Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 7:46 am 
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Art and money explored by "My Architect" filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn

Today's world contains more globally super-rich people than ever before in history, by far. And among these people, some of them, there is a new game. It is paying enormously inflated prices for art, particularly modern and contemporary art. The art market has become a trading gamble. Top-price art works bought at major auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christies, Bonham's, Phillips, are now blue chip investments that can be re-traded at a big profit. This breathless speculation doesn't very much benefit artists who are not on the A-list. But it seems to be generally good for art. If nobody were buying art, that would not encourage anyone to become an artist. At the same time it's a zoo. What goes on at art fairs seems increasingly freakish, self-indulgent, and silly at times. The art market is a big bubble, and may be nearing an eventual meltdown. One expert, a successful dealer, says "I smell smoke."

The Price of Everything is a documentary film by Nathanial Kahn, who made the great confessional documentary My Architect, which explored the filmmaker's relationship with his father, the great architect Louis Kahn, whose illegitimate son he was. It was a moving exploration of his relationship with his father and an homage. It's one of the great documentaries of recent decades, along with Nicolas Philibert's To Be and to Have, and a handful of others. This new film doesn't have the same gravitas and emotional heft as My Architect, which came out fifteen years ago. It's hard to see how it could. But it is a very well made and open minded film. Somehow Kahn manages to avoid shrillness or mockery, or taking sides. He strikes a balance. This is about the art market, but also about art. It helps us see how they are separate entities, but also deeply enmeshed. The title comes from a famous line in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan, which alludes to a man who knew "the price of everything and the value of nothing." They are not the same. This film may help people see that.

The foundation of the film is its interviews, which flow in and out, and its focus on a few who become the key people in Kahn's story. There are collectors, artists, art historians, and auction house staff. In the background there is Kahn, an excellent interviewer, whose voice we hear, but not obtrusively. Some talking heads fill in a bit of history. A key date is 1973. That was when Robert Scull, who owned a New York taxi company, sold fifty works from his collection at auction, netting $2.2 million in all. It included big contemporary artists, including Willem De Kooning, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. Scull and his wife had worked with key New York dealer Leo Castelli, and others. The prices were small by today's standards, under a million dollars, but spectacular by the then standards for living artists, and showed contemporary art could be super-valuable. This was a kind of turning point. Footage of this sale shows Robert Rauschenberg complaining to Scull when one of his paintings bought by Scull for $900 sold for over $85,000, which the artist got none of. Scull reassures him that they both will benefit. Auctions make artists' own sale values go up, or down.

There are a solid handful of living artists followed by Kahn here whose work is at play in the top market - Jeff Koons, Larry Poons, George Condo, Njideka Akunyily Crosby, Margaret Lee, Marilyn Miner, Gerard Richter. At one extreme is Jeff Koons, whose attention-getting giant toys and jewels, copies of old masters with inserted reflective globes, and the rest, may be on the verge of tipping down in value due to, perhaps, one might hope, their sheer vulgarity, but also to their recent placement in the lobbies of buildings. This, Amy Cappellazzo, of Southeby's fine art department, says is "the kiss of death." She hypes the aging German superstar artist Gerhard Richter, whose big red smear paintings she claims simply radiate their value so anyone can sense it. This isn't really true, of course. Here she talks a lot about the sale-stimulus of striking texture and red color (brown isn't good), and the importance in the illustrated brochures for a sale of the comps, the snapshot or reproduction set beside the image of the painting on sale. De Kooning standing by the painting in his studio is a good one. A George Condo can be next to a picture by Picasso, which his work overtly plays off of. But while she is deeply invested in the commercialism of the current art auction world, Amy Cappellazzo does, deep down, love art. She remembers with emotion being transfixed by Giacomo Balla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash."

This dual nature is also true of the surprisingly vigorous ninety-something collector Stefan Edlis, an Austrian Jewish immigrant who came here at 15 in 1941 and made a fortune in plastics. He and his wife live for art collecting and he knows the (current, and past) prices of everything he knows and collects, and the superficial elements likely to convey monetary value (texture, bright color). Nowadays he prefers to trade rather than pay cash. He talks gleefully, a little ironically. He seems at the center of things. He and his wife just donated fifty of their most important works to the Art Institute of Chicago, worth around $400 million. The Art Institute received this exceptional gift because they guaranteed that the museum would show the work for many years to come, not put it in storage - the fate of much art. It is also an issue that great art bought by private collections, whether displayed on walls or in gardens or not, disappears from public view for at least a long period. It is also an issue that now the art prices are so high most museums can't afford to buy it, or can buy only one work a year.

And yet for the final word on art value, museum collections are the the determining factor. Hence it is essential that Kahn shows an art writer at the Frick Collection, where "priceless" paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer are on permanent view. It's beyond the scope of this film to consider the difference in human and cultural terms between these classics and classic modern artists like Matisse or Picassso, or the Fifties Americans like Pollack, Johns, or Rauschenberg - or the attention-getting new art like the realistic mini sculpture of Adolf Hitler praying by stunt artist Maurizio Cattelan, "Him," that now sits on Edlis' apartment floor (he paid cash for it), or his Koons silver inflatable bunny rabbit now valued at $65 million. We do learn from Edlis that his Damien Hirst shark tank that he bought for $5 million, is worth less now. This, like the looming devaluation of Koons, seems encouraging, a sign that flash and fads don't last.

Meanwhile, perhaps the key living artist followed by Kahn in this film is Larry Poons, who was famous for his dot paintings of the 1960's. They were top value, but have gone down. Why? Poons himself explains. He lives upstate (he also teaches and has an apartment in New York City, but that's not mentioned). He refused to stick to his signature style, and for a long time has worked his own way, making mural-like canvases that look like a mixture of Pollack and Monet. He is a gnarly, feisty little man with a full head of steel-wool hair and a deeply lined face. As the film reels on, his star rises again. At least, the owner of a big, literally big gallery (the spaces are huge) comes to look at Larry Poons' work and gives him a big show. This involves mounting the paintings, ranged around in a row as if they are all one painting, and arranging them individually with lots of space between. At the opening, people come and marvel at the wonderful colors.

Alexander Nemerov is an art historian who speaks here, both looking disapprovingly at a giant Jeff Koons jewel, whose fabricated-to-order for the artist perfection he scorns, and at the Frick, where he speaks of Vermeer's painting's "soul," ant the current materialistic age's vain efforts to attach value to the immaterial, even light.

Kahn's is an enlightening visit to the current art scene, with some telling philosophical comments like Nemerov's about how the ineffable is separate from the crassness. With the likes of Stefan Edlis on board, there is plenty of talk about price tags and what sells. Edlis, for instance, tells us that the Jasper Johns "Target" that brought under $150,000 at the 1973 Scull auction, he bought for $10 million in 1997, and he says is now worth $100 million. But Edlis lives and breathes contemporary art. It's how he has chosen to spend his time, and his big Chicago donation is the thing he's proud of and wants to be remembered for. It's interesting to hear from and about three newly high-priced women artists, Njideka Akunyily Crosby, from Nigeria, living in L.A.; Margaret Lee, and Marilyn Miner. Indeed what's best about this film is its open mindedness and curiosity. Kahn recognizes, as he's said in an interview at Sundance, that a documentary must be a freely structured exploration with no predetermined outcome, where "you have ideas, and thoughts," but "you don't have a story going in."

The Price of Everything, 105 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, showing in over a dozen other US and international festivals. Besides his 2003 My Architect Kahn made the 2006 Two Hands, about the classical pianist Leon Fleisher's thirty-year struggle to return to the regular repertoire after losing the use of his right hand. Both were nominated for an Academy Award. Distributed by HBO,The Price of Everything releases theatrically 19 Oct. 2018.


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