THE OVERNIGHT BULL MARKET IN MODERN PAINTING
Never mind what they mean — why have abstract paintings boomed to a $6,000,000-a-year traffic in Canada within three years? For that matter, who's Harold Town? And why are his best abstracts $1,550 prizes now, when six years ago he could barely give away paintings he says were just as good?
LAING'S OF Toronto—picture dealers to the carriage trade—had never seen anything like it.
It was a routine Saturday-afternoon preview, last February, of a one-man show by a local abstract artist: sixty prints, collages and oils by Harold Town, then 36. But in spite of a bleak late-winter downpour and the rival lures of the week-end cocktail hour, their Bloor Street galleries were jammed. Town, arriving a carefully casual half-hour late, couldn't even win through to the cloakroom with his coat. Sherries had to be clutched at collarbone level to protect them from jostling elbows. Talk buzzed excitedly: “. . . the Toronto Art Gallery has bought one . . . Sam and Ayala Zacks have bought one . . . the Cleveland Museum has bought one . . .” The atmosphere was not only electric but infectious. One society surgeon had already signed up for a large oil before he remembered that he collects only paintings of the fashionable French school. (He returned it to Laing’s as soon as the fever subsided.) There was at least one nasty incident when two gallery attendants with a red sticker apiece converged on the same picture in a dead heat. (The draw was not settled amicably, causing one of the bidders to withdraw his custom from Laing’s forever.) When the smoke cleared Town found he’d sold thirty paintings in two hours at CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE
THE OVERNIGHT BULL MARKET IN MODERN ART continued
prices up to $1,550. In its two weeks’ run three quarters of the huge
show was snapped up.
Town should have been euphoric. Instead, that first evening, after all the revelry and congratulation from friends and satisfied customers, he suddenly slammed a recalcitrant record player to the floor, jumped on it and ground it into the tiles with his boots. "All night,” he explains the outburst now, “while people were talking about ‘milestones and 'triumphs' and ‘breakthroughs, 1 was thinking. So where was everybody ten years ago when 1 really needed them?’ ”
It’s a good question, for it highlights one of the most bewildering new phenomena of the Canadian market place: in just one decade the fine-art business in Canada has taken ofl. Artists who in 1951 couldn t izet a one-man show, let alone a sale, are suddenly being courted by the dealers—w'ho have themselves more than quadrupled in number. Promising talents are being winkled out at art school and offered commercial exhibitions, with commercial price tags, even before they re graduated. The industry’s dollar volume has quintupled in the decade—it undoubtedly passed the six-million-dollar mark this year—and it s still growing. Drawings that used to go begging at $25 apiece are being snatched up at two and three hundred dollars. Oils that fetched $200 tour years ago now fetch $600 . . . $900 . . . $1,200 . . . Consumers who once bought a picture only after deciding against a mirror now haven’t walls enough to hang their purchases. One Toronto couple, Mr. and Mrs. Percy Waxer. started collecting only two seasons ago; they've already got thirty-two art works and are still joyously scouting every gallery, studio and exhibition in town. Big - scale collectors, hitherto avid only for international masters, have started buying locally. Ten years ago Mr. and Mrs. Sam Zacks—he is a Bay Street financier—had nothing but a world-famous multimillion-dollar collection of Picassos, Matisses, Renoirs and Braques. This spring they bought eighteen Canadian art works in a single Sunday afternoon, then brought the total up to seventy in a whirlwind cross-country tour.
ANOTHER PUZZLEMENT—ALMOST ALL OF IT’S ABSTRACT
To add a further puzzlement, most of the traffic is in abstract art, like Town’s, which scarcely got gallery space anywhere in this country until 1955. Alan Jarvis, Canada's most energetic cultural impresario, estimates that the market share of contemporary nonfigurative paintings. on a pictures-sold basis, has jumped from ten percent to a rising eighty-five percent" in ten years.
The boom is so unmistakable that at first glance it suggests either (a) that Canadian artists have overnight acquired genius en masse or ;b) that Canadian art collectors have won sweepstakes en masse. Or possibly (c) that contemporary abstract art is uniquely seductive and just what Canada has been waiting for.
And there are indeed people who will argue that the current generation of home-growm artists is painting with a vigor and originality unmatched since the Group of Seven; or that the mushrooming of the over-$ 10,000-a-year income group has meant
CONTINUED ON PAGE 38
Flanked by $2,300 worth of his own paintings, Harold Town is shown during an exhibit at the Laing Galleries, Toronto, last February. On the left, “The Uneasv Emperor,” owned now by architect John C . Parkin, sold for about $1,350. “The Window,” owned by the Hamilton Art Gallery, fetched $950.
Continued from pape 22
Only tax officials know the number of art buyers
oodles of new money for culture: or even that abstract art is like tobacco—an acquired taste, but habit-forming to anyone with atomic-age jitters.
But in addition to these notions, the Canadian art boom has to be considered in relation to the international market, the postwar world and the national scene. It involves economics, and probably social science as well, lor the mechanism by which a significant number of people begin wanting the same kind of luxury item is sociological. Or so advertising men believe.
1 he boom is in fact a complex phenomenon, tilled with anomaly, paradox — and question-marks. Do people buy abstract art because they like it. or because it's till that’s coming on the market? If a four-foot-square painting by Robert Varvarandc costs $600 and a painting the same si/c by Jean-Paul l.ernieux costs $800, is Lemieux a better painter? Why, when lean Paul Riopelle lent some of his paintings to decorate a sculpture exhibit, diil the dealet in whose back room they’d been gathering dust for two years suddenly buy four of them? Win is a Riopelle worth $ 1.500 to $25.000 today'.' How do you tell a bad abstract? Here is a Bernard Buffet picture, a frying pan with one egg. for $4.000: beside it for $5,000 is the same arrangement with two eggs: what is costing the $1.000? How high will the prices go? Why was Harold Town recently offered $2.500 for a canvas called The Actress, that he couldn’t peddle at $250 in 1955 either in a gallery show or to a good friend who was actually shopping for a Town painting? Town turned down the $2,500 offer, modestly claiming the picture would one day be recognized as "obviously a Canadian masterpiece." He says he wouldn't take $5.000 for it. How did he arrive at this price? Is there any way of telling what it’s really worth?
No one has definitive answers, indeed, so far in Canada, even the bare facts of the bull market in art are ill-documented. (No one except possibly the income-tax department knows exactly how many paintings were sold last year; no one knows how many buyers there are. except that it is certainly no more than 50,000.) But it is possible to arrive at some anatomy of the boom by considering the case history of a representative artist.
Lor these purposes Harold Town is a good choice, for he was around well before it started and has ridden it till the way up: his current prices are at the very top of the Canadian market for living abstract painters.
He is also a good choice because, in his own view at least, he has been a mature painter painting at the top of his form throughout the whole decade. "There are things like The Actress that ! painted early in the fifties that I could never do better." he says. Thus, if he is right, other factors than a spectacular flowering of talent since 1951 have caused his recent triumphs.
In 1951. which was the year of the Massey report urgently pleading for culture in Canada. Town was already twentvseven. and seven years out of the Ontario College of Art. While he was still an undergraduate one Toronto critic. Pearl
McCarthy, had noted. “A man named Town, of the graduating year, looks as if he might continue to grow artistically.” What Town had grown into was a busy, respected, underpaid—$75 for a four-color magazine cover—commercial artist.
The son of a CNR baggageman from a rundown neighborhood, down has been drawing or painting since he was three, but he had sold only one painting —to Lady Kemp, at a Women's Committee sale at the Toronto Art Gallery in 1949 — had never had a one-man show and had only been inside a commercial gallery once in his life. He recalls. "I just didn't think of going to them because so obviously there was no sympathy for anything we were doing. Maybe 1 should have gone in and grabbed one of these guys by the throat and said. Now look it, if you don't show a few pictures. and it's not going to hurt you. I'm going to stick you in the back with a knife some night or something.' But I accepted the status quo and just went on making a living as best I could, and working." He worked in a cellar so low' he had to wear a football helmet to protect his head and so damp that a fungus grew m his ear. He didn't have a studio with daylight for years.
Artistically, the year was remarkable only because his brutal, and representational. study of two naked men, which was accepted for the annual Royal Canadian Academy show, got itself decorated one night with some cartooned indications of natural function. I his attracted the attention of Hash, a Toronto tabloid, to the painting itself and landed Town in their headlines (TORONTO SCHOOL Lins I XI’OSLD TO FILTHY PAINTING!). Blit at this stage the only consumer interest the publicity aroused was a letter from North Bay requesting a snapshot of the picture in question to add to a "collection.’’
".lust a matter of investment”
In 1952 Town sold no paintings either. But in Paris the sale of a single canvas heralded the staggering international art boom of which the Canadian boom is in part a reflection. A still-life by postimpressionist Cézanne brought $113.141 at auction. It was a monstrous sum. overnight proof of a new evaluation of art in the market places of the western world. It was also the first of a series of increasingly spectacular art auctions in London. Paris and New York that have driven art prices sky-high, made possible huge profits to a few speculators, and almost exhausted the supply of acknowledged masterpieces still available for trading. In 1959. at Sotheby's in London, a mere seven paintings brought an all-time-record $2.186.800. including $616,000 for a Cézanne —• the highest price ever paid at auction for any painting. 1 he combination of inflated prices and a dwindling international inventory, meanwhile, had sent speculators into the contemporary Paris and American markets. One New Vork gallery reported that a businessman dropped in with a picked list of artists and asked for one of each. When he was gently advised to look til their work to see if it appealed to him he shook his head: "This is just a matter of investment,” he said. "1 hear art prices are going up."
Art prices were going up not only because of auctions of master works but because. in a postwar boom economy, more money was available to more people tor conspicuous consumption: more people
knew a little something about art because of college training, pocket reprints of art books, good reproductions newly available, blockbuster movies about Van Gogh and TV plays about Gauguin; more homes and apartments were being built with blank white walls; more architects
were urging art on big corporations. And since abstract art—which had been gaining momentum for half a century in Paris and for fifteen years in the U. S. A. — was what the artists were turning out and what seemed to fit the mood, abstract art sold. Throughout most of the fifties the art market fluctuations closely followed those ol the stock market. But in 1957, when it should have followed the stock market into recession, it didn't. Instead it took oil' and has been climbing steadily and independently ever since. No one quite knows why, except that a rash of
daring art thefts around the world may have persuaded the cynical that art is a hard commodity.
I he Canadian market lagged behind, though. In 1953 Town got a $450 portrait commission, by default, from a farmer who had really wanted to sit to the late Oscar ( alien. Then he sold his first serious painting, for $150 by installments, to Don Jones, a young promotion man with a publishing company. Jones has since acquired another Town painting, a print and a drawing, and an insurance evaluation this fall appraises the paintings
at triple their original cost. This is the only frail clue that exists to a hard value for paintings that have never been put up for grabs but simply sold for the price set by the painter.
Town’s net take for his paintings in 1954 was $263. At thirty, he finally had his first one-man show—an exhibit of framed prints — at the Picture Loan Society. He sold six at $15 to $25. The frames had cost him $8 apiece. He also joined two other like-minded abstract artists. Oscar Cahén and Kazuo Nakamura, in a three-man show. Few people came and only one piece, a Town drawing, was sold — to a fellow artist. But 1954 was the year when Town, Cahén, Nakamura and eight other vigorous and defiant artists banded together in a loose federation callet! Painters Lleven and had a group show at which they tried to make it clear that abstract art had finally arrived in Englishspeaking Canada. What with Alfred Pelian, Borduas and Riopelle. it had arrived in French-speaking Canada much earlier — prematurely, in fact, for the market. Painters Eleven marked some sort of turning point, but whether in fact or by coincidence cannot be proved.
For by 1955 the Canadian economy was riding high, concern about culture had gathered momentum and all the social and financial elements that had produced an art boom in the U. S. were set to produce an art boom in Canada: spare money, spare time, status-seeking, pressure by architects and interior decorators, and a rising groundswell of publicity. For example. in 1955 Alan Jarvis was appointed director of the National Gallery in Ottawa and celebrated this event with a bulk purchase of paintings by twenty-six Canadians and a cross-country tour during which he made 158 speeches about the new art. In 1955. also, the Greenwich Gallery — the first Toronto commercial house dedicated solely to contemporary art — was opened. The proprietor, Avrom Isaacs, soon had a stable of a dozen young artists and these, together with Painters Fleven. gave Toronto an honestto-goodness art colony, and its real start as the art-mart of Canada. Today most collectors from elsewhere in the country come here to shop.
These twenty-odd artists, all at the starting post together, are stretched out along the track today. One of them. William Ronald, soon went to New York, was taken up there and automatically found his prices adjusted to the New York level —one-and-a-half to three times the To-
ronto level. (Jean-Paul Riopelle, who went from Montreal to Paris to become the darling of the international market, is selling at the top international rate for living abstractionists—about twenty times the Toronto level.) Robert Varvarande, for whom fledgling collectors are apt to line up, is selling at around $600 for a comfortable apartment-sized canvas. Graham C oughtry, who has exhibited internationally, put his top price up from $1,200 to $1,500 for his November one-man show and had a waiting list of forty for his fifteen available canvases. Tony Urquhart. who made a dazzling debut at twenty-two with a near sellout show (fourteen out of eighteen paintings at $100 to $175) in 1956, had a Hop last year with a watercolor show and is currently priced at a top of $550. Harold Town, with his top price soon to go up to $1,650, is the frontrunner of the group.
I own cheerfully believes the main reason is talent—he once paused before a painting of his in a friend’s home and remarked, “Makes you feel humble, doesn’t it?" However, if pressed, he is willing to comment on some of the factors commonly held to bring people with checkbooks into art shows and set them to narrowing their eyes:
Prestige. Town's prestige was already established when the psychological moment came: "A few things had happened to my reputation when art started to move here.” he says. "I was really very well-known internationally as a print-maker. I'd been in the Venice Biennale; I’d been shown in Geneva. London, Brussels and New York. I’d taken a prize al the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil, the biggest art show in the hemisphere.”
Publicity. Town treats this one cautiously. A fearless and freeswinging commentator on any given subject, he has been asked for—and has given—his comments on every major art brawl in Canada in the last decade, including the violent criticism in some quarters of Canada’s far-out art exhibit at the Brussels World Fair. ("The flatulent utterances of the perennial fustians,” he said.) He points out. however, that he’d already had lots of this kind of publicity in 1957 when, at a print show at the Picture Loan Society, people stayed away in droves and only three pieces were sold. At the same time he remarks, "In 1958 I was picked to do the Hydro mural for the St. Lawrence Seaway. I was attacked in the Ontario Legislature about this and then the
Toronto Star went around with a photograph of the mural and collected opinions. (Sample: Go away with that!) It had a lot of publicity at the right time and I think this had an effect.”
Critics. Town says, “A critic could only really sell an artist single-handed if he owned his own newspaper, TV and radio station. But he can create a kind of excitement." At least two Canadian critics have publicly called Town a genius; three more have praised him consistently; one has ignored him consistently. One drama critic has accused him of "cheating the public.” Gallery owner Avrom Isaacs comments, "If two out of three critics praise a show it will definitely increase the turnout. But all of them put together couldn’t do as much as one column by Pierre Berton, if he ever wrote about art."
The taste-makers. "I hear the Zacks don't dig me.” Town comments. It is commonly held in art circles that the Zacks’ tastes in art have a profound influence on their friends’ collections, which in turn have an influence on other lesser collections. It is certainly true that when one Toronto gallery, the Upstairs Gallery, invented a system of guaranteed patronage of one-man shows, the Zacks' choice for sponsorship. Pierre Gendron, had by far the most successful show of the series, a near sellout. But Town has Alan Jarvis on his side and Jarvis, for example, recently introduced his purchasing advice to a university art committee with the remark. "A Town is a must.”
Dealers. "If your dealer has real conviction it makes all the difference." says Town, whose dealer is Jerrold Morris of Laing Galleries. On the thesis that dealers are widely supposed to manipulate prices at will, he comments. "I set my own prices.” In the train of his awards, cumulative publicity, accelerating flurries of consumer interest and a bid to move to England and "go international” from a London dealer. Town serenely decided to double his prices early in 1959. just before a major show of collages. It was his most exciting show to that date, and sold well over $4,000 worth. Since 1959 was the year the Canadian art market skyrocketed—trailing the U. S. market by just two years—Town’s timing was precisely right. He has redoubled his prices since then and will push them up even further the next time he has a show. So far the customers have held still for it.
Asked to explain price gaps between artists who on the form might be thought evenly matched. Town's answer varies. If he dislikes the higher-priced painter, he’s apt to say, "The public has always supported bad art.” If he dislikes the lowerpriced one he’ll offer. “If the paintings aren’t good, in the end everybody knows.” He is joined in this neat solution by almost every known commentator on the art scene.
4'own lists two other factors that in general affect the price of a particular painting:
Scarcity. An artist with an output of, say, twelve pictures a year may have a waiting list, which will tend to drive his prices up. Graham Coughtry, whose output is just about twelve pictures a year, has both a waiting list and a rising rate card. Town, on the other hand, has produced 1 10 small drawings, seven huge oils and nine pieces of sculpture since his February show. He says. "I’m known as prolific and I think this affects my price.” Also, an artist who has passed on from a popular phase may find the earlier works, since they are now a limited edition. more sought after than his newer ones. This circumstance overtook Jacques de Tonnancour recently when he turned away from an appealing landscape phase. Even better than being scarce is being dead.
Within six months of Paul-Emile Borduas’ death, last year his prices had tripled.
Size. Within an artist’s own canon, all paintings of the same size are invariably the same price, with the price per square inch carefully graded from small paintings (high-priced) to outsize (a bargain). Town has noticed that consumers, faced with choosing among identically priced canvases, have certain biases: towards a lot of paint ("they like ’em juicy”); towards warm colors; and towards surfaces that show a lot of work ("much more liable to sell than something I might con-
sider more brilliant—done with four lines that either live or die”).
Perhaps these are as sensible guides for the innocent—or the greedy—as any. In Art as an Investment, a recent market guide to the international art boom, the author, a U. S. collector named Richard Rush, carefully charts the form on all the major art schools of the Western World, even listing portfolios of gilt-edged investments and of good speculative gambles.
Beyond noting that it's in vogue, he pointedly abstains from any advice about
contemporary abstract art, saying first of all that you can't tell the market value of art until it's put up for resale and secondly that the criteria for judging its excellence or lack of excellence are "too obscure.”
Certainly there’s no evidence so far that anybody's made money on the current Canadian boom except the parties of the first part—the painter and his dealer. And as long as this is so, Harold Town has the last word: "A painting is worth what the artist can get for it,” he says firmly. *