Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Island of Art

Last week, searching for something to talk about that wasn't the same subject we had already gone over 20 times before (in the same conversation), I began talking to my mother about the art I am making and showed her the postcard I am sending out. Yes, this was a big mistake. When I mentioned it to (my wife) Bonnie later, she told me I shouldn't have done it - that I needed to keep my art sacred.

My new postcard

See more from the series at

That was a funny response in a way, but I knew what she meant. At the same time, I didn't feel that my work was in any way profaned by talking about it to my mother because it was so outside her world that it was like speaking to someone from another planet. I don't say that in a disrespectful way, but just that we were not speaking the same language - at all.

Remember that movie about the Coke bottle that falls out of a plane and lands in a desert? It was "The Gods Must Be Crazy," as Google just informed me. The Kalahari bushmen who find the bottle have no idea what it is or is used for. This was my mother's reaction when I showed her a postcard of my work. "I like the color," was all she could manage, when I knew she really wanted to ask, "What the hell is it?"

What the hell is it? (still from The Gods Must Be Crazy)

That was a question I couldn't answer without some reference points and some kind of common language. It's painting but not really; it's sculpture but not really; it's all tacked onto panels and then encaustic is painted on and fused with a tool called a shoe. Huh? Who could get any meaning from that? Surely not my mother in her out-of-it condition.But this failed conversation made me think about how really insular making art is.

See Yourself As Others See You
For a minute there I saw myself from the outside, caught up in the strange and compelling activity that has become my life's work. It looked pretty futile from that viewpoint. But inside the island of art there is nothing more compelling than putting one red down next to another, than deciding whether to use a slice of text or a strip of metal in the piece I'm working on. Being on this island in my studio is vital and private and holds the utmost meaning for me.

On the Other Side of the Island
From the Styles section of the NY Times today in an article about the wealthy attendees at Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB): "It's like a private club," said Becca Cason Thrash [Texas socialite and art collector]. "We all collect art. We all love to travel. We all love being together on the circuit. You see your friends and it's like, 'Same time, next fair."


"Art has tremendous asset potential," said Mr. Rosen, the real estate mogul, "All the other luxuries depreciate, and art is one thing that has the potential to appreciate...the three most important worlds in the culture right now-- fashion, real estate and art--are pulled together [at fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach].

At ABMB: Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Klein, Danny Glover, George Hamilton and other unidentified celebs from Lindsay Pollock's Art Market ViewsBut the established collectors are not featured in press shots.
(Read all about the actual art at ABMB and linked art fairs on Joanne Mattera's blog.)

Two Different Worlds on the Two Sides of the Island
So perhaps the art-making side of the island is the spiritual side and the art-buying and selling side of the island is the monetary side. But wait a minute. I have nothing against selling art either directly or through dealers. Why, I personally make my art with the intention of selling it - although that is not what's driving the making. I know there are people who love art but don't make it and who collect it because they fall in love with it and want to make it part of their lives. That is a spiritual connection to the work. I don't want to go all gummy here, but that's a lot different from those who buy work because of its "asset potential" and only choose art because pork bellies are not as valuable as they once were.

One of the only good things to come out of this Bush tax cut mess is continuous reference to the vast gap between the income of most Americans and that of the top one to two percent. Americans like to think we're all about equal, but that gap exposes the myth and shows how unequal most are compared to the fat cats on top.  But you ain't seen nothin' yet when you think for a minute about the difference between what artists make from the sale of their work and what collectors make in the secondary market.

Back to the Beginning
In Leo and His Circle I read about the 1973 Sotheby Parke Bernet auction of 50 pieces from the Scull collection of contemporary American art. This was where it all started - the first auction sale to set the bar for "the contemporary art market as we know it today." In other words, it was the first time that buyers and prices went crazy when art was sold. The one-night sale brought $2,242,900 - just above its high estimate. Robert Rauschenberg (perhaps a bit drunk?) confronted Robert Scull, an in-depth collector of Rauschenberg's art, outside the auction. Rauschenberg's painting Thaw, purchased by Scull in the 1950s for $900, sold in the auction for $85,000. Rauschenberg allegedly pushed Scull and shouted at him, "I've been working my ass off for you to make a profit!"  Oh, yeah! (online link to Art Info here) However, apparently Rauschenberg had mixed feelings about Scull. He was filmed earlier in the evening saying, “The Sculls helped artists at a time there wasn’t enough activity to support them. They were miracles . . . ,” according to a June 2010 article in Art in America.

Jasper Johns Target 1961

Today, of course, Johns' 1961 Target, which was included in the Scull sale, is valued alone at $10 million-plus - kind of crazy when you think that it sold in the Scull auction for $125,000, and Scull had already made a ton of money on it over what he had paid. After this auction, Rauschenberg and other artists got legislation passed in California to let artists get a five percent royalty on sales of their art. I remember seeing a copy of a sales contract that a Californian friend had years ago that included this provision. It seems doubtful to me that  royalties are paid to any artists, in California or not, although supposedly there is such an artist's royalty law in France. (If anyone has any information about this, I would be interested to hear it.)

Robert and Ethel Scull by George Segal

Cross-Island Transactions
Scull thought of himself as the artists' benefactor but artists disliked him, according to the Castelli book, as did Castelli himself. Scull describes going to artists' studios to buy directly and finding artists desperately poor and willing to sell their work for just about anything. Although the Sculls were willing to take risks in buying work from unknown artists and apparently were able to evaluate the worth of new work in forming an excellent collection, I can understand a love/hate relationship developing between the artists and the collectors. I know from my own experience at open studios that there are people who come expecting to take advantage of the artist. (I once had someone come to an open studio who wanted to buy a piece that I had already priced extremely low. I refused her offer and then when she came back in the last hour of open studios thinking that I would be forced to accept, I was delighted to tell her that the work had already sold at the price I had listed. Even if it hadn't sold, I would have refused because I could see that she wanted to take advantage of me.)

In Conclusion
There is no conclusion. We are planted on the two sides of the island, each going about our tasks and lives, each side only occasionally coming in contact and only once in a while noticing that the other side exists and that art is an island

[Tangential note: You gotta love the NY Times for its FREE online access to its archives (unlike the Boston Globe that won't even let you see last week without paying). When I googled "1973 auction of Scull art collection," Google came right up with an article from the NY Times in 1974 about a movie based on the auction, along with several other informative items on the topic. Google + the Times = A blogger's delight.]


Gloria Freshley Art and Design said...

Nancy, This is a wonderful post! And I absolutely love your new postcard--or more precisely, the stunning red piece in your postcard! Kudos....

Karen Jacobs said...

Incredible, "thinking" kind of post, Nancy, every point makes me want to enter a discussion... alas...

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for commenting, Gloria and Karen. These "thinking" posts take a lot of time and effort because it's hard to organize all the ambivalent thoughts I have about this stuff. I think they help me think more clearly and perhaps they get other people thinking about some things.

Joanne Mattera said...

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one working obsessively at the keyboard. Great post.

shari schemmel said...

Excellent Post. You should watch The Mona Lisa Curse by Robert Hughes. He talks about the Scull auction and the commodification of art.

Anonymous said...

This is so descriptive; touching some intimate points. But it's also so public. Love the balance... and the dialog you get going in my head.
thanks Nancy!

Nancy Natale said...

Joanne, Shari and Lynette - thanks for your comments.

Shari - I watched all 12 segments of the Mona Lisa Curse and I'm going to post them (or at least links to them). That was a great program and he was right on the money (so to speak). Thanks so much for telling me about it.

Lynette - I'm glad you enjoyed it. Walking the public/private line is the fun of it all.

Wendy Rodrigue Magnus said...

I read this post through three times and still can't come up with the right comment --- except to say that it's perhaps my favorite so far.

Wall Lights said...

nice posting keep blogging,

Nancy Natale said...

Wendy and Wall Lights, thanks for your comments. I consider that a big compliment, Wendy.