Little Warhols

Is the art world’s new mandate “Don’t Trust Anyone Under 50”? For collectors used to buying work by artists younger than the wines they’d serve, this week’s auctions offer slim pickings. Hardly any of the artists in the big evening sales of contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were born after 1959. Instead, the big auctioneers (and some dealers) are packing this week with work by people (Calder, Cornell, Hofmann) right out of an art-history textbook.

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s gavel-wielding chief of contemporary art, says, “It is no accident that we focused on artists with longer careers” in choosing the lots this time. (Only six were born after 1959.) “We asked ourselves, ‘What artists haven’t been hyped up too much, haven’t had auction records?’ ” If significant works by some younger artists like Matthew Barney (age 42) or John Currin (46) had come up for sale, Sotheby’s would have taken them “in a second,” he says—but they didn’t. (That said, Sotheby’s slate, featuring a 1988 Kippenberger, is still “groovy,” he adds.)

Top dealers like PaceWildenstein and David Zwirner are going old school, too, showing Alex Katz and Alice Neel as collectors stream into town. Even Phillips de Pury, known for its support of young hot artists, has an auction featuring Baldessari, Judd, and Guston. The house had six Damien Hirsts in its evening sale last May, but none this time. Also MIA: Tom Friedman, Mark Bradford, and Hernan Bas. The downturn has doused collectors and dealers’ willingness to experiment, says private dealer Paul Quatrochi, who’s put his own holdings on the block recently, unsuccessfully.

Something much more subtle than a classic boom-bust cycle is going on. The art world is punishing the overly prolific, those artists who responded (in retrospect, perhaps too hastily) to stiff demand by upping supply. “There’s a winnowing,” says critic Charlie Finch. Who was especially productive before the recession hit? Murakami and Hirst, still both under 50, get singled out by critics, as do Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz, and a host of contemporary Chinese artists. Artists whose work is plentiful or sells in editions—including many photographers—are now seeing softer numbers than those for painters like John Currin. While veterans like Cy Twombly and Bruce Nauman continued to work at the same pace, others did more work to meet the needs of galleries that had satellites or partners all over the world.

“Some artists participated in the boom by ramping up production. They set up studio factories, trying to be ‘Little Warhols’ and believing they had surpassed Warhol. But they were not better than Warhol,” says collector Ranbir Singh, who owns several Warhols, plus works by Louise Bourgeois and Currin’s Bea Arthur Naked. Now “the auction houses are underrepresenting all younger artists.” Meyer counters that there’s no age discrimination, they’re just missing works by some prolific artists who were heavily traded by speculators during the boom. “For an artist to become a commodity, he has to produce a lot of work, similar works of similar value,” so that they can “become currency.” With the market softer this season, the works for sale “don’t have a speculative element.”

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Little Warhols