How much would Ralph Burnet, multimillionaire realty magnate and owner of the Chambers Hotel, pay for a work of conceptual art?
“I paid Dan Graham a frickin’ fortune for a piece installed in my house,” he says. “Then I had to hire a glass company, have the whole thing installed…it was very tedious, but Dan Grahams are Dan Grahams.”
Like a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt or an ambiguously bitable apple by Yoko Ono, a sculpture by Dan Graham exists, in its essential form, as a concept rather than an object. To “own” a Dan Graham, then, is to own the right to assemble the object—at your personal time and expense.
The mechanics of buying and selling conventional objets d’art—paintings, sculptures, even photographs—are fairly straightforward. You pay the artist a certain sum, and he or she hands over the object. But how does one sell a work that exists in largely, or even purely, abstract form?
It’s no accident that conceptual art is challenging to handle in conventional market transactions: for the artists at the heart of the movement’s heyday in the 1960s and 70s, challenging the commercialization of art was part of the plan. “Conceptual art was conceived against the market,” says Peter Eleey, curator of visual art at the Walker Art Center. “Dematerializing the art object was a way of taking art out of economic circulation.”
The dream of art for art’s sake, however, didn’t last long. “As early as 1973,” notes Eleey, “Lucy Lippard, in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, was saying that though the creation of ‘non-objects’ was thought to be a way of avoiding commercialization, that had already been proven false. There’s a whole range of work from that period that’s still available today.”
As an example, Eleey cites the American artist Robert Barry, who created a series of intangible pieces—in 1969’s Telepathic Piece, he set out “to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image”—some of which were never sold and remain available to this day for purchase from the artist. “Not everyone wanted to avoid the market,” says Eleey. “Some artists were quite pleased to discover that they could present nothing, say it was something, and get someone to pay for it.”
Though this may be a possibility for prominent artists like Barry, work that is even slightly conceptual does present challenges for the average working artist—and the average buyer.
As proprietor of the Circa Gallery in Minneapolis, Wanda Flechsig frequently shows installations and other pieces that depart from the paint-on-a-canvas norm. Artist Matthew Pawlowski, in his recent solo show at Flechsig’s gallery, “did a whole installation of hand-crocheted doilies that he had dyed and sewn together to make a blanket on the floor. Now, what is the lay person going to do with that?” The piece did not sell.
Paris Renfro of St. Paul’s AZ Gallery admits to being stymied by the challenge of selling conceptual art by anyone other than an art-world celebrity. “I think what it boils down to,” he says, “is that someone makes a name with a big piece, and then the Walker picks it up.”
Sure enough, says Eleey, “the Walker very recently acquired a performance work by Tino Seghal, which consisted of five discrete performances around the building. These are all works that are available for sale, and moreover, they’re editioned—which means that people can buy more than one of them, which raises interesting questions.”
Mark Fox, a Minneapolis accountant who caters to artists, writes in an e-mail that most conceptual artists “tend to look for grants and other non-profit funding rather than actually ‘selling’ their work. Or they ‘sell’ their art to museums or other institutions as installations.”
Conceptual work also raises questions of intellectual property. If a concept can be bought and sold, can it be stolen? Jan Estep, associate professor of photography at the University of Minnesota, raises her eyebrows at the current series of print advertisements in which would-be Wells Fargo customers hold signs advertising their financial needs. (“Someday we’ll retire in style.” “Someday we’ll own our own home.”) The concept for the advertisements is strikingly similar to the concept for a 1992-3 project by Gillian Wearing, in which she asked members of the public to write something on a piece of paper that Wearing then photographed them holding.
“I thought people knew of Wearing’s work,” says Estep, who is surprised that the concept would be so blatantly lifted by an advertising firm. “Of course, Wearing was commenting on an earlier piece by Douglas Huebler in which he asked people to hold signs that he gave them; Wearing is making a direct comment on that, but tweaking the agency. Does she have any license to do that? Can you copyright the idea of someone holding a sign?”
In many cases, the purchase of a work of conceptual art involves the transfer of at least a token tangible object—often a text, often typewritten. Text typed on paper “has come, in some ways, to be the aesthetic of conceptual art,” says Eleey.
It’s no coincidence, argues Eleey, that Tino Seghal has risen to fame in the last few years, as the global financial markets have spun further and further into abstraction. Seghal prohibits documentation of his work, so “as the owner of this work we’re paying for a service without any product at all. We’re transferring money into his bank account for the right to do the piece. At this point, his work represents the dream of pure capital. He may not think about it this way, but he’s realized the capitalist dream of creating a derivative market that’s come so far from its real reference that it’s ceased to have any reality rooted in a tangible good.”
And yet, Tino Seghals are Tino Seghals.
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.