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A New Kid in Town

Swann Galleries joins the contemporary art frenzy
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

(continued from page 1)

While some lots found enthusiastic buyers, a number of works that the auction house had high hopes for didn't sell. One that failed to generate interest was one of the strongest offerings and certainly the priciest: an untitled collaboration from 1981 of '80s art stars Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman (est. $90,000-$120,000). The gender-bending conceptual work portrays each artist in identical business suits, makeup and hairstyles and parodies the better-known photographic style of Sherman, whose elaborately costumed and staged self-portraits elicit an international following. The diptych is part of an edition of 10.

Also failing to sell was a poignant work by Australian photography sensation Tracey Moffatt. The entry represented one of the prized staples of the contemporary art movement: large-scale color photos with staged environments. Moffatt's gritty tableau, the last in a series titled Something More No. 9 from 1989, portrays the failed journey of a young woman trying to escape the brutality of her hometown existence (est. $10,000-$15,000). The 40-by-50-inch image from an edition of 30 depicts the broken body of the woman sprawled across the foreground, near a highway signpost that reads: BRISBANE 300 MILES.

Several other entries also missed their reserve prices. One was California abstractionist Sam Francis's Pasadena Box from 1963, comprised of eight color lithographs, a Japanese-influenced three-part color lithographic screen and separate scroll, plus an original gouache (est. $30,000-$40,000). Another disappointment was Lucas Samaras's 1971 Auto-Polaroids, a collage of 12 color and black-and-white self-portraits (est. $10,000-$15,000). (Samaras, whom Kaplan characterizes as "one of the early bad boys of the fine art world," is storied for persuading a blue-chip cast of dealers, collectors and other art world figures to pose nude for him in his studio.) And, Lee Friedlander's 1965 black-and-white photograph Lone Star Café, Texas, which portrays the ghostly self-portrait shadow of Friedlander in the foreground, also failed to sell.

Why was Friedlander, a so-called traditional photographer who regularly appears in photography auctions, being included in this contemporary context? "He's someone who's recently crossed over, if you will, into the contemporary art marketplace," explaines Kaplan, who mentions a recent Friedlander exhibition at the cutting-edge Andrea Rosen Gallery in the Chelsea art district, directly across town from Swann. "I call it cross-germination."

Unfazed by the lackluster showing of the November sale, Swann plans to hold another contemporary auction in May. For now, at least, it is steering clear of some of the hottest artists of the 1990s, since that glitzy slice of the auction market is dominated by uptown giants Christie's; Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg; and Sotheby's, where the turnover is faster than "a blink of an eye," according to Kaplan. "There's plenty of great material by artists who may not be fixtures of the late 1990s contemporary art scene but are the really important artists of the 1960s through the '80s."

As to the kind of audience Swann is prospecting for, Kaplan came straight to the point. "We're after an audience that has an interest in contemporary art but also is versed in photography, cinema and other art forms."

Kaplan certainly fills that bill. The author of three photography books, she began her career in New York's SoHo as an independant filmmaker and "performance artist," exhibiting in avant-garde venues in New York City and Europe. "I was also making photographs but really couldn't figure out what my particular hook was. I just knew I loved photography and contemporary art."

After a fruitful and bohemian stint curating exhibitions on photographers, such as the social documentarian Lewis Hine, Kaplan entered the auction world at Swann in 1990 as a photography specialist. "It was literally a trial by fire. I never imagined working in a commercial environment, but I discovered I enjoyed being in the business world." Kaplan says her favorite part of the business is "excavating" material and bringing it to market. Carving out a contemporary niche that showcases photo-based works is a natural progression for the hard-charging specialist.

Kaplan is well aware of contemporary art's penchant for high-brow jargon and how easily those elitist mannerisms might turn off prospective buyers. She carefully treads this reporter's question about how much knowledge a potential contemporary art collector needs to have about the subject before taking the plunge and bidding. She offers an analogy.

"Many times in the photography sales, we'll see beginning collectors come and say, 'I'm looking for a photograph of a cat' or 'I'm looking for a photograph of a nude,' which is to say, their motivation is subject-oriented. They don't know Cartier-Bresson's name, they don't know Brassai's name. They are simply responding to the photographic image and impulsively determining, 'I like it' or 'I don't like it.' With contemporary art material, I think there is a level of sophistication that enters into it because it isn't so literal and isn't necessarily so figurative. In that way, it does require a different sort of collector."

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