Guest of Cindy Sherman, production still
Karina Longworth over at Spout blog likes how “Guest of Cindy Sherman,” a documentary by Tom Donahue and Paul H-O (shortened from Hasegawa-Overacker), ruminates on the growth of the art market over the last two decades. Paul H-O seems to think that this is a brilliant take (as opposed to the theme identified by the film’s title– dude reflects on marred relationship with girlfriend more famous than him) and says as much in the blog’s comments. I couldn’t disagree more. The growth of the art market was an easy device used to move the film along, and the subject was touched on only superficially. Surely, at least more than one auction house specialist would have appeared in the movie were this topic discussed with any kind of depth. In fact, according to Kriston Capps at The American Prospect, the film often distorted its presentation of the market to meet the needs of a giant male ego,
Dovetailed into Hasegawa-Overacker’s documentary mash-up of Gallery Beat clips and Sherman home movies are interviews that illustrate the macho nature of the 1980s art bubble and the 1990s art crash it begot. Photographer Laurie Simmons describes how she enlarged her photos to compete with the massive scale of painting championed in the 1980s by macho Picasso types like Robert Longo, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel — all of whom floated on the incredible bubble of the era (and appear in the film). Hasegawa-Overacker characterizes the resulting art world as a backlash against the alpha males, with artists like Sherman emerging in their stead. He even insinuates that Sherman is at the heart of the bubble that, to be sure, just burst (along with everything else).
It has the makings of a compelling narrative. A nice guy can’t compete with Julian Schnabel and the other loud painters. (A hot flash of antagonism between Schnabel and Hasegawa-Overacker drives home the point.) But when the alpha males are out of the picture, it is women like Sherman who take the reigns. The market swung once wildly in the direction of the macho, Hasegawa-Overacker argues, so the swing toward the feminine represented by Sherman’s enduring success must be some sort of overcorrection.
But that is simply not the case. The market never built a bubble around the work of women. Art market analyst Richard Polsky names only seven women in a 2007 rundown of the 50 most heavily traded artists. (Eight if you count Christo to mean Christo and Jeanne-Claude.) Sherman is one of those women, and her market experience, to be sure, has been extraordinary: She was the first photographer to be grouped with painters by an auction house for a contemporary sale. Works by Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Yayoi Kasuma set auction records last year, but none fetched prices within the same order of magnitude as male counterparts like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Gerhard Richter.
To be fair to H-O, the film never explicitly draws the connection that Sherman’s enduring success must be an overcorrection for excessive macho male accolades. But the relevance of Cindy Sherman’s impressive auction prices cited near the end of the movie is never specifically stated, so the Kapps read isn’t coming entirely out of left field [Update: It’s described as part of an overheated market]. In fact, if one were to apply art critic Jerry Saltz’s observation earlier in the film that compares her career to that of a zombie to theory, it makes some sense. After all, the only reason zombies exist is to infect other people. As Kapps points out however, Sherman’s presence in the market continues to be extraordinary. Certainly, she’s not been “infecting” other female artists with her market success.