Going Once, Going Twice: Both Artist and Commercial Genius

Techniques, styles, tastes and choices of subject may have changed since Titian’s day, but the principle remains the same: An artist might be willing to create a series in order to satisfy the wishes of those who want to acquire an 'original'.

The headlines from New York were enthusiastic and left no room for doubt: The autumn auction season produced record revenues. After the megastorm and before the fiscal cliff, Christie’s, the well-known auction house, took pride in the best-ever results in a sale of postwar and contemporary art.

The gala evening auction Christie’s held on November 14 − where every self-respecting multimillionaire wanted to be seen and to hurl money − generated sales of no less than $412 million. One of the big names there, between one bang of the gavel and the next, was Andy Warhol, whose work is currently being featured in a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ‏(ending December 31‏). His painting “Statue of Liberty” (‏1962‏) fetched a nifty $43 million on the night in question.

The eternal competitors, Sotheby’s, lagged a bit behind Christie’s but also broke the record for “post-World War II art”: Counting its commission, Sotheby’s enjoyed sales of $375 million. The star of its auction on November 13 was Mark Rothko, whose “No. 1 ‏(Royal Red and Blue‏)” went for $75 million. Not a record for the artist − another of his works had already fetched $88 million − but still a very impressive price.

In public auctions it’s always interesting to see whose work did not sell, especially at a time of surging sales. Christie’s sold 93 percent of their items, Sotheby’s 84 percent. And who was left on the sidelines? A big name on the list is German photographer Andreas Gursky. Just a year ago, in November 2011, the art world was thrilled when the 57-year-old Gursky’s work “Rhine II” went for $4.3 million ‏(at Christie’s in New York‏), making it the most expensive photograph in history. The Plexiglas-mounted color print with the artist’s signature on the back shows the River Rhine in a horizontal, almost geometrical composition in green and gray.

The sale last year did not take the experts by surprise, as Gursky is a highly regarded artist whose work has previously fetched high prices. And even the fact that the photograph is one in a series of six identical prints did not cool the buyer’s ardor. Of the other five prints, four are in the possession of museums, including the Metropolitan in New York and Tate Modern in London. In this case, the fact that there are few “free” works available in the market generated a higher price, since collectors see that the number of copies they could acquire from the series is very limited.

Yet a year later, a photograph from another series of six by Gursky was unable to replicate the achievement. Not only did the work that was up for auction − “Engadin II,” which shows a valley in the Alps from a bird’s-eye view − fail to sell, but that failure occurred in a week of record-breaking sales. The estimate for the picture was actually slightly conservative, given the prices that were paid for Gursky’s works in recent years: only $1 million to $1.5 million for this geometric composition in black and white, which is characteristic of the German photographer’s work.

Moreover, this happened even as Gursky has become the subject of a much-talked about exhibition in his hometown of Dusseldorf, where his recent works are on display. What, then, brought about the failure to sell a work that Le Monde placed in the category of “the art of retouch” because of the intense Photoshop effort that Gursky invests in his photos?

Gauging the status of an artist in the commercial market according to the results of one auction would be like trying to predict the weather on the basis of one day of sunshine or rain. Yet the fact that Gursky, who creates series of identical photographic images, became within one year the most expensive photographer in history − and sat out one of the most successful auctions in history − is cause for thought about photography in general and about series of images in particular.

One of the reasons that Gursky’s achievement a year ago was important is related to a question that has accompanied his medium from its inception: Does photography deserve to be considered art in the same way as painting and sculpture are? Fortunately, that question is no longer being debated. Yet, in an era in which almost every owner of a mobile phone considers himself a photographer, there is symbolic meaning in the record sums fetched by photos and the fact that those prices are subsequently topped. ‏(Before Gursky’s work, the record price was held by the American photographer Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #96”, 1981‏, which sold for almost $3.9 million in 2010.‏)

Reconstructing reconstruction

Another issue that continues to play a certain role in regard to photographic technique concerns reproduction − the fact that a work can be replicated identically numberless times. Of course, the fact that a photographer can produce a series of copies that are all identical and original is a significant advantage in terms of the art of photography, but can also be perceived as its weak point. This is especially the case for those who hold the old-fashioned belief that something must be singular and unique in order to be considered a work of art.

A backward leap in time of 500 years, from the banks of Gursky’s Rhine to the canals of Venice, shows that the most expensive photographer in history invented nothing. In the Italian Renaissance, too, there were very wealthy collectors who coveted a particular work by a highly regarded artist. They agreed to ignore the fact that the artist had already created and sold an ‏(almost‏) identical copy − as long as they could get the ‏(additional‏) “original.” The artist in question is of course Titian, perhaps the first international artist of the Renaissance, the darling of Italy’s princes and in particular of Emperor Charles V, the greatest European ruler of the period.

No subject occupied Titian more than that of the female image − and among the women he painted the one who enthralled him was the most beautiful of all: Venus, the goddess of love. The Venetian artist and the apprentices who worked for him presented a Venus for all − in a number of versions, with her reclining on a bed in someone’s residence ‏(“domesticated Venus,” in the phrase of the brilliant Renaissance and gender scholar Rona Goffen, author of the book “Titian’s Women”‏).

Visitors to the Metropolitan, the Uffizi or the Prado can see any number of variations on the artist’s favorite subject, and even more so the favorite of his patrons: Venus nude or partially clad. Some paintings show her lying on a bed in the company of an organ player, others with a lute player; in some she is accompanied by Cupid and in others by a small dog.

Research by renowned curator Keith Christiansen has shown that for some of these works the artist and his assistants used cartoon and tracing techniques to copy the image of the heroine time and again. The clients received an original Titian “Venus” which was also part of a series in which a process of mechanical replication was used.

A fine example can be seen in the works depicting Venus and her lover Adonis just before he departs for a hunt from which he never returns. One version, painted by Titian and his apprentices, is in New York, another in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The National Gallery in London also has a fine copy, painted in the artist’s studio. For years, experts on Renaissance art made a good living by finding the differences between these exciting paintings, in which the handsome hunter is seen hurling himself into an adventure while his paramour tries to stop him, foreshadowing the fact that this will be their last meeting ‏(Adonis is killed that day‏). But a quick look at some of the different versions shows that they have more in common than not: Indeed, this is a nearly identical series of works, with variations primarily in the small details. In fact, the “original” painting − that done for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in Rome around 1545 − was lost, and only the reproductions survived.

Commercial genius

The techniques, styles, tastes and choices of subject may have changed since Titian’s day, but the principle remains the same: An artist might be willing to create a series in order to satisfy the wishes of those who want to acquire an “original.”

Visitors to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, for example, witness a wonderful example of the commercial genius of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century: Man Ray.

The photographer, who was born in 1890 in Philadelphia as Emmanuel Radnitzky, became one of the most influential figures in the Surrealist movement. His work “Venus Restored” was created in 1936, in the form of a plaster cast of a famous, ancient statue ‏(whose original is in the Uffizi‏).

In the original marble sculpture, the goddess of love lost her arms over the years, and Man Ray decided to reconstruct the figure his own way. He wrapped the armless Venus with rope and then photographed the object he had fashioned, creating an image that became one of his best known works. The erotic and historical interfaces of this odd “restoration” continued to fascinate Man Ray’s admirers, even after the object he photographed was destroyed.

Thirty-five years later, in the ninth decade of his life, Man Ray authorized the creation of an additional version of that work. A reconstructed series of “Venus Restored” was produced in 10 copies, and sold to collectors and museums. One copy found its way to Jerusalem and another was sold in Paris three and a half years ago for 360,000 euros.

So, is the 1936 version of the “Venus Restored” that was destroyed worth more than the reconstruction of the reconstruction from 1971? What about the original in Florence? Or is the photograph from which the reconstruction was reconstructed the most significant image of all? From the time of Titian, the serial painter of Venus, to Man Ray, the serial producer of Venus, the technologies have changed dramatically, but despite this little has really changed.