Opinion

Felix Salmon

Who’s the Warhol of fine-art photography?

By Felix Salmon
December 7, 2009
art

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The Economist has a great report on the market in Warhols, which turns out to have been written by Sarah Thornton. (Incidentally, if the Economist is going to encourage its writers to give radio interviews about their articles, isn’t it about time they had the occasional byline?)

The news in the piece is that Philippe Ségalot brokered a $100 million deal for Eight Elvises a year ago; judging by the success of 200 One Dollar Bills at Sotheby’s last month, he might well be able to get the same amount today. (The dollar bill is iconic. But it ain’t Elvis.) But the most interesting bit is this:

“Warhol really consists of two markets,” explains Brett Gorvy, co-head of Christie’s contemporary-art department. “One market chases ultra-rare, art-historically relevant paintings from the 1960s. The other is a perfect volume market where 24-inch Flowers and single Jackies trade like any other commodity.”

Marion Maneker elucidates:

What drives the Warhol market is a combination of ubiquity and differentiation. Damien Hirst found his way to a similar structure for his artistic output where huge quantity was counter-posed against an elite circle of highly valuable works. Takashi Murakami has accomplished something similar where circumstances and intention have created rare and important works within a large body of output.

The thing to note here is that the ubiquity is a necessary part of the forces driving the artist’s values. I’ve written before about the economic paradoxes of contemporary art, including the central one that the most expensive artists, even on a per-artwork level, are also the most prolific. But it seems that the great churning mass of 10,000 Warhols does more than just create a vibrant and liquid market in which prices are transparent (by art-world standards) and buyers have ever-increasing confidence in the value of what they’re buying, thereby helping to drive values up even further. All that art does something else, too: it helps to create a very strong foundation from which the value of masterpieces can be extrapolated.

But here’s another paradox of contemporary art: photography has been very hot for some time, and the biggest-name photographers (Andreas Gursky, Wolfgang Tillmans, Cindy Sherman) are just as bona fide art stars as any painter. What’s more, photography is valued by many collectors precisely because it’s fungible — even more than a Warhol flower painting, if you have a given photo, you know it’s worth the same as an identical photo from the same edition. So you’d think that photography would be the obvious medium where you’d get runaway art stars making enormous amounts of product and selling for ever-increasing sums. Yet that hasn’t really happened.

It’s almost as though photography is still suffering from an inferiority complex, and photographers feel the need to prune their work down to a relatively small number of pieces in order to be taken seriously. Consider the kind of thing that Team gallery feels the need to write about one of their star photographers, Ryan McGinley:

In the summer of 2007, for example, he traversed the United States with sixteen models and three assistants, shooting 4,000 rolls of film. From the resulting 150,000 photographs, he arduously narrowed down the body of work to some fifty images, the best of which are on display here at the gallery.

That’s so not Warhol. Why is it that Hirst and Murakami can become hugely successful by churning out thousands of artworks, while fine-art photographers still feel the need to keep their output relatively small? Maybe Jen Bekman can weigh in on this one. But I’m sure that if Andy Warhol were alive today, he would have thoroughly embraced the digital-photography revolution and be churning out enormous numbers of C-prints. Who will be anointed his natural heir, getting that much closer to creating the first $10 million photograph?

(Picture from the Andy Warhol foundation)

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