Venus Extravaganza

Rhonda Lieberman at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale and “À Rebours”

Left: Picket line outside of Sotheby’s. Right: Sotheby’s Contemporary Art evening sale.


Back in the trenches with the 1 percent! On Wednesday, my beat started at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art evening auction. A seasoned scribe prepared me: “There’s a press pit, so we’re kept separate from the really rich. The merely somewhat rich have to stand at the back of the room, while the press enjoy a side view. It’s a real hierarchy.” I got my hair did for the occasion anyway—but a blob of water defiled my blowout as I exited the cab. My entry into the 1 percenter’s shopping club was eloquently greeted by a lively picket line of union art handlers who Sotheby’s, in a year of record profits, wants to replace with temp workers with no benefits:

STOP THE WAR ON WORKERS! said their signs.

SOTHEBY’S BAD FOR ART! screamed the caption over Edvard Munch’s Scream.

Internally screaming at the greedheads (CEO William Ruprecht’s yearly salary doubled in 2010 to 6 million dollars), I was ushered through the door by a Sotheby’s staffer.

“There’s something simultaneously gross and exciting about the whole experience,” someone said. “It’s like high mass for the superrich, conspicuous consumption at its absolute peak. When a painting goes for $78 million and the room breaks into applause, it’s the religion of finance at work.”

It’s surreal to sit there as the vast, abstract sums are channeled from the room and the phone banks by auctioneer Tobias Meyer, erect in his beautifully cut suit like a lightning rod for dough: “Thirty-one million dollars is the bid. Thirty-two, thirty-three—thirty-three with Lisa.” Meyer pauses, striking an attitude like a biblical figure awaiting prophecy. “Thirty-nine. It’s thirty-nine with Lisa . . . ”

“She is beautiful,” Meyer flirtatiously praised “our cover girl of the night”: Roy Lichtenstein’s Sleeping Girl.

“C’mon, forty!” rooted someone behind me. (Not a bidder, just a fan.)

More vamping from Meyer: “I shall sell it then for forty million dollars. Sold!” Smattering of applause.

Instead of clapping for the art, they cheer for the prices.

Flanking the auction block, a Francis Bacon figure collapsed in on itself (a portrait of George Dyer, Bacon’s partner, shortly before Dyer killed himself) and Warhol’s cool, perky Flowers hovered above the phone banks where Sotheby’s staffers in cocktail attire took bids. Hearing the crazy sums flying around (you notice a piece sold for “only” $600,000), one is struck by a palpable sense of disconnection on so many levels: the absurd link—if there is one at all—between the Art and the Prices, and the complete disconnection of the high rollers sitting in the room from the workers outside haplessly protesting because their jobs are being hollowed out by the greedy corporation. It’s a fiesta of alienation.

Nibbling on dainty snacks afterward, we are told the total haul of the evening was a mere $266.6 million, compared with the record-breaking total Tuesday night at Christie’s: $388 million, the biggest ever for a postwar/contemporary auction. There was a vague anticlimactic feeling in the room. Nevertheless, a Sotheby’s spokesperson reassured us: “Global demand for masterpieces is unparalleled. This market is healthy.” Tell that to the workers outside.

Left: Jeff Koons’s Violet-Ice (Kama Sutra) and an onlooker. Right: Adam Lindemann. (Photos: John Arthur Peetz)

My next stop was collector-curator-writer–self-promoter Adam Lindemann’s “À Rebours” show, inspired by Huysmans’s echt-decadent novel of the same name about the rich aesthete who retreats into his own private world “to immerse himself in art collecting and erotic fetishism.” A fin de siècle metaphor for the 1 percent? Rather than fleece workers, he does all kinds of outré and louche things, such as bedazzling his pet turtle (who literally dies of artifice). The invite sported Odilon Redon’s portrait of Des Esseintes, Huymans’s antihero, and promised absinthe.

“Absinthe today has all the bohemian menace of a McNally’s restaurant,” sniffed a wag. But whatever.

We trudged from Sotheby’s to Madison Avenue, where Lindemann’s new space, Venus over Manhattan, is in the same swanky building as Gagosian. The lights were dim, the crowd was glam (vintage supermodel Linda Evangelista was there), and the installation—including contemporary pieces as well as old-timers like Fuseli, Gustave Moreau, and Dalí—was schadenfreude-heavy. Like an “art house of horrors,” someone said of the fetishy content (Damien Hirst grinning With Dead Head, Andra Ursuta’s noose suspended by a balloon, Dash Snow’s pill bottles, a Jivaro shrunken head, stuff like that.)

“It feels like the prelude to an Eyes Wide Shut situation,” said another.

Or a billionaire’s MFA show: Sexytime at The Olde Curiosity Shoppe. A poignant-looking guard was parked all night near an X-rated sculpture by Jeff Koons: Violet-Ice (Kama Sutra).

“They’re going to hate whatever you do,” an insider said he’d advised Lindemann, “so that frees you up!”