So Francis Bacon’s 1969 “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” was auctioned off for $142.4 million at Christie’s in New York last night, becoming the most expensive art-auction sale ever. (Although it’s utterly ludicrous that no one adjusts these records for inflation—without that, they mean almost nothing.)
I’m not at all surprised that the picture set a record. It’s just what megacollectors are looking for: it’s huge, figurative, colorful and ultra-splashy, full of supposed “feeling,” and fitting every old romantic cliche that says that art is about something called “self-expression” that gets at the “universal, timeless truths” at the heart of the angstful “human condition”. "Lucien Freud" is easy on the eyes, while pretending to be hard on the brain and the soul. It’s also a picture of a famous artist, by a famous artist, both famous people having lived famously nutty lives. And, hell, it’s a triptych, so you get three for the price of one, while the thing looks almost like it’s made of gold. What more could a billionaire want for over his sofa?
Maybe a truly, earthshakingly important work of art? Bacon is a very fine artist, and this is a very fine example of his art. But he (and it) don’t come close to standing for a major, and majorly influential, moment in art history.
More than anything, Bacon matters within the history of specifically British art, whose mostly conservative, figurative tendencies he managed to update and revivify by adding a dose of Picassoid, maybe DeKooningian distortion and angst. One reason Bacons sell for so much may be that both major auction houses have their roots in Britain, leaving the auction market, as a whole, with distinctly Anglophilic tendencies. (To this day, no auction room ever feels quite complete without a plummy British voice taking bids.)
Bacon did come to matter a little more, on a global scale, in the 1980s, when the art world—and especially the art market—went looking for the kind of appealing, saleable, heartfelt painting that 1970s Conceptualism had left in short supply. But, in retrospect, that moment’s Neo-Expressionism seems like not much more than an art-historical blip and footnote.
So what last night’s sale proves, more than anything—if it needed proving once again—is that the prices of pictures tell us almost nothing about their worth as art. The very fact that a 1969 Bacon, or a 1907 Klimt or 1909 Munch, sells for many times what someone might pay for a 1912 Cubist Picasso tells you how out-of-whack things have become.
There’s a chance, however, that they may get whacked-in again tonight. Andy Warhol’s “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” will be up at auction at Sotheby’s. And, as I argued this morning, this is one of the greatest, most troubling paintings by one of the 20th century’s most complex artists, whose art happens to be all about how things in our culture get bought and sold. This may be the only case where the more a picture sells for, as a commodity, the better it will turn out to be, as art.
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