The Price of Greatness

Readers of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of the work of Frank Stella. It seems I’m in a minority. I was talking to a friend who calls him the Leroy Neiman of contemporary art, and says that no one he knows has any interest in Stella. At the same time he was rhapsodizing about the early Black Paintings. It may be true that it’s hard to find a group of leaders in the art world today that take Stella seriously. Well…they’re wrong. Critical resistance may be a sign of quality in art, though that’s a hard case to make nowadays, when everything is allowed. But our cultural establishment is not as liberal as it thinks it is—real creativity is likely still hard for most viewers to recognize, or tolerate.

I’ve also been reading Gerhard Richter Writings: 1961-2007, which is mostly conversations with various sorts of journalists, and it has some very interesting things. There is mention of his incredible prices, and I think his modesty is genuine. He certainly believes that art prices are way out of proportion, his own included. About the print

Gerhard Richter, Kerze II 1989

Gerhard Richter, Kerze II 1989

illustrated (an offset lithograph) he says “I understand that someone paid $26000 at auction, and that’s definitely at least $25000 too much.” My friend mentioned above does a little dealing, and he recently sold an edition by Richter (not the one below). Between sealing the deal and collecting the money the market value of that particular piece

Gerhard Richter, Goldberg Variations (painted vinyl record)

Gerhard Richter, Goldberg Variations (painted vinyl record) 1984

went up by $20,000. From an interview with Der Spiegel: “When you hear about these record sums, it’s flattering, of course, but at the same time it’s shocking…In fact, when I’m in a bad mood, I see this kind of success as a sign that something has gone askew in the world—that the buyers know nothing about art, and that somehow I conned them. And they do indeed tend to pay too much for art. There is a huge discrepancy between the true value and relevance of art and the insane prices people are paying for it…There are buyers who bid by telephone for a work of art they’ve never actually seen. That’s not art appreciation, it’s neglect. And it’s a factor that contributes to diminishing culture.” True, but the conclusion is wrong. Over the long term there may be a link between intrinsic value and price, but in today’s market there is no cultural or aesthetic significance to art prices. They are not symptoms of anything, but merely rise and fall as do other assets. There’s no doubt that art prices are a bubble, and there is a bubble in Gerhard Richter in particular. All bubbles deflate eventually—when no more new buyers enter the market, prices have to go down. That’s why the art world now depends heavily on new collectors from Brazil, Russia, China and India, the so-called BRIC economies, but that resource is also finite. And when a bubble goes down, it happens fast. Consider all the people who bought Apple at $700 a share only six months ago.

Of course when the market corrects is the time to buy, and if I was able I would buy Stella. Even today one can get a nice Stella print for $5000, or less, and in terms of real value over time, those are better investments than Richter paintings at several millions.

Frank Stella, Eusapia (Imaginary Places III) 1998

Frank Stella, Eusapia (Imaginary Places III) 1998

The comparison of print and painting is valid because the nature of painting has changed. The unique work has done itself in, not least because of Richter, one of the inventors of the edition of unique works, as mentioned before on this blog. In any case, at the end of one’s life there is either an accomplishment to show for all that time or not, and the beautiful, the genial, the inspiring Moby Dick series is a major achievement, and draws everything else that Stella has done up with it.

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