Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Conservative Tastes in the Greek Art World

The Economist's recent special report on the art market affirmed my suspicions about the international market of Greek art (see, "Suspended Animation," Nov. 28, 2009). I have, on occasion, blogged on the sale of Greek art and noted that, although seemingly international, Greek art circulates primarily in Greek hands. Essay "A Whole New World," focuses on the effects of globalization in contemporary art and comments on the success of Bonhams and Sotheby's in capturing the demand for Greek works. I quote the entire paragraph:

"The Greek shipowners who fled political turmoil at home for the calm squares of London in the 1960s had the money to compete for Greek art. They had conservative tastes, seeking out paintings of the Acropolis and large seascapes. The London auction houses were happy to supply what they wanted, and the sales of Greek art from the 19th and 20th centuries at Sotheby's and Bonhams have been highly successful." (p. 15)

The conservative tastes expressed in the international market of Greek art is hence a rigged game, expressing the tastes of a particular class with international distinctions. Whether the taste of Greek shipowners matches the taste of the ordinary Greek remains an open question. In contrast to this older generation of artistic commerce (and I don't mean old in age alone), globalization has brought about new artistic players. Most prominent among them is Dakis Joannou, the Cypriot industrialist, whose Deste museum (in Nea Ionia, Athens) has received international acclaim. "I am not interested in power but engagement. I like to put the work in dialogue with other art, to give it the opportunity to speak, to see whether it can stand on its own feet," explains Joannou to the Economist (p. 9). Joannou started collecting in 1985 with Jeff Koons' Equilibrium. I was intrigued with the repetition of the term "engagement" also in Koons assessment of his own productions. Also quoted in the Economist, Koons states "It's not a critique but an acceptance of our own cultural history. I guess the people who are involved with my work feel physically and intellectually engaged." (p. 11). I suspect that "engagement" is the new code word to distinguish a type of art making and collecting that is differentiated from the market. During the 1990s, as we all know, the art market was inflated by collectors who bought as an economic gamble rather than as a personal love for the objects.

Finally, to situate Greece in the contemporary international market, we must highlight the opening of a Gagosian branch, in Athens on September 15. Adding to three galleries in New York, one in Beverly Hills, one in Rome, two in London and an office in Hong Gong, Larry Gagosian has expanded his international venues to Athens. Gagosian in Athens opened with an exhibition of Cy Twombly. The Athens Biennial, whose theme this last summer was "Heaven," has received little attention in contrast to the Istanbul Biennial, which is becoming almost as important as the biennials at Venice and Sao Paulo.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Athens Building Database

Sometime over 10 years ago, I started a little photographic project that I never completed: to document all the 1930s buildings in Athens. I was inspired by the methodologies I had learned in documenting vernacular architecture at the Morea Project and wanted to apply it on the modern apartment buildings of the interwar period. My 1930s Polykatoikies Project was a great excuse to walk every street of Athens and take photographs. A couple of books on 1930s apartment buildings have come out since then, and the Benaki has established a great architectural archive. Things are looking a little better for modern architectural studies. The field is still dominated by the super-scholars of the Polytechneion (Manolis Korres for ancient, Charalambos Bouras for medieval, Dimitris Philippides for modern), but a new generation seems to be emerging as well.

Athens is full of modern architectural jewels like the 1932 Blue Apartment Building at Exarcheia (published by Maro Kardamitse-Adame, 2006). Some have been studied thoroughly on a one-to-one case and the general historical narrative has been well established. What is still missing, nevertheless, is a systematic documentation of what is on the ground that might include lesser and greater buildings. The online database Contemporary Monuments Database is a good start. The project is directed by Leonidas Kallivretakis of the National Research Center. The database includes 267 buildings and is searchable by construction dates (1467-2003). The general website, Archaeology of the City of Athens, also includes 12 papers by experts on each period. The only annoying thing about the site is its ominous musical introduction.

The recent controversy over the houses on 17 and 19 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street have highlighted the preservation threats of modern Greek architecture. The destruction of the older housing stock during the 1960s is now lamentable. "Here is Athens ... the City before," a documentary from 1980, makes the case most poetically. It features a very nice text by painter Yannis Tsarouchis. The documentary begins with works by Spyros Vasileiou. If you remember from my last posting, Vasileiou is the painter of Patesion Street that Sotheby's just sold for $330,000. The video is available on the Archaeology of the City of Athens website and it's worth the 20 minutes. The documentary itself seems like a relic of the late 1970s. Its images of Athens are already historical.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Patesion Street Art

I'm partial to Patesion Street in Athens, a grand boulevard designed in the 1920s as the city expanded northward. Believe it or not, Athens was called the Paris of the south in the 1930s thanks to such urban features. Reading George Seferis' or other 1930s intellectuals, one becomes quickly convinced that 1930s Athens was quite spectacular. For more information on the city's urbanism, see Manos Bires' Αι Αθήναι από του 190υ εις τον 20ον αιώνα (Athens, 1966). Most people tend to obsess over Athens' 19th-century neoclassical grandeur, its first major rebuilding after independence (1860s-70s especially). The early modernist grandeur, the boulevards, the Bauhaus housing stock get a much shorter schrift. Sadly, the period of Athens' greatest demographic expansion (the 1960s) had no urban vision whatsoever; many historians blame the junta for this. The 1960s city has so engulfed the fabric of Patesion Street that one finds it difficult to imagine that the street would have ever been the subject of poetry and painting.

Sotheby's modern Greek art sale in November included some impressive works. One was "Patesion Street" (above) by Spyros Vasileiou, which sold for $330,000. Vasileiou's early work rarely comes up for sale, so this example was particularly desirable. Vasileiou is a fascinating figure, a painter of the "Thirties Generation" (representing Greece in the 1934 Venice Biennale) but also the first Greek Pop Artist. In 1955 he came to the U.S. and painted the interior of Saint Constantine's in Detroit. He is also the only artist from the Greek Thirties Generation that had his work exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum (in 1960). In 1984, Vasileiou's studio was converted into a house museum, located in Plaka (5a Webster Street). The building itself is a noteworthy specimen of Greek modernism, designed by Patroklos Karantinos in 1957. Vasileiou taught theater design (and designed sets for the 1962 movie Electra)

As has been typical in the last few years, Greek neoclassical works bring the highest price. This year's Sotheby's sale was no different. Nikolaos Gyzis' "The Fortune Teller" (left) sold for $530,ooo. What is amazing about this topseller, however, is that it was only recently discovered in an American collection.

All things considered, the Sotheby's sale totaled $ 6.5 million. Of the 173 works put up for sale, 106 were sold. Six months ago, the Bonham's modern Greek sale was equally successful. See my thoughts on that event here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

London Calling

It seems only yesterday that the landmark LP London Calling by the Clash turned 25, an event celebrated by a re-release of the album with new video and footage. On December 13, London Calling is turning 30 this time. And at the ripe age of 30, the Clash turns archaeological. The anniversary will be marked by the auctioning of the Clash's original art work, the classic album cover with Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision bass on stage at the New York Palladium. There's lots to say about Simonon's instruments, including a Rickenbacker given to him by Patti Smith, but basically the white Fender Precision was iconic. The 1979 image contains its own archaeology, namely, The Who smashing their instruments in the 1965 performance of My Generation at the Beat Club, as well as, Sid Vicious hitting an audience member with his own Fender Precision bass. The bass that Simonon smashed in the photo had been newly bought in 1979. Simonon regretted destroying this instrument because it proved to be one of his best sounding ones. The very bass has become a relic and it now resides at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. You can read the entire history of Simonon's 11 basses (scroll down to Paul Simonon Bass Story 1976-2008 here ).

At any rate, Bonhams auction house is selling the original London Calling art work by Ray Lowry valued at $100,000 (Sale 16905 Lot 26), and two autographed photos valued at $500 and $300 (Sale 16905, Lot 293 & 294). Ray Lowry, unfortunately, passed away in 2008. After the dissolution of the Clash, by the way, Paul Simonon has turned to a career in painting.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It Happened in Athens

An interesting exhibit just opened in Athens called "It Happened in Athens," (Συνέβη στην Αθήνα), at the "Melina" Cultural Center (Irakleidon 66 & Thessalonikis, Theseion). The exhibit features over 170 paintings representing daily life in Athens and its monuments. It was curated by Iris Kritikou and includes works by Giannis Moralis, Nikos Angelidis, Yannis Psychopaidis, Yannoulis Chalepas, Panagiotis Tetsis and Maria Philopoulou (left). The title of the exhibit refers to the 1962 comedy, It Happened in Athens, directed by Andrew Marton and starring Jayne Mansfield . The movie was produced by 20th Century Fox when Spyros Skouras was its executive. It's about Spyros Louis, the 1896 Cretan Marathon Olympic winner. The movie is not particularly good, but its soundtrack composed by Manos Hadjidakis has endured longer. I suspect, it is the Hadjidakis song that the curators had in mind, rather than the corny Hollywood version of 1896 Athens (see clip here). The exhibit will last for one month (December 1-23, 2009) and I regret that I won't see it. But I hope that the catalog (published by Mikre Arktos) will make its way into American libraries.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States