contemporary art,” said Elizabeth von Habsburg, managing director of Winston Art Group.

Traders in this field include musicians, sports figures, and “your regular contemporary art collectors, especially those who made money in crypto-currency or tech industry,” she added. 

Auction houses are trying to cultivate the crossover. In November, Goldin and Sotheby’s organized a joint auction, “A Century of Champions,” with 74 lots ranging from sneakers to rookie cards. The results were mixed. While the sale totaled $3 million, with 67 percent of its bidders new to Sotheby’s, more than a quarter of lots failed to find buyers.

“Our customers prefer to deal with our platform,” Ken Goldin, the auction house’s founder, said this week.

But sport has a much broader appeal than art—and so do sports collectibles.

“With art, it’s very subjective,” said DeLuca. “You can say, ‘Oh I have an Andy Warhol,’ and it can be the wrong size or the wrong color, the wrong series than the market wants right now.”

Figuring out the value of trading cards and other sports collectibles is a lot easier. “That’s why Robinhood people and crypto people and hedge fund guys like trading cards,” Goldin said.

Price depends on the condition, which is determined by a handful of grading and authentication companies. One of them, PSA, was acquired by Cohen, Sundheim, and Turner’s Collectors Holdings in a $853 million deal earlier this year.

The agencies grade the items and encase them in hard plastic shells that can’t be opened, a process called slabbing. While there are numerous cards of the same player, only a couple may merit the top ranking—and record prices.

“Once it’s slabbed with a grade, a card becomes a commodity,” DeLuca said. “You can trade it like a stock.”

A 1910 Ty Cobb baseball card. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

A 1910 Ty Cobb baseball card. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Ebay, a major marketplace for lower-priced material, sold 18 million trading cards, generating more than $1 billion in the first quarter this year, the company said. That amounts to about 130 sales a minute, and a 345 percent increase from the same period in 2020.

At moments, the demand threatened to overwhelm the system. At Heritage Sports, the wait time for ungraded material is six months to a year, Ivy said. In March, a tsunami of submissions and a million-card backlog at PSA forced the company to suspend grading lower-priced items. 

The sheer volume of orders that PSA received in early March has fundamentally changed our ability to service the hobby,” Steve Sloan, the company’s president, said in a letter to clients on March 30. “The reality is that we recently received more cards in three days than we did during the previous three months.” 

This month, some of the services returned, albeit at higher prices “to manage demand,” Sloan said. 

As a sign of further commodification, some are trying to leverage their troves of cards and collectibles. In the past year, a handful of investors approached lenders like TCP Art Finance, but so far values haven’t met the company’s minimum loan amount of $500,000.

“It’s something we would consider if the collection was valuable enough,” said Joe Charalambous, the company’s president.

But not everyone is planning to jump in.

Collecting is “a big world,” said Amy Cappellazzo, who’s planning a new art business following her departure from Sotheby’s this month. 

“Dan and Steve are especially interested in this world,” she said, referring to Sundheim and Cohen. “I don’t think I have a lot to add. In the end, I am going to stick to my lane.”

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