Art in the Time of Stasis
Art in the Time of Stasis
The contemporary art market relies on global events, consensus, and good old-fashioned gossip. What happens when all of that grinds to a halt?
By James Tarmy

Last June the art dealer Alexander Hertling filled his booth at Art Basel with 12 paintings by a young, relatively unknown artist named Xinyi Cheng. The Chinese-born, Paris-based painter depicts lightly surreal scenes: a naked figure cutting prosciutto, a vacant-looking man sticking his fingers into a glass of wine, a bearded nude caught in a circus net. All are executed in a layered, ever-so-slightly hazy, painterly style.

In his booth at the Swiss art fair, Hertling exhibited portraits of people Cheng had met over the past year—one for each month. “We’d sold her work before to some interesting collectors,” says Hertling, who co-founded the Parisian gallery Balice Hertling and was introduced to Cheng by one of his other artists. “But the Art Basel presentation opened her work to an international group of people.”

The setup itself wasn’t ornate: Cheng’s unframed paintings were mounted simply on the booth’s white walls. But her art struck a chord among collectors. Not only did every one of the works sell— depending on the size, they went for €10,000 ($10,874) to €40,000—but Cheng also won the fair’s Baloise Art Prize, which comes with 30,000 Swiss francs ($30,810) and a solo exhibition organized by the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. Since then, Cheng has gotten more commissions from major foundations, and there’s a waiting list for her art.

Cheng’s meteoric rise might be dizzying, but it’s not unique; in fact, her success illustrates how the contemporary art world uses group settings to form consensus.

“Art is a very social enterprise,” says Jeffrey Deitch, whose eponymous gallery has locations in Los Angeles and New York. “Look at the Art Basel online viewing platform,” which the fair created for galleries to showcase their wares after it canceled its Hong Kong edition in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It was so dry and stiff,” he continues. “What’s missing is when you’re in a booth looking at something, having a friend pass and say, ‘Oh, you’re looking at that? I bought one of those, too.’ It’s the social commentary that activates [sales].”

But this year there won’t be an Art Basel in June to reinforce blue-chip fame and promote emerging artists such as Cheng. Along with dozens of other fairs, biennials, gallery weeks, exhibition openings, and auction weeks, Art Basel has been delayed, yet another commercial victim of the virus. “We did not take this decision lightly,” the fair wrote in an email to its VIP client base. “It has been made in close consultation with many of you and many of our gallerists, with the goal of protecting the health and safety of our community.”

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May 11, 2020