- Recovery Work:Nathaniel Kahn's The Price of Everything and Mary Gabriel's Ninth Street Women
"The only way to make sure that cultural artifacts survive is for them to have a commercial value," Simon de Pury declares in the opening chapter of The Price of Everything, Nathaniel Kahn's cinematic meditation on the ambivalent relationship between commerce and contemporary art. The Swiss auctioneer speaks with the solemnity of an oracle, but he is hardly an objective observer of the art market, which, in 2017, reached an estimated $63.7 billion in sales. Still, in a narrow sense, he's right. The care you give your coffee mug is not that which you extend your 401(k). The one merely keeps you company; in the back of your mind, the other always accompanies you.
So it is with any substantial investment. You strive to protect it, an undertaking, in the case of megadollar artworks, that is not encompassed by the mere purchase of picture wire and resilient wall hooks. At a minimum, a collector must also reckon with insurance, transportation costs, and upkeep aplenty, but in the rarified sphere that de Pury has in mind, there are sizable outlays of all sorts—museum benefactions, major exhibitions, artist's foundations, the academic enterprise of a catalogue raisonné, and endless marketing—that, stitch by stitch, embroider yet another name in the endless tapestry of art history. [End Page 377]
But what about the artworks that fail to make the cut? Is the tautology de Pury assumes foolproof? Is a work of art a cultural artifact because it has commercial value, and does it have commercial value because it is a cultural artifact? Surely de Pury would never say as much, but the question (sotto voce) clearly motivates Kahn's inquiry.
It also motivates Mary Gabriel, whose page-turning work of popular history, Ninth Street Women, was released not long before The Price of Everything. Insofar as it spotlights a series of art market underachievers from the abstract expressionist movement, the subtitle of the book—Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art—makes clear that, as an exercise in art history, Gabriel's is a work of reevaluation.
The moment is a long time coming, far longer, one suspects, than any of the artists surveyed could have imagined. Take the most enigmatic among them, Elaine de Kooning. She was a formidable individual, a woman no more likely to be perturbed than she was liable to be dismissed. The critic Lawrence Campbell likened her to "a figure out of Baroque history" who proceeded through life without "a sense of her own boundaries," a quality that younger artists like Grace Hartigan at once admired in de Kooning and hoped to discover in themselves (Campbell quoted in Gabriel, 62). "[F]earless and honest" was the impression she made on Hartigan in 1948 during their first meeting at her husband Willem's studio. As the younger woman later confided to her journal: "I had my model" (Hartigan quoted in Gabriel, 254).
In January of 1971, however, de Kooning was perturbed precisely because she had been dismissed, in the pages of ARTnews, no less, the publication her own writing was synonymous with. She wasn't alone. The very title of Linda Nochlin's essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," was nothing if not unequivocal in its judgment on the contributions of female artists, including those, like de Kooning and Hartigan, who had been part of the most important movement in the history of American art.
Restlessness is an essential characteristic of contemporary art, and by the time of Nochlin's provocation, Abstract Expressionism had receded from the vanguard of American art to make way for Pop Art, Minimalism, and other movements whose answers...