Five stories that had everyone talking
“Patience, dear, patience.” That was the advice 101-year-old Carmen Herrera gave to young artists this summer—on the eve of her first solo exhibition at a major museum. The Cuban-born American painter established her hard-edged abstract style in the late 1940s, when she first exhibited in Paris as a member of a group known as the New Realists. But the New York City of the 1950s was too enamored of macho abstract expressionists to give Herrera more than token support, and she didn’t sell her first painting until she was 89. Museums have been buying up her work in the 12 years since, though, and in November, New York’s Whitney rolled out a dazzling display of some 50 Herreras. Not far from the museum, the artist, a longtime Manhattan resident, still paints almost every day.
There’s a new king of the hill in museums of modern or contemporary art. With the opening of its new, eyecatching, billowy, white wing, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art more than doubled in size to become the largest such institution in the country. The expansion added grist to a friendly debate about whether the Los Angeles–San Francisco axis has supplanted New York as America’s art capital, and also raised questions about who decides how modern art’s story will be told. A single family fortune, built by the co-founders of the Gap, paid most of the cost of the new wing, and the museum has agreed that the wing’s top three floors will always exhibit three times more work from Doris and Donald Fisher’s own collection than from all other sources combined. That should be good for the collection’s market value and—though a family foundation owns many of the works—good for Doris Fisher and her sons.
The transaction occurred in late 2015, but only in February did the public learn that Willem de Kooning’s Interchangemight now be the most expensive painting ever sold. Created in 1955, the 17-foot-tall abstract expressionist canvas, which had belonged to Hollywood magnate David Geffen, was purchased by Chicago hedge fund manager Ken Griffin together with a Jackson Pollock in a $500 million deal thought to be the richest ever. For now it’s not clear if the roughly $300 million price paid for the de Kooning exceeds the roughly $300 million Qatar Museums paid months earlier for the 1892 Paul Gauguin painting When Will You Marry? Either way, Geffen did well. He purchased Interchange shortly after it sold at a 1989 auction for a then-record $20.7 million.
One prominent Paris arts dealer called it “the biggest scandal in a century.” In September, the auction house Sotheby’s announced that it had been duped, having five years earlier sold a forged Dutch master painting for $11 million. The work, identified at the time as Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Man, was one of several suspect works traced this year to French art collector Giuliano Ruffini. In March, police stormed a museum in France to seize a painting of Venus that belonged to the Prince of Liechtenstein and had been labeled a 1531 work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Ruffini says he made no claims about the provenance of his paintings when he sold them. Meanwhile, the gallery owner who sold the disputed Hals through Sotheby’s says he doesn’t trust the new forgery finding, given that both Sotheby’s and its rival, Christie’s, had previously labeled the work genuine. Sotheby’s chose to reimburse the buyer, but the auction house can’t win here. A gatekeeper is supposed to know the difference between a masterpiece and a fraud.
At least one art-world gatekeeper has a sense of humor about the job. At New York’s Guggenheim, visitors have been waiting for up to two hours in line to secure time alone with the museum’s most talked-about installation. America, created by Italian provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, is a fully functioning 18-karat gold toilet open to public use. The work recalls a 1917 Marcel Duchamp ploy, except that it has a more dramatic leveling effect. As Cattelan told The New Yorker: “Whatever you eat, a $200 lunch or a $2 hot dog, the results are the same, toiletwise.”