PRINT April 2008


“ANSELM REYLE’S WORKS are about their surroundings. When you look at a foil painting, you’re looking at everything reflected in it,” said Sotheby’s senior director of contemporary art, Francis Outred, about lot 1 of his evening sale in London this past February. Untitled, 2006, a purple-PVC-foil-on-canvas in an acrylic box, had been placed in a prime marketing position—on a wall between the bidder-registration counter and the stairs leading to the salesroom. Ten minutes before the work was to sell for £311,700 ($625,150), one could see a parade of collectors and dealers streaming across its specular surfaces. Toby Webster, owner of the Modern Institute in Glasgow, who sold the painting for less than a tenth of this auction price in 2006, told me that he doesn’t see Reyle’s work as abstract. “They’re sculptural performance pieces,” he explained, “which involve the viewer in a hundred different psychologies. It’s a shame that they’re seen by so many as commodities.”

Indeed, Reyle has become an emblem of the art-market boom. At thirty-eight years old, the artist runs a studio-factory with twenty-five employees and freelance staff, which officially produces between 100 and 150 paintings and sculptures a year. Just as Damien Hirst has his dot, spin, and butterfly paintings, so Reyle produces foils, stripes, and “Otto Freundlichs.” (He used to create poured-paint canvases and other gestural work, but he seems to have discontinued these compositional schemes.) Reyle also makes diverse sculptural forms—neons, lamps, found objects painted in Day-Glo colors, and chrome-plated abstractions based on African sculptures sourced through flea markets.

Reyle’s work is collected by Charles Saatchi and François Pinault and has been exhibited in a number of prestigious group shows, including the influential “Formalismus” (Formalism) at the Hamburger Kunstverein in 2004. But his work has been primarily anointed by one solo show in a major public institution: “Ars Nova” at the Kunsthalle Zürich in 2006, which was accompanied by a thick, black, shiny catalogue underwritten by his dealers at the time—Giti Nourbakhsch, Gavin Brown, Almine Rech, Claus Andersen, and Webster. In his catalogue essay, critic Dominic Eichler grapples with the age-old abstraction-versus-decoration debate. Are Reyle’s festive references to modernist formalism a serious inquiry into art history or a clever response to the demand for high-status durables? Although Eichler mentions Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and neo-geo painting, he is overwhelmed by Reyle’s “state of turbo serial production” for upcoming exhibitions. “Looking around his studio,” he writes, “I find it, putting it mildly, hard to really focus on any single painting because the overall scene is like a hyper-decorative visual assault.”

In a recent article for Bloomberg News, Katya Kazakina celebrates Reyle’s “savvy change” of American dealers, from Gavin Brown to Larry Gagosian. At this dizzy (some say queasy) moment for the art market, it’s an interesting question: Just how shrewd is such a move? When asked what he thought of the term poaching, a colloquialism often applied to Gagosian Gallery’s strategy, Brown answered: “I don’t think you can steal an artist. It makes them seem like a dumb animal. They have free will. Anselm’s move to Larry made a lot of sense for him. Many artists with whom I work have said no to Larry. Just because he calls doesn’t mean they walk.”

Reyle’s work, particularly his reflective paintings, would seem to be a perfect test for assessing the cultural impact of different gallery brands. Gagosian Gallery, with its seven museum-style locations around the world, has a reputation for efficiently exploiting the supply and demand of established artists. Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (GBE), by contrast, is perceived to excel at discovering young artists and building their careers. The Rubells, who have three Reyle paintings on display in their current “Euro-Centric” show (at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami), have a seasoned perspective on the distinctions between dealers. “Gavin smells talent instinctively,” explained Mera Rubell. “He has an incredible faith in art, which is significant when an artist is emerging. He surrounds the work in a belief system.” Gagosian is different. “Larry has an excellent eye,” said Don Rubell. “He works best with artists who have their own definition. He opens fresh markets, new frontiers for the artist.” About Reyle’s work, the couple said: “Anselm breathes life into abstraction. He’s like Peter Halley on steroids.”

Although the art-world expressions are blue chip and emergent, other apposite oppositions between Gagosian and Brown might be commercial versus experimental and uptown clubbable versus street credible. In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, both dealers have high volumes of cultural capital, but while Gagosian has relatively unrivaled economic capital, GBE is rich in subcultural capital. In an American context, GBE arguably brings a measure of authenticity and edginess to Reyle’s work, whereas Gagosian offers a sense of unbounded extravagance.

Abstraction is often susceptible to the inflections of its immediate environment. Moreover, works of art with expensive commodity status may appear fresh and sexy during a market upswing, but those same works can feel shallow and tawdry in the sober light of a downturn. It will be instructive to see where the consensus lies, after the party’s over, on Reyle’s scintillating foils and stripes.

Sarah Thornton is a writer and sociologist of art.