In late 2006 several major art-market events — record-breaking auctions and 14 Miami Beach art fairs — provided a bracing contrast to a slew of exhibitions concerned with the immaterial, experiential, mystical, and social. These instances clearly illustrate the exciting, age-old tensions between the thrill of commerce and the quest for artistic integrity.
In November a Christie's sale of impressionist and modern art yielded nearly half a billion dollars. A good chunk of that auction money was laid down for recovered Nazi art loot, a noble corrective yet one rooted in economic conditions, not necessarily philosophical or penitential ones. Big money seems to obliterate the pure intentions of art, though record price tags do have a way of speaking to a broader audience.
Meanwhile, the fanfare and brisk sales at the recent Miami art fairs — Art Basel Miami and satellite events — attest to a healthy market and, hopefully, the ability for artists to forge self-sustaining careers, not to mention allow San Francisco galleries to expose their wares to international collectors. In her heartening reportage on the Miami fairs, New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted how the events level the field of information and offer a platform for market resistance, pointing out artists who conceptually dare collectors through assaulting video and purposeful repetition of mundane imagery.
Much like the rest of the economy, flush with stock market upticks and the national budget's creative accounting, art sales are solid, similar to those in the so-called go-go 1980s. Part of the thrill of the boom is the anxiety of a crash lurking in the future. So how does a thriving market — and all the commercialism that goes with it — affect the creation of new art and its reflection of contemporary culture?
In 2006 you didn't have to look far to find examples of artists aiming to tackle our collective anxieties, either politically or spiritually, through their quest to envision the intangible. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's current Anselm Kiefer show, "Heaven and Earth," embodies that idea as it surveys a German artist whose paintings are informed by alchemy, mythology, and Jewish mysticism. Kiefer makes large works addressing even bigger themes. He also has firm political convictions — he has consistently refused to enter the United States in protest against George W. Bush's policies. It's worth noting that Kiefer's work hasn't exactly seemed fashionable in recent years. Is his appearance now coincidence or zeitgeist?
"Heaven" inhabits the same gallery space that hosted "Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint," a sprawling exhibition as steeped in the artist's celebrity and sex appeal as it was in Shinto references and other lofty themes. A hushed, almost religious vibe pervaded the proceedings as viewers looked up at the video monitors in quiet awe — or perhaps disbelief. Both Barney and Kiefer are comfortably blue chip, and their work sells even when they strive for deeper meaning.
A new strain of alternative art is being fostered at Southern Exposure, which this year put an emphasis on social interaction and artwork that unfolds in public places. Packard Jennings's lottery tickets, available in local corner stores, offer scratch-off prizes to feed the mind, not the bank account, and Neighborhood Public Radio's broadcasts traffic in community and dialogue. These programs have been driven by a seismic upgrade and the need to work off-site, but the thrust of the gallery's program also revealed that bias in its actual building.
Taking on a more conventional gallery form was "Ghosts in the Machine," the inaugural show in SF Camerawork's impressive new space. Curator David Spalding expanded on the topic of shared history to suggest a sense of cultural haunting by unresolved past actions — those related to the Vietnam War, suicide bombings, and US racial tensions.