Philip Guston’s Art Resonates As The Museum World Caves-In

Controversy is a good thing. Ask Socrates, or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Controversial stocks, if you’re on the money do make you the most money. Facebook pretty much doubled off its 52-week low, despite being kicked around by the financial press. Half the world taps into Facebook.

Controversy in the art world displays a similar dynamic of neglect and derision that often turns into adulation and soaring prices. Think of Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans, countless Marilyns and multiples of Coca-Cola bottles.

Just as I’m attracted to ragamuffin stocks selling around five bucks, so-called repellent art gets my money. What’s ugly for one generation mellows over 25 years, becoming highly sought after by collectors and museums.

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French Impressionism which dates back to 1860, took 40 years to find a receptive public. Artist like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir nearly starved to death, but kept alive with monthly stipends by gallerists like Paul Durand-Ruel. Even Eugène Delacroix’s Chasse aux lions was understood by only a handful of collectors.

Monet’s paintings early on sold for 100 francs, less than the value of their frames. Bankers’ loans to dealers were based on the frames, not the canvases they enclosed. Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley saw bailiffs at their door, demanding their studio furniture. They were mockingly called Impressionists and soon forgotten.

Decade over decade, art markets roil as much as financial markets but art is a lagging rather than leading indicator of business cycles. Demand today for iconic contemporary works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol seems insatiable, the bidders mainly financial operators who are sensitive to the low cost-of-carry for pricey assets.

I’m of the school that you never truly appreciate a work of art unless you own it and live with it. I’ve never viewed Philip Guston as controversial. Rather, an incisive painter with much to say, pictorially. Guston’s development spanned Abstract Expressionism in the fifties, but then he moved into realism. Most painters went vice-versa, graduating from realism to AbEx.

Some of Guston’s highly regarded work in the seventies depicted reclining males puffing on cigarettes, their heads shaped like apples, actually moronic-looking. Guston was making fun of realist painters. A few of his pieces depicted cavorting figures of Klansmen cloaked in white hoodies, gesturing moronically. Not exactly heroic figures.

Evidently, several museum employees took offense, viewing such white-sheeted morons as celebratory, dominating the canvases. For me, this is their mistake in interpreting Guston’s motive force. I’m unsympathetic to such umbrage taken by the four major art institutions that just deferred their major exhibition of Guston’s oeuvre.

This is a serious cave-in by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Guston hasn’t been shunned in the art world with major shows, past years, in Venice and New York which drew rave reviews. Day after the renege by the four museums, I received an unsolicited bid of $12 million for a canvas I bought years ago. (I said, no thanks.)

The art market ain’t stupid. It feeds on controversy as in Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans and repetitive portraits of Marilyn Monroe which started in the hundreds and ended up in the millions. By 1900, American collectors with no history of revilement, were eased into their Impressionists buys by dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel who had supported his stable with monthly stipends to keep them from starvation. I’m talking about names like Monet, Manet and Renoir.

Pernicious sensitivity as to what’s appropriate to show already pervades the performing arts. My Fair Lady is no longer acceptable without changing its ending. Liza doesn’t fetch her man’s slippers. Rather, she flings them at Professor Higgins and slams the front door on her exit, hopefully, to a more independent life’s work.

This is nonsense. Any work of art should reflect its times, the mores and prejudices of the world in which it was conceived. Do we cast out Shylock, this obnoxious, avaricious Jew demanding his pound of flesh? In Most Happy Fella, Rosabella is taken advantage of by the aging Tony who mailed her a snapshot of his young, handsome employee, Joey. What about the Moor of Venice? Should he be allowed to escape retribution for snuffing Desdemona?

The National Gallery of Art in our capital should be ashamed of itself for postponing the Guston show. Its founder, Andrew Mellon, who was Secretary of the Treasury beginning in 1921 until early 1932, must be turning in his grave. Mellon, who deplored FDR’s spending streak, stepped up and bought 23 Impressionist masterpieces from the Soviet Union’s Hermitage Museum which needed ready U.S. currency. They got only $8 million. I’m talking about Rembrandt’s A Polish Nobleman, Frans Hals, Jan van Eyck and Titian’s Venus with a Mirror.

These pieces were earmarked by Mellon for his museum in Washington which he designed and built with his own capital. Mellon was indicted for tax evasion but died before the case was decided in his favor in the thirties.

Seldom remarked (or imagined), is that the rate of return on wisely bought art dwarfs venture capital. Returns of 1,000 times can develop over a couple of decades. Basquiat canvases sold for $2,500 early on, but now go for $100 million.

Do your homework early on and the future is yours. Look at Warren Buffett’s holding period for stocks like American Express AXP , first bought in the mid-sixties. Jackson Pollocks went for $1,000 while Mark Rothko was a tough sell at $1,200 in the fifties for Betty Parsons and later Sidney Janis, gallerists.

I sniff, herein a lesson for investors. Welcome controversy and never fully accept what is considered the norm for what’s appropriate to own. I’d challenge the traditional pie-chart schema of 60% equities, 40% fixed income paper. Nasdaq 100 Index and the high-yield bond sector make more sense to me, currently, maybe for the next couple of years. Controversial stocks like Facebook, Citigroup C , Goldman Sachs GS and Freeport-McMoRan FCX appeal to me more than Walt Disney DIS , American Express and Tesla TSLA .

When you’re right it’s not at all lonely being alone.

Sosnoff and/or his managed accounts own Facebook, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Freeport-McMoRan.

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