"It’s Like Someone Turned a Tap On”: How Pacific Standard Time Transformed the Market for California Minimalism
Reflecting on Pacific Standard Time — the six month-long, Getty-led initiative devoted to reexamining the art of Los Angeles from 1945 to 1980 — L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight quipped that one of the event’s most lasting effects might be to offer an “inadvertent shopping list.” Many first-rate works of art included in Pacific Standard Time exhibitions were lent not by museums, he noted, but by galleries or the artists themselves. “Are collectors, both personal and institutional, paying attention?” he asked. “If so, a guide to assembling major postwar L.A. art collections has been handed to them on a silver platter.”
A month an a half after the official end of Pacific Standard Time and two days before the inaugural Frieze New York, ARTINFO set out to answer Knight’s question. Market-makers certainly believe the iron is hot: Last month, Sotheby’s S2 gallery mounted an exhibition devoted to Southern California minimalism. Walking around Frieze’s Randall’s Island tent, visitors will see luminous canvases by Mary Corse, a so-called “Light and Space” artist from California featured in PST, at the booth of Lehmann Maupin, as well as pieces by West Coasters John McCracken and Fred Sandback at the minimalism-themed booth of David Zwirner. But are collectors paying as close attention as exhibitors?
ARTINFO surveyed over half a dozen experts to find out which artists have benefited most from PST, whose prices remain modest, and who has held steady.
When asked to name artists featured in Pacific Standard Time whose markets have grown dramatically since the event, dealers and art advisors quickly rattle off two names: Mary Corse and De Wain Valentine. These two represent very different sides of California minimalism. Valentine, famous for his slick, candy-colored disks, is a pillar of the movement known as “Finish Fetish,” which boasted glossy enamels, industrial plastics, and resins; Corse is famous for her glowing silvery canvases, a classic example of “Light and Space,” which sought to combine the ethereal and the chemical.
Valentine’s market got a dramatic boost even before Pacific Standard Time opened. “Sometimes the anticipation of an event can do as much for an artist’s market as the event itself,” said Peter Loughrey, the director of L.A. Modern Auctions. In October 2011, Valentine’s “Circle,” a robin’s egg blue resin disk only 17 inches in diameter, sold at that house to a new client for $32,500, a record for the artist and well over six times the high estimate of $5,000. Several years ago, a disk of similar size and quality sold for $4,500. Today, monumental disks by Valentine can go for $500,000 to $1 million, according to his dealer, Ace Gallery’s Douglas Chrismas.
“His market had been very quiet for 40 years,” said Chrismas. “Then all of a sudden, it’s like someone turned a tap on.” Chrismas estimates that prices for work by Valentine, who was included in more than four PST exhibitions, including a solo exhibition at the Getty and another that traveled to the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, have doubled in the last year.
Corse is another artist whose market has begun to sizzle since Pacific Standard Time launched. Lehmann Maupin Gallery added her to their stable earlier this year, and her inaugural show, which closed last month, nearly sold out. Chrismas, who represents Corse in L.A., said museums in particular have shown a strong interest in Corse’s large-scale wall pieces. The Tate and the Dallas Art Museum are among the institutions vying for her work. In March, a celestial mixed media painting by Corse sold at Clark Cierlak Fine Arts for $22,500, well above the $7,000 high estimate. Her largest pieces now sell on the primary market for several times that price, in the $100,000 range.
To be sure, these aren’t the only artists who have benefited dramatically from Pacific Standard Time. Judy Chicago, who was featured in eight museum exhibitions and three gallery shows, has seen a spike in interest in her lesser-known minimalist work, according to her dealer Tim Nye. “I took clients to all those shows,” he said. “It’s extremely helpful to show this work in context.”
“Before, it was primarily the West Coast buying this work,” said Chrismas. “Pacific Standard Time brought an international audience to start focusing on it.”
THE HOLD STEADYS
Not every artist included in Pacific Standard Time experienced the same market boom as Valentine and Corse, for a variety of reasons. Some, like Laddie John Dill — known for installations that incorporate sand, glass, and neon — continue to sell at prices much lower than their better-known Light and Space contemporaries. Though Nye, his dealer, says he’s seen an uptick in interest from European collectors on the primary market, Loughrey says he is selling the same amount of Dill’s work at auction as he did five or 10 years ago. “He made a lot of work, and it is all very ‘80s,” said Loughrey. “The ‘80s look hasn’t had too much of a resurgence yet.” Plus, he added, the fragility of Dill’s work has caused local California collectors to balk. “It’s an earthquake zone,” he explained.
Of course, not all of the artists featured in Pacific Standard Time were under the radar: Robert Irwin and James Turrell were well known and highly valued long before the Getty initiative began, and while the additional exposure certainly didn’t hurt their markets, it didn’t radically alter them, either. A representative from the Pace Gallery, which represents Irwin and is currently showing an exhibition of new work by the artist, said there is always more interest in Irwin’s work than the gallery can fully supply.
Other artists included in PST create work that is so rare and difficult to install that their market remains relatively consistent, regardless of the increased interest. Doug Wheeler, who was featured as a pillar of the Light and Space movement in Pacific Standard Time and also caused a stir with his recent “Infinity Room” exhibition at David Zwirner, currently has only about 20 to 25 works in the world, according to Zwirner’s Kristine Bell. (The notoriously difficult Wheeler has never had a dealer in New York before Zwirner, though his most recent installation — the gallery’s most expensive to date — sold to a private collector.)
The challenge of feasibility and marketability exemplified by Wheeler’s work extends to many artists from the Light and Space movement, according to dealers. Though artists like Larry Bell, Laddie John Dill, and James Turrell are getting much more exposure today than they did a decade ago, the nature of their work means that it is inherently less market-friendly than some of their minimalist counterparts on the East Coast. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in his review of “Primary Atmospheres,” a 2010 exhibition of California minimalism at David Zwirner that many credit with jump-starting the interest in artists from this period, “Living with a [Larry] Bell box in a railroad apartment would be like living with an indignantly offended aristocrat.”
“I think the difficulty in West Coast artists having a collector base that could feel like that of a Judd or a Flavin is that they were trying to get away from the object,” said Bell. “They weren’t trying to make objects that could be bought or sold.”