[Paleopsych] They Do Know Squat About Art

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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
    laundry detergent.

    "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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