Art Auctions: Appalled, Astonished, Amused

Once upon a time, a young woman began collecting art. She had resisted the attraction to this typically expensive and addictive activity, and did in fact find herself haplessly hooked and oh so quickly.

John Himmelfarb Daemon 2009 smallShe convinced herself that she was managing the intoxicating affliction rather than the other way around. And given the practicalities of her pocketbook, she was.

As for the hunt (as much fun as making an acquisition), surely, there was a genetic component; she was the daughter of a self-styled collector, and her own tendencies were informed by the realities of responsibility, New England frugality, and her unexceptional income.

How to Begin Art Collecting

When it comes to collecting art, it helps to grow up in the milieu of appreciation — in other words, books, drawings, frequent trips to local art museums, not to mention a parent who is, himself or herself, an avid collector.

In my opinion, price range is irrelevant. What is relevant is the passion and the process; purchases are not made impulsively, but rather as a result of love for the work combined with research about the artist, his or her process, and some knowledge of potential value.

Even if we don’t grow up around art, we can come to appreciate it and teach ourselves. We may gravitate toward certain types of images and mediums naturally; I have friends who adore fiber arts, others who are drawn to the texture and heft of sculpture; my own preferences are abstraction, line, and in the past dozen years especially, the visceral and imaginative aspects of “outsider” or “self-taught” art.

You start small. You read. You look. You train your eye. You ask questions.

From Seeing and Reading to…

That young collector?

Some 10 years (and a variety of acquisitions) later, and with a growing art library in two languages, she found herself happily writing about the subject she’d come to love, and even getting paid for it.

Mary Mary by Robert Ernst Marx 2011The occasional trip to a contemporary art fair or for that matter, the annual extravaganza of self-taught works in New York, fueled her fervor and her fever — if not for purchases for herself, then for the lusty and sensory satisfaction of being surrounded by extraordinary images that she still carries in her head.

And so she finds herself today, with the Sunday Times spread on her bed covers, nonetheless aghast (if not appalled), amazed (and astonished), all the while amused by (and ever amorous of) the Big Bucks Art World she never frequented.

Allow me to clarify: Her art circles were typically cozier, but nonetheless delightful; her collection, though much downsized over the years, remains characterized by the pleasures of line and abstraction, not to mention personal stories associated with many of her longtime and steadfast visual companions.

Recent Modern Art Auctions. Hundreds of Millions, You Say?

In an amusing take on the world of major art auctions, The New York Times gives us “Oops. I Left My Millions at Home.” This column in the Style section is a delicious description of the goings-on at Christie’s and Sotheby’s record-breaking auctions of modern art.

Whether or not you give a damn about Mao by Warhol or pseudo-balloons by Koons, Henry Alford offers an animated account of his peek into a rarified world and its outrageous price tags affixed to paint on canvas, tile on floor, and the right to claim ownership to Big Names in the art world.

Do take a gander and consider this reference to:

… record-breaking auctions of modern art at Christie’s ($691.5 million) and Sotheby’s ($380.6 million)…

Yowza. That’s a lot of green, and I’m not talking Philip Guston’s “Light on Green Sea.”

Nude by KiddoFor myself, as Mr. Alford comments on the general conviviality of those in attendance – true art lovers genuinely enjoy sharing their passion with others – I recall experiences in Paris in which I frequented openings and schmoozed with serious collectors.

That’s not to say that yours truly wasn’t serious at the time – only to clarify that generally speaking, I could admire and they could purchase. Nonetheless, the conversations were lively, the free flow of discussion enthusiastic, and the mutual appreciation irrepressible. All price tags aside, we saw eye-to-eye on the profound pleasure and necessity of the visual arts.

The Particulars of the Personal Collection

Returning to my little story (and collection), certain artworks will always remain special to me. This has nothing to do with their value on the market, and everything to do with my love for their substance, their impact, and their narratives.

I make no bones about the artists I adore. A few that come to mind?

Caio Fonseca and his lyrical, musical geometries hold my heart, and have for years. John Himmelfarb’s witty mélange of modernist abstraction, meticulous mastery of line, and playful color is mesmerizing. Robert Marx, with his powerful imagery and social commentary, brings me to a place of quiet contemplation and occasionally, sorrow for our society. Sharon Shapiro’s paper works of women, including one from the late 1990s on a nearby wall, is a quizzical reminder of female innocence, angst, and objectification.

All encourage me to think, to journey, and to breathe more deeply in a place of wonder.

To those who don’t care about art, I’m certain my gushing sounds silly. To those of us who would scrimp for a small Sobol or a modest Macréau, no explanation is required.

The Art Addict’s Wishlist…

My wishlist, were money no object?

Classic Jim Dine. I’ll take bathrobes or paintbrushes please, with a side of 70s tools. May I add the psychologically transfixing drawings of Fred Deux, from almost any 20th century period? And I wouldn’t say no to a Franz Kline, a Joan Mitchell, an Ocean Park by Diebenkorn… Would you?

Simeon Still Life With Breasts aka Monkey SausageI’ll stop there. I don’t want to be greedy. And I could go on and on…

Naturally, among my most beloved works are two illustrated here. “Abstract Number 16,” perhaps better titled “Female Torso With Hotdog Hungry Monkey” or “Simian Still Life With Breasts,” is displayed in my den. Look closely to understand the alternate naming in this lavish mixed-media work by a certain physicist-engineer, painted at age seven.

Equally loved, “Nude After Assorted Masters the Mother Cannot Recall,” graphite on paper, is by his brother, age 11, currently the architect-in-training.

I suspect every other parent has his or her similar treasures. So for now, I’ll gladly pass on the 10′ tall canine à la Koons balloons for $58 million, not that it was under consideration, mind you. Much as I would someday love to be a fly on the wall at Christie’s or Sotheby’s during a major auction, I’m more than content with my collection as is, which to me, remains priceless.
Images from John Himmelfarb and Robert Ernst Marx, reproduced with permission of the artists.


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  1. says

    Love this! I have loved art for so long – and secretly hoped that at some point I would suddenly burst forth with talent at painting. That’s not really going to happen. I have been obsessed with Bjorn Wiinblad for almost a year now. My house basically looks like the Arizona Bjorn Wiinblad Museum. Other than him, my other two present artist crushes are Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell. I stalk ebay and wait for economically priced lithographs… :)

    • D. A. Wolf says

      Always wonderful to hear from you, Linda. Art obsessions (and crushes) are the best… Oh! Joan Mitchell! Be still my heart… :)

      • says

        It’s crazy that this many years after her death her estate is still locked up so tight. As far as I can tell, none of her works has been auctioned off and almost no prints made. The only ones I’ve gotten my hands on have been those advertising shows. Frustrating!

  2. says

    This is serious and playful – I love it. I took an art appreciation course in college and have literally appreciated art so much more since then. There is little I love more than strolling an art museum, than participating in art walks, than dabbling myself in water colors and or fabric art mediums and/or quilting.

    I have one room in our home in Colorado that I painted the softest pink ever to go with an acrylic painting done by a Colorado artist whose work I love. That room was my favorite place to be. Did you know that a soft pink room on an afternoon when the sunlight filters in makes for the best napping place ever? And I have some priceless treasures painted by the likes of my four little ones that are beautiful too.

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