The commodification of Gerhard Richter

By Felix Salmon
March 4, 2012
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Jonathan Binstock is the head of Citibank’s art advisory and finance operation — the shop which was famously founded by Jeffrey Deitch. Recently, he put out a four-page research report on Gerhard Richter. According to Binstock’s report, Richter “has recently emerged powerfully as the next great market force among the tradition of 20th century painters including Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol”. What’s more, “it is clear that he is in the process of being catapulted to a rare and illustrious realm of authority”. And he turns out to have been a great investment, as this chart from the report purports to demonstrate:

richter.tiff

Binstock was kind enough to agree to come in to Reuters to talk about this report, which I’m not really a fan of. For one thing, I don’t think there’s much in the way of meaningful information in Binstock’s chart, and I think it’s incredibly dangerous to make it seem as though artists are investable assets which can be compared in some way to the S&P 500. Binstock says that he’s “trying to bring a level of financial professionalism to the project”, but I’m pretty sure that most of my readers would be able to come up with two or three ways off the top of their heads in which the above chart is unprofessional.

In any case, Binstock is very much part of the way in which the art world is turning individual artists, like Gerhard Richter, into asset classes. When I asked if his phrase about Richter “being catapulted” was a classic momentum-trade analysis, Binstock replied that “yes, he’s being catapulted, and I think that’s an imprimatur that comes now from the market”. In other words, Binstock is now lumping Richter in with Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol just because Richter paintings are selling for large and ever-increasing sums at auction.

But here’s the thing: Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol aren’t just good artists, they’re important artists — among the most important of the 20th Century. They permanently changed the way we look at and think about art: what it is, what it can do, what it should look like. Richter’s no slouch on that front, but he’s not in their league, and never will be. What’s more, there’s a very clear distinction between Richter’s important art, on the one hand — think fuzzy black-and-white paintings interrogating Germany’s attitudes to its own history — and his expensive art, on the other. Here’s how Binstock describes the expensive art:

A particularly desirable series of abstract paintings from the late 1980s and early 1990s provides an excellent case in point. The artist made a stunning array of these in a convenient easel size of roughly 48 x 40 in (122 x 102 cm) — domestically scaled objects with overwhelming wall power. Their beautiful rubbed surfaces are among the most delectable of all Richter’s abstract conceits. A red and blue example, sold at the same Sotheby’s sale mentioned earlier, brought $6.3 million, an extraordinary price for a painting that might have been $2 million in late 2007. Indeed, another painting from the series, primarily white and especially creamy, made $1.8 million in October of that year.

Check out the adjectives: “convenient”. “Domestically scaled”. “Wall power”. “Delectable”. “Especially creamy”. This isn’t art, it’s interior design for the private-jet crowd. Binstock is talking here about what he calls “the mid-market”, which he defines as paintings in the $1 million to $5 million range. (Yes, $5 million is now officially the new middle market.) The middle market is where you find apartment-sized, instantly-recognizable paintings which look nice above the fireplace.

Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol all faced art-world opposition to what they were doing: they were breaking rules, creating something challenging and new. It took a long time for the art world to embrace them, and to this day their work still carries a frisson of transgression. Richter’s expensive art, by contrast — the colorful squeegee paintings, or the beautiful candles — is perfectly calibrated to middlebrow taste, and has never been remotely controversial.

Remember that when we’re looking at extremely expensive art, we’re looking, pretty much by definition, at the art which is most coveted by incredibly rich men. (That’s why paintings of women have always sold for much higher sums than paintings of men.) And while your typical incredibly rich man might well have a lot of sophistication when it comes to arbitraging the capital structure of potential takeover targets, his taste in art is most likely to run very much in line with Matisse’s famous quote about how a painting should be like a comfortable armchair. Richter’s “beautiful rubbed surfaces” sell at a premium for exactly the same reason that the apartments at 15 Central Park West sell at a premium: they’re modern yet timeless, incredibly easy to live in, and utterly inoffensive.

This didn’t make it into the video, but Binstock and I talked a bit about Richter’s mirror paintings, and he told me about a blood-red piece which sold at Sotheby’s in London a couple of weeks ago for about $750,000. He loves that work; I, too, am very partial to the Richter mirror paintings, especially the room devoted to them at Dia: Beacon. But the mirror paintings are very much at the highbrow end of the Richter spectrum, which means that they barely even count as “middle market” as far as the Richter money-scale is concerned.

I therefore had to ask Binstock about the famous declaration by Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s that “the best art is the most expensive art because the market is so smart”. Binstock said that “in some cases”, Meyer is correct, but he then reversed himself, noting that “you can buy a Velásquez for a lot less than a Richter”. How does that make any sense? “It’s a question of supply and demand,” said Binstock. There might be a much greater supply of Richters than of Velásquezes, but, he said, “there’s much more demand”.

It’s worth quantifying this for a minute. I went on to Artnet to see how many works by Velásquez had sold for more than $100,000 in the history of its database: the answer is three. There’s the portrait which sold at Bonham’s in December for $4.6 million, and then there’s one other portrait, of Saint Rufina, which has sold twice: at Christie’s in New York in 1999 for $8.9 million, and then again at Sotheby’s in London in 2007 for $17 million.

Richter, by contrast, has no fewer than 545 works in the Artnet database which have sold at auction for more than $100,000. If you want a Richter, and you have the money, it’s trivially easy to buy one: you can get one directly from any number of art dealers, or you can just wait until the next round of art auctions, where I’m sure a lot will be available for sale. Even so, there have been 15 different Richters which have sold for more than $10 million since 2007; two of them beat the $17 million Velásquez figure in 2011 alone. There are so many Richters for sale these days that the tenth-most-expensive Richter to sell at auction in 2011 still managed to bring in $5.7 million; in total 108 Richters sold at auction in 2011, at an average sale price of $1.85 million apiece.

Is it really possible that demand for Richters is so much greater than demand for Velásquezes that Richters can flood the market and still sell for more than $20 million, while Velásquezes, which come along once a decade or so, fetch only $4.6 million? That’s what the market is telling us. But I don’t think that the laws of supply and demand are particularly useful here. In many ways, the high prices we’re seeing for Richter represent a liquidity premium, and also the way in which rich people are happier dropping enormous sums of money on art if those sums have already been ratified by dozens of other transactions at similar valuations.

If you look down Wikipedia’s list of the world’s most expensive paintings, there’s certainly a fair few pieces by artists who come up for sale only rarely — Klimt, van Gogh, Titian, Pontormo. But they’re very much outnumbered by Picassos and Warhols with quasi-commodity status. And if you want to be charitable to Binstock, that’s really all he’s saying in his research note: that Richter is becoming a commodity just like Picasso and Warhol, and that the commodification of an artist is generally accompanied by a significant increase in that artist’s valuations.

I would never encourage speculating on the art market: it’s a rigged game, which you’re almost certain to lose. But if you really want to do it, here’s a tip: buy work which (a) is instantly recognizable as coming from the artist in question; (b) looks great when hung on the wall of an expensive apartment, and (c) comes from a fecund artist with a massive output. Oh, and if you can, get a painting with lots of red in it. And remember, you’re not buying great art, or art you particularly love. You’re second-guessing, buying the kind of art you hope that billionaires are going to covet in the future. It’s a pretty soul-destroying exercise, with a low probability of success. But if you’re the kind of person who marks your art collection to market, you probably don’t have much of a soul to begin with.

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Comments
7 comments so far

The article is less about art criticism than about financial-advice criticism; but a bit of art criticism crept in, in the assertion that Warhol, Picasso and de Kooning are “important”, whereas Richter is not. That actually remains to be seen, perhaps in all cases, though Picasso’s is the the least doubtful — but only because he’s the earliest of these artists.

Nevertheless, despite the above caveat, i have to agree. Richter seems to me to be an extremely versatile and prolific chameleon; a trend follower, not a trend setter. His retrospective at MOMA (i think it was) a few years ago exhibited no continuity, no common core of style or concern. Viewed together, his various styles had the effect of canceling each other out and adding up to zero. i arrived in eager anticipation and left in disgust.

In contrast, the 1980 Picasso retrospective, also at MOMA, had an overall effect that was, if anything, multiplicative. One left exhausted, but deliriously happy and satisfied.

Of course, that was two renovations ago, when MOMA was a better museum in every way; but into that we need not go, except to say that we probably can blame the financial analysts for that as well.

Posted by samadamsthedog | Report as abusive

Komar and Melamid should repeat their Most/Least Popular project for the tastes of billionaires.

Posted by AngryInCali | Report as abusive

Thank You Felix for your insightful piece. You revealed what a con the commodification of art is. A con by art marketers on the buyers-the billionaires. This market looks strangely like the tulip mania of the 1630’s.
The other negative part of this market is cultural. All works are repetitiv styles and manners that are 30 to 50 years in the past. Nothing new can be seen. The art marketers hold the gate and their paradigm (one generation imitating another Ad nauseam) becomes the norm for all.
What remains then is utterly boring art and culture.
It’s boring as hell these days. Picasso or any other inventor 20th art century could never have gotten passed these palace gates. Guarded by charlatans and dull imitators.

Posted by tahers | Report as abusive

That Felix Salmon would define an art collector without “much of a soul” is tremendously naïve and offensive from this one-man multi-media motormouth. Cash-value is one of the best measures of an art work for the very simple reason that the money markets are one of the most rational, unemotional means to gauge value for any asset, especially art which is notoriously steeped in myth, social elitism – and all in an age of rapid obsolescence.

With many of Gerhard Richter’s art works selling for millions, surely putting your money where your subjective mouth is, is as watertight a way as any of predicting the intrinsic value of a painting? It is clearly a disappointment to Felix Salmon that those who view the idea of making money through art dealing is somehow vulgar. However, if a lowly scribbler such as himself did have millions of his own pounds to invest, wouldn’t he opt for a more rational approach to art buying himself?

Gerhard Richter is the perfect artist for the financial market. Apart from continuing even at 80-years old to add to a huge oeuvre of quality work, he is an art historian’s dream. Richter invented a highly rational numbering system for his art works that has spanned into several catalogue raisonnes. This has allowed his work to be meticulously and systematically archived. Add to this a bounty of quality books that meticulously research and analyse his worth in a career spanning over 60 years. The artist even has an official website (www.gerhard-richter.com) – revered by many as the most comprehensive online resource for any artist alive or dead today. Trying to speculate Richter’s value on the art market over the next century does not seem so unpredictable based on these facts.

Output, oeuvre and organisation is why Richter ranks among the greats. There is little danger of Richter becoming art dealer over artist. The great Cezanne once said “I am more a friend of art than a producer of painting.” For lovers of Gerhard Richter everywhere, there is no chance of the German breaking his artistic bond with his paintings, to trade his soul with the banking devils. Or, for that matter, getting involved with the sort of low-brow analysis of his work and standing so synonymous with Mr Salmon and other such gutter-snipes.

The article does hint at the more interesting question, how should art be valued? Yet Felix offers no better means to evaluate art above and beyond the Money Men and their rationalistic framework. Unless he is seriously hinting that art is best judged by the very peddlers of scandal and reckless assay who call themselves arts journalists?

Posted by Bon_Beau | Report as abusive

The last comment sounds like art shtick/marketing propaganda wrapped in pseudo-academic language. What’s vulgar here is the stupidly of the collector. The stupidity of thinking that garbage “art” bought is either a brilliant act of commerce or and a cultural event.

Posted by tahers | Report as abusive

Richter being a commodity has nothing to do with Richter, the artist. This was never his decision, his intention. I think he’s a very important artist, and I’m grateful to have a model, someone to look up to, who’s still producing great work at 80 or whatever (do see the film, “Gerhard Richter, Painting”).

The writer is wrong on several points. Just because Picasso and Warhol took a long time to be recognized doesn’t mean that’s what’s necessary to be an “important” artist, especially now when the cultural world is so much bigger and more savvy. Further, given the times (now as opposed to then) Richter is very radical in his subject matter. Coming at a time when the art world had rejected beauty (think Jeff Koons), when everything was cynical (think Richard Prince) to be unabashedly painting and conscious of painting’s possible emotional content took, and still takes, a lot of courage–as well as painting in several different styles when other artists (and galleries) saw, and still see, developing a “signature” as the only route to stardom and commodification.

Even further, his dealer is not Gagosian, who might automatically be accused of promoting commodification but, since the beginning, Marian Goodman, who has always demonstrated enormous restraint and intelligence, for whom the art always comes first.

It’s easy to bash success. But sometimes there’s a reason for it.

Posted by caroldiehl | Report as abusive

Once again, it’s Keynes’s line about betting on a beauty contest: Don’t bet on the woman you think is most beautiful. Bet on the woman whom the judges will think is most beautiful.

Posted by samadamsthedog | Report as abusive
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