by Jennifer Dalton
As postmodernism trudges on toward god-knows-what, the relationship between art and money just gets weirder and weirder. The dichotomy between the modernist figure of the starving artist and the recently minted icon of a tan, wealthy and healthy art star suggests how thoroughly the tide has changed. The contradiction between those persistent behavioral archetypes has helped usher us toward our current situation in the 1990s, where contemporary artists are nothing if not confused about money.
Art students are relentlessly instructed to fight for public funding for the "increasingly impoverished art world," while across town Tom Wesselman and Sam Francis paintings are sold in the primary market for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and often on the secondary market for even more. Philip Morris has a branch of the Whitney Museum named after it, and fashion designer Hugo Boss sponsors one of the world's most prestigious prizes for contemporary artists. At this point, most younger artists are more than willing to sell their soul if they could only figure out exactly who the buyers are.
The huge yet mysterious public and private forces that control contemporary art rarely get examined, but once in a while, rather than sitting on the fiscal fence, an artist confronts these ironies head-on. Robert Thill, a.k.a. LA Angelmaker, attempted to do just that in his May 1997 show at the Momenta Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. Thill has traced nine artworks and art objects that were sold by major American museums to private collectors through the auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's during one month in 1996. "De-accessionaing", a rather hot topic in the art world, is frowned upon because it removes objects from public view.
The objects Thill selected include "A Polychrome Limestone Capital in Romanesque style," "A French Henry II Style Walnut Extension Table, incorporating Renaissance elements," and several other paintings, objects and items of furniture. As part of the exhibition, the artist offered to negotiate the re-sale of each object from the collector back to the museum which had sold it. The museums also had the option to purchase Thill's representation of the object. Taken to its conceptual extreme, Thill's project might have included purchasing the originals himself and returning them to the institutional context. As a final twist of rhetoric, Thill insisted that the initial object or its representations should not be offered back to its original curatorial department, but displayed in the contemporary collection, claiming that as an object moves through art's food chain, its meaning is profoundly altered.
Entitled "Bad Penny: For Museum Purchase only," the Momenta Art show featured one table "original" and representations of eight other objects. True to conceptual art form, the show was appropriately dry aesthetically. For the representations, Thill exhibited auction catalogues into into which he had made beveled incisions to expose a photograph of the featured item. These catalogues were vertically encased in freestanding plexiglas frames, standing on pedestals so that they were able to be viewed from all sides. Thill also exhibited copies of the letters he sent to the auction houses and to the museums, offering his objects and/or his services as an intermediary to negotiate the objects' re-sales.
Bluntly, Thill's work argues that a check is all it takes to turn an artist--or anyone else--into a prostitute. But he wants to whore on his own terms. A subtlety of the show is that private collectors are not welcome to purchase his work. Thill is offering his objects only to museums, introducing the possibility that Thill could place his work into the collections of major national museums, though at press time, none had yet taken the bait. </end>