You’d think that as a parent, I’d be less surprised by now at the constant discoveries of the extent of my own ignorance.
Last night, while surfing through the archive of the War Relocation Authority’s nearly 7,000 photos of WWII Japanese American internment camps for “furniture,” [right, I know.] I was confused by the number of search results that included George Nakashima and his daughter Mira.
The internment camps only imprisoned Japanese Americans on the west coast; Nakashima, modernist woodworking master, lived in New Hope, Pennsylvania, so he should’ve been totally unaffected.
And it’s only then that I looked at Nakashima’s bio, and sure enough, the architect, his wife Marion, and his newborn daughter were expelled from Seattle and detained at Minidoka, Idaho in the Spring of 1942. It was only through the protracted petitions of Antonin Raymond, an architect and former employer, that the Nakashimas were able to leave the camp for Raymond’s farm in New Hope.
The picture above, by WRA photographer Francis Stewart, shows George Nakashima at Minidoka in the Fall of 1942, “Constructing and decorating model apartment to show possibilities using scrap materials.” Which, just. Wallpaper made from bookpages and blueprints and a proto-Conoid table made from prison scraps. This room should be in the Smithsonian.
The irony, if that’s the right word, is that it was at Minidoka that Nakashima met Gentaro Hikogawa, an issei hotel manager three years older than he, who’d immigrated from Shikoku to Tacoma. Hikogawa was also a master carpenter, who taught Nakashima Japanese joinery and rural handtool techniques that formed the foundation for Nakashima’s philosophy and later innovations.
Speaking of which, here are two photos of 3-yo Mira Nakashima posing next to two beds her father made, one for her, and one for her doll, in her bedroom in New Hope.
In WWII, Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the west coast, stripped of basically everything they couldn’t carry, and imprisoned in inland internment camps, rows of tar paper barracks in the desert surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers.
Everything else, they had to build themselves. Here are a couple of photos from the War Relocation Authority collection at the National Archives of the preschool playground at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in Newell, CA.
Looks like they had better scrapwood at Tule Lake than at Topaz Mountain in Utah. Or maybe better carpenters. Still, I’d add that unfinished wood slide to the list of injustices perpetrated against loyal American citizen children by their government.
The photo blog on The Atlantic has been running extended looks back at images from World War II. Today’s theme: Japanese-Americans forcibly removed from their homes and businesses and shipped to internment camps in the middle of the freakin’ deserts.
The caption on #39 just bummed me out: “Nursery school children play with a scale model of their barracks at the Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, California, on September 11, 1942.” Their barracks.
On the bright side, check out the sweet little pine plank nursery chairs they’re standing on. How many civil right’s a brother gotta give up to score a few of those, I wonder?
America’s imprisonment of its own citizens because of racial bigotry during World War II has been of great interest to me since discovering Born Free and Equal, Ansel Adams’ self-published photobook of Japanese Americans detained at Manzanar, in the early 1990s. It always felt like important history that must be faced and not forgotten. Now, of course, it is a crime being surpassed and magnified, with families being torn apart and children fleeing for their lives being subject to state-sponsored terror at a scale this country hasn’t seen in almost a century, and all for the accumulation of Mautocratic political power.
It is not a sufficient response by any measure, but I am republishing a series of blog posts here which I made over the years at Daddy Types, the weblog for new dads, which I ran from 2004 until my CMS broke late last year. On DT I often wrote about the overlooked or forgotten histories and objects of parenting, with a focus on modernism, design, DIY, and dad-related projects. That included frequent posts on the material lives of Japanese American children imprisoned in detention camps during WWII, including the attempts to provide kids an approximation of a normal environment through schools, playgrounds, and domestic spaces built out of scrap lumber.
And here I am starting to feel about headboards-I-don’t-own-as-readymade-paintings like Dan Flavin ended up feeling about fluorescent lights: stuck.
Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. Can you just imagine the market pressure? Demanding you to keep repeating your greatest hit, to keep churning out every iteration of the formula, to see the concept through to the bitter end, until it’s ultimately the headboard on your own deathbed, stained with your own hairgrease, that becomes your final, ghostly selfie. The hammer drops, the crowd cheers, your kids want to cash out and move your estate to Zwirner, authorizing faux-finish headboards in posthumous editions.
Damn. That got dark fast. And here I’d only planned to point out that this king-size, faux snakeskin quilted pleather number is most definitely in the top ten of the series. The top five, even. If you want it, you have until next week to let me know, at which point it’ll slip from all our grasps.
This, the 23rd installment of Better Read, texts that are better read aloud by a computer, was inspired by a @ballardian tweet. It is the table of contents of Simon Sellars’ new sort-of-a-novel-sort-of-a-memoir, Applied Ballardianism, which is out this month from Urbanomic. As I type that out, I fear I transcribed it as Urbanomics. Fortunately, probably no one will listen to this. I should’ve kept my trap shut. [update: I did not.]
Liz Deschenes’ current show at Miguel Abreu–both of them–is titled, Rates (Frames per Second). Deschenes’ series of photograms relate to the chronophotographic studies of motion of Étienne-Jules Marey.
The variously reflective texture of the photosensitive paper on display, coupled as the show unfolds with the widening individual panels comprising the works, affords a subtle sensation of gradual embodiment.
It’s interesting that the installation apparently culminates in the human-scale panels, because I assume you have to walk back out of the gallery, too.
In any case, they look gorgeous as usual, and the variations of widest ones even look baroque, relatively speaking, of course.
UPDATE: I have since heard that the works do not have an implied narrative. And that perhaps if there’s a sense of culmination in experiencing the show, it’s as much the 10 windows in the space, a found 10fps as any of the photogram series. This site specificity has now landed the show on my IRL list
My friend’s stories of how people react to and deal with very contemporary art in the professional/academic setting of a business school are awesome, and go way beyond “Art? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯“. There’s the difficulty in filling a wall with SFW Wolfgang Tillmans; the Tacita Dean stills of disaster movie endings that are too depressing for the recruiting lounge, so they were moved to the PhD students’ offices; Claire Fontaine’s neon, “Foreigners Everywhere,” which is harsh enough in Chinese translation to make every prospective Chinese student uneasy. [Apparently only one artist with work in the collection has visited so far, which seems bonkers. It seems like an unusually engaging and sophisticated context for seeing art working beyond the white cube community.]
Anyway, my hands-down favorite piece has to be Cameron Rowland’s Payroll, which consists of four grimy desks the artist bought at government surplus auction from the NYC Office of Payroll Administration, after their own headcount had decreased by 41.
How much sense does this not make? People buy the sheets from Felix Gonzalez-Torres stacks at auction, on eBay, and at various artist book & ephemera dealers, and it just seems…what’s the word here? Hilarious? Sad? Stupid? Embarrassing? Ridiculous? Wrong? Inexplicable?
Well, no. There’s an easy explanation. People sell Felix posters because they want money. And people buy them because they are for sale.
Felix made his first work that includes a stack of paper in 1988, and his first to consist of a stack constantly replenished with “endless copies” in 1989. Then there was a burst of stacks in 1990. By the time of his death in 1996, the artist had produced 47 stacks. Four were declared after his death to be “registered non-works.” One consisted of rubber doormats, which are not to be taken. One consists of an edition of 200 signed, silkscreen prints which together comprise a single stacked work, which are not to be taken. One was an edition of 250 of which 89 were sold separately, and the remaining 161 were sold together as a stack, which are not to be taken. The first one, it is not clear whether they can be taken. One is made of little passport-sized booklets, which can be taken. So that makes 38 stacks made of posters infinitely replenishable with endless copies. Along with a registered non-work stack created with Donald Moffett, three stacks were collaborations with another artist, who provided the image or text: Michael Jenkins, Louise Lawler, and Christopher Wool.
The Felix Gonzalez-Torres catalogue raisonné quotes the text the artist included in the certificates of authenticity for each stack:
A part of the intention of the work is that third parties may take individual sheets of paper from the stack. These individual sheets and all individual sheets taken from the stack collectively do not constitute a unique work of art nor can they be considered the piece…its uniqueness is defined by ownership.
So these are not artworks. Or, they’re not the artwork. But they are something of value, even though they are free for the taking in an endless supply. And people trying to explain and justify the value–or the price, really–use paradigms that the artist himself critiqued, rejected, and sought, to some extent, to undermine. Sellers, including auctioneers like Wright who know what’s up, invoke an edition model, calling sheets “original” “prints” and “lithos” from “an unknown edition size.” This framing resonates with the investing community that has grown up around mass limited editions from print mills like Murakami and Hirst, Kawsian art toys and artist-designed skatedecks, and even Richter-style “facsimile objects.”
Rago, an auction house whose business is liquidating New Jersey’s vast collections of silkscreen editions assembled in the 60s and 70s, gives the sheets made-up names like “Untitled (water ripples)” and “Untitled (The Show is Over)”, and gooses the provenance with statements like “Created originally in 1993 for the Printed Matter exhibition at Dia.”
One eBay seller’s allusions to photography and rare book connoisseurship to justify a $12,500 asking price for a single sheet because it was taken from “the original piece” during a gallery show “in October, 1991,” have not gone unchallenged:
Please note that I have received some comments about this one… that is, since it was conceived of as an open edition, there are numerous ones out there from other exhibitions, and possibly a reissuance from the estate.
That could be true, however, the original litho is a “first” printing; subsequent printings are of a subtlely diiferent (sp) size, color, paper, etc. This makes the first edition the most coveted, and hence the valuation.
That stack, like so many of Felix’s work, known as “Untitled”, was acquired from that show at Luhring Augustine Hexler by the Walker Art Center. And despite being in a public collection and widely exhibited since its creation, the sheets from the Walker’s “Untitled” are among the most frequently and expensively sold separately. Unusually, the Walker’s description of the piece includes the number taken during the work’s public exhibition in 1999-2001: “approximately 660 posters per month.” Frankly, 8,000/year seems low, unless I were being charged $1,000 for one as an “edition”, in which case it’d be insanely high.
Felix wanted as many viewers as wanted them to take sheets from his stacks for free, but this turns out to be not the same as free to obtain or endlessly available. They’re not all in publicly accessible collections. They’re not always on view, and they’re probably not close by when they are. So the constraints and complications of getting in a room with the Felix stack you want have real costs, and the way we weigh these costs against the desire to possess a thing is called money.
Then there’s the reality of the work itself, the stack whose “uniqueness is defined by ownership.” The artist’s certificates also say “The owner has the right to reprint and replace, at any time, the quantity of sheets necessary to regenerate the piece back to the ideal height.” There’s a concept worth studying in a work doesn’t just exist at various heights, but that depletes and is regenerated. If you find that dissertation, please lmk. What jumps out to me is the apparently fundamental link between uniqueness and authenticity and ownership, and the dependence of that existence on a right, not a responsibility.
For all the freedom and openness and sharing of Felix’s work, it rests on a foundation of rights granted to collectors, not obligations assumed by stewards. The market for sheets is thus the trickle-down effect of these private decisions that make stacks scarce through unavailability.
Could the artist’s wishes be better served by adapting his stacks to the digitized world he didn’t live to see? What if the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation made all of the stack sheets available for download and individual printing? It’d be several kinds of complicated, I know, but it wouldn’t disrupt the existence of “the piece,” the uniqueness of which, remember, is defined by ownership. [Having recently pulled out around 100 sheets I’ve collected over more than 25 years, I can say this is not an obviously great idea; stacks vary in size, paper type, and finish in ways that DIY printouts will inevitably get wrong, and the artist’s generosity for everyone else’s shitty reproduction of his work will be sorely tested.]
Letting sheets loose in the wild will result in large-scale printing and distribution, probably at poster-scale commercialization. But a line in an eBay auction seems to indicate this is already happening.
After comparing it to a poster that sold for $750 on artnet, the seller of this $1200 poster “by Christopher Wool & Felix Gonzalez-Torres” notes, “NOTE this is an original edition from the Dallas Museum’s run and not from China.” But something ain’t right. The dimensions of the Wool&FG-T sheet are 37×55, and this one from Dallas is 24×36. Also, there’s a giant border, and it says Dallas Museum of Art on the bottom. Also, the letters don’t line up. Because this is a poster of a painting, a painting [right] the DMA acquired in 1991. Meanwhile, the related painting that became the stack is hanging [left] behind Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner. They gave it to the Whitney in 2014.
Isn’t this the real source of the Felix stack flipper problem: hypeboys looking for cheap Wools? And at hundreds to thousands of dollars a pop, wouldn’t YOU set up a #ChineseWoolMill to meet their demand?
If there is such a thing as capitalist karma, it comes in the form of Erika Hoffmann, the Berlin collector who, with her late husband Rolf, bought the Wool/Gonalez-Torres stack. In March she donated it, along with her entire collection, to the Dresden State Art Collection. It will become one of the most public and publicly available stack pieces of them all.
[This writing of this post was delayed several days by the outraged consideration of the vast preceding and ongoing corruption of the president, and it took place amidst the anguished, mounting fury at the systemic policy of terrorizing and torturing children and families seeking asylum from perils that drove them to flee their homes. The solace of art has its limits.]
A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER UPDATE: I swear I wasn’t planning to do this, but then someone on Twitter feared it was coming, and so it had to happen.
“Untitled” (Ross in L.A.) in DC is now on eBay. It comprises an original Felix Gonzalez-Torres offset print acquired from the National Gallery of Art, and a full-scale, signed, stamped, and numbered certificate of authenticity. It is available in an edition of 2.
“Paint roller through a Picasso, well, there’s your Powerless Structures right there,” I said. “But can it really be that easy?” And then I remembered that Michael & Ingar hadn’t thought so back in 2004 when they put a safe behind a Hirst.
And then there’s this quote, mentioned in the Ganz sale catalogue, from Jacques Prevert, who visited Picasso two weeks before Le Marin was painted, and a month after the artist had been told by the Gestapo he was to be sent to a German concentration camp:
Picasso, more than any other artist, reacts to the things around him. Everything he does is a response to something he has seen or felt, something that has surprised or moved him. (Quoted in M. Cone, op. cit., p. 135)
So yes, I will react. And if you need me, I will be honing my paint roller throwing technique until the #chinesepaintmill Picasso arrives.
update update: Thinking about how to actually make this work, I look back to an even earlier Elmgreen & Dragset performance piece, 12 Hours of White Paint, Powerless Structures, Fig. 15 (1997) [above], where the duo repeatedly painted and washed off the walls of a gallery space. The downstroke is the key. I bet the painter was painting the wall opposite the Picasso and so had his back to it, and on the end of his downstroke he stabbed it. Which is fine, but I had hoped to work a rollerful of paint into the disaster somehow.
I was very interested to see this David Hammons print on silver paper when it came up for sale a year ago at Swann. And now that it’s back at Sotheby’s, I’m kind of interested in what’s up. I don’t remember it selling before, but Swann says it did. [For just $25k, or a $20k bid+premium, against a $30-40k estimate. Maybe it sold afterward.]
For an important approach (face imprinting) to an important subject (spade) for an important artist (DH, prounounced duh), that was only realized in a tiny fraction of the original edition (50 declared, six printed), it seems like it should’ve been snapped up and kept.
Oh right, now I remember why I was so interested in it: because I wanted to finish off the edition myself. There was a Warhol print on silver foil paper, too. Seems tricky to execute.
“When I lie down on the paper which is first placed on the floor, I have to carefully decide how to get up after I have made the impression that I want. Sometimes I lie there for perhaps three minutes or even longer just figuring out how I can get off the paper without smudging the image that I’m trying to print.” [Young, p. 8.]
Then the artist applied a fixative to secure the image to the thin layer of margarine, often, as in this work, with multiple impressions. The artist took this work one step further making a screenprint of a monotype, moving the print across the paper to create a multiple self-image.
This process made me think Hammons mirrored his profile for Spade, but I think they’re actually the two sides of his face, composited.
UPDATE: wow, $100,000. Epic flip. UPDATE UPDATE: Not really, more like epic shop. $100,000 is what a collector pays, and the markup for a collector who did not know or know where to buy this work just a year ago is 400%.
Assuming the seller bought it last year for $25k, their take yesterday after premiums (25% buyer, 10% seller) is probably only $72k. So their net is around $45k. Not bad for one work for a year, but not epic. Combined, the two auction houses got $35k ($7k for Swann, $28k for Christie’s). The original owner got around $18k. Plus 45 years with the work. Hard to say he’s not the winner here.
These nice but unremarkable chairs would go nicely with our humble chair, I thought, but claiming that is the reason to buy them would be a lie. You would buy them–I would buy them–because 65 years ago, the family registrar marked two of the three chairs with inventory numbers: D.R. 53.1758. I am fine with acknowledging this.
I realized that buying something you might conceivably need would violate the spirit of the occasion. Beyond all other auctions, a Rockefeller Auction is pure want. And what is wanted, above all, is provenance.
Could provenance and its auratic power be isolated from the object that is its ostensible vehicle? What object might make that possible? It would not just have to be non-precious, or non-aesthetic; it would almost have to thwart value and appeal. It couldn’t be ironic or sentimental, or hold even a remote association with Rockefeller personally–which seemed a little intrusive–or with the family and their history and legacy.
I love that this puzzle presented itself at the exact same time I was dealing with the Japanese plates Danh Vo bought 11 years ago from the rural Pennsylvania estate sale of an obscure US general with a connection to the Vietnam War and the JFK assassination.Anyway, I did a reverse estimate sort on the 800 or whatever lots in the online auction. I skipped past all the Staffordshire porcelain figurines of shepherdesses. I lingered for a moment over the fireplace tools and andirons (above). I have a thing for andirons of provenance, but then I remembered that the Rockefellers did, too: David’s brother Nelson had a business selling reproductions of his art collection, including his Diego Giacometti andirons.
Then I found it: Lot 1732 An 18th Century English Cast-Iron Fireback, est. $200-400. It was in terrible condition, or rather, it had a rare patina. Like how they gratuitously leave the bird’s nest in the hood scoop of the barn find Ferrari. 1st Dibs lists two nearly identical firebacks [below] with Spes, the Roman goddess of hope, as 17th century Dutch, so Christie’s (and the Rockefellers’) description probably stems from the careful preservation of an inaccurate invoice “from WM. Jackson Co., 1 February 1956.” #provenance.
Oh, weird, what’s this, Lot 1753, Late 17th Century Italian Priedieu, “the base reduced in depth”, est. $400-600? A priedieu with the prie removed is kind of perfect. Not to question the Rockefellers’ faith, of course, just that when you put it in a home, the kneeling part of a priedieu can be a real tripping hazard. The provenance here was distinct, too: “Acquired with the contents of Hudson Pines.” David & Peggy bought Hudson Pines from his sister Babs, who’d built it. So this 10-inch deep, chopped up priedieu has a double Rockefeller provenance. I imagine it holding a tiny key bowl, or blocking an unsightly vent.
But it’s also almost the same dimensions as the fireback. Now I could see these two damaged, useless, clunky antiques together, a found monochrome diptych monument to this liquidity event, a celebration of the massive value accrued around them during the last 70 years of their 350 year existence.
Each of these marred tchotchkes ended up selling for $3000, which answers the question of what provenance is worth. And I don’t have to worry about where to put them.
Let’s take a moment to consider the greatest Cady Noland sculpture of all time [No offense, Tanya!] Which I forgot about for 23 years.
Tower of Terror (1993-94) is a 4-meter long, three-person stockade made of cast aluminum. It was created for Noland’s room-filling installation in Public Information: Desire, Disaster, Document, the show that inaugurated SFMOMA’s new building in 1995. I went to that show. And have not recalled it until seeing Tower of Terror turn up for sale at Phillips this week. But I am not alone in this blinkered state.
But he did not get the sculpture itself. Where did it go? Norah and Norman Stone apparently didn’t keep track of it. Though they were friends of SFMOMA, and the artist, and had an even bigger work by her, they called their Log Cabin Blank with Screw Eyes and Café Door (Memorial to John Caldwell)“Cady Noland’s only outdoor sculpture to date.”
Which means they did not know that Tower of Terror had been installed outdoors at Dowling College, on the south shore of Long Island, for more than 20 years. The sculpture had apparently been acquired directly from Noland in 1995 by Albert & Beverly Davidson of the Davidson Aluminum & Metal Corporation, and promptly donated to Dowling, a small college on a former Vanderbilt estate near the Long Island Sound. It apparently sat in the woods, near the student parking lot, and in front of estate’s former Ice House, which had once been the residence of the college president, but was, I believe, being used as office space. I finally found it on Google Maps. Let’s say it was not where I expected.
So for 22 years, students walking from their cars to– actually, to nowhere. As far as I can tell, the actual school buildings were in the opposite direction. So who ever passed by? Who knew that this massive masterpiece was sitting in public, just off the Southern Parkway, an hour outside the city? Someone knew, because when Dowling College went bankrupt in 2016, they knew to swoop in and liquidate that asset. And now it will be flipped.
The new owners and Phillips also know–by now, don’t we all?–to consult Ms. Noland about her work. The auction listing carries a new non-disclaimer: “We thank Cady Noland for reviewing the cataloging for this work.” We all do, Phillips, we all do. And we thank her for making it. [So if she is fine with this sentence, must we be? “Tower of Terror, 1993-1994, represents the central tenant of Cady Noland’s conceptual practice: the subversion of the American psyche through celebrity and violence. “]
Some other thoughts about this work that I don’t really know how to fit into a narrative: Tower of Terror is also the name of a Disney ride that opened in July 1994. [The study above dates from August.]
Another stockade from the SFMOMA show was recently put up for sale, until it wasn’t. In November 2016, the Sammlung Goetz sent the domesetically scaled Beltway Terror was at Christie’s with an estimate of $800,000-1,200,000. Then it was withdrawn. Beltway Terror looks very similar, yet also substantially different. Obviously and adorably, it only fits one person. But it is also stamped aluminum laminate over wood, where Tower of Terror is cast aluminum. It now seems significant that the work was acquired by the owner of an aluminum processing company. Perhaps it was acquired in exchange for fabricating it.
Perhaps it was cast from a stamped sheet-on-wood model? No. When I see the video, there is either some Gober-level simulacralization of the seams, or this is stamped aluminum laminated on cast or milled aluminum. In any case, Tower of Terror is epically superior to Beltway Terror. I hope whoever buys it puts it where it belongs, in a museum of modern art.
Tim’s point is well taken, and borne out in the show: Vo makes both sexy, shiny, collector bait (gold-leafed flags & alphabets, Statue of Liberty fragments) and meaning-laden but head-scratchingly unaesthetic cultural detritus (the stuffing from Robert McNamara’s chair, the Unabomber’s typewriter). The typical market dynamics of art stardom readily attend to the former, while posing a challenge to the latter.
At least that’s how it looks on the secondary market. Vo’s global network of top-flight dealers know a thing or two about placing “difficult” work with “connoisseurs.” Those McNamara chairs, purchased at Sotheby’s for $146,000, were promptly stripped for parts, which were sold as separate works to nine of Marian Goodman’s most well-cultivated private and institutional clients. And some of the wonkiest Gothic and Hellenic scrap mashups with the grossest Exorcist titles are in the collection of Francois Pinault. Then Vo installed them in the Dogana alongside scrap metal rented [rented!] from Cameron Rowland and plastic tarps David Hammons dragged into Mnuchin’s joint from the street.
Two things that stuck with me from the Guggenheim, and any time I see one of Vo’s spare, deliberate installations: he makes almost as many objects as he shops, and he shops a lot.
Vo makes a lot of very interesting editions, which get equal treatment in his shows, even if they don’t garner equal attention. An easy place to start looking is the sheaf of photogravures Vo has produced with Niels Borch Jensen. There was a burst of activity in 2010, starting with Joseph Carrier’s photos of Vietnam; various family snapshots; and a candid photo of the artist who, at that moment, would have been his ex’s ex. Loaded/awkward. Anyway, seven of the 12 prints in the screencap above are in the show, and that’s still just the tip of an iceberg.
The first Vo edition I regret not getting was Seasons Greetings, made for his show at the Fredericianum in Kassel. A gift box contains a T-shirt from the Statue of Liberty; a coffee mug with a Barbara Bush quote on it from the GHWB Library shop; a book about Ted Kaczynski Harvard sued out of print; and just when you think the loaded-souvenir-shopping-as-practice has gone too far, there is a card on which Vo typed out the name of the show, JULY, IV, MDCCLXXIV– using Kaczynski’s typewriter.
I started thinking about these editions because Tim Schneider hadn’t mentioned them, at least not directly. Tim broke out the auction performance for Vo’s works: of 52 pieces to come up for sale, 13 were not gilded cardboard or Statue of Liberty chunks, and 6 of these 13 were bought in. And two of those six, I realized, were the same piece.
Two examples of Untitled, 2009 (above), from an edition of 12, had come up for auction: one at Phillips in 2016, from Daniel Buchholz (est. $8,000-12,000); and another, from Bortolozzi, in Christie’s London in 2015 (est. £10,000 – £15,000). [Christie’s deletes webpages for unsold lots, so unless you have a print catalogue, or an artnet database, you’ll need an Internet Archive.]
When Vo turned his apartment into an exhibition site for the 2010 Berlin Biennale, they were hanging in the kitchen [above]. And before that, in a Summer group show in 2009, Daniel Buchholz showed them in Köln. That credit line also includes an auction catalogue for the estate of Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, which was unmentioned anywhere else.
Which immediately got me wondering. And sure enough, there it is: 2007, Alderfer Auction in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. Among the various lots of Japanese Imari ware Gen. Lemnitzer had accumulated were twolots of twelve matching plates in slightly different sizes. They totaled, with premium, around $1200. Even as a barely emerging artist, I’m sure he netted out.
The super weird thing, though I didn’t know how weird yet, was that the day after I was searching for Vo’s 11-year-old sale, a near identical pair of Imari plates was coming up for auction in West Palm Beach. The pattern was identical, the marks identical, the sizes were very slightly different, but maybe not out of the auction houses’ margin of error. The auction estimate was $40-60. Even by the cruelest market calculus, that seemed like an unlikely price curve.
There must be thousands of plates like this, I thought, wrongly. A search through almost ten thousand auctions for Imari porcelain plates turned up only one that matched the Lemnitzer plates Vo bought and the two in front of me. [Sidebar: there is too much stuff in this world.] Could this pair be an overlooked Vo edition? If it was, could it be rescued? More interestingly, if it wasn’t, did it matter?
The auratic weight of provenance, history, culture, and memory are at the crux of Vo’s work. He buys the objects he buys because of these associations, and he puts them in an art context, where their backstory operates like an informational dye packet that explodes when you read a wall text, irrevocably staining the object in your mind, if not your eye. You can complain about the inertness or opacity of Vo’s objects, and their reliance on explanations, but I’m pretty sure he dgaf. And by the time you realize it, it’s already too late; Vo has changed the way you see–and think about–what he’s put before you.
So can that connection be severed? And if severed, can it be reattached? If it never existed, can it be conjured by an identical object? Vo spends an awful lot of time shopping. It’s probably the main part of his practice, besides chopping. These intangible issues, evocations, and associations hover around every transaction we make; it’s how brands work, how fashion works, how art works. Vo transposes his objects from one sphere–the historical, political, or personal–to another, but every time we trawl through eBay or a museum shop, so do we. Consumption and the mechanisms and networks of capitalism implicate us all.
Whether these Floridian plates once sat on the shelf of the American father of the Vietnam War is immaterial. Because now these plates evoke Danh Vo. And that is something.
If you bought these plates, please know that you did so because the liveauctioneers app gave me the false impression that I had placed a winning bid, and then gave no warning before it closed the sale. While you enjoy your plates, I will enjoy thinking about them.