Is ninety the new twenty?
Several dealers at the fair are showing work by artists more than twice their own age
By Rachel Corbett and Julia Halperin. From Frieze New York daily edition
Published online: 10 May 2014
New York. At this year’s edition of Frieze New York, numerous dealers are displaying the work of older artists, many of whom are gaining commercial and critical recognition for the first time. As prices continue to escalate in established areas of the market, from very young artists to post-war masters, a growing number of collectors are betting on overlooked talent.
During the fair’s VIP preview on Thursday, Lisson Gallery (B58) sold three paintings, priced between $20,000 and $100,000, by the 98-year-old artist Carmen Herrera, while Alison Jacques Gallery (A29) sold two drawings by Irma Blank, who turns 80 this year, for $15,000 each in the first few hours of the fair. Also on the first day, Sfeir-Semler Gallery (B4) sold an untitled painting by Etel Adnan, 89 this year, for €25,000. Just seven years ago, the Lebanese artist was selling similar works from her studio for $800. “The sexiest thing… right now is to rediscover an artist of at least 95 years old,” joked Chris Dercon, the director of London’s Tate Modern, at a talk last year.
In some cases, dealers are rediscovering bodies of work that were considered unfashionable when they were made but are now back in style. The Tel Aviv-based gallery Tempo Rubato (B30) sold half of its works by the Israeli artist Joav BarEl, who died in 1977 and has never been shown before in the US, for $20,000 to $30,000 each, during the fair’s preview day.
“He was interested in these very Western ideas of consumerism and mechanical production,” says the gallery’s owner, Guillaume Rouchon, of the artist’s neon Pop paintings, “but at the time, Israel was interested in expressive abstraction and post-Holocaust art.”
Some artists had other jobs and “didn’t compete in what they saw as the rat race of the art world”, says the curator and art dealer Peter Falk, who adds that he hopes to organise an art fair called “Rediscovered Masters” in either New York, Miami or Silicon Valley. Elaine Lustig Cohen (b. 1927), whose vibrant paintings are on show at the Nada fair (until 11 May), made her living as a graphic designer and rare book dealer, but her art developed a cult following among her friends, including the artist Mel Bochner. Etel Adnan, meanwhile, has painted almost daily since the 1960s but was known primarily as a writer until her work was shown at Documenta in 2012. A solo exhibition devoted to the artist, which has been organised by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, is now on show in Doha (until 6 July). “She’s flattered by all the attention, but she would paint even if nobody was watching,” says Sfeir-Semler’s Sven Christian Schuch.
Other artists have been overlooked by the mainstream market because of “race, gender or geography”, says the art dealer Alexander Gray (D26). The painter Sam Gilliam, who is 80 and is based in Washington, DC, showed largely at galleries specialising in African-American artists until an exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery (C3) last year exposed a broader group of contemporary art collectors to his work. Since then, Gilliam’s prices have doubled and museums are taking a second look. Walking past Kordansky’s solo presentation of paintings by the artist from the 1960s, Dan Byers, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, said: “We have one in our collection from the same period, but I’ve never shown it. Now’s the time.”
For collectors priced out of the blue-chip market, these artists offer an alternative opportunity to buy a piece of history. “Much of this interest has been accelerated by dramatically rising prices and dramatically decreasing supply for the artists who have formed the central canon,” says the art adviser Allan Schwartzman. Billboard-sized works by Gilliam can be bought at Frieze for $250,000 to $350,000; paintings by his better-known peers, such as Morris Louis, are more than $1m.
Working with older artists can also be a windfall for emerging dealers at a time when “the more established galleries are going younger and younger”, says the dealer James Fuentes (C2). The blue-chip Upper East Side gallery Skarstedt, for instance, is opening an exhibition of work by the 25-year-old painter Lucien Smith (15 May-27 June), while global powerhouse David Zwirner now represents 28-year-old Oscar Murillo.
At Frieze, Fuentes nearly sold out his stand of works by the Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, aged 81, during the VIP preview, at prices ranging from $6,000 to $120,000. “We’re still seeking talent, and it often makes sense to go where others aren’t looking,” he says.
Update, 13 May: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Carnegie Museum of Art has exhibited its painting by Sam Gilliam since it was acquired in 1972. It has not been on view since Byers joined the museum in 2009.
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