We have to wonder how the high prices affect curators’ thinking, too. Prince is getting the Guggenheim retrospective he well deserves, but the only so-so Dumas is slated to have a show at MoMA next year. (At least more mediocre women artists are now sharing the attention given to mediocre male artists.) And how much of this creeps into artists’ minds as they work? Two current shows—that of the good-until-now Paul Noble at Gagosian, and that of the erratic Keith Tyson at Pace—look like the artists have too much money at their disposal and are just making things to sell because they can. The surfeit of money has, as critic Peter Schjeldahl told me, “allowed many artists to lose what should be the No. 1 lifelong fear of all artists: making a bad piece of art.”
Meanwhile, do we think less of an artist whose art sells for less or doesn’t sell at all? After all, more than 99 percent of all artists fit into the Lifestyles of the Not Rich and Not Famous category. Can the general public look at contemporary art without thinking about money? Will young artists having 30-month careers be able to also have 30-year careers, or are we simply eating our young? And if money is mainly what people are thinking about, does that mean art’s audience will turn cynical or hostile toward it?
One museum already seems to have crossed that line. This summer, Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts, allowed visitors to walk through an unfinished Christoph Büchel installation—one whose incomplete status had already inflamed the artist, leading to the show’s cancellation and a lawsuit—as they made their way to another exhibit. The museum obscured the Büchel work’s components under ugly yellow tarps. When I was there, I paused to look at the tarps for a moment, and immediately a guard approached me and said, “You’re not allowed to look. You can only walk through.” It was creepy and menacing. A Massachusetts judge agreed that the museum was acting within its rights and ruled against Büchel. Really, it was as if Mass MoCA was trying to humiliate Büchel, to teach him a very public lesson. Afterward, Büchel proposed switching the letters in the museum’s sign to read mass coma, an entirely appropriate gesture. This kind of hostile attitude toward artists from general audiences is familiar; from a museum, it’s deplorable.
At its best, density contributes energy. At its worst, it’s enervating. A bad day in Chelsea can bum you out for a month.
The Melting Chelsea Ice Cap
Before pointing fingers—or meting out punishments—we have to remember that artists generally have nothing to do with what people spend. You can’t blame Richard Prince because someone paid $2.2 million for one of his paintings. Similarly, you can’t blame Chelsea and its 360 galleries for the problem, either. (Broadly condemning artists, dealers, and the market is like saying you refuse to breathe the air because it’s polluted.)
It’s also true that many Chelsea spaces are now so large that they devour almost anything you put in them. By my reckoning, there’s more than 100,000 square feet of exhibition space on West 24th Street alone. That’s bigger than the Whitney, and probably more space than in all the hip Amsterdam galleries combined. That’s fine. But too many good elements can make bad juju. At the moment, three of my favorite things are adding up to less than the sum of their parts. I love Willem de Kooning’s late paintings up to 1985; I admire the critic-curator Klaus Kertess; I think Gagosian’s new space on West 21st Street is gorgeous. Yet the de Koonings, impeccably organized and installed by Kertess at Gagosian, get sucked up into the gallery’s immense space and lose all scale. The paintings turn into postage stamps.
I feel similarly about David Zwirner, one of the best galleries anywhere, which recently added two amazing spaces for art. But having the three galleries in a row rather than on different streets (as is the case with Gagosian’s multiple spaces, or Matthew Marks’s) is problematic. Seeing three artists at Zwirner in one visit tends to erase at least one. That’s happening right now to the Raymond Pettibon show next door to the double Chris Ofili outing. Last spring, a subtle exhibition of James Welling’s new photographs was overwhelmed by Rirkrit Tiravanija’s living sculpture next door.
But even with all this taken into consideration, Chelsea is a symptom, not a cause. In actuality, the area has a very fragile economic ecosystem. Old buildings are already being torn down, new ones are going up, the High Line is just around the corner, and rents are skyrocketing. If this continues, within six or seven years, the area could be home to only a handful of super-blue-chip dealers who already own their own spaces. Presumably, they’ll be surrounded by scores of boutiques, day spas, restaurants, and hip hotels. As leases on many Chelsea spaces expire over the next few years, many galleries will be unable to keep pace with the rents. If Chelsea dissipates as a gallery neighborhood, it won’t be replaced in Manhattan, because there are no Manhattan neighborhoods with usable, underdeveloped space.
Of course, it’s not essential to have hundreds of galleries clustered. Most art scenes are spread out; Berlin, London, and Los Angeles are, and all are thriving. At its best, density contributes energy. At its worst, it’s enervating. A bad day in Chelsea can bum you out for a month, and a few months like that can make you think that 360 galleries in one neighborhood is 300 too many.