On Monday, artist Nikolas Bentel will auction off a Robert Rauschenberg print for, he hopes, $20,000.
Except it won’t a Robert Rauschenberg print anymore. It will be covered in advertisements for people and firms—including a graphic depiction of a six-inch penis—that Bentel has attracted to his mission to destroy a Rauschenberg and create a new work of art.
The print cost Bentel $10,000, the exact amount raised by the advertising he has bought. Each square inch of the piece was sold for $92.59.
This aesthetic defilement isn’t an anti-Rauschenberg statement, but a critique, Bentel told The Daily Beast, of the high-priced lunacy of the art market where, as he put it, “the top one percent of artists and auction companies like Sotheby’s can command millions of dollars for works of art.”
Rauschenberg may well have welcomed Bentel’s act of destruction. In 1953, the pop artist destroyed a drawing by Willem de Kooning. The dealer who sold Bentel the print, Hojae Kim, “absolutely got” the point Bentel was trying to make, the artist said. The print being obliterated is a 1959 sketch of one of Rauschenberg’s sculpture, “Monogram.”
Bentel, 24, was particularly spurred into action by the sale in November last year of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450,312,500, the most expensive painting ever sold in auction. When Bentel saw that, he thought, “Is this a piece of artwork that has cultural relevance, or is it a whole performance stunt?”
The money Bentel will make on the sale of the print—he hopes $10,000—will go to fund a scholarship fund for incoming artists unable to pay for the NEW INC residency at the New Museum, where Bentel himself is an artist based within the museum’s “art and design incubator.”
Many artists wants to be rich and well known themselves. Are fame and money not an object for Bentel?
“My biggest objective is equality,” he said. “Yes, I want to generate income for what I do, but this is about giving artists producing powerful work a chance of equality. They don't have a similar voice, or a way to get to, the one per cent group of artists making those millions-of-dollars sales.”
Bentel has worked as an artist for around four years. He wasn’t surprised, entering the art world, at how the big sales got the most publicity. “What did surprise me was how hard it is to make the bare minimum from my art practice. It’s a big hustle. It will be a miracle if I am ever enter into that top one percent.”
Bentel does projects on the side of his artistic practice like toy and prop design. He grew up in New York City, the son of two architects. His brother works at an innovative ad agency and his twin sister is also involved in the art world.
Being an artist today means, he said, “having to be on top of things 24/7, to go to every show, every event to make connections. Basically, being an artist takes over your entire life, every aspect of it. If you’re a software business like Google or Apple, you make money while sleeping. As an artist, it’s the opposite. You only make money when you’re awake. If you’re not selling yourself constantly nothing is happening to your benefit. You have to push yourself to the limit.”
He doesn’t make art to please others, he does not follow trends (“If people were into blue paintings, I wouldn’t suddenly start doing blue paintings”); instead he makes art motivated, like the Rauschenberg project, to make a point or effect change.
Kim is an artist himself, and understood the “economic necessity” of recasting the Rauschenberg. Before Kim, other dealers politely declined; Bentel was more surprised by the printmakers who declined covering the Rauschenberg print up with the adverts, calling it an “aggressive project.”
Attracting the advertisers took around a month and a half. As soon as he became the print’s owner, the reality of what he was about to do hit Bentel.
“I want to make sure this work lasts another 300, 400 years," he said. "When it was handed to me the first time I thought, ‘I have a Rauschenberg now.’ I’ve never had a fine art piece in my life. I’ve never had an art collection. It’s a totally new world. Holding it was funny. It was literally a piece of paper, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is a piece of paper. Everyone has been handling it so carefully for the last 50,60 years. Now it’s going to take on a different life.”
What if, I asked, the buyer decided to reconvert the print back to the original Rauschenberg?
Bentel laughed; the question reminded him of art historians putting da Vincis through X-ray machines to see his canvases’ different layers, and trace the multiple changes he made to his work. He will have to respect the wishes of whoever buys what is essentially a living work of art. “Yes, like a Google doc,” said Bentel. His next project will echo this one, Bentel said, but would not be specific.
Given his own beliefs in the mutability of art and role of the artist, Rauschenberg, while “taken aback,” would have welcomed the project, Bentel said.
“I hope it goes for $20,000,” Bentel said, when I raised the possibility of it going for less. “Two people have talked previously about purchasing the piece already, so hopefully it will happen. If it doesn’t, if it goes for less, we’ll have to rethink it.”
Bentel wants Sotheby’s and Christies and the other rich giants of the art world will be “more humble about what they’re doing. They’re very clear that the whole goal of having an art collection is a way to generate money. People should be wary of it. It’s very problematic. The art/economic world is extremely established. This project is not a way to destroy that but to be critical of it and change it for the better.”