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An auction house does clumsy art-shtick

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A Christie's auction on contemporary pieces of art has a catalog that's a piece of work
The Christie's catalog is a landmark in the absurdities of high-end marketing

Odds are you won’t be bidding at Christie’s special contemporary art auction Monday night in New York.

With estimates running as high as $12 million for a 1985 multiple of a Jeff Koons aqualung cast in bronze, which would helpfully drag you down to the bottom of the sea, this is a sale for investors and the luxury-goods crowd. The auction will mostly be a spectator sport.

Don’t despair. The sale also comes with a 235-page catalog, weighing in at nearly four pounds. It ranks as something of a transparent landmark in the absurdities of high-end marketing. Priced at only 60 bucks, who could resist a historic milestone?

The auction was assembled by Loic Gouzer, a 33-year-old contemporary-art salesman at Christie’s. It is masquerading as a curated show.

Titled with a dire-sounding excerpt from a Richard Prince text-painting, “If I live I’ll see you Tuesday…” is ominously billed as “representing a uniquely dark and unflinching view” of the anxieties endemic to contemporary experience.

Since the auction happens on Monday night, living through it to Tuesday apparently means that shopping in the seven- to eight-figure range is some kind of death match -- "Hunger Games" for the 0.01%. Look and learn, the salesman recommends.

Or re-learn, perhaps. More than 30 years ago, in 1982, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized “Eight Artists: The Anxious Edge.” Lots more “dark and unflinching” exhibitions have appeared since. Christie’s unique take on things isn’t exactly unconventional.

It’s routine. Marketing always is. The packaging changes, but the sales pitch remains the same.

The catalog, which features an expensive die-cut slipcover, is jampacked with photos, lots of them in costly color. Many are celebrity lifestyle shots, with artists at work or deep in contemplation; they're like spreads in W or Vogue.

Others of course show art. Beneath the slipcover is the sale’s oldest work – a small, lemon-yellow silkscreen painting of an electric chair made in 1965 by Andy Warhol (or made for him, more likely, since studio assistant Gerard Malanga actually did a lot of the early labor).

Warhol is cast as artistic grandpa. His jaundiced image of a death-penalty machine for murderers plays revered ancestor to the pseudo-show’s more recent “uniquely dark and unflinching view.”

Inside the sales book is where the hilarity ensues. Warhol made lots and lots of pictures of electric chairs in multiple series on canvas and paper. What’s so special about this little one (22 by 28 inches), which might justify Christie's $9.5 million high estimate?

Well, nothing much. Christie’s has even guaranteed an undeclared minimum price that will be paid, so the unidentified seller – which might even be the auction house itself -- need not worry. Such are the hidden workings of the poorly regulated American auction business. But at least to keep up appearances, Christie’s has reproduced the painting as a catalog fold-out, along with three full-page details all in color.

Then comes the kicker: Inserted is another pair of color reproductions -- Francis Bacon’s famous 1953 painting of a lavishly enthroned, screaming pope, now in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center; and, from London’s National Gallery, Vincent van Gogh’s even more famous 1888 painting of the humble, wood-and-wicker chair that he sat on at home in the south of France.

And, yes, the chairs of the screaming pope and the suicidal artist are both painted lemon yellow – just like Warhol’s electric chair. Art history in action!

Art History for Dummies, that is. You can’t make this stuff up – at least, not with a straight face.

Andy, himself a hugely successful advertising artist who knew how to satisfy diverse shopping tastes, cranked out dozens of electric-chair paintings (and prints) in red, pink, orange, green, blue, purple and multi-colors. But the run-of-the-mill yellow one now on offer is being fluffed up as something special in the annals of art – “quintessential,” “incomparable” and “spectacular,” to quote from the catalog’s wince-inducing ad copy.

The painting “truly represents the dark side of America,” we are told in a breathless text that goes on – and on – for seven vacuous pages, all cut-and-paste clichés about Warhol’s life and art. Perhaps much the same darkness could be said of the sales catalog.

Of course, the assorted hedge-funders, sheiks and vertical-real-estate investors looking to park their cash on the wall are probably not going to be reading this thing. (Why would they?) The catalog is a coffee table decoration, produced merely for display in the den.

There is one catch, however. Books are so over. They might be mildly useful to fabricate a veneer of history when idly flipping through a picture-book; but, what about the new and the now? What about digital?

Relax. Christie’s has it covered. The auction house produced a four-minute YouTube video.

It stars lanky skateboarding whiz Chris Martin, who blithely rolls on through Christie’s storage rooms and galleries past the high-ticket art being sold. (Don’t blink or you’ll miss the little electric chair go by.) A warehouse and showroom stuffed with workers, Versailles-style ormolu and packing crates is turned into a suburban skate park.

The street meets Wall Street. That Martin wasn’t asked to don the ermine-trimmed velvet of Bacon’s Pope Innocent X seems to me a lost opportunity for the publicity stunt.

Still, this may be the lamest visual production since James Franco got all dressed up in bearded drag not long ago to play at being Cindy Sherman. And that is saying something.

If I stop eye-rolling, I’ll see you Tuesday.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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