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January 21, 2008

The Ultimate Career Move

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ever-prolific Terry Teachout, in his 19 January "Sightings" column in the Wall Street Journal (a current link is here), deals with the effect of death on artistic reputations. Here is a sampling:

Is dying really a shrewd career move? Cynics, art dealers and humorists seem to think so. ...

[On the other hand] Arthur Rubinstein was one of the most successful classical pianists of the 20th century, but his recordings, unlike those of his arch-rival, Vladimir Horowitz, stopped selling soon after his death in 1982. It was as if his charismatic onstage physical presence had been necessary in order to persuade listeners of the artistic quality of his exciting but sometimes slapdash playing. ...

What is it about the demise of an artist that so often triggers a reconsideration of his significance? In the short run, the Death Effect arises in part from the publication of obituaries that discuss the whole of his achievement, admiringly or otherwise. ...

Not only can such articles stimulate renewed critical debate, but they may also have the unintended consequence of bringing a freshly deceased artist to the attention of younger readers hitherto unfamiliar with his work. [Teachout goes on the mention George MacDonald Frazer, author of the "Flashman" series.] ...

Another aspect of the Death Effect is the undeniable but nonetheless macabre fact that an artist's death makes it easier for critics to sum him up -- and for dealers to set a price on his work. You can't trust a living artist not to lose his touch or change stylistic direction, much less to keep his output low enough to make it more valuable to collectors. ...

I'll add that an obvious route to obscurity is to be an artist in a field where no permanent records are left once that artist has done his thing. Consider the performing arts in the pre-film, pre-digital video era. For instance, I strongly suspect that 18th century English actor David Garrick would be far less known today were it not for Boswell's account of Garrick's association with Dr Johnson.

For artists such as painters and novelists who leave tangible products, there seems to be no surefire way of predicting posthumous reputations. The fickle hands of fashion and what group constitutes the arts Establishment at any given time determine this. Given that both fashions and Establishments aren't permanent, the likely result is a cyclical, roller-coaster reputation path for those artists who don't drop out of the picture permanently.

In painting, it took Vermeer centuries to become famous. John SInger Sargent's reputation crashed right after he died, only to be revived circa half a century later. Andy Warhol's rep is still cruisin' without a speed bump 21 years after he went to that big Factory in the sky. My bet is that he'll eventually be rated as DaDa-like prankster -- not an important artist. But that's not likely to happen until the current Establishment gets pushed aside.



posted by Donald at January 21, 2008


Just on that interesting Rubinstein/Horowitz comparison:

I wonder if the '65 Carnegie Hall recording by Horowitz didn't do something special for his rep and legacy. It was a live comeback by a chronic self-doubter which managed to be showy and intimate at the same time: Frank Sinatra stuff, almost. It gave him a unique glamour, justified or not...and this Aussie teenager was listening to Scriabin while waiting for "The Man From UNCLE" to start!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on January 22, 2008 3:43 AM

Sargent's reputation did not crash the night he died. The artist's estate auction at Christies London in July of 1925 brought the highest gross of any sale to date for a contemporary artist and 2nd to the highest sum of any auction ever. His work continued to sell. It was the artist/critic, Roger Fry, who somewhat successfully succeeded in convincing others that Sargent was a boring artist and not worth consideration.

Posted by: Lygia on January 22, 2008 7:03 AM

As for the Death Effect and rock musicians, I need cite only one example: a young man I saw at the gym a couple of years ago, bearing a Jim Morrison tribute tattoo. He looked to be no older than his early 20's, meaning that he was born around a decade after Morrison's death.

If that isn't a perfect example of the Death Effect in action, I can't imagine what would qualify!

Posted by: Peter on January 22, 2008 9:28 AM

One salient point with those artists who leave behind tangible art objects like paintings is that upon the death of the artist there is now a finite and definable supply of those works that can be matched to the demand for them. If an artist's estate is well managed they can optimize the value of the art objects left behind. Sell too much, too quickly, for prices too high to be sustained and you'll see a drop from which the work may never recover. Arrange for museum retrospectives, major gallery shows, books and art publication essays about the artist, their work and career; judiciously place portions of the work into "deep storage" while allowing small numbers of well selected pieces onto the market and a strong, sustainable market momentum may be built for the work. The tastes of the time will obviously have a big impact. Some estates need to be patient in waiting for the next up cycle for the genre or style of the artist in question before making their move.

Posted by: Chris White on January 22, 2008 1:54 PM

Lygia' comment about Roger Fry burying the reputation of Sargent aft his death is interesting. Do you, Lygia, or anyone else know more about that? Did they have a running conflict? I have had the general impression that Fry was an aggressive agent in support of the transition to modernism and the rejection of traditional art. But I would love to know a bit more.

Posted by: jacob collins on January 22, 2008 3:51 PM

Rolf Plenum, the hypo-kinetic cryptorealist, is due for a revival. He planned well, leaving instructions to his estate that no more than one work was to be sold per fiscal year, that precisely 15 years after his passing there was to be a retrospective at the Crash Site Gallery on Avenue B, followed 15 years later as his reputation gathered momentum among the cognoscenti by a move uptown to the Van der Valk-Schliemann Gallery on 57th Street. He also instructed his executors that no new commissions whatever were to be accepted.

His time is about here. Mark my words.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 24, 2008 11:50 AM

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