Conceptual Art Wasn’t Meant to Be Collected. Now It Sells for Six Figures
In 1970, the collecting couple Herb and Dorothy Vogel spent $250—roughly $1,667 in today’s dollars—on a work of art that can never be displayed, and, in some sense, never existed in the first place. Robert Barry’s Closed Gallery (1969) was a performance in which galleries in Amsterdam, Turin, and Los Angeles followed the artist’s instructions to close the gallery space for the duration of their respective Robert Barry shows. The only physical representations of the work were its certificate of authenticity and three copies of the invitation sent out to promote a show that never happened, which the Vogels received in turn for their money. The invitation simply says: “During the exhibition the gallery will be closed.”
Despite the fact that the work is not tangible, it was the cornerstone of the Vogels’ entire collection. In 1975, Herb Vogel told New York magazine of Closed Gallery, “We have without a doubt the greatest piece of conceptual art in the world.”
Conceptual art has thrilled and vexed collectors since it emerged in the 1960s, when a group of iconoclastic artists insisted that their work tackle the very questions of what art is, and what its relationship to the market should be. Since then, adventurous patrons have explored the commercial contours and philosophical questions around purchasing, often for large sums of money, the cerebral art these artists create.
“Conceptualists made few concessions to the practicalities of galleries, collectors or sales,” Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times, wrote in an essay on the topic in 1999. “They had almost ‘no stuff,’ in the words of an artist I know; that is, stuff to sell.”
And even if Conceptual artists profess a passionate desire to make anti-commercial work, they have found (and still typically need) some forward-thinking patrons to purchase it. How do these collectors address the practicalities of purchasing and living with a work of art—assembling a contract that ratifies the deal; holding onto the certificate that proves it is authentic; going through the process of storing the work and then installing it again; getting insurance that will protect in the event of an accident—when, oftentimes, the work in question is not visible to the naked eye?
Art in the service of the mind
The groundwork for Conceptual art was laid by Marcel Duchamp and his readymades, particularly Fountain (1917), the sculpture that he created by turning a urinal on its side, signing it with the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” and submitting it to the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. Though no work can be declined by the committee, the work caused such an uproar that the overseers decided to hide the work from view, saying in a statement: “Its place is not an art exhibition, and it is by no definition a work of art.” It was discussed in Dada publications in New York and Paris, but had little lasting effect until the 1950s, when Duchamp’s career roared back as Neo-Dada artists claimed him and the readymades as pivotal influences, and the impact of Fountain was cemented. (In 2004, a poll of 500 art experts commissioned by a sponsor of the Turner Prize named it the the most influential work of modern art ever made.)
The term “Conceptual art” was coined in the early 1950s by Edward Kienholz, a California-based pioneer of large-scale installations and a key figure in the Los Angeles art scene, according to Roberta Smith’s 1999 essay. He was also one of the so-called Neo-Dada artists who took up the baton from Duchamp in the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s, Kienholz developed a series of works he called “concept tableaux,” deemed as such because until they were purchased, they were not realized works. The ownership of the idea would be transferred to the buyer once the first transaction occurred, and then two more stages of payment would facilitate the creation of an actual object.
For instance, in 1965, Kienholz offered for sale a proposed work called The World (1964), a 15-by-40-foot tableau of 5-foot-thick concrete, to be placed in Hope, Idaho. There, visitors could write whatever phrase they would like—“The Fuck You’s will have to stand with the Jesus Saves,” Kienholz wrote in the description of the work—and when the top gets completely covered in writing, another slab would be placed on top. The price is $10,000 for the idea ($80,771 in today’s currency), which can be sold on the secondary market as the new owners sees fit. The price for a full sketch of the project beyond the text description would be $1,000, and then the actual construction would be simply the cost of materials and wages for the artists.
The bottom of the description contains the note that “The State o’ Idaho is vaguely interested in this tableau and may eventually maintain and expand it to a state project,” but it never sold to Idaho, or anyone—in fact, one of the few “concept tableaux” to sell as an idea, and the only one to be fully planned and constructed during the 1960s, is The State Hospital (1966), which was purchased as an idea by Pontus Hultén, the pioneering director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and later the founding director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Once finished, The State Hospital consisted of two figures on stained bunk beds, their bodies pus-yellow, topped with heads made from goldfish bowls, black fish swimming in their skulls.
These few sales of mostly unrealized ideas were more than many of the early Conceptualists could pull off—buyers were not quite ready to pay serious money for work that so flagrantly questioned whether it could be considered art. Joseph Kosuth did more that most artists to establish Conceptual art as a legitimate enterprise, especially through his groundbreaking One and Three Chairs (1965), which consisted of a picture of a chair, the chair itself, and text on the wall with the definition of the word “chair.” Though it is now in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, Kosuth struggled to find buyers in the early days—and that was exactly the point. In his book Art of the Deal, Noah Horowitz argues that because Conceptual art is commenting on the nature of production—he calls it “art about the system of art making”—it is “deprivileging” art, aligning itself with a Marxist critique of consumer culture. But its success as an anti-capitalist gesture depends on it being genuinely unsellable.
This attitude comes across in a catalogue essay for a show at Castelli Gallery in 2015, when Barbara Bertozzi Castelli, the gallery’s director who took over when her late husband Leo Castelli died in 1999, asked Kosuth about the desired market for his early Conceptual works.
“It never even entered my mind that somebody would buy these works,” Kosuth said.
They present no storage problems
But by the mid-1970s, collectors were already trying to buy the works, and artists were finding ways to sell them, anti-capitalist gestures be damned. Horowitz cites the art critic Lucy Lippard’s landmark book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, which contains a postscript written at the time of its publication in 1973 that examines how much has changed since she started chronicling the Conceptualists in the mid-1960s.
“Hopes that ‘conceptual art’ would be able to avoid the general commercialization…were for the most part unfounded,” Lippard wrote. “The major conceptualists are selling major work here and in Europe; they are represented by (and still more unexpected—showing in) the world’s most prestigious galleries.”
By the 1980s, the market for these works had grown enough for Christie’s to hold an auction of 48 items from the collection of the Gilman Paper Company in 1987, which included a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, Ten Thousand Lines About 10 Inches (25 cm.) Long, Covering a Wall Evenly (1971). It was the first time a work of Conceptual art had ever been sold at auction, and the highest bidder would win the right to reproduce the work in the location of their choosing. Beyond that concept, it would not claim much else.
Installation view of work by Darren Bader in “E/either e/Either n/Neither N/neither” at Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, 2018. Photo by EPW Studio/ Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.
“This is the first time we will auction a work of art that cannot be taken away in a truck or under the buyer’s arm,” Martha Baer, who was then the head of the contemporary art department at Christie’s, told the New York Times.
As Lippard documented, there was a growing market for Conceptual work. The dealer John Weber had managed to successfully make careers for artists such as LeWitt by selling them out of his SoHo gallery at 420 West Broadway. He told the Times that institutions had been buying them up, and perhaps not just because of their historical import.
“Museums love them—when they are not on view, they present no storage problems,” Weber said. “The artwork consists in terms of instructions in a drawer.”
Weber mentioned that wall drawings sold for around $2,800 in the late 1960s. By May 1987, the first one at auction sold to dealer David McKee for $26,400—prompting People magazine to write snarkily about the intangible nature of what McKee had bought: “Just what it was he had, to Philistines in such matters, was less than clear.…He doesn’t seem concerned about the possibility that it might get stolen.”
Fast forward to 2012, when Puerto Rican collector Roderic Steinkamp alleged that, in fact, a LeWitt wall painting was lost. Steinkamp sued the Chicago dealer Rhona Hoffman for a total of $1.4 million in the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that she had lost a certificate of authenticity for a LeWitt wall painting that he consigned to her in 2008. Such certificates can’t simply be reissued, as Susanna Singer, an advisor to the LeWitt estate, told Hyperallergic. “We don’t give duplicates,” she said. “We don’t want two certificates out there, raising the question of which is the real one.” And because Rhona Hoffman’s insurance company refused to cover the disappearance, Steinkamp had no option but to sue to recover the amount the work—the certificate—could have been sold for elsewhere. “Since the wall drawings do not constitute freestanding, portable works of art like a framed canvas or a sculpture on a podium, documentation of the work is key to transmitting it or selling it to a collector or institution,” Steinkamp said in the complaint. The two parties arrived at an settlement for an undisclosed amount weeks after the suit was filed.
In 2015, the insurance company Crystal & Co. teamed up with AIG Private Client Group to create a division that would specialize in protecting works of Conceptual art, further encouraging clients to treat Conceptual art as a valuable, tangible asset, and not the radical, anti-commercial worth its creators intended it to have.
“Since a piece of paper is often the only document essentially giving value to a work of conceptual art, we wanted to find a way to protect our clients’ investments even if something happens to their certificate,” Jonathan Crystal, executive vice president of Crystal & Co, told Insurance Journal.
Auctioning $16,000 for $19,000
Since the mid-2000s, a new batch of Conceptual artists are going further than their predecessors, investigating the existential nature of buying and selling an object that may or may not be a work of art. One example is New York-based artist Darren Bader, who—through sculptures, installations, performances, net art, social experiments, and text works—has created a ongoing narrative that explores and critiques what it means to sell Conceptual art in a gallery.
One taste of his gleeful but trenchant commentary can be found in his 2015 book77 and/or 58 and/with 19, which is described as certificates for work. Some include works—which are, as is customary for Bader, undated—that are exactly what they sound like: pizza with earring(s), person sitting in passenger seat of car, and chicken burrito, beef burrito, which was shown in an exhibition of Bader’s work at MoMA PS1. One work, lasagna on heroin, is also purportedly what it says it is—a brick of lasagna with heroin injected into it—and caused quite the stir when it was unveiled as part of Bader’s solo show at Sadie Coles HQ, his London gallery, in 2012. With such works, collectors are buying the instructions on how to install the work, and not the physical manifestation that was encountered in an art fair or a gallery or Bader’s imagination—for instance, the lucky owner of chicken burrito, beef burrito does not own the actual two burritos that were cuddling next to each other on a windowsill at PS1. The owner just has the right to install the work as they so please.
Darren Bader, lasagna on heroin. © Darren Bader. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.
There is a thread through his practice when Bader is selling a physical object—when he is selling monetary currency as a readymade. Two examples of such works are 11.62 Euros—“The work is 11.62 Euros. The work can be kept/taken/destroyed/used/ found/forgotten anywhere,” the description reads—and ___GBP, the performative work where Bader set up an Indiegogo account and asked people to donate what they wanted, and the day after the donation period ended, he would auction off the amount raised at the post-war and contemporary art day auction at Christie’s in February 2015, with the proceeds going to a number of charities.
Just under £10,322 ($15,857) was raised during the donation period, which was subsequently offered as a lot in the sale, the money now a work by Darren Bader. At auction, a bidder paid £12,500 ($19,203) for it—again, for £10,322.
Video works such as 3.95,3.985(,5),7 and Sculpture #4 deal directly with the absurdity of the market by discussing scenarios in which hollow sculptures filled with trash could increase in value on the secondary market. In a recent profile of Bader in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, the writer Nikil Saval described the generational roots of Bader’s multifaceted practice: “Bader came of age as the art world was reaching its commercial peak, and his contribution to this history is to commodify conceptual art itself—some of his work is only complete once it is bought.”
Tino Sehgal is also of this new generation of Conceptual artists, but instead of creating vast amounts of work across media like Bader does, his work only exists in dance performances or a series of gestures, and can never be photographed or shot on video—the only person who has the right to perform it is the artist, and it can never be documented anywhere but in memories. No ephemera exists—there are no certificates of authenticity and no contracts, and once someone does decide to buy a work, a notary finds the new owner to hash out the details in person to avoid a paper trail. But despite making work that is is anti-commercial to its core, Sehgal has become a celebrated artist who is represented by the mega-gallery Marian Goodman, and has sold works for as much as $70,000 to MoMA.
Sehgal admits that buying intangible art about the intangibility of art is not everyone’s cup of tea. Asked about the patrons and collectors who support his work, Sehgal told W magazine: “I don’t have that many of them.”
“The people who are interested in my work,” he said, “they’re quite far-out.”