ART CRITIC JERRY SALTZ recently expressed his frustration with Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner galleries in New York magazine, describing the four mega dealers as overwhelming behemoths causing much consternation in the art world. In the course of breaking down the situation, one of his most fascinating anecdotes involved artist Mark Bradford, who has left Sikkema Jenkins for Hauser & Wirth.

 

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Detail of “We May Be Running Out of a Past” 2012 (mixed-media collage on canvas) by Mark Bradford on view at Sikkema Jenkins in 2012. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

In the essay (which was published online Oct. 13 and will appear in print Oct. 21, 2013), Saltz rattles off the disconcerting traits of the mega galleries. According to the critic, they are:

“…Bull elephants of the field, galleries that galumph everywhere all the time, Hoovering up artists and money and monopolizing attention. With their enormous spaces, multiple branches, well-oiled business models, massive staffs, PR networks, market power, and endless capitalization, they are overwhelmingly present. They take up hundreds of thousands of square feet in New York and much more across the globe.”

And they are growing—expanding their footprints and adding more artists to their rosters. Saltz acknowledges that the eponymous dealers behind the galleries are “smart and passionate” and that “all have done the hardest thing a gallerist can do: discover, rediscover, and nurture important artists.”

But in his assessment, the creativity and innovation of artists are stunted when they join one of the powerhouse galleries:

“…Something happens to people when they sign with the megas. Too often, the artists are brought in at mid-career, and—like 34-year-olds signed by the Yankees—they are poised for a decline. Every show of living artists in these galleries is ushered in like a career retrospective, a quasi coronation, with everything often already sold or spoken for. There’s no space for debate about the merits. Many of these shows are too big by half, filled with dross.”

Saltz continues:

“The artist is a brand, and the brand supersedes the art. The scale and pace of these places often turn artists into happy little factories with herds of busy assistants turning out reams of weak work. It’s the new Capitalist Realism. Artists don’t automatically decline when they join mega-galleries…Some bloom, some don’t, but something always happens.”

Despite all of this, the high profile and enticing pitches of the mega galleries continue to draw the most sought after talent. Saltz offers up the experiences of several artists as examples and, interestingly, cites two black artists who were courted—Bradford and Julie Mehretu.

Inspired by the elements of architectural and geographic schematics, Mehretu paints layered, large-scale abstract works. The Ethiopian-born, New York-based Mehretu won a MacArthur “genius” award in 2005. The New Yorker (March 29, 2010) reported on the 80-foot-long mural she created for the lobby of Goldman Sachs and earlier this year, a Vogue (May 2012) profile coincided with her solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery. Her friend, Harlem chef Marcus Samuelsson, just named her among his favorite artists in Vanity Fair (November 2013).

Saltz offers candid thoughts about Mehretu:

“Pace co-owner Marc Glimcher recently told the New York Times about his failed pursuit of a blue-chip artist. ‘Everybody wanted to take on Julie Mehretu; we all went to her studio … she’s a bona fide, couple-of-artists-in-a-generation-type genius.’ I know Mehretu; she was a student of mine. I like her. But she’s no ‘couple-of-artists-in-a-­generation’ artist. Her work is handsome but mediocre. She is, however, an artist who is salable, and that’s why Glimcher declared in another Times story, “We’re all chasing the same artists.”

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Detail of “Father You Have Murdered Me,” 2012 (mixed-media collage on canvas) by Mark Bradford at Sikkema Jenkins in 2012. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

Bradford’s collage paintings are composed of multiple layers of found paper that create visually intriguing patterns in fabulous, unexpected palettes. The Los Angeles-based artist further defines the cleverly titled works with precise cuts and rhythmic tears that replicate the street grids and topographical elevations of maps.

In a New York magazine (Sept. 24, 2007) article the artist explained “How He Made It.” Bradford mentions his beginnings as a “beauty operator” in his mother’s hair salon where he painted signs and being inspired by discarded billboards and posters he finds in the Leimert Park neighborhood of his studio. Bradford was in his mid-30s when he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts and a few years later got his big break when he was invited to participate in “Freestyle,” a 2001 group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. A few months ago, The Art Newspaper (Aug. 1, 2013) reported on Project Hermes, a site-specific installation he created in La Jolla, Calif., for a collector who had a difficult relationship with her neighbor.

Bradford’s “Through Darkest America by Truck and Tank” exhibition opens today at White Cube in London and is on view through Jan. 12, 2014.

About Bradford Saltz says:

“Consider painter Mark Bradford, who was sustained through painterly ups and downs at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. And I do mean downs: During Bradford’s exhibition a year ago, his dealer, Michael Jenkins, somehow made his way to the gallery through Hurricane Sandy and propped up the paintings on file cabinets, keeping them above the waterline, saving them from destruction, and sacrificing the gallery’s paperwork to do it. It apparently wasn’t enough, though. Bradford has since moved to Hauser & Wirth.”

For generations black artists have sought critical recognition, representation and fair market value for their work. The right gallery affiliation not only makes, but can create a career. In stating his reservations about the scale and outsized influence of the mega galleries on the art world, Saltz makes a reference to women artists (noting their limited presence at the mostly male-run galleries that overwhelming represent male artists), but doesn’t account for the culturally tuned experiences of black artists.

In addition to Bradford, Hauser & Wirth represents Rashid Johnson; Stan Douglas and Chris Ofili are with David Zwirner; Ellen Gallagher is represented by Gagosian; and Fred Wilson and Adam Pendleton are at Pace. Having reached the top echelon, it will be instructive to watch how each of their practices evolves. CT

 

BOOKSHELF
Check out these recent studies of the aforementioned artists and their practices: Part of the Wexner Center for the Arts series, Mark Bradford is the first major book on the artist and features images and essays examining the social and aesthetic significance of his work. Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks is a comprehensive documentation of the artist’s work that coincided with an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, his first major solo museum show. Julie Mehretu: Grey Area accompanied an exhibition of new works commissioned by Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. An illustrated survey, Chris Ofili was published in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Tate Modern. Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader is an anthology of critical essays and interviews with the artist.

 

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