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SHOULD WOMEN STOP PAINTING WOMEN? WHAT SOTHEBY’S MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY SALE TELLS US ABOUT ART MARKET ATTITUDES TO FEMALE ARTISTS

One of the most quoted snippets of art criticism of all time is from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” It’s a fantastic quote in its own right, but seems particularly relevant when looking at shifts in attitudes towards the sale and collection of female artists at the start of the 2024 spring season. Sotheby’s disappointing Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction, held in London last Wednesday, seems to suggest a market more interested in buying art by women than of them. While this may seem like a good thing on the surface, fears of a market based on overly figurative works hurtling towards a glass cliff may not be unfounded - and it’ll be women paying the price for the Icarian fall. writes Victoria Comstock-Kershaw.

Helena Newman auctioneering Klimt's Dame mit Fächer in 2023. Photo by Haydon Perrior, Image courtesy Sotheby's.


It’s no secret that when the stock market does well, the upper tier of the art market suffers. Now, with the stock market booming and interest rates likely to stay high for a while, it seems like seriously expensive art might not perform as well in the near future, especially during the spring auctions in London. Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction was off to a rocky start with 10 lots withdrawn by consignors before the sale even started, meaning nearly 15% of the 70 works originally marketed never even saw the light of the auction room—including the event’s second-highest offering, a Blue Period Picasso portrait originally expected to sell for between £5m and £7m and a Josef Albers painting (est £800,000 to £1m) removed about one hour into the proceedings. The rest of the evening, a “staid although not disastrous” affair, ultimately culminated with 60 lots achieving £82.2m (£99.7m with fees)—falling just within the adjusted projection of £74.8m to £106.5m but significantly lower than the earlier £136.9m (£172.6m with fees).


Interestingly, however, art by women did generally well: The Now sale (now, refreshingly, no longer a stand-alone event) saw the evening kick off with Takako Yamaguchi’s Catherine and Midnight (1994) selling for £889,000, vastly beating the £400,000 to £500,000 estimate. Additional records in the category were established by Rebecca Warren, whose piece sold for £571,500, and by an abstract painting by the late Etel Adnan, which fetched £444,500, exceeding its low estimate by more than threefold. Emily Kam Kngwarray, Françoise Gilot and Alex Katz were also amongst the roster of female artists beating estimates and pushing the auction into the aggregate low estimate.There were, naturally, a couple of flubs: Nicole Eisenman’s Biergarten (2007) was originally estimated to fetch between £500,000 and £700,000 but failed to raise a single bid – although, in the current political climate, one wonders how much this had to with the fact that it’s owned by Israeli advisors Joshua Gessel and Yoel Kremin. Similarly, Barbara Hepworth’s Horizontal Vertical (1972) failed at presale with an estimate of £900,000 to £1 million ($1.1 million to $1.27 million) but there is always the possibility that the thought of becoming entangled with anything from Ron Perelman’s collection (whose own financial escapades are remarkable in their own right) was enough to scare off potential buyers.


From left to right: Alex Katz, Black Hat No. 3, 2010, Françoise Gilot, Portrait de Geneviève avec un collier de colombes, 1944


Female artists doing well at auctions that can otherwise be considered disappointing has been a recurring trend over recent months. Christie's 20th / 21st Century: London Evening Sale and The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale saw The Woven Warped Garden of Ponder (2021) by Jadé Fadojutimi sell for £1.6m against an estimate of £400,000–600,000 and Allison Katz’s Snowglobe (2018) sell for £277,200 against an estimate of £40,000–60,000. Joan Mitchell set a new personal auction record at £29 million for her Untitled (c.1959) at an otherwise uneventful 20th Century Evening Sale at Christie's in New York in November. The entire The Now and Contemporary New York Sale was a bit of a letdown, only tiptoeing within the aggregate low estimate thanks to figurative female painters like Jenny Saville and Marina Perez Simão. Frieze Los Angeles saw first-night sales of works by the likes of Rita Ackermann, Loie Hollowell, Huma Bhabha, Carrie Mae Weems and Lynne Drexler while Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin and Barbara Hepworth all set new auction records during a relatively soft and selective autumn season, and Yayoi Kusama climbed to 8th place amongst the world's top-selling artists - behind Magritte and above Klimt.


It’s not just the upper tier of the market seeing a resurgence in interest in art by women. As noted by Clare McAndrew, founder of Arts Economics in The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report for 2020, ‘a unique feature of the art trade is that the secondary, or resale, market dominates values, with the highest value of trade taking place between former and future consumers and their intermediaries, rather than between producers and consumers.’ The Other Art Fair, the independent fair currently being held at the stonkingly impressive Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, features an overwhelmingly female-centric roster of galleries and artists, from Willow Stacey’s text-based textiles to programs like the East London Strippers Collective residency, with projects like Nicola Gifford’s The Future is Female at the Chelsea Barracks overtly championing female sculptors. Independent women-focused art advisories like The Nomad Salon, cultural occasions like Zara Muse collaboration with Kanishka Mayfair and, of course, galleries like Gillian Jason are simultaneous causes and consequences of this flourishing intermediary market, with Surrealist, Abstract and Expressionist works in particular demonstrating strength in prices fetched for works by females. 


Pheobe Boddy, Bad Bitch, 2024, Cinthia Sifa Mulanga, All My Emos, 2022


Art of women by women in particular has also been selling remarkably well and the reason is twofold. Of course, the female-as-subject is a timeless tradition in the Western artistic canon and, in an age where women are increasingly viewing their own and others bodies as objects to be consumed, it is a natural reflection of society that artworks by the likes of Joan Semmel or Tali Lennox do well (that, and those ghastly vases of headless female torsos). Of the most researched female artists on Artsy, figurative and (often naked) portrait artists like Cinthia Sifa Mulanga and Zandile Tshabalala have been rising the ranks. More importantly, however, is the cultural clout that comes with being able to claim support for and of minority artists and their works. Playing to feminist sensibilities might not mean much to the upper tiers (just 9.3% of the overall total market share went to female artists in 2023 and of the top 50 most expensive works sold at auction last year zero were by women) but it carries plenty of weight to newer and younger collectors. Up-and-comers like Jason Foster and Amar Singh have been building collections based on works by female, LGBTQ+, and minority artists (and, naturally, won’t shut up about it). Artsy’s irritably obtuse Women in Art report demonstrates the rising popularity of artworks “female-identifying artists”, especially African and Gen-Zers (indeed, the current record holder for most expensive African work sold at auction is held by US-based Ethiopian Julie Mehretu, whose 2008 work Walkers With the Dawn and Morning fetched £8.6m at Sotheby’s New York in November).


You can generously attribute all of this to broader cultural shifts and, of course, the fact that it’s International Women’s Month, but it is significant that art by women is doing so well in a time when auction houses are clearly a bit nervous. According to ArtMarket’s 2023 report, the number of transactions concerning female artists doubled over the past five years and tripled over the past ten, a trend attributed to ‘deliberate policy among key market players to revalue their works both historically and monetarily.’ On the surface this is a good thing, but other factors might cause the more cautious of us to raise eyebrows.


The S&P500 and the NASDAQ have risen to new all-time highs as the art market has pulled back from its 2022 benchmarks and any art institution worth their salt will be watching the inverse correlation between equities and art with at least a little bit of apprehension. Indeed, Sotheby’s slashed their buyer’s premium for the first time since 1979 only last month. The auction house decreased the fee to 20% on the hammer price up to $6m/£5m, and 10% of the hammer price above $6m/£5m—a price not only significantly lower than the previous 26% up to $1m/£800,000, 20% up to $4.5m/£3.8m, and then 13.9% on the portion of the hammer price beyond that, but very much below the fees charged by its principal market rivals. It’s difficult to say who exactly this move was made for; but the adoption of a new ‘success fee’ incurring an additional 2% commission should a lot’s hammer price exceed the top estimate (a structure already implemented by Christie’s a decade ago) suggests that it’s primarily in the interest of buyers - presumably in an attempt to signal confidence in the art market as the positive post-Covid economy continues to encourage investors from looking elsewhere than the safety of fine art as outlays. This has been the first time since 1982 (when Christie’s briefly dropped its premium from 10% to 8%, likely as a response to the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression) that one of the world’s leading auction houses has reduced its buyer’s premium.


This is not to suggest that Sotheby’s restructured their finances solely to spite women. It is, however, of great interest that these phenomena are occurring in tandem: typically, buyer's premiums increase as vendor fees decrease and sellers of valuable items seldom pay the full commission. One motivation behind these shifts is to transition away from private and intricate negotiations in obtaining works for sale, but a side effect is that artists and their estates make less money. Clearly women aren’t making as much as they could be in the first place, but one would be forgiven to worry that the coincidental rise in interest in female artworks is a result of a desire to capitalise on a trend rather than as a barometer of financial success. Identity-based trends aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but the ramifications of women doing well in overall economic contraction will be more cultural than financial.


Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam coined the term “glass cliff” in 2005 as a way of referring to the hypothesised phenomenon in which women are more likely to break the glass ceiling during periods of crisis or downturn when the risk of failure is highest. It’s generally a term used to refer to leadership positions awarded to women in companies and governments just before things go tits up, but, I believe, can also be applied to the general cultural gravitas of women in Western society. This month an Ipsos survey revealed that almost half of Britons believe that “women’s equality has gone too far” in the UK (a fact that, as astutely pointed out in the comment section London-based feminist art collective Hysterical founder Eliza Hatch’s commentary on the subject, surely has nothing to do with the fact that half of the British population is male). The market’s ardent penchant for female-produced artworks, therefore, is one that potentially implies a conciliatory economy in which women artists and their collectors are left to pick up the slack as the cultural pendulum swings south. 


It may sound unfair to imply that the reason female artists are thriving in the middle market is because collectors who acquire them simply aren’t reliable as barometers of success, but it is clear from setbacks like Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Sale that the hard-hitters are likely to be sitting this season out. As investors abandon the ethos of the 2020-21 ‘flight to quality’ and start moving their money away from more stable asset types like artworks into riskier ones like equities, wiser investors will simply not be looking to park their money in art. 


The fear, therefore, is that when we look back at this relatively stale but female-centric market that we blame the women: it’s no secret that the art world is already prone to blaming “wokeness” for the perceived decline in the overall quality not only of work being made, but being sold. Collectors and curators very rarely catch the same flack as artists and as long auctions continue to only just scrape by, the scrutiny on female artists and their contributions to the art market may intensify due to the perception that female-produced artworks are being disproportionately relied upon to buoy a struggling post-Covid market or the skepticism surrounding identity-based trends in art collecting. In the case of portrait and figurative female artists (whose already over-saturated lower market is bound to see a bubble-burst soon), extra caution should be taken as they continue to inadvertently - but often literally - attach the female figure to stale markets in the art world's collective financial subconscious.


Shadi Al-Atallah: Kris croker stole my tears, 2018, Elsa Rouy, Exposed Like This, 2021


There’s no real solution to be provided, or at least none until I am proved correct (or, hopefully, not). One might cautiously suggest that newer female artists move away from figurative art, especially those overly focused on female nudes. It may seem a bit unkind to tell women to stop painting themselves during International Women’s Month, but I think we can all agree that less Oh de Laval or Maya Fuji and more Paula Siebra or Liz Wilson can only be a good thing. The boorish, fleshy deconstructions of female and non-binary artists like Elsa Rouy or Shadi Al-Atalla aren’t doing much for the whole ‘women are not objects’ argument and anyway, abstract and expressionist (and to a certain extent installation) works make more money in both the long and short term markets. A strategic pivot away from figures not only augments artists' brand recognition (because seriously, how many To Feel Alive (2020) knock-offs can we be expected to keep stomaching?) and market penetration but also strategically positions them for sustained growth and prominence within the industry - something that may come in handy once the market picks up again and analysts start looking back up the glass cliff-face and start to identify women as potential harbingers of weakness. This is, of course, a remarkably pessimistic view of what might genuinely be a new and exciting trend in purchasing powers across the art market, but when looking at the auction history of works like O'Keeffe's 1932 Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 the trend towards treating works by female artists during times of economic upturn as pump-and-dumps becomes more apparent, and the added 21st century tendency of female artists uncritically portraying their genders bodies with the same, perfunctory artistic methods as their sexist counterparts just adds an extra layer on unpleasantness to the entire affair. We've come a long way, baby - but it's also up to us try and make sure we can keep the momentum going into better markets.


Georgia O'Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, Oh de Laval, To Feel Alive, 2020



 

Victoria Comstock-Kershaw is a London-based critic and contemporary arts writer.

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