[Paleopsych] They Do Know Squat About Art
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Fri May 20 19:04:42 UTC 2005
They Do Know Squat About Art
They Do Know Squat About Art
At Auction, Bidders Are Not Moved by Tom Friedman's Feces on a Cube
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005; C01
NEW YORK -- It's little more than a scribble, a quick slash of ink on
a 12-by-18-inch piece of plain white paper. If you saw it at the
office, you might ball it up and toss it into the trash, or fold it
into an airplane and fling it down the hall. It is unlikely you'd do
what Christie's auction house did last week: try to sell it for
That was the low end of the estimated price for this "ink on paper,"
as it was dryly described in the Christie's catalogue, by an artist
living in Massachusetts named Tom Friedman. It was on display last
week during the preview for the house's annual spring auction, where
potential buyers and interested gawkers get a chance to sniff over the
merchandise before it hits the block. Even in the often mystifying
alternative universe of contemporary art -- where you occasionally
can't suppress philistine thoughts of the Wait, I could have done that
variety -- this piece stood out.
There it was, amid the Warhols and Basquiats, not more than 100 feet
from an Edward Hopper, hanging with the titans. "Starting an old dry
pen on a piece of paper," explained the Christie's catalogue. Which is
to say, this thing is exactly what it looks like.
And 20 grand seemed reasonable compared with another Friedman piece
being sold at the same auction. This one, also untitled, is a two-foot
white cube with a barely visible black speck set right in the middle
of the top surface. Would you like to guess what that black speck is?
You're advised to think outside the box.
To again quote Christie's, it is ".5mm of the artist's feces."
Yes, Tom Friedman put his poop on a pedestal, and last week Christie's
tried to sell it, with bidding to start at $45,000. Auction season in
Manhattan is a two-week spending spree of paddle-waving rich people
and art dealers in Prada suits, all of them vying for highbrow booty
at Christie's and its archrival, Sotheby's. The regulars were asking
questions like "How much will the Hopper fetch?" and "Which house will
gross more?" But if you'd never visited Planet Expensive Art, you
didn't care about that, not after you spotted those Friedmans. After
that, all you could wonder is: How does an artist peddle his doody,
not to mention his doodle?
And here's another stumper: Who would buy it?
When it's showtime at Christie's, as it was last Wednesday night, the
streets around Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan are crammed
with black limousines. Nobody walks to a fine-art auction, or takes
the subway or a cab. You get chauffeured to the event, then walk up a
flight of stairs, and if you're a heavy hitter you're given a bidding
paddle and a reserved seat, near the front of an expansive room.
There's a row of bidders along one wall, all of them on the phone with
collectors who are either too busy or too publicity-shy to show up in
person. The art appears on a turntable at the front, or, if it's too
large to fit or too small to see, on a video screen nearby. The
auctioneer stands before everyone, to the right of the goodies, at a
"And one million two hundred thousand dollars starts it," said
auctioneer Christopher Burge, selling a piece by artist Jeff Koons
called "Small Vase of Flowers." To the untrained eye, this piece
looked a lot like a small vase of flowers.
The wonder of this spectacle flows largely from the massive sums
involved and how quickly the money is spent. In a busy 10 minutes, $15
million will change hands here. It's just like in the movies: The
bidders motion so subtly that you hardly see them move, and when the
numbers get large enough, the room starts to buzz.
"One million seven hundred thousand, one million eight hundred
thousand," Burge said, motioning around the room. "Against you now,"
he added, pointing at someone.
Against you now. That's a prod to the underbidder that roughly
translates to "Are you going to cough it up or not?" Like every house,
Christie's earns its commissions -- a sliding scale that starts at 20
percent on the first $200,000 -- by turning these events into a sort
of roller derby for the rich. Except that none of the rollers emotes
or says much of anything.
"It's important to try to keep a level head," says Harry Blain, a
London-based dealer and gallery owner who last week bid on
multimillion-dollar paintings on behalf of several clients. "Otherwise
you'll get caught up in the emotion and forget about the value, which
is what the auction houses would like to have happen. It's not
accidental that the whole thing is set up to be so theatrical."
While the bidding escalates, a huge electronic tote board behind the
auctioneer instantly translates the figures into yen, euros and other
currencies, giving the whole affair a very James Bond international
flavor. "Fair warning" is offered when the bidding slows to a halt and
then Burg slams that rocklike thing in his hand against the lectern,
adding a little tally -ho! flourish with his arm when he really gets
Every piece has a reserve price, which eBay users know is a figure set
by the owner of the art, below which he (or she) won't sell. So
Christie's might start the bidding at, say, $1 million, but if the
reserve is $1.3 million and the high bid is $1.1 million, the
auctioneer says "passed," and the item stays with its owner. It's
always a little awkward when things don't sell, so good auctioneers
sort of mutter "passed," or they say it as they bang the gavel, so
it's not all that obvious.
Last Wednesday, there were only a handful of passes. That was the
night that big-ticket contemporary art went up for sale, including
works by Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Lucian Freud.
Total take for the evening, including commissions: $133.7 million.
Tom Friedman's pieces went up for auction the next day, during the
Thursday afternoon session, along with roughly 100 other items. The
estimates for these pieces are far lower -- some eventually go for as
little as $15,000 -- but being bought and sold in the secondary art
market at this level is a big deal, and at 40, Friedman is among the
youngest. It turns out he's already been exhibited in the world's most
prestigious galleries and contemporary art museums.
How did that happen?
"I guess it's a slow process," he says from his studio in Amherst.
If you're expecting a prankster or someone guffawing behind the back
of his admirers, Friedman is a surprise. He's an earnest guy and
although he recognizes that a lot of his art is funny, he isn't
joking, nor is he playing for laughs. About his work, he's entirely
candid and, frankly, the more he explains it, the more compelling it
"I'll either have an idea that will lead me to a material, or I'll see
a material that will lead me to an idea," he says. He tends to use
stuff that you'd find around the house (glue, paper, Play-Doh), so
that hey-I-could-do-that response is no accident. That squiggle aside,
most of his work is obsessively composed. He once carved a
self-portrait on an aspirin. (And it looks like him!) He made a
perfect sphere out 1,500 pieces of bubble gum he chewed, which he then
wedged into the corner of a wall. Another time he placed his pubic
hairs on a bar of soap, arranging them in perfect circles, like the
rings on a radar screen.
His rise to prominence happened fast. While he was at the University
of Illinois getting a graduate degree in art, a teacher praised his
work to a New York gallery owner known only as Hudson. Among the
pieces Hudson saw during a visit to Chicago was a spiral made of
"It seemed to me that he had an open-ended area of investigation and a
finesse with materials, or a dialogue with materials and how to get
them to work and to resonate," says Hudson. "I was really impressed
also with his ability to edit his own work, and to present it in a
professional but not fussy manner."
Hudson's gallery, Feature Inc., held a Friedman exhibit in 1991 and
the show caught the eye of Chuck Close, a painter of considerable
renown. Endorsements like that are invaluable in the art world, and in
1995 the Museum of Modern Art came calling for a show it was putting
together. You'll find Friedman's art in some well-known collections,
too. For a while, the pedestal was owned by Charles Saatchi, one of
the world's most famous collectors.
"I wanted to find a material that you could present the smallest
amount of and it would have the most impact," Friedman says of the
piece. "I was really interested in minimalism then and with minimalism
there's this sense of purity, of clean forms and geometry. I really
liked the juxtaposition. The cube is logical and clean. The feces is
regressive and insane."
The first time he exhibited the piece, someone at the gallery thought
it was a stool. Scratch that. Someone thought it was a seat and sat on
it. Friedman saw it happen and yelled "Stop!" but too late. He was
unable to find the small, crucial part of the piece.
"I had to go home and make some more," he says.
On their big day, the Friedman items came up early. A fight for the
ink scrawl started at $14,000 and within about six seconds it had sold
for $26,400, including commission, to a guy in a fuchsia sweater. Then
it was time for the poop on a cube, or Lot 416 as it was called by
auctioneer Barbara Strongin.
"Lot 416, now showing on the screen," she said. "And $45,000 to start
here. At $45,000. $48,000, at $50,000. Any advance from 50?" It might
seem like someone was bidding from the way the price went up but that
apparently was just the auctioneer trying to gin up interest and give
the sale some forward momentum, an accepted and common tactic. There
were no bidders. Strongin paused for a moment, then gave up.
"Down it goes, at $50,000," she said.
And as the white cube and the teeny dropping vanished from the screen,
Strongin added a word that never in the history of fine art has ever
rung so true:
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