Take courage, great leader!

Lucas Ospina on altering power relations between artists and the market, from the May 2015 issue

By Lucas Ospina

Gerhard Richter Painting (still), 2011, dir Corinna Belz, 97 min. Courtesy Kino Lorber, New York

This little tale of commerce begins with an interview with the most expensive artist on the planet, who one day this spring declared helplessly: “You cannot escape the market.”

Of course, it could also start in a more romantic fashion, with the same artist – an octogenarian – in his studio, almost alone, somewhat uncomfortable before the camera, but ready to begin painting a series of works, without mystery, almost as if conducting a tutorial. The artist takes a brush as thick as a small broom, traces here and there, then loads two or three colours and goes from canvas to canvas.

The first scene comes from an interview Gerhard Richter gave to Die Zeit in March, in which he revealed himself to be solemnly scandalised by the prices his works are achieving: “The records keep being broken and every time my initial reaction is one of horror even if it’s actually welcome news. But there is something really shocking about the amount.”

The second scene comes from the 2011 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting, by Corinna Belz, which returns continually to the artist’s studio to track the development of a series of his paintings. At first the strokes are cheerful, in a narrow spectrum of bright colours, expressive patches showing the virtuoso hand in direct communion with the gesture.

But then his assistants prepare gallons of paint for him – ochres and greys for this session – and when the paintings are almost dry, he changes style and covers them, although not with a brush but with a giant squeegee, which the painter drags with both arms across the painting, spreading a layer of semi-uniform colour and obliterating the previous work. The process is repeated, but something always survives from the preceding stages, small flickers and geological layerings that block the naive conceptualism of monochrome from calmly setting up its negation.

In the Die Zeit interview, Richter’s horror is prompted by the price achieved at a recent auction by one of his works, Abstraktes Bild (1986). Sold for $46.5 million to an anonymous buyer, this is a near 6,000-fold increase in 30 years, given that the artist originally sold it for about $8,000 to a collector from Cologne. Richter remembers his happiness, then, at being included in this collection. Now, faced with the speculative spiral, the happy memory remains trapped between what was going to be, and that which now is not. All that survives is the economic balance: “We artists get next to nothing from such an auction. Except for a small morsel, all the profit goes to the seller.”

Why does Richter try to play with the art market but flaunt such a lack of imagination? Why not gamble and devise contracts that set out levels of depreciation each time a work is sold? 

In another scene from the documentary, Richter is besieged by photographers at the press conference for one of his many retrospectives. We’ve previously seen him visit this same gallery Gerhard Richter Painting (still), 2011, dir Corinna Belz, 97 min. Courtesy Kino Lorber, New York when it was empty and insist that the room’s lighting be left basic and thin, a hostile atmosphere for appreciating his works, “so that people are happy to get out”. Now the focus of attention and pestered by journalists and admirers, Richter says to one of his companions as he leaves the opening, “I’m not at all radical.”

“Luckily I can… shut my studio door on most of the discussion about the market and prices. I’m good at suppressing it,” he says to Die Zeit. Yes, he is very lucky, but Richter doesn’t want to throw in the towel without giving evidence of three failed attempts to change the commercial game. Recently he put a sale price of $2,000 on one of his photographs, but the owner of the gallery told him: “You can’t sell that for $2,000, it needs to be more like $10,000 or $20,000.” On another occasion Richter recounts that he made “100 small original paintings and sold them very cheaply. They sold immediately and promptly ended up being sold at auction.” And in a third round, he assumed the role of his alter ego, the critic, comparing two of his own works and saying that the one that reached a price at auction of more than $30m is quite inferior to a much cheaper one – but who cares about the critic? Now it is only collectors and prs who write the history of art.

The artist has faith in a time to come “when the art market corrects itself” and says that he understands its workings as well as he understands “Chinese or physics”. Richter gives the impression of being beaten, but just as he did with his paintings and photographs, and their thousand-and-one variations, why not insist on the game of transubstantiation from money-value to art-value?

To raise the stakes a bit, if the art market is like an atomic bomb, then artists are the ones who candidly and eagerly started to split the atom. But should artists allow money, as a language, to be so far removed from their work? Marcel Broodthaers proposed selling, at the 1971 Cologne art fair, a gold ingot under a financial contract that fixed the price at double the value on that day and required payment in cash. Hans Haacke sells some of his works under a contract that guarantees him 15 percent of future sales and includes the power to advise on and prohibit proposed displays of the work (a ‘Projansky’ contract). Why does Richter try to play with the art market but flaunt such a lack of imagination? Why not gamble and devise contracts that set out levels of depreciation each time a work is sold? Why not include in these contracts clauses along the lines of Haacke’s that correct or limit a work’s commercial escalation at auction? Come on, Richter, you are more than the most expensive artist in the world. If you don’t do it, who else will? Don’t give up. Yes, Gerhard, you can! 

Translated from the Spanish by David Terrien. This article was first published in the May 2015 issue.