Abstract art looks to be on the decline amidst a mounting desire for real-world stability. But with the increasing power of galleries and auction houses, how close, really, is the link between art and society?
ON A SNOWY, SLEETY EVENING last November, inside the auction room at Phillips on Park Avenue, Henry Highley was waiting at a lacquered podium. Potential buyers filed in slowly, closing their umbrellas, unzipping their parkas, and making their way to their seats with their paddles. This was the evening sale for contemporary and twentieth-century modern art, one of only two of its kind each year that the New York office puts on and thus its success is vital to the house’s survival. It began brilliantly for Phillips. Highley, the house’s auctioneer and head of contemporary art evening sales, has long been a rising star in the auction world: youngish and British, he is able to, mid-auction, toss out the varieties of delightful quips that might push an elderly woman from the Upper East Side to bid, say, an extra $100,000 on a single work. “The whole room is focused on you, madame, willing you,” he said. “Are you sure?” he pressed another waffling bidder, before coyly playing to his ego: “You look like someone who doesn’t like to lose out on things.”
The first lot, a moderately sized painting by the American artist Christina Quarles, which depicts two women, one of them bent over the other, sold for more than quadruple its high estimate. The second, another figurative painting—this one by Kaws, a newly bona fide favorite of collectors—also blew through its high estimate, more than tripling it. In fact, the auction went well until an enormous, abstract, blocky painting by Alberto Burri came up. It was meant to fetch at least ten million dollars, but after Highley’s drawn-out attempts to up the bidding, it didn’t sell at all. The same happened with “Number 16,” a Jackson Pollock drip painting with a posh, Rockefeller provenance.
After he quietly concluded the auction, Highley looked dejected. The Burri and the Pollock would have made up a significant portion of Phillips’ revenue. Without them, the initial excitement around the Quarles and the Kaws had been tempered, and Phillips, generally seen as a rising underdog to Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the contemporary art market, feared that they’d doomed themselves.
But not all had gone impeccably well at the Christie’s sale in Rockefeller Center either, which included an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning that had to be withdrawn, likely because of a lack of interest. (For an auction’s major works, the house’s specialists tend to know who will and won’t be bidding on a work.) And at Sotheby’s, whose contemporary sale had happened the evening before, two significant abstract paintings—by Kenneth Noland and Susan Rothenberg—failed to sell.
Lately, abstract art has been on the decline in the market. The contemporary evening sales at Phillips, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s that took place in London this March and in New York this May showed that the results of last autumn weren’t an anomaly. Major abstract paintings by Burri, Mark Bradford, and Rudolf Stingel all failed to sell as well.
At the same time, figurative contemporary art has been on the rise. Relatively legible, politically obvious works by the likes of Gerhard Richter and Adrian Ghenie all sold for strong prices over the past few major sales across the three houses. Over its recent evening sales for twentieth-century and contemporary art, Christie’s has relied on certain sunny, figurative paintings, like those by David Hockney, with two of his works selling for a combined $139 million in the autumn sale. Phillips, in turn, has begun to rely on the simple messages and pop cultural sensibilities of Kaws. For Phillips’ most recent New York evening contemporary spring sale in May, one of their biggest lots was a Kaws painting that depicts SpongeBob SquarePants with Xs on his eyes. It sold for an incredible $6 million. The Xs are a signature of Kaws—a simple criticism of Pop Art, popular culture, and what we allow ourselves to see and not see in contemporary society. It’s this figurative didactism that the art market seems to currently crave.
Art that is popular often points to the social desires of its time. Recently, social expectations have been overturned by a shifting political scene, and, with it, the style of art that sells has changed, too. Here is a man diving into a bright pool; here is a cartoon character with his eyes shut to the difficulties of the world. The art that is doing well in the market provides a place of escape from society. Right now, that’s an escape to rules and boundaries and to easily digestible culture. But the inverse is also true: when there is greater social stability, even ennui, as there was in mid-century America, the preferred art becomes that which allows for a flight into messiness and multiple interpretations. Crucially, however, this current turn toward the figurative and its stabilities seems to be particular to the rich, to those who are actually buying the art. It has not always been so.
The art that is doing well in the market provides a place of escape from society. Right now, that’s an escape to rules and boundaries and to easily digestible culture.
A central question throughout the study of art history is whether society changes tastes and thus creates a certain type of art, or whether a ground-up, burgeoning style of art changes society? Of course, neither view is entirely correct, and neither is strictly wrong. Art can be influenced by a social politics, but it also performs those politics. Artists are not, as the German artist Hans Haacke wrote in the 1970s, “immune to being affected and influenced by the socio-political value-system of the society in which they live.” Artists, furthermore, are sometimes able to lead a public discourse in a direction that political leaders simply cannot. Understood in reverse, this explains why revolutions begin by toppling statues, destroying cultural symbols. It’s not a surprise that the Nazis began by stealing and often destroying Picassos, Mirós, and Légers. The annihilation of art was the first and fundamental act of oppression; this they did before building Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. The destruction of art, in these cases, came before the destruction of humans.
“If one places the artwork outside of its historical context, whether in its origin, or its effect,” Hannah Deinhardt wrote in her 1967 book (published in English in 1970) Meaning and Expression Toward a Sociology of Art, “one can give no explanation of the facts of the various arts, the many-sidedness of artworks.” Art reflects the past, present, and future of the place and time in which it was crafted. But it is not exclusively a reflection of society; it creates society as well. “If one sees the artwork exclusively as the expression and result of uniquely determinate historical conditions,” Deinhardt continued, “one runs the danger of reducing the activity of art and the artwork to nothing more than a mere exemplification of economic, religious, social, or political forces, and overlooking the specifically artistic or leaving it unexplained.”
In other words, art has long been neither Shakespeare’s mirror nor Trotsky’s hammer. It has been, instead, a kind of cycle or at least a back-and-forth. As a result of this movement, various styles have lived and died in the past century, but throughout it all a material link between art and society has held. Take, for instance, how the social mayhem caused by the Second World War, seemed to have killed abstract art, the messiest of forms. In 1940, with the war just beginning, the English critic Wyndham Lewis wrote in The New Republic: “In all its forms—not only in its purest absolute—abstract art is no more.” The idea that abstract art had fully died would of course prove to be an outrageous claim. Abstract art had not died any more than art itself had died. Some of the greatest abstract artists were still to come or to make their best work—Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Helen Frankenthaler, Clyfford Still, and on. But Lewis was right to see that the sociopolitical circumstances of the time no longer lent themselves to this style of art. Lewis goes on to write that abstract art had become too full of “boredom,” that “the last war hastened its end,” referring to the end of the First World War. Perhaps abstract art wasn’t what the art-viewing public wanted and needed in a time of social chaos. “It was never very hardy, I am afraid,” he laments.