Marty Cortland, Art Collector
Rich people buy expensive art. Our columnist’s question: is it worth it? Plus: Dita Von Teese bares all for Dallas society.
My wife and I almost didn’t go to the Two by Two for AIDS and Art auction party at the Rachofsky house for the same reason we didn’t go to Art Basel Miami this year. We are totally arted out. We still have paintings and photographs we’ve yet to hang stuffed behind couches and gathering dust under the bed. Our art spending has gotten totally out of hand, even for us.
Buying contemporary art is an addiction. And a ruinously expensive one at that. Entry-level stuff now goes for $40,000, and it’s easy to be talked into a low six-figure amount. For a photograph. I suspect that a cocaine habit is cheaper—and doesn’t involve paying someone to hammer nails in your walls. Like most addictions, it’s very social. It makes for great dinner conversation to brag about your Ed Ruschas and Ellsworth Kellys and Wayne Thiebauds, and then let your friends brag about their Donald Judds and Andy Warhols and Agnes Martins. We all feel good.
Except the dirty little secret is that none of us knows what we are doing. We buy what we’re told to buy, and every year we’re told to buy someone else. It’s like fashion. You’re still wearing leather pants? You haven’t given that pashmina shawl to your maid yet? Same with art. That Ross Bleckner piece that you liked so much 10 years ago starts to look like the yellow power tie you used to wear to the Buffalo Club in the ’80s.
The problem with contemporary art is there is no yardstick to determine whether a piece has merit. It’s not like looking at Michelangelo’s David or the Sistine Chapel and thinking, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” Instead, you listen to a museum curator or art dealer wax euphorically about why some white scribbling on a brown canvas by Cy Twombly is so important. It looks like nonsense to you, but everyone else is nodding in appreciation, and if Twombly is collected by this museum and that person, then of course you’re dying to get your hands on a Twombly. After that you’re just one good day in the stock market away from being convinced that a single Home Depot fluorescent light fixture leaned against the wall and plugged into a wall socket—because it was apparently purchased by Dan Flavin, who also determined the angle of the leaning—is worth $60,000.
Anyway, of course we went to the Two by Two gala at the Rachofsky house. You really can’t not go to the Two by Two gala at the Rachofsky house. It’s inarguably the best party in Dallas. The Richard Meier-designed house is spectacular, by anyone’s yardstick, and with the huge backyard tent elegantly lit with chandeliers, the white linen tableclothes, the open bar with Dom Perignon, the osso bucco for dinner, and everyone looking smart in their tuxedos and cocktail dresses, it could pass for New York. Our eyes glistened across the candlelit tables. We all felt great just being there.
The hot artist this year was Elizabeth Peyton, whom I had never heard of. Everyone else, naturally, was talking knowledgeably about her, so I did my best to pretend with the rest of them as we admired and clucked over a tiny 12-by-9-inch painting that looked like something a marginally talented art major at a state college could produce. She had been anointed, though, and the piece, which had a suggested retail price of $225,000, went for $450,000 in the auction. I would be willing to wager a comparable sum that the buyer had never heard the artist’s name 18 months ago. And yet I understood his urge.
After the auction was over, the tent was cleared to make room for the evening’s entertainment, a striptease by Dita Von Teese. Ms. Von Teese, nee Heather Sweet, started her career with explicit bondage pornography, pulled herself up by her corset strings to revive burlesque in some of the swankier clubs in Los Angeles, and reached the apogee of her career by marrying the goth shock rocker Marilyn Manson (whom she later divorced). She was an odd choice for the entertainment, to say the least. Half the crowd, though, ardently looked forward to her show.
We were ushered back into the tent, which had been transformed into an ultra-cool lounge, with white leather couches, clear plastic chairs, and low coffee tables with shaded lamps. The stage was close, intimate. Ms. Von Teese came out with feather fans and a skimpy outfit, both of which she promptly discarded. Her movements were strangely awkward and jerky. It was such an incongruous scene, a young, beautiful woman in nothing but a G-string and pasties, being watched by a middle-aged, upper-crust crowd that had just spent more than $3 million on art. There wasn’t much to her performance, but we applauded anyway, as she stood there with no clothes on. It occurred to me later that you could say the same thing about her audience.
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