The Mink Building, an installation in itself, is a 19th-century, brick built fur warehouse swept clean for this year’s Columbia University School of the Arts 2002 MFA Thesis Exhibition.
Bemused neighbourhood passersby, on the Harlem corner across from a live poultry market, gawk into the ground floor through windows that replaced plywood boards a few weeks ago. Inside, past a life-like sleeping cat by Isami Ching and a larger-than-life sculpture of the Incredible Hulk by Jon Conner, is Kevin Zucker’s black and white painting of a room interior over a computer-generated grid. Three untitled landscape paintings by Tom McGrath, 24, show stark New York highways in the rain through a car windshield. Beyond portraits in yellow-green by Dana Schutz are Yasmine Chatila's monochromatic paintings, also photo-based, of bullet-scarred apartment buildings in Beirut.
“Student show” was the epithet used to malign a 2002 Whitney Biennial that many found weak and, worse, uncommercial. Yet this student show seems to represent the Zeitgeist for some dealers and collectors. In a market infatuated with youth, they are watching the art schools the way that Hollywood talent agents track film festivals for the next “Blair Witch Project”, and Columbia, they say, is one school to watch. “I see dealers at all the grad school openings,” said Zach Feuer, a recent graduate of the Museum School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. At 23, Mr Feuer is a veteran player in this new market. He began curating shows in his Boston apartment when he was only 19: “I couldn’t drink at my own openings.” Feuer sold out his friend Kevin Zucker's show at his Chelsea gallery, LFL, last year. Mr Zucker's next show sold out in February at Mary Boone. In September, Mr Feuer will double the size of his space and give Tom McGrath his first gallery show. Until then, the paintings from McGrath’s thesis show are for sale through Feuer for $6,000– while they last.
A recent show at I-20 Gallery in New York, “Morbid Curiosity,” exhibited work by students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena California, which Acme Gallery had previously shown in Los Angeles. “It has definitely accelerated as a trend. It’s been there, but it hasn’t gotten as much attention as it’s getting now,” said Jay Coogan, associate provost of the Rhode Island School of Design, who in response to student requests is organising a RISD show this summer at Brooklyn Front to bring their work closer to critics and dealers.
Amid talk of artists and critics on the Columbia faculty fuelling the buzz, insiders say new interest in student work is driven by collectors who are not necessarily young. The Los Angeles television executive Dean Valentine has bought student work in galleries like China Art Objects. “I’m sure that there’s a combination of titillation by and genuine love for the work being purchased,” said Giovanni Intra, the gallery’s founder. In New York, buyers include Dr Bernardo Nadal Ginard, a heart specialist who was jailed in the 1990s for embezzling money from his Harvard colleagues to buy contemporary art. Another is Dillon Cohen, 34, a venture capitalist who cut back buying when booms in which he had invested collapsed. Mr Cohen says he is now collecting artists who are younger than himself. “I’ve been forced to be more selective, but when I’m buying a younger artist’s work, usually I can buy four or five pieces. It’s not a significant financial investment, but a significant investment in that artist’s work.”
Collectors can buy without weighing future values and without worrying about initial costs. Paintings at student shows and at galleries showing this work can be priced under $100, and they rarely sell for more than $5,000. (Kevin Zucker’s paintings, once $4,000, are going for more than three times that.) Think of penny stocks, say dealers, who suggest Wall Street parallels. Buyers can afford to spread their money around. “It’s called spray and pray,” joked Andrew Terner, a private dealer who follows student shows.
Dealers doubt that many students will have lasting market value, but getting in early on one who does means more than multiplying one’s initial cash outlay. Young artists remember the collectors who supported their work in its early stages, and tend to favour them for a first look at later works. Moreover, getting to a hot artist first sets a collector apart from his peers in the status-race to identify and own the new new trophy.
“It’s like anything in business: you want to discover a new product–something fresh, something hot,” says Lea Freid of Lombard Freid Fine Arts. “It’s fun. A lot of these artists are hopefully charismatic characters, so they’re marketable, they’re out there, they’re hustling, they support their friends. They have their own clique, which is safe–and a lot of them have not been to Europe.”
Although Zach Feuer of LFL has already shown about 25% of the students in the current Columbia show, he says he’s not recruiting artists, but showing his peers, just as he did in his Boston apartment: “I don’t think I’ll be showing 23-year olds 10 years from now.”
Sceptics say trendspotters are merely hyping a seasonal flavour, now that collectors have tired of large-format photography, and note that Charles Saatchi shopped for YBAs in bulk at London art schools years ago.
But in America, as always, bulk is bigger. “Saatchi was the only player. Here you've got a lot of players. Here museum committees and collectors are involved. Everybody’s desperate for painting–it’s very desirable right now," says Lea Freid. “If they want to buy 10 people hoping that one of them will turn into a well-known artist, good,” says veteran dealer Richard Feigen. “I’d rather see them do that than spend five million dollars on Jeff Koons. They’ll get better art, too.”
Some of these youngsters now have what every artist and dealer wants–a waiting list. Normally, this would create an automatic market, which Mr Feuer wants to preempt for his young artists. “We try to minimise that, and buy everything back in, just because they’re too young to be competing with themselves and with work they made two years ago. I’ve heard about people trying to re-sell Kevin [Zucker], but there are only eight or nine paintings out in the world. They’re pretty easy to keep track of at this point.”
Even the schools fear that market-fever could stifle experimentation and create a made-to-order art. Students are already all reading the same art magazines, says Jay Coogan of RISD, which stops short of selling student work at its store, RISD Works, (although students can sell their work around the corner at the school’s gallery). Another fear is that a younger generation is right behind this one. “Young flesh is more attractive these days than older flesh, in the flesh markets of the world,” warns the painter Leon Golub, who is 80 years old.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Betting on the young outsiders: the new new thing'