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The Material Pursuit of Collecting Art

'88 ARTS Outlook- One in a series exploring the issues that will be making news in the arts in the new year.

December 30, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Tom Wolfe has observed that the 1970s marked the triumph of pornography while the 1980s is the decade of plutocracy. In other words, we have progressed from a fascination with explicit depictions of what prostitutes do to an obsession with rich people's activities.

In the visual arts, the '70s are more strongly associated with astringent Minimalism than with any sort of figuration--pornographic or otherwise. But the '80s conform to Wolfe's assessment. Now, more than ever before, we watch and read about artworks that bring astounding prices at auction, artists whose annual incomes reach six and seven figures, collectors who become celebrities by spending vast sums on art and dealers who cater to the rich and famous.

The late Andy Warhol had something to do with this. A canny artist who ridiculed our society's superficiality even as he reveled in it and reaped its profits, Warhol predicted that everyone would be famous--for 15 minutes. There seems to be no end to Warhol's fame, however. The attention grabber of the upcoming auction season is a 10-day (yes, 10- day ) sale of Warhol's personal collections, beginning April 23 at Sotheby's in New York.

All 26 of Sotheby's expert departments are involved in evaluating and cataloguing Warhol's vast estate, which includes American contemporary art, Federal furniture, clocks and all manner of "collectibles." A selection of items for sale will tour the country before the sale. The itinerary is not set, but Los Angeles is expected to be one of the stops for the road show.

Meanwhile, Angelenos traveling to New York can take a peak at Dutch and Flemish paintings once owned by people no less rich and famous than Catherine the Great, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Princess of Wales' father. These works are among 47 lots from the private Guterman collection, featured in an auction of Old Masters that is expected to total $20 million in sales at Sotheby's on Jan 14. The Guterman property predicted to bring the top price of $1.8-$2.4 million is a sumptuous still life by Jan Davidsz. de Heem.

Money has been a factor in the production and display of art since churches and kings first controlled it, but never in modern times have matters of business and finance been quite so wrapped up in the art scene. Pure-hearted art lovers who have struggled to spread the gospel and longed to see the development of a larger audience for art have watched with horror as their dream came true--flaunting a great big price tag.

The cost of making art more accessible to ever larger groups of enthusiasts in an age of decreasing public support and increasing "privatization" is that a discipline once treasured by free spirits and intellectuals has been whipped into shape by efficient people who have little empathy with art but know how to run a business.

A love-hate relationship has developed between professionals in the art and business worlds. Impassioned thanks go to corporate chiefs for funding museum shows that would never get off the ground without them. At the same time, some worthy exhibitions never materialize because they aren't sufficiently popular, glittery or sexy enough to attract a sponsor.

With the prices of art and insurance constantly rising, business is increasingly involved in art. A press conference called last summer at the County Museum of Art to announce David Hockney's upcoming retrospective also trumpeted the fact that AT&T would underwrite it, to the tune of $850,000. Hockney happens to be as deserving of attention as he is popular, but he was certainly a safe choice for the corporation.

Few would begrudge Hockney his place in the sun; many would like to share it. The problem is that most artists find themselves engaged in a very tough business. So do dealers. While the Mary Boones of the art world get rich and famous for making the Julian Schnabels rich and famous, most people in the trade find that competition is fierce and the costs of doing business are tremendous. Meanwhile, we read newspaper stories about Richard L. Feigen, a New York dealer with an MBA from Harvard, who sells Old Masters to bright, young millionaires by talking their language.

The auction houses also fan the flames of the art market as they conduct their business, staging well publicized sales to a growing audience. Once largely the province of dealers, auctions have become more attractive to a public that has proved itself ready to pay escalating prices, sometimes edging dealers out of the market.

As interest in auctions has grown, art watchers seem to have accepted formerly unthinkable prices. Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" caused an uproar last March when it sold for $39.9 million to a Japanese insurance company. But in November, when Van Gogh's "Irises" sold for $53.9 million to an anonymous buyer, the tone of the response shifted from moral outrage to astonished acceptance.

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