NEW YORK — Beyond the cozy network of museums, auction houses and New York galleries that establish the market value and reputations of the contemporary artists they dub "important," there is a vast world of artists with followings that make Picasso's seem piddling.
Hawaiian marine artist and long-tressed surfer Christian Lassen paints throbbing Pacific sunsets above preening waves. Jane Wooster Scott's placid folk tableaux of snowy New England villages have made her art the most reproduced in America, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records." Scotsman Jack Vettriano plies his fans with fantasies of aristocrats frolicking in evening dress, attended by liveried servants. And, of course, Thomas Kinkade's cozily glowing cottages and riotous gardens have brought forth a multimillion-dollar franchise.
Buying even original works of popular art doesn't require an excursion to the forbiddingly chic precincts of Chelsea or SoHo. They can be purchased aboard cruise ships or on the Internet, at upscale malls and in hotels. A Wooster Scott oil sells for $15,000 to $20,000, and a typical Lassen goes for $225,000. That's peanuts compared to what a Vettriano can fetch: The art world was stunned in April when the original of his widely disseminated "The Singing Butler" sold at auction for $1.3 million.
Aficionados don't necessarily have to shell out that kind of cash. Images can be found on calendars, mugs, screen savers and lottery tickets. There are lithographs, serigraphs and, most eye-fooling of all, giclees -- hand-retouched digital prints that can cost thousands. Lassen's limited editions start at $2,950 and go to up $20,000.
These artists ply their trade outside of what is commonly known as the "art world," beneath the radar of critics and curators. While the museum is the pinnacle of achievement for those who aspire to a place in history, popular artists appeal directly to the paying public.
So separate is this parallel art world that its inhabitants see the museum not as a temple of quality, but as a public relations vehicle of marginal usefulness. "I could put a Lassen in any museum," says Paul Olson, the director of Galerie Lassen Las Vegas, the largest of the artist's six franchises. "He's just not interested in that kind of promotion. He'd rather give a $100,000 painting to charity than [to] a museum."
If curators control the prestigious but limited institutional wall space, the market for popular art is driven by casual shoppers furnishing a home. While many 57th Street galleries keep themselves out of the public eye, operating from the upper floors of office buildings and dealing mostly with a small coterie of collectors, popular-art dealers aim for the fortuitous encounter with the passerby. Their goal is to exude an aura of anti-elitism.
"When you're talking about avant-garde artists, people look to others to tell them if it's good or not," says Rich O'Mahony, who runs the Wentworth Gallery, a chain with 31 outlets throughout the country. "Here, though, people can walk into a setting and say, 'I like that, it makes me feel good.' "
A critic's reaction
So what exactly is it that makes curators and critics reach for the Pepto-Bismol every time a Wooster Scott or a Vettriano crosses their field of vision?
"They really make me feel bad, to the point of being ill," answers Peter Plagens, Newsweek's art critic. "The worst is Lassen. He gives you the huge, breaking wave with the sunset behind it, with the mountain, with a waterfall on the mountain. The colors are horrible to look at. They're garish, and they have that cheap reproduction kind of look. It's like pornography -- I can't define it legalistically, but I know it when I see it. There's lots of skill and expertise and facility that goes into it, but it's just corrupt and awful."
Plagens also acknowledges that his is a purely personal reaction. "There's no objective argument to say this isn't any good, except taste," he says. "But then there's all kinds of contemporary art that gets into museums which is deliberately tasteless."
Painter John Currin's pinup girls with inflated breasts recently hung at the Whitney Museum in a retrospective curated by Laurence Rinder. According to Rinder, Currin transcends the category of popular art because ... well, because Rinder likes him.
"When I look at John Currin's paintings, I think to myself: 'This is really odd and kind of beautiful in a strange way, and it's not like anything I recall having seen before, and it says something about life now, and I'm excited by it and engaged with it and I want to see more.' That's not what I feel when I see a Thomas Kinkade painting."
Rinder points to another issue, too, one that forms the bedrock of artistic analysis: historical references. "John Currin is engaged in a dialogue with magazine illustration -- he cites Norman Rockwell as an influence -- and also with Northern Renaissance painters, Picasso and many, many others."