Through the Looking Glass: Behind Jacob Kassay's Meteoric Auction Rise

Through the Looking Glass: Behind Jacob Kassay's Meteoric Auction Rise

A couple of Tuesdays ago, during the biannual round of major auctions in New York, something remarkable took place at a day sale — the sales of lower-priced work that go on at the three major auction houses during the less glamorous daytime hours — while the art world's attention was trained on Warhols selling for many millions of dollars at the evening sales at Christie'sSotheby's and Phillips. An untitled painting made by a 26-year-old artist, a piece that had been made, first shown and sold in 2009 at the Lower East Side's Eleven Rivington gallery, was hammered down at Phillips de Pury & Co. for $86,500, over ten times its low estimate of $8,000 and well beyond the $12,000 that such a piece would make on the primary market.

The painting sported a shiny silver surface produced by a unique alchemical-seeming process the artist has created, where he primes canvases, then soaks them in chemicals and silver paint, finally drying the paint and burning it along the edges. Like many works that succeed at auction when the art market is heating up — as it seems to be doing now — the piece had a shimmery, reflective quality that seemed to bespeak a certain kind of vanity: Its owner would be able to see a vague reflection of him or herself in its surface.

The painting's sale exposed a number of things about the art market at the moment, among them the hunger for work by young artists on the part of both collectors and highly competitive galleries. It also raised, once again, discussions about the effect that an unusually high auction price can potentially have on a young artist's career.

Jacob Kassay was born in Buffalo, New York, and earned his BFA at The State University of Buffalo in 2005. He lives and works in New York, and is represented in the United States by Eleven Rivington, and in Europe by Paris gallery Art: Concept. His work had never come up for sale at auction before, and while there was market buzz about the piece that came up for sale at Phillips, and many in the art world thought that it would exceed its estimate, the result — over ten times its high estimate — was unexpected. "The painting was a very good one, and there was a lot of competition in the salesroom," was all Kassay's New York gallerist, Augusto Arbizo of Eleven Rivington, would say on the record the day of the sale. "The price is also a reflection of the deep support and enthusiasm for Jacob Kassay’s work."

But the gold — or as it were silver — rush was far from over. The following Tuesday, at a charity auction to benefit the Kitchen, a New York nonprofit, a silver work by Kassay that, as a sign next to it indicated, retailed for $12,000, was bought for $94,000 by someone bidding over the phone with Kitchen curator Matthew Lyons. The underbidder was Chelsea dealer Zach Feuer, who was also on the phone, bidding on behalf of a client. One source who is close to the market for young artists said there was bidding from all over the world during the sale, even from India.

It wasn't your run-of-the-mill charity auction. By the time of the Kitchen sale, rumors had spread like wildfire through the art world that the Pace Gallery — one of the largest art galleries in the world, as well as one that is known to be looking to bring new artists onto its roster at the moment — was interested in representing Kassay. The talk was that Pace had bought the piece at Phillips, and were responsible for driving prices up.

This morning, asked to respond to a mention of Pace in a recent blog post by journalist Lindsay Pollock about Kassay, gallery president Marc Glimcher said in a text message: "Pace, I'm sorry to say, has had nothing to do with the recent escalation of the prices of Mr. Kassay's work. As far as I can tell, that has been entirely the work of passionate collectors. I've been flattered by the speculation that Pace is involved [sic] such an avant-garde artist." In what read like a wry afterthought, he added, "and now I'm hoping this will turn into a case of life imitating journalism. We are trying to set up a studio visit before Miami."

Meanwhile, Arbizo, who began working with Kassay in 2008, confirms that he remains the artist's United States representative, and that Kassay remains represented in Europe by Paris's Art:Concept gallery. Arbizo says he is scheduling an exhibition with the artist for spring 2011.

What might have led to the rumors about Pace, and price manipulation? According to sources who were in Phillips salesroom that day, the bidding began with paddles flying up around the room, but by around $50,000 it went to two phone bidders, who duked it out until the $86,500 price (including auction house premium) was hammered down. Since telephone bidding is inherently anonymous, it can give rise to talk of market manipulation. In the wake of the sale, there were arguments both in favor and against the possibility that Pace had bought the piece. One art dealer I spoke with said it was unlikely that a gallerist who was interested in showing the artist would bid the price up beyond $35,000, since an extraordinarily high result can complicate an emerging artist's market. Another remarked somewhat cynically, "The idea is that it will go up so high, and then everyone will talk about it. And then someone will write about it. And then five guys in India will see that article and decide they have to have one."

The fact, however, is that there is a waiting list for Kassay's silver works known to be at least eighty people long, which makes a strong argument for the buyer of the piece being someone who simply had no other immediate way of gratifying the desire to possess one; who had adequate means; and who had competition from another, equally tenacious collector. At auction, it takes only two to make a price.

To understand how Kassay's market rose to this point — how his work became endorsed by the art world, essentially — it helps to look at his exhibition and price history.

Kassay joined his New York gallery, Eleven Rivington, in 2008, and his first-ever solo show in a commercial gallery debuted there in February 2009. It sold out before it opened — which is especially impressive given that this occurred in the depths of a recession. Kassay has only had four solo shows to date, the first at Eleven Rivington last year, and the remaining three earlier this year. Of those other three exhibitions, only one was a selling exhibition at a commercial gallery, Art:Concept in Paris, and only eight works were on view there. Another was at Collezione Maramotti, a private collection in Reggio Emilia, Italy that owns all the works that were shown, and the last was at Franklin Art Works, a nonprofit alternative space in Minneapolis.

ARTINFO assistant editor Andrew Russeth visited Eleven Rivington's exhibition, and observed on his blog, "This is the sort of show that we've been told the recession is supposed to vanquish: big, relatively expensive paintings from recent art school graduates. Kassay is only twenty-four. But let's be clear: you'd have to be that young to tackle RymanStingelKlein,Warhol, this aggressively and successfully in a single set of monochromes."

Kassay's works, Russeth added, "look like elegantly abused luxury goods. There's the precious metal color, the sophisticated post-production, and some smoky, sexy burns. If you're going to risk a few thousand dollars on a piece of art, why not buy something impossibly desirable? Unfortunately, it's too late to grab one. Another contemporary anomaly: the show was sold out before the opening." Sold out. Those words weren't very often heard in the grim spring of 2009. "For the best part of a year and in the closing hours of a recession, he was the only young artist I heard people talking about," a dealer familiar with Kassay's work says now. New York art advisor Simon Watson, who avidly follows and handles the work of emerging artists, estimates that 500 people saw the first show of Kassay's work, but that at lest ten of them were significant collectors who then began spreading the word.

But they by no means set a frenzy in motion — not immediately, at least. In late April 2009, just a month after Eleven Rivington's show closed, New York alternative space Exit Art had a benefit auction that included a small silver piece — just 14 by 10 inches in size — that had an estimated retail of $2,000 and a reserve of $1,000. Sarah Aibel, now curator for the Sender Collection, took it home for a mere $800. There was no competition.

Oliver Antoine, at Kassay's Paris gallery Art: Concept, first exhibited two of the artist's silver works in a group show in June 2009. They swiftly sold, and the gallery began planning a solo show with Kassay. Meanwhile, in September 2009, a silver diptych of Kassay's, the first diptych he'd made, was included in a three-person exhibition at New York’s Nicole Klagsbrun gallery, alongside works by young artist Brendan Fowler and midcareer sculptor James Hyde. Kassay's diptych was priced at $13,000 and, according to the gallery, it sold easily.

In December, Arbizo brought a pair of shiny abstract paintings by Kassay, priced at $8,000 apiece, to Eleven Rivington's booth at the NADA Art Fair in Miami, and sold both just minutes after the fair opened. The buzz around Kassay's work further increased in January, when one of his silver-coated canvases was included in a group exhibition entitled "Meet Me Inside," at the Beverly Hills branch of Gagosian Gallery — the world's most powerful art dealership — where it hung next to a sparkly black diamond dust painting by Andy Warhol. At that time small works by Kassay, as Lindsay Pollock reported on her blog Art Market Views yesterday, could still be had for around $2,000.

By the time Antoine brought Kassay's larger silver works, priced at $9,000 apiece, to Art: Concept's booth at the New York art fair the Armory Show in March 2010, demand for them had, he recalls, already gotten "crazy." Arbizo reportedly sold four silver paintings at the Armory himself, from Eleven Rivington's booth, for $9,000 apiece. In April, the announcement came that Kassay's work would figure in the prestigious Gwangju Biennale, which opened in September and was curated by Massimiliano Gioni, of New York's New Museum for Contemporary Art. When May rolled around and it was time for Kassay's solo show at the gallery in Paris, Antoine says the waiting list was up to about 80 names. Antoine raised Kassay’s prices from $9,000 to $12,000, in response to demand, and was forced to make "tough choices" about the buyers for the eight pieces, all of which he sold before the show opened.

Perhaps aiding the interest in Kassay's work, and emphasizing its shiny and reflective aspect, was its simultaneous inclusion in a group show that opened that very same month at New York's Peter Blum Gallery. Entitled "Reflection" — many of the works sported reflective surfaces — it, like the Gagosian show with the Warhol, juxtaposed Kassay's piece with established artists with solid markets, such as Yves KleinYayoi Kusama, and John McCracken.

Antoine says he was surprised by the $86,500 price at Phillips. "I thought it would go to $30,000 or $40,000," he says. "This was a lot. We then understood that people were excited about the work and would pay this amount." In the immediate aftermath of the sale, Antoine first received, then placed, a series of phone calls. "Just after the hammer went down, I got calls and emails from people I had never heard of," he says. "They were asking for work, and I had to tell them that our priority is on museums, and people who are on the boards of museums." He then called all of the clients who had purchased pieces from the show in May, and asked if they had any intention of selling their paintings. "They are all very good collectors," he says. "None of them wanted to sell."

Antoine then raised the primary market prices of Kassay's silver paintings — which the artist continues to produce but for which there is still an extensive waiting list — to where they stand now, at $20,000 apiece. In New York last week, he counseled Kassay to continue making silver paintings, since it is, after all, his first series and he is still a very young artist — and to use the proceeds from them to finance new developments in his practice. Even while saying this, Antoine is adamant on the point that Kassay is "not a factory for silver paintings. He is not just making these and selling them to pocket the money."

While insisting that the two recent results at auction confirm how appealing and "seductive" these reflective works are to a broad audience, Antoine admits that results like these can be dangerous. "Now we have to deal with the situation," he says. "The only way to avoid another piece going to auction is to stay in touch with our clients and make sure any work sold goes through us. I'm not complaining, we just have to be careful."And yet, once art hits the secondary market, the ability of an artist's dealer to be careful with the work — which is to say, to control the market for the work — decreases. It is known from several sources in New York that in the wake of the sales at Phillips and the Kitchen, there has been a flurry of secondary market activity in silver works by Kassay, selling at the new prices established by the two sales at auction.

In the wake of the two sales, "there is a sudden secondary market in Kassay's work," says art advisor Todd Levin, director of the New York-based Levin Art Group. "Everybody wants 'the guy who makes the silver paintings'." Two gallerists, he says, are known to have multiple pieces by Kassay in their galleries at prices in line with those at auction, with more coming in and almost as quickly going back out again.

"Right now, you are getting two different viewpoints of this market," says Levin. "It's a bifurcated view. There are people who bought pieces for $2,000, plus or minus, and they are aware of the feeding frenzy, and know they can get high prices for them. The other side of the market is saying, 'Oh my goodness this artist is super hot and I must have a painting, and one sold at Phillips, and one at the Kitchen, both for around $90,000.' And they are willing, right now, to pay roughly that same price to get one because they simply must have it now."

For larger size works by Kassay, such as the one that sold at Philips, collectors are getting $70,000-80,000, with a dealer's cut bringing the price to $80,000-90,000 in total. They are selling now, Levin says, taking the view that market may implode quickly.

One dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed that that no fewer than seven Kassays — three large paintings going for prices around $120,000, and smaller pieces for around $20,000 — had passed through his hands after the two sales. At least one collector is known to have been offered $80,000 for a Kassay he purchased in the low five figures.

Levin is careful to specify that in discussing the current situation with Kassay's work in this manner, he is "looking at this as a market — we are not discussing aesthetics or meaning, or what is good or bad for the artist. In the cold, factual light of the market, what is happening now is that half of the people are looking at this situation and screaming 'buy!' and the other half is screaming 'sell!' And that is where we are."

Another art advisor, Lisa Schiff, says she has seen heavy trade in Kassay's work in the past week. "It's flying around on the secondary market," she says. "And the prices are in line with Phillips and the Kitchen... There are people who bought early, and then when the artist's work starts to blow up, there are people who can't afford not to sell. It has become the perfect storm. Everyone who wanted a Kassay can finally get one, because there are people who can't afford to hold onto them, who are thinking of what else they can buy for $85,000."

Schiff says that she has faith in Kassay, but acknowledges that this particular situation is dangerous for a young artist. "Jacob is so young, career-wise. He barely has a body of work out of the gate. To see work go this high makes you worry about the future." For an artist, she says, achieving such a result at auction represents "everything you ever wanted and everything you don't want. There is a fine balance with success in the art world. A little too much can turn things the wrong way."

Schiff adds that the current furor reminds her of "the Anselm Reyle foil-painting frenzy." Reyle, whose work swiftly climbed from $14,000 on the primary market in 2005 to $634,956 at aChristie's auction in London in fall 2007, also makes works with mirrored surfaces. "That worries me. There is something about the fetish object here." Schiff adds, "The market feels a bit foolish right now. People don't want to put their money in the stock market... It seems like 2006," she continues, alluding to the height of the previous boom.

And in some ways it does. It was in the fall of 2005 at a sale at Christie's London that a 2003 painting by young German artist Matthias Weischer, who had an extensive waiting list and belonged to the then much-hyped Leipzig School, sold for $370,000 against an estimate of $31,000 to $38,000. Weischer's work was, at the time, included in the Venice Biennale, and he had a long waiting list on the primary market with his Berlin gallery, Eigen + Art.

Soaring results for a young artists work have been made more recently as well, but the circumstances are less extreme than those of Kassay. Thirty-six-year-old Matthew Day Jackson's work went through the roof at auction in February, when his 2007 portrait ofBuckminster Fuller, "Bucky," sold at Christie's London for $937,950 — 15 times its high estimate. And yet Jackson's career was at least five years old at that point; he'd come up at auction previously, a handful of times, albeit for smaller amounts; and he'd been included in theGreater New York survey exhibition at PS1 in 2005. In the wake of the result at Christie's, it's worth noting, British collector Charles Saatchi reportedly came to market with two pieces by Day Jackson, selling them both at auctions in New York in May. Both sold above their estimates, one for $662,500 at Sotheby's, and the other for $518,500, also at Sotheby's. And, in June, news broke that Day Jackson would be represented by the powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth.

Megacollector and sometime dealer Alberto Mugrabi, whose family has major holdings of Warhol and other artists, and who is a keen market observer, admits that he has never heard of Jacob Kassay, but, told of the result, says it's "not an uncommon thing to see today on the market. People see something they like, and they bid it up. The people who are buying the work may have the sense that he is going to move to a new gallery." Mugrabi adds, "That's the most amazing thing about the art world: At $8,000 something is not that interesting. At $80,000 it becomes more interesting. At $800,000, it's the talk of the town. That is what this market is all about."

As word of the Kassay sales made the rounds of the art world, market observers shook their heads, and young dealers representing desirable emerging artists quaked. Across the Atlantic, the Kassay sale sent shivers down the spine of dealer Daniele Balice, co-owner of Paris galleryBalice Hertling, which represents the highly sought-after German-born and New York-based artist Kerstin Bratsch. Bratsch's pieces flew out of Hertling's booth at Art Basel for €12,000 ($19,000) apiece as soon as the fair opened in June. Next September she is set to have her first show with Gavin Brown, in New York.

So far no one has put Bratsch's work up at auction but, Balice says, the Kassay result alarms him. "The market for young artists is very strong. But I don't think it's good for an artist to be in this situation. The auction houses and galleries and curators are nothing without the artists. If we put them in a situation of pressure to create new work that is at same level as something that went at such a price, we are at risk of harming artists."

"The secondary market is the colossus that is drowning the art baby," says Christian Viveros-Faune, a former dealer at the now-defunct gallery Roebling Hall, and now an art critic with the Village Voice and other publications. "The Ponzi scheme is getting ever more obvious. This is a perfect illustration of this. That work is not worth that money. It's worth it if the main players in that scheme will buy and sell it back and forth and make it worth that money. The fact that auction results are driving the bus now is significant and problematic."

The person known to have brought in the Kassay consignment at Phillips de Pury was director of contemporary art and senior auctioneer Aileen Agopian, who, the week after the sale, announced that she was departing Phillips and would begin her new job, as contemporary art specialist for Sotheby's, in March. (Contacted by this reporter, Agopian declined to comment on the sale, as she had already left the company.) However, Sarah Mudge, who also works at Phillips as a specialist on the day sales, said a few days after the sale that there had been a lot of interest in Kassay's piece in the days leading up to the auction, so the house knew it would do well. The sale represented a "fair market" in "real time," she said.

Mudge said the bidders on the piece had been an even mix of Europeans and Americans. (Over the past year most of Kassay's work has gone to Europe, after the May solo show at Art: Concept, and a group exhibition at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels.). "The market sets the pricing in an auction," Mudge said. "That's what we saw."

But if, as some say, the larger problem is auction houses, there may be a more particular problem, for younger artists and newer work, in the form of Phillips. Andrew Goldstein, now executive editor of this Web site, wrote in the March 2009 issue of now-defunct Portfoliomagazine, "[Phillips de Pury president and lead auctioneer Simon] de Pury's approach has… made him unpopular with many gallery owners, who see him as usurping their territory. They disapproved of de Pury putting works by artists in their twenties and thirties on the block — a practice widely regarded as potentially damaging to the artists' long-term markets. And they object to how he has blurred the lines between auction house and gallery."

Indeed, in perhaps the most telling sign of the tension between auction houses and galleries, a chorus of voices emanating from downtown Manhattan initially told this reporter that it would be "irresponsible" to publish something on this result and its aftermath, due to the adverse way in which it might affect Kassay. By stark contrast, the sale was "definitely newsworthy and noteworthy" in Mudge's opinion. "We'd love to have something written about it," she says.

What potentially gets lost in the current fervor for Kassay's silver work are the other aspects of his artistic production. Although he may be known to the market at the moment as 'the silver-painting guy,' Kassay's practice is broader than that. He also makes monochromes, objects, video and fabric work, and even performances. Arbizo was showing works by Kassay in many of these mediums at the NADA fair in Miami, in December 2008. For instance, down the hall from the Klagsbrun show, another work from Kassay, from a different series entirely, was on view atMarvelli Gallery, in a group show assembled by the young New York-based curators Matt Moravec and Kyle Thurman, entitled "Chat for the Now." The Kassay in this show was a pink piece in the shape of the American flag, but with all of the stars removed.

Even within the so-called "silver paintings," there is a wide range of nuances, since the works result from a process of plating. Some of these works end up looking more burnt than they do silver. Others are darker than they are reflective. Right now, the market is sorting through the so-called "silver paintings" on resale and figuring out which ones are worth the most. And those, like Schiff, who are familiar with what is happening with Kassay's work on the secondary market say that what is emerging is that the more shiny and reflective the work is — the more purely silver — the more salable it has proved.

Kassay's work is set to appear in a group exhibition at New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery that opens on December 17. Once again, Kassay's work will be in a historical context, this time shown alongside felt pieces from the 1970s by Robert Morris. Gallery director Jay Gorney says the works that will appear in the show have yet to be priced, and that this will be done in conjunction with Arbizo, who could not confirm the prices or precisely what will be shown at the gallery.

"I remain focused on developing his career," Arbizo says. "The interest in him is fantastic and he is a great artist. That is where we will keep the focus."