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The Auctioneer: A Memoir of Great Art, Legendary Collectors and Record-Breaking Auctions 
by Simon de Pury and William Stadiem.
Allen and Unwin, 312 pp., £9.99, April 2017, 978 1 76011 350 6
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Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and Its Dealers 
by Philip Hook.
Profile, 282 pp., £20, January 2017, 978 1 78125 570 4
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Donald Judd: Writings 
edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray.
David Zwirner, 1054 pp., £28, November 2016, 978 1 941701 35 5
Show More
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Simon​ de Pury, assisted by ‘a regular contributor to Vanity Fair’, has written a book about his ascent to the top of the art world: the auctions he conducted, the deals he struck, the parties he attended. It resembles a board game, with smaller parts assigned to the ‘hedge fund overlord’, the ‘polo-playing playboy millionaire’, the ‘James Bond of the Russian oligarchy’, the ‘French luxury goods tycoon’ (also appearing as the ‘French luxury titan’), the ‘serial dater of supermodels’, and the ‘leveraged-buyout king’. The book is illustrated with photographs of de Pury’s friends, such as Tita Thyssen-Bornemisza (wearing a ‘100+ carat diamond’), Al Taubman and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. De Pury was private curator to Baron ‘Heini’ – Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza – then chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, then established Phillips de Pury, which he hoped would ‘turn the auction house duoply that was Sotheby’s and Christie’s into a triumvirate that included myself’. ‘Courting Medicis is now what I do,’ he writes, ‘and every week seems to bring a trip to Qatar, Shanghai, or some other Neverland where fantastic people indulge their fantasies by collecting art. I’m there to help.’

De Pury has little to say about any particular work of art, other than a poor imitation of a Lucian Freud which he is proud to have commissioned. It shows him wearing a dark suit with Anh Duong – his girlfriend at the time – sprawled naked across his lap. Although de Pury modestly concedes that it would be an exaggeration to compare him to Christopher Columbus, he does want us to believe that he is a great explorer. He claims to have spotted Richter when he was still an ‘emerging’ artist. He hasn’t the slightest doubt that ‘contemporary art’ is ‘the New Old Masters’. When, in 2015, Hirst and Koons arrived in the Gulf at the behest of Sheikha Al-Mayassa, it was ‘like putting Michelangelo and da Vinci in the same room’.

De Pury offers one explanation for the huge market that has grown up for contemporary art. ‘There aren’t any more Old Masters for dealers and auction houses to sell. They’re all in museums. The same is becoming the case for Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.’ This isn’t exactly the truth. Jetting from art fair to celebrity auction, he has missed recent acquisitions by institutions like the Getty Museum (including a Bernini and a Rembrandt), and the two wonderful Titians bought by the National Gallery of Scotland together with the National Gallery in London. There are also new private collectors of Old Masters (Jeff Koons may be one of them). No mention is made of the changing market in ‘Modern’, which has in recent decades expanded to include a reappraisal of ‘Modern British’ – an area in which dealers, curators and collectors practise discrimination of a kind rarely found in the field of contemporary art. The discovery of neglected Masters (there is some uncertainty as to whether they should be classified as ‘Old’) such as, most recently, the Norwegian Peder Balke, may not warrant his notice, but he also makes no reference to the promotion of Klimt and Schiele to a position near Picasso in the Temple of Fame, or at least in the Art Price Index. De Pury once belonged to a partnership that did much to supply Ronald Lauder, who founded the Neue Galerie in New York and helped revise our understanding of the artistic importance of Vienna a hundred-odd years ago, yet his book contains next to nothing on this topic.

There has, of course, been a marked reduction in the availability of high-quality Old Masters, and the recent preference of the auction houses for private sales over public auctions has reinforced the impression of scarcity. But diminished supply isn’t the whole story. In fact, as we are reminded in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s survey of prominent art dealers from the Renaissance to today, the equivalents of de Pury’s ‘overlords’ and ‘titans’ were keen purchasers of very expensive contemporary art in the 19th century, when there was no shortage of Old Masters. The dominance of the Old Masters came about at the end of the century and lasted for more than fifty years. It was engineered by several extraordinarily persuasive dealers, most notably Joseph Duveen, who ensured that some of the richest men in the US – Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington, Joseph Widener and Andrew Mellon among them – employed only two types of contemporary artist (often recommended by Duveen himself): the conservative decorator and the conservative architect. They provided appropriate settings for Bellini and Botticelli among the tapestries and old enamels, and for Rembrandt and Hobbema, and portraits by Reynolds and Romney, alongside the finest French 18th-century furniture, Ming and Qing porcelain, and Persian rugs. How they managed to focus the wealthiest class of collector on a carefully selected range of highly esteemed old paintings, objets d’art and furniture is not entirely clear. The reaction against the idea that new money is more comfortable with new art may have helped. If the self-made man in 1870 was expected to buy Millais or Millet, their still wealthier successors (characterised by Hook as ‘rough-hewn moguls’) would be tempted into a world of more durable as well as princely taste – ‘princely’, because princes had a large supply of such works. Duveen, as well as Knoedler and the Wildensteins (each firm active in London, Paris and New York), were able to assure their clients that they were acquiring works of museum quality. And, indeed, the works are now to be seen in the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, in the Frick Collection in New York and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (the gift of Andrew Mellon and the final resting place of the Widener collection). Antique sculpture, perhaps surprisingly, was never given a major part in this story, though classical architecture certainly was. Duveen’s favourite architect, John Russell Pope, supplied a mausoleum for the Huntingtons, adapted Frick’s townhouse as a public gallery and designed the National Gallery of Art. The increasingly difficult and radical character of modern art may have further reinforced these preferences. And modern art in turn increasingly defined itself in opposition to the old.

At any point in the history of Western art since the Renaissance there have been collectors who were more interested in the old (especially the ‘antique’) than the new, and from at least the 18th century on there have been contemporary artists who were anxious about, or contemptuous of, this preference. Such anxiety and contempt erupted in London in 1805 when the leading private collectors formed a public exhibition society, the British Institution. In 1811, its members set out to acquire by subscription a work for the ‘expected National Gallery’ and they chose not an Old Master but a huge painting by a living artist, Benjamin West (thereby ‘saving for the nation’ a painting by a North American artist that had in fact been commissioned for a North American institution). The most adventurous collectors of Old Masters in the first half of the 19th century, such as Lord Northwick, and the most discriminating, such as the comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier, also collected contemporary art. The former bought what was believed to be Daniel Maclise’s masterpiece, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854), as well as Italian primitives and Raphael’s Saint Catherine. The latter wasn’t only a collector of portraits by Bronzino and Frans Hals, medieval ivories and Greek vases, but a patron of Delaroche and Félicie de Fauveau. Paintings by Delaroche, Scheffer, Wilkie, Turner and Landseer hung near the Titians, Murillos and Cuyps in the galleries of Stafford House and Bridgewater House, and still do in Hertford House, now the home of the Wallace Collection. Most collectors of Richter and Basquiat today have no interest in art before Picasso, and their suppliers often know little about art before Impressionism. Enthusiasts for and authorities on modern music, by comparison, have a far greater historical range.

Contemporary​ art more than ever occupies its own world. That some of it fetches more at auction than a major work by Rubens is not so remarkable (the Maclise fetched the highest price at the Northwick sale in 1859). What is more significant is that much, probably most, of the very expensive and almost invariably huge contemporary art sold today does not go on display in the houses of its purchasers but into storage, or is lent to a museum. Contemporary pieces are also bought as investments, more than has ever previously been the case; they are deemed to constitute a secure ‘alternative asset class’.

A little knowledge of auction records (not to mention the 17th-century tulip mania) and of the history of artistic reputations should inspire caution. Hook describes with some bemusement the case of Monticelli, a painter hugely admired around 1900, not only by dealers and collectors but also by Van Gogh, but almost forgotten today. He doesn’t encourage us to dwell on this or on the very many other such cases, but one need only look at the forgotten painters promoted by the ‘visionary’ Durand-Ruel, or indeed by Peggy Guggenheim, or flick through the advertisements in Artforum in recent decades. The confidence shown by investors and collectors in contemporary art may be best explained as a sort of collective intoxication, fuelled by black-tie auctions, the art fair in Basel, the Venice Biennale, and all the associated social events and flattering mirrors. But there is, in addition, strong institutional endorsement from the museums that hope to receive, or at least to borrow, some of this art – and, perhaps surprisingly, a background of popular enthusiasm.

Since so much of the most expensive contemporary art claims descent from the self-consciously avant-garde art of the early 20th century it is worth considering the very different patrons and public that such art appealed to. The pursuit of a radical, novel and experimental art entailed a preference for the rough or crude and an aversion to pleasing too easily. The compelling fiction of pictorial space, or of the ‘speaking likeness’, was disparaged as ‘mere’ or ‘photographic’ realism. Narrative was dismissed as ‘illustration’, the ‘anecdotal’, the ‘literary’.

To be a ‘modern’ artist or to champion such art, whether as a critic, dealer or collector, was to join an elite, even if they didn’t always see themselves as such. For some it was a club for those who understood, wished to understand, or hoped that others would believe they understood. This club might be allied to the world of deliberately outrageous fashion but there were some whose dedication to the higher aesthetic purposes was akin to that of an austere religious order. There were always a few who saw themselves as subversive gang members. They were alert to acts which might reaffirm their marginal status. One such act was Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal as a work of art to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, correctly calculating that it would be rejected. Rejection had, at least since the Romantics, been something of a qualification for an artist of any eminence, and myths about this were carefully cultivated: even today there are many art historians who believe that there was an official conspiracy to prevent the Impressionist paintings in the Caillebotte bequest from entering the Musée du Luxembourg. How did this elite art become popular, indeed the prevalent orthodoxy, favoured by the very class of collector that had ignored or disdained it for well over half a century?

One answer is simply that education promoted understanding, and familiarity facilitated acceptance. The figurative norms disrupted by Picasso have long ceased to be cherished. Above all, both understanding and acceptance become easier when the art is enshrined in the museum. The foundation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 has rightly been seen as a decisive moment, especially because it had a mission to educate and influence unlike that of any equivalent European institution. Alfred Barr, its first director, promoted an idea of modernity that was compatible with the corporate outlook of his chief supporter, Nelson Rockefeller.

When MoMA was founded the trustees intended that when artworks were fifty years old they would be donated to the Metropolitan Museum or similar institutions. Instead, it was decided to establish a permanent collection dedicated to the work of living American artists. The Whitney, which opened in 1931, only two years after MoMA, originally consisted of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s collection, which the Metropolitan had refused to accept. The Guggenheim (originally the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art) opened in 1939 and was given new prominence in 1959 by Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous building. Then came the Hirshhorn in Washington DC in 1974. Across the Mall, the National Gallery of Art was watching and I.M. Pei was commissioned to create the East Building, which opened in 1978.

The East Building was not at first as widely admired as its later influence might suggest. Richard Hennessy writing in Artforum, the journal of the elite at its most thoughtful, called it ‘a shocking funhouse’ and ‘deeply Philistine’ in its lack of seriousness, with something ‘worryingly Victorian’ in its internal greenery, while the exterior was ‘stiff, cold and pretentious’. Donald Judd, then a rising star and known to be especially forthright, declared that there was ‘little difference’ between it and John Russell Pope’s original National Gallery: both were ‘fascist’. Pei’s building was indeed clad in the same Tennessee marble, and had sheer windowless walls of the same height as Pope’s, but this uniformity concealed a deeper contrast, for Pei had adopted the disorienting and destabilising geometry favoured in American sculpture during the years when he was working on the design. It was a moment when many modern sculptors were aspiring to create a sort of architecture, and architects had begun to design colossal works of sculpture. (Judd couldn’t help praising the Guggenheim building, even while acknowledging that it was poorly suited to the display of paintings.)

Pei’s uncompromising avoidance of right-angles, which resulted in awkwardly shaped tables in the staff dining room and rendered large stretches of curatorial shelving unusable, did not prevent his building from serving as a home for great modern paintings and major temporary exhibitions. Visitors enjoyed the great atrium with its sublime canyons crossed by a bridge, the angular rush of its glazing bars echoed in the pattern of the paving. Above it all, a Calder mobile gently rotated, helping to pacify those who were anxious about where to go next. As well as pondering the geometry of the new sculpture and the prisons etched by Piranesi, Pei leant on his experience of designing shopping malls and hotel lobbies.

If Pope had given to American museum visitors the reassurance of enduring values, discreet opulence, massive solidity and extreme aesthetic orthodoxy, then Pei, only a few decades later, showed how one could be entirely, excitingly modern (and American) without being impolite and without the intimidating aura of the commercial gallery. The club had been opened up. A measure of bewilderment remained, of course, just as much that is mysterious, even impossible to understand, is important to the prestige of most organised religions. What is striking in retrospect about what we might call the ‘Pei moment’ is the equilibrium between the two buildings that comprised the National Gallery of Art, and what they represented.

In the UK, the brutalist Hayward Gallery opened in London in 1978, the same year as Pei’s East Building, determined, or so it seemed, to avoid delighting or welcoming anyone. Carl Andre’s deliberately routine arrangement of industrial bricks, Equivalent VIII, was ‘made’ in 1966 and bought by the Tate Gallery in 1972. In the early months of 1976 it became the object of widespread ridicule in the British newspapers and in April the value of the work and the wisdom of the acquisition were questioned by an editorial in the Burlington Magazine, which pointed out that Equivalent VIII had not been defended as a ‘work of art in its own right’, but rather as the putative embodiment of ‘high and rather vague ideals’. This provoked a reply from the Tate’s deputy keeper of the Modern Collection, who wrote that he was impressed by the work’s ‘lucidity and consistency’, its ‘intensely classical quality’ combined with a powerful dose of the ‘everyday’, and – his principal justification for the acquisition – that it was representative of an ‘important phase in the development of art’ which had the full endorsement of ‘the informed sector of the art world’: an elite which had become academic and respectable, and apparently unanimous, if not yet popular. Since then Andre has been commended for ‘challenging viewers to reconsider their definition of art’. Countless minor variations on this simple formula of approbation will be found on the labels of every display of modern and contemporary art, often followed by an unconvincing claim concerning its daring departure from, or reference to, older art.

Much​ of the best art criticism of the 20th century was devoted to presenting and carefully explicating the purpose, or at least the starting point, of an artist’s work and then describing the impression that art makes on an open mind. (David Sylvester was especially good at this.) It has seldom generated a productive debate because it tends to be defensive, but also because there is such a fear of encouraging philistinism or of being mistaken for a philistine. Artists themselves have not always been so circumspect. The fat volume of Donald Judd’s published statements and cryptic jottings which came out last year shows his preference for preceding his judgments with the observation that everyone else had got it wrong, which is not very endearing. Often he’s just rating his predecessors: ‘Newman is the best painter in the country’ (1964); ‘Pollock’s a greater artist than anyone working at the time or since’ (1967); ‘Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still were the best painters’ (1993).

Another style of criticism began to flourish in the universities and still flourishes there today. It was chiefly associated with Rosalind Krauss, who defined her aspirations in ‘A View of Modernism’, published in Artforum in September 1972. She opens with an anecdote about a Harvard student who pointed to a work by Frank Stella and asked his professor, her friend Michael Fried, ‘What’s so good about that?’ Fried replied that there are ‘days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velázquezes, utterly knocked out by them … What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velázquez. But what he knows is that that is an option that is not open to him. So he paints stripes.’ Krauss writes that she doesn’t know what the ‘boy’ thought of this, but she understood Fried: ‘Stella’s need to say something through his art was the same as a 17th-century Spaniard’s, only the point in time was different.’ Then she describes her own ‘point in time’: ‘No à rebours was possible, no going backward against the grain. The history we saw from Manet to the Impressionists to Cézanne and then to Picasso was like a series of rooms en filade.’ She wrote also of the critic’s embrace of analysis as ‘an act of humility … The attention to self-reflexivity, or what the structuralist critics call dédoublement, is thus one of the most general features of the larger modernist sensibility.’

I wonder what happened to the bold student. Was he confirmed in his scepticism? Did he appeal to another professor? Or did he try to be admitted into the novitiate, adopting foreign terminology, finding ways to let drop his familiarity with Huysmans, squinting at paintings until the quivering mirage of Cézanne or Manet began to appear? Krauss is sometimes described as a critic following in the tradition of Greenberg (her mentor), Fry (whom she disparaged) or Ruskin (whom she despised). But she was writing for initiates and she consistently departed from the admirable injunction, cited in the first pages of the first issue of Artforum a decade before, that ‘statements on art’ should ‘make the same sense that we expect to find in statements about any other subject’. This is especially regrettable, since she had interesting doubts about many developments. The debate that was so greatly needed was stifled by her intimidating contempt for outsiders.

The increasing influence of the academy has been deadly. The fear of not belonging to that ‘informed sector of the art world’, the fear of failing to welcome every avatar of Dada (or whichever movement) is manifest in much ingenious, obfuscatory writing. The artists are complicit: the minimal and the conceptual require academic exegesis in a way that was not true of the witty and exuberant inventions of the first half of the 20th century. But it is hard to identify any academic critic who is obviously influencing the latest developments in contemporary art. Hook’s survey includes the more influential dealers of recent times such as Leo Castelli, who had the ‘mental agility’ to move from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art.

At the end of the book Hook ponders the influence that dealers exercise, identifying the erosion of the boundary between the commercial gallery and the public museum as the ‘modern ideal of the art trade’. The dealers (now describing themselves as ‘gallerists’) have the resources to dress up their ‘spaces’ as museums of modern art; they are also paying for the cost of installing exhibitions and installations within public collections that lack adequate resources of their own. In the US, collectors, closely guided by dealers, are recruited to the ‘director’s circle’ or whatever fancy name is devised for the supporters who may also lend and give (or ‘gift’) at the close of each tax year.

A notable​ episode in the history of interactions between commerce and the museum is what might be called the retirement plan and self-canonisation of Heinz Berggruen (1914–2007), to whom Hook gives a couple of pages. Berggruen loaned a large number of Post-Impressionist and ‘Classic Modern’ paintings to the National Gallery in 1990. In 1995 Berlin’s museum authorities provided Berggruen with an apartment and secured the loan of a large group of these pictures, which in 2000 they bought for 129 million euros – considerably less than the market value. The general director of Berlin’s museums wrote of the dealer’s ‘spiritual presence’ and his ‘unique gesture of reconciliation’ in returning to Berlin the type of art that had been driven out by Hitler. Soon afterwards, the dealer replaced the philanthropist again: ‘Heinz loved money,’ de Pury explains. His auction firm Phillips de Pury promised Berggruen they would ‘top anything either Sotheby’s or Christie’s might offer’ for the next sale from his collection. The deal was signed and they sold an important Cézanne for $38 million ‘as well as forty other masterpieces for Heinz’. The sums fetched didn’t match the guarantee but ‘Phillips had demonstrated that it could sell paintings in the “heavyweight” category of Impressionist and modern art.’ Everybody wins.

Berggruen’s deal with Berlin was not without precedent. Among the many 19th-century art dealers not included by Hook in his survey is Samuel Woodburn, who, when he began to think of retirement in the late 1840s, tried hard to persuade the trustees of the British Museum that they should buy his entire stock of Old Master drawings. He didn’t manage it, but others, like the Castellani family, were more successful: they converted large loans of Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities to museums, including the Met in New York, into sales. A more curious recent case is that of Charles Saatchi, described by de Pury as ‘the advertising mogul who became the Iraqi Cosimo Medici of the Young British Artists’. He is not generally considered an art dealer but rather a new style of art patron and art broker. He donates works to museums but also sells them in huge quantities. The sales are designed to help keep his own gallery open, ‘in order to bring contemporary art to the widest audience possible’.

At the meeting-point of dealer, collector and museum there is an impresario who may sometimes be a director or a curator. In Curationism, David Balzer argues that ‘the curator, who for centuries in her incipient occupation was seen as a wan librarian type, cataloguing objects in back rooms, became the mouthpiece for institutions, artists and their ideas.’* This will surprise most of the curators of my acquaintance: only a few in the modern and contemporary field could be described as ‘agent, ambassador, organiser, facilitator and provocateur’. Balzer claims that dealers and critics are being replaced by the curator as ‘the main imparter of value’. His example of such a person is Hans Ulrich Obrist, whose career and style and self-publicity he describes in detail. Antecedents would include Harald Szeemann, who correctly described himself as an exhibition maker (at the Kunsthalle, Berne), or, further back, Alfred Barr, but the modern incarnation more closely resembles the shrewd but inarticulate controllers of the fashion industry.

Although it may have been the impossibility of continuity that conditioned much of the character of avant-garde art, the detection of underlying continuities has become a major preoccupation of modern art history, and a popular one. In an essay from 1963, Judd complained about the practice of giving the art student ‘a stiff dose of the past before he knows anything about the present’, since ‘the first fight almost every artist has is to get clear of old European art.’ Thirty years later he acknowledged – and surely exaggerated – his own debt to Rogier van der Weyden. It is easy enough to believe that ‘old European art’ could have a paralysing effect on an art student in 1950, as in 1900, although the invitation to follow Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still was perhaps more obviously fatal.

One reason the break between old art and new is underestimated is of course that many galleries founded to house the former are determined to welcome and, if possible, accommodate the latter. The National Gallery’s East Building was one of the first such gestures. The Met has for decades felt obliged to compete with MoMA and other institutions in Manhattan devoted to modern and contemporary art (which seems to have been a major factor in its recent misfortunes). The huge new extensions created in, or planned for, Philadelphia and Sydney have been driven by similar considerations. In institutions that do not collect modern or contemporary art, a programme of loans or ‘interpolations’ is almost compulsory and comes with much official approval. At the very moment when contemporary artists are least likely to be genuinely inspired by art of the past, they are invited to demonstrate how much it means to them. The real attraction is obvious. The juxtapositions make their own work seem more modern than it is. This can also look like a rehearsal for colonisation.

There have been some happy interventions by living artists, of course, and there are also decorators who understand that an artist like Kiefer, who is interested in history and in time, looks well in the company of a few fragments of ancient Egypt or Rome and a bronze crab from Renaissance Padua on a battered walnut table. At the same art fair you will see the dealers in baroque and rococo furniture trying in vain to convince the visitor that these sit happily beside a Matisse or a Warhol. Far more ambitious forms of confusion have been attempted in some museums. The entire collection in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome, much of which consists of 19th-century art, has been subjected by its new director to ‘continuous phases of transformation and renewal’. Last spring everything was arranged ‘in simultaneous interaction, as if both prequels and sequels’. An early Morandi was placed next to a slit canvas by Fontana, and a neoclassical marble sculpture was taken off its pedestal and turned to face a modern painting. Departure from chronology is a new orthodoxy.

Plans​ are afoot in museums all over the world for new, rotating displays, escaping from the traditional chronological arrangements. These can generate the sort of publicity previously only obtainable from loan exhibitions. Several predictions may safely be made. More and more directors will be impresarios, with little knowledge of art before 1900. The UK’s underfunded museums will be encouraged to gain support from ‘philanthropic’ collectors and dealers by providing them with the double service of a free safety deposit and a shop window for ‘emerging’ contemporaries. Many North American museums will start deaccessioning pre-20th-century works to make room for yet another Warhol – and of course for contemporary performance and video.

The great popular success of modern and contemporary art also requires an explanation. It seems to coincide with the opening of dedicated public institutions – the Pei moment in the US in 1978 and the Tate Modern moment here twenty years later. It has much to do with the way that a new building can instil in its visitors the idea that they belong to the future. It also has something to do with youth culture; with politics, or at least protest; and with the world of fashion. The vitality of Basquiat’s best painting and the compact wit of Banksy (to take two quite different examples) both originate in the subversive mode of graffiti and are associated with particular forms of popular music, noise rock for Basquiat and trip hop for Banksy. Neither artist seems to me to be self-indulgent or gratuitously sensationalist. But much obviously is just that. The unmade bed (now in Tate Modern) was not only another case of ‘challenging our assumptions of what might constitute art’ but is akin to many offences against decency that teenagers dream of committing. In addition, it tells a ‘story’ – about the artist herself – which is helpful in promoting her as a celebrity. It was enough to secure her credentials as a truly radical figure: within twenty years she was a professor at the Royal Academy and one of her works (the words ‘more passion’ in neon) was placed above a door in 10 Downing Street. It is remarkable how often now some spurious political slant is given to a work of art – Liu Wei’s ‘incredible masterpiece made from edible dog biscuits’ (yes, edible biscuits) in the Saatchi Gallery, for example, turns out to be ‘a parody of grotesque consumption’.

And then there is fashion. In the 1920s bright young people may have danced at the Cubist Ball in an Art Deco building that borrowed much from avant-garde sculpture but today the fashion houses are among the major promoters of contemporary art. Top brands have purchased the premises formerly occupied by art galleries in the West End of London, and their window displays resemble installations in the galleries they have replaced.

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Letters

Vol. 40 No. 2 · 25 January 2018

Nicholas Penny, in the course of attacking most things contemporary in art, mentions that the Hayward Gallery opened in 1978 (LRB, 14 December 2017). Actually it opened ten years earlier, in July 1968, when the queen cut the ribbon on an inaugural Matisse exhibition. In its first decade the Hayward mounted some memorable shows. My first art memory is of Rodin there in 1970. And not all of those shows were contemporary: alongside Anthony Caro and Bridget Riley and kinetic art were Van Gogh, Klee, the Surrealists, Palladio, Lorrain and Millet, Islamic carpets and frescoes from Florence.

Martin Caiger-Smith
London SW8

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