Inside the Art Market: A Painting in Maui

“Why the Art World is Desperately Seeking Forgotten Artists”

 Artnet.com headline, 9/16/16

The road to Hana is an adventure, especially in a heavy rain when boulders may come down and mudslides close the road. I arrived at the airport in Kahului from San Francisco in late afternoon, picked up my rental car and was on the road near sunset.

For the first several miles the road is a charm; and then you start the hairpin turns and the yo-yo like rise and fall through what seems a never-ending rain forest, lush, mountainous and tropical, with occasional turnouts near waterfalls and swimming holes. It would be an ordeal driving this road even in bright sunshine in your Chevrolet Camaro convertible with the top down; but then you remember that after all you are in Hawaii. Every moment is a blessing, even on a dark night on the Hana Highway, one-lane bridges, rock slides, rain, flashing red “danger” signs, fog and all.

After many miles of constant, wearying and mind-numbing navigation I found the road eventually beginning to straighten out and I was on the outskirts of a sleepy village that seemed far, far away from the luxury resorts in Kaanapali and Kapalua on the other side of the island, where golf tournaments take place and it looks like Southern California, with miles of calm beaches and picnic tables where the locals are enjoying a barbecue under the palms. Hana, on the other hand, is rural Hawaii: old and rustic and mostly poor, with hippies and food trailers, junked cars and shanties along with the occasional mansion owned by someone famous like Oprah Winfrey.

Passing the Hana Ranch and driving through farmland on a crumbling road I finally reached an estate overlooking the Pacific, a sprawling villa behind two imposing carved-wooden entrances. The grounds had long ago been planted with elaborate Japanese gardens and many species of palm trees. In the distance I could hear the sound of breakers crashing down on the rocks well below the house.

But I wasn’t on the island of Maui for sightseeing or sunbathing. The main reason for my visit was a work of art hanging on a wall in the living room of the main house. It was an enormous and mesmerizing painting of 1970 entitled NJ-15 by the Polish painter Wojciech Fangor—a name perhaps little known in the contemporary art market but suddenly hot.

The family that owned the property was from Kansas. They were now selling it, and thus all the artwork needed to be removed. The packers from Los Angeles had already arrived and were staying in the guesthouse out by the pool. In the morning they would struggle to remove the 96 by 96 inch Fangor diptych from the wall where it had hung for some twenty-five years—mostly unseen, as the house was nearly always empty. The painting would then be crated and loaded onto a flatbed truck, along with other items, for the trip back over the Hana Highway to Kahului Airport and then on to Los Angeles. But the weather was turning stormy and I wondered if the truck would make it.

The Fangor was not the only painting from the family’s vast, eclectic collection headed to London. There was a small group of other contemporary works, mostly coming from other houses on the mainland. Curiously, when you looked at this group you noted a fascinating art-historical theme: they all fell into the long-forgotten genre of Op Art.

And what was Op Art?

Well, mostly eye-dazzling pictures of exotic visual patterns—grids, swirling circles of color, curious blots and triangles and all manner of psychedelic abstractions—encompassing a movement that seemed to explode on the art market in the 1960s, seizing the attention of critics and collectors alike. And then just as suddenly Op Art vanished from the scene. It was like a ten-year sensation.

The crowning moment in the brief star shower of Op Art was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 entitled The Responsive Eye. In the preface to the catalogue the MoMA curator William Seitz endeavored to place this new and very hip form of “optical” art into a scholarly tradition of sorts. But perhaps the best way to describe the many diverse works in the exhibition, from artists all over the world, was that they all seemed to tease and tantalize the eye with painterly tricks never quite seen before. How else to explain the bizarre artistry of a painting by Fangor, with hazy, blurry circles.

Perhaps Mr. Seitz should have written that Op Art was a perfect metaphor for the drugged-out Sixties!

The Sixties after all was the era of dropping out and turning on, of rebellion and dissidence, of violent anti-war demonstrations and campus revolts. Surely to anyone who lived through the Sixties and experienced its deep countercultural upheavals Op Art would have seemed an artistic expression of genuine timeliness. Perhaps that was the true meaning of Op Art: disorientation and dizziness, just like the Sixties. But the dizziness and novelty of Op Art would soon wear off.

Leafing through the old Responsive Eye catalogue today shows it to be a testament to the ever-tenuous fortunes of painters in the twentieth century art market. Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Ad Reinhardt, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, Victor Vasarely—all were included in the exhibition and went on generally to have strong careers. But for most of the artists the exhibition was a career highpoint, with struggles and hardship to follow. It remains so true: the art market is a cruel judge of success. Even MoMA’s endorsement is no guarantee.

Of course, endurance is often the key to success in the art market. Look at the English artist Bridget Riley. Her career took flight after the Responsive Eye exhibition. But by the 1980s she was a has-been, pushed aside by newer, trendier artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But then after 2000 she came roaring back, rediscovered, a brilliant relic of the past now in serious demand among collectors. An early painting of 1967, Chant 2, made $5.1million in a sale at Sotheby’s London in 2008.

But what of Wojciech Fangor? His first appearance at an American exhibition took place auspiciously. In 1961 he had been included in a show at MoMA called 15 Polish Painters. In 1964 he won the Guggenheim International Award. A year later he was in The Responsive Eye at MoMA and then had his own one-man show at the Guggenheim in 1970. He seemed poised for a breakout in his career, one that never quite happened. He thus slipped into the shadows as the years went by and remained largely ignored by the art market until his death in 2015.

But as is so often the case, impassioned collectors here and abroad continued to follow his career, especially collectors in Poland where Fangor was a national treasure. One family in America that found this artist’s work especially potent was from Kansas—the owners of the house on Maui.

The patriarch of the family, a lawyer of great renown and success, had started buying art as a distraction from court cases and constant travel across the Midwest in his private plane, flying from one case to another. Thus he would visit galleries and attend exhibitions in various cities. Being a lawyer he was practiced in asking questions and forming his own opinion of things.

Though a man of conservative tastes and modest habits, he was drawn irresistibly to Contemporary art and had developed a keen eye for it. The startling work of Wojciech Fangor came to his attention—perhaps from the Guggenheim retrospective of 1970—and soon he was working with the artist’s New York dealer, Galerie Chalette. The monumental NJ-15, probably the most iconic of all the artist’s paintings, and certainly the largest by far, was thus acquired in 1970. It eventually wound up on the wall of the villa in Hana.

Four other paintings by Fangor were also acquired and dispersed to various homes. The lawyer from Kansas became an avid and eclectic collector, greatly expanding his range of interests to encompass Asian art, modern design, even Impressionist and Modern art. But he remained well below art market radar. By today’s standards of incessant publicity around collecting he was all but invisible.

“Why does the art world love overlooked artists?” blared the headline of a recent online publication. The simple answer is that so many of today’s young artists seem conjured up and promoted like commodities. In recent years the trend was to discover them at art school, buy up their studios, expose them quickly and cleverly as the new generation of art stars, and then—like stock that had been pumped and dumped—sell, move on to the next art school class. This business plan worked brilliantly for Charles Saatchi in the 80s and 90s, elevating him to the status of impresario, in the mold of, say Sol Hurok. It was often more about the money than the art.

So at present we have legions of new artists showing at fairs worldwide, and yet collectors are left jaded as prices rise ever higher for the very latest Contemporary art. With so many collectors showing signs of fatigue and risk aversion, dealers have turned to something new: old artists, ones who enjoyed careers of varying success and kept at it through many lean years though never achieving name recognition or commanding big prices.

So the Contemporary market has perhaps now gone into full forensic mode. Who are the forgotten artists of greatest potential? And how can their work be rediscovered and branded?

This is where Wojciech Fangor enters the picture. Only in his case his new popularity seems to have been rekindled as much by a nationalist pride among Polish collectors and museum curators as by the auction houses. They, of course, are masters of branding, reinvention, packaging and promotion. And as they have sought increasingly to steal the thunder from private dealers in every way possible, they have become masters of the curated exhibition and auction sale.

The English firm Bonhams has carved out its own niche in this regard. A recent catalogue for a Post-War and Contemporary Art sale of theirs in New York featured an entire section, beautifully designed as a catalogue insert with bright yellow covers front and back, entitled Le Mouvement. The insert was devoted entirely to Op Art, with art historical essays, period photographs and, of course, works for sale by the leading artists of the movement. A work by Fangor of 1970 entitled M35 thus received the following note of stirring, salesman-like prose:

“Fangor’s special dynamics take place somewhere between the viewer and the canvas, at a point in mid-air where the eye perceives.”

It was the perfect Sixties observation! And truly M35 seemed to pop off the wall and lull the viewer into a hypnotic trance. The painting was thus featured by itself at the exhibition, in subdued light on its own wall, at the end of a long corridor that drew one ever closer. And at the sale, with an estimate of $70,000-90,000, it soared in prolonged bidding, achieving a new record price for the artist of $319,500. The lawyer from Kansas had acquired the painting from Galerie Chalette nearly half a century ago. One of his grandchildren was present in the Bonhams saleroom overlooking Madison Avenue, following the auction and witnessing, perhaps wistfully, the change of ownership of M35.

An auction exhibition, like in a private gallery, has a curious way of removing all traces of a painting’s past history. Looking at it you’ve no idea what sort of house it was in before, or even in what country. You can’t visualize the family stories that played out before it, in what rooms it hung or what response it elicited among viewers over the years. All of that is washed away and you have only an object to be sold in the art market.

I thought about this phenomenon after the shippers had removed NJ-15 from the house in Hana. They helped load the crate onto the back of an open-air truck, where the driver and his helper covered it in canvas and lashed ropes around it as protection from the rain. Then they backed out of the driveway and headed down the Hana Highway, up past Hasegawa General Store and on to the hairpin turns stretching for miles and miles ahead.

The painting, with its long history in this house—one so far removed from the bustling commerce of the art market—was now headed to a saleroom in London. All that was left of it here in Hana was a large, grimy outline on the wall of a living room facing the Pacific. That, and the wasp’s nest that for some time had been nestled into one corner of the stretcher.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Wojciech Fangor, NJ15 (Diptych). Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.)