Today’s Young Dealers Could Learn a Lot from the ’90s
Whispers have turned to shouts around the doom and gloom of the art market following a period of rife speculation. Galleries are closing their doors; others contemplate calling it quits. Artist prices are plummeting. Buyers from emerging markets are disappearing from auction salerooms.
This situation could be a dramatized snapshot of 2016—but the year is actually 1991. The bubble of the late ’80s has burst; the art market is reeling. But, in the midst of this chaos, a group of dealers who now dominate the discourse around contemporary art are getting their start. “The ’90s was the decade which really created the environment we find ourselves in now,” said Jo Stella-Sawicka, artistic director of Frieze, which launched a new section this week, The Nineties, recreating 11 seminal exhibitions from this era under the curation of Nicolas Trembley.
“We had no money at the time. Young people keep asking if this was my office—no, it was my gallery,” laughed Daniel Buchholz in the 3-by-3-meter gallery space he’s recreated for Wolfgang Tillmans’s first-ever solo in 1993. At Frieze, some 70 photographs and magazine spreads are scattered across the walls of a replica of the tiny space behind Buchholz’s father’s Cologne bookshop where the show was originally mounted. For the now hugely influential German dealer, who keeps galleries in Cologne, Berlin, and New York, it’s a reminder of an era when fewer funds meant fewer expectations. “It’s good to remember that it’s not necessary to have a $20,000 production,” he said. (Though he noted this install wasn’t cheap.) “It’s not always about the money.” In its original installation the photographs sold for £200 a pop. As of Thursday afternoon, the photographs at the fair, now on offer as a single work (Buchholz & Buchholz Installation), were on reserve with a German museum.
“There was certainly a different type of relationship between artists and galleries at the time,” said Florence Bonnefous, founder of Air de Paris, who noted that galleries didn’t need to put the same pressure on artists to make the right number of works—or the right type of works—for art fairs. Perhaps in a nod backward for the French gallerist, her presentation at Frieze is not so much monetarily driven: two of the three “living sculpture” works on view by Pierre Joseph had sold in the ’90s. (Characters portrayed by actors in the booth include a policeman, a leper, and a Cinderella.) “It allowed some kind of liberty,” Bonnefous continued. “We didn’t have much but we didn’t need much. It was not about making big objects that are very expensive to produce, it was about producing ideas.”
In this spirit, Bonnefous recalls the gallery’s first show in 1990, “Les Ateliers du Paradise,” where Philippe Perrin, Philippe Parreno, and Pierre Joseph turned a summer holiday into a month-long live-in exhibition, with chefs, artists, and writers passing in and out—now considered a key moment in the start of relational aesthetics. “The gallery was open when we didn’t want to go for a swim at the beach,” she recalled. “But we could also go swim for a couple of hours.”
There were of course two schools of thought here, as alongside the gallerists carving out their programs, New York’s mega-dealers began to build up stables and commercial brands marked by high production costs and the emergence of art-world stars, YBA Damien Hirst being the poster child. But Frieze, a fair famed for its support of artists and gallerists, appears to have focused its gaze for The Nineties on the former.
With the route to market for work not always so pronounced, when collectors did buy, they bought with passion, not speculation. “There was never a question of price and value, is the price going to double soon—auctions didn’t play a role at all,” said Mehdi Chouakri, standing amongst 14 ’80s–’90s-era television sets broadcasting aerobic lessons by Cindy Crawford, Jane Fonda, and Raquel Welch. The work, A Journey to Fitness or How to Lose 30 Pounds In Under Three Weeks (1993), restages Sylvie Fleury’s pioneering installation from Aperto ’93 at the Venice Biennale and sold on Thursday to a European collection. It sits within the artist’s wall painting, Modulateur Ombres et Lumières, Welcome to the World of Chanel Beauty (1993), which sees three hues of Chanel makeup cover the booth’s respective walls. This sounds eerily similar to the trend we’re seeing amid today’s softened art market: Across Frieze, dealers have reported that when people are buying, they are spending more time researching and contemplating the artists they want to support.
According to Chouakri, the more thoughtful pace seen amongst collectors was also a tenet of the era’s artistic production. “A young artist of the ’90s was perhaps older than 30, while a young artist nowadays is 23 or 24,” he said, noting that Pierre Huyghe and Parreno, while both extremely active in the ’90s, took some 20 years to reach the success they’ve seen today. The dealer attributes this rhythm to the early stages of the Information Age—with limited access to email and internet—when a letter between the United States and Europe would easily take a week and FedEx was still on the rise. “Even within the velocity in our time, sometimes stepping back and thinking, being more careful in doing things is in fact much better whether you are an artist or a gallery,” he said.
In 2016, it’s hard to imagine a gallery or artist possibly surviving without email. (Even Buchholz, who is famously rumored to write all communication by hand, still has his assistant type up his notes and hit send.) The quickened pace of commerce afforded to galleries by technology and globalization allows more to thrive—and more artists to show. But considering the similarities of our current times to those of the groundbreaking era The Nineties encapsulates, it’s instructive to dig deeper about what may be more easily applied.
How could young galleries today find themselves in the shoes of dealers like Esther Schipper, who some two decades after mounting Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s solo exhibition R.W.F. in 1993 (an apartment-turned-film set which is restaged at Frieze) ushered her roster to stardom? (This week in London sees no fewer than five of her artists open major exhibitions: Roman Ondák at South London Gallery; Martin Creed, Ugo Rondinone, and Gonzalez-Foerster at the Hayward Gallery; Philippe Parreno at the Tate’s Turbine Hall.) These dealers emerged during a difficult market, and amid social and political upheaval—the AIDS crisis and the Gulf War playing no small part. But our decade has its own set of issues. What could we do to be able to look back in 25 years time and recall the 2010s as the time when art once again took a new and groundbreaking tack?
Ultimately, it seems clear that galleries are in need of greater opportunities to define what works for their own businesses in regards to output, programming, and fair participation. “I’m not sure [today’s] young galleries know much about this time, because they’ve started out with a series of constraints and rules which are so firm,” Bonnefous said. We’re just starting to see these rules be broken: Last year, younger galleries diverted from FIAC initiated Paris Internationale; others, rumored to have been displeased with their performance at Frieze and other fairs began the online-only Dream art fair, put forth as a free-of-charge platform for small, young galleries unable to afford the hefty overhead of the top-tier fair circuit. Looking at The Nineties, it’s clear that there are benefits for galleries being allowed to chart their own path, whatever that means for each individual gallery.
“It’s just about what you stand for,” said Chouakri. “Quality and good work is the most important thing—and not speed, money, value.” This, he said, is what we learned from the artists of the late ’80s and the ’90s, like the Guerrilla Girls or Fleury. “You stand for your passion. It’s your life. And you’ve got to be able to do it over years and years and years. And the ’90s were for that.”