PRINT April 2008


Paul McCarthy, Untitled (Dirty Dotty), 1992/2001, cibachrome photograph, 72 x 48 inches.  From the series “Propo.”

IN THE FINAL SCENE of Paul McCarthy’s video Painter, 1995, the artist climbs onto a coffee table and bends over. Under the watchful eye of a buffoonish dealer, a collector pulls down McCarthy’s underwear and zealously sniffs his ass. “Yeah, very nice!” says the collector with gusto. “I thought you’d like that!” replies the dealer with tender pride. The derisive scene suggests that artworks are akin to precious waste, and it gives us a whiff of McCarthy’s attitude toward sales. Where Piero Manzoni famously canned his shit and sold it for the price of its weight in gold, McCarthy likes to play with his, symbolically, in the form of chocolate sauce and figurines and in his desire to possess and rework much of his output.

For the first twenty years of his artistic career, McCarthy admits that he didn’t think about selling work. He performed for his video camera by himself in his kitchen or in front of small audiences in hotel rooms and other alternative spaces. These events were reviewed in High Performance magazine and admired by friends such as Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, and Charles Ray, but they gained few other accolades. In Artforum, Summer 1983, Thomas McEvilley praised McCarthy as a “major exponent of the art of the taboo gesture,” an endorsement that no doubt helped the artist abandon his day job as a construction worker and take up a teaching position at UCLA. In 1984–85, he sold two or three drawings through Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles. In 1987, he received an NEA grant and made his first kinetic sculpture, Bavarian Kick, a work now owned by the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien but one that languished without a buyer for seven years.

McCarthy’s real breakthrough was not until 1992, when Paul Schimmel gave him $10,000 to execute The Garden for the curator’s now-legendary “Helter Skelter” show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Gallerist Jeffrey Deitch attended the opening. “Before I even saw the work, I heard people gasping,” says Deitch. “It was the first time performance art had really been put into sculptural form.” That same year, The Garden went on to be the centerpiece of Deitch’s “Post Human” exhibition, which took the large-scale sculpture on a tour through four European cities, with a final stop in Jerusalem. Deitch bought the work (which he still owns), whereupon McCarthy, at the relatively ripe age of forty-seven and at the rock bottom of a bear art market, had finally made his first significant sale.

From 1992 onward, McCarthy had no shortage of exhibition opportunities in the US, but his sales were still sticky. As Jeffrey Poe of Blum & Poe in Los Angeles (one of a handful of galleries to put on solo McCarthy shows in the 1990s) says, “It’s hard to sell work that is so fucked-up, so naked, messy, and scary. It took a European sensibility to blow it out of the box.”

In 1994, when a twenty-two-year-old Swiss collector named Iwan Wirth heard that Bossy Burger, 1991—the first set from a McCarthy performance to be preserved and positioned as an artwork—was sitting derelict in the artist’s garage, he acquired it. McCarthy had long perceived his performance props and environments as works in themselves. In the ’70s, he saved condiment-covered tables and torn-up couches (he still has the bed from Sailor’s Meat, 1975), but storage was difficult. “I threw away a lot of art,” says McCarthy. “I kept the videos and drawings, but the bigger pieces eventually disappeared.” Throughout the ’80s, McCarthy became increasingly fascinated with objects. “It was probably related to Reaganomics,” McCarthy told me, “but I was focused on what Vito Acconci said about finding something to replace himself. That—and appropriating Hollywood environments and attitudes—is what really interested me.” (Indeed, McCarthy found the sitcom restaurant locale that would eventually become Bossy Burger in a warehouse of disused television studio sets in Culver City, California.)

Shortly after purchasing Bossy Burger, Wirth and his partners opened Hauser & Wirth in Zurich and invited McCarthy to be part of their program. In 2003, they inaugurated their London space with two ambitious McCarthy projects, Piccadilly Circus and Bunker Basement. They placed the former work with the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, but the latter is still available. Hauser & Wirth, who have represented McCarthy worldwide since 2006, are uncommonly patient patrons with a dedication to artists working in installation. As Wirth says, “We want to sell art as much as any gallery, but I think it is important to have a program that doesn’t reflect the auction market.”

The auction world’s bias toward two-dimensional objects is such that the most frequently seen McCarthy works on the resale block are large-format color photographs; the most sought-after is the “Propo” series. In 1984, McCarthy quit live public performances and placed his masks, dolls, ketchup bottles, and other small props into six trunks. In 1992, he took the objects out, photographed them, and then put them back. The photographs are in editions of three, with one artist’s proof. (The trunks and a complete set of 119 photos were shown at Art Unlimited in Basel in 2003 and acquired by the Flick Collection in Berlin.) True to the auction market’s love of female figures, the record price for a “Propo” work is for Untitled (Dirty Dotty), 1992/1999–2000, which sold for $416,000 in October 2007.

By contrast, the record auction price for a McCarthy video is a mere $108,000—for Rocky, 1976. (The videos are all in editions of ten.) “Whatever market McCarthy has, he totally deserves,” says Amy Cappellazzo, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “When people look back at this baroque stage of American culture, McCarthy will be seen as the guy who represented the American dream falling apart. From an auction standpoint, however, video and installation are a tough sell. Anything that plugs in, has moving parts, or fills a truckload of crates has a thin market.”

It is not just the difficult content and elephantine scale of McCarthy’s installations that make them resistant to conventional modes of retailing, but the fact that the artist likes to continue working on them for years after they leave the studio. “The idea that a piece ends when it is bought or shown is just conformity,” says McCarthy. “It’s the agreed idea about the way things are done. I like to remake the works every time I reinstall.” This can take a great deal of understanding on the part of McCarthy’s collectors. For example, Painter was commissioned by MoMA, but it was bought by the Rubell Family Collection shortly after its museum debut in 1995. When McCarthy reinstalled the work in the Rubells’ “Red Eye” show in Miami in 2006, he decided, among other things, to project the video upside down and line the walls with letters detailing a financial misunderstanding he had had with the family. “The video was fiction,” says McCarthy, “but the letters had a certain reality. It was all about the art world.”

Collectors of McCarthy’s installations don’t simply take on an object but acquire a relationship with the artist. It’s a complicated commitment that appeals to serious collectors, but makes speculators run a mile away. Interestingly, it would also seem to scare off US museums. Although many American curators have supported McCarthy (including Schimmel, Ralph Rugoff, Robert Storr, Dan Cameron, and Lisa Phillips), and he is well represented in European museums, American public institutions don’t hold any major works (with the exception of MoCA, Los Angeles, which owns Tokyo Santa, Santa’s Trees, 1999). One can only hope that this situation might change when McCarthy exhibits two new pieces at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in June as part of a solo show curated by Chrissie Iles.

Needless to say, sales of major works require the cooperation of the artist. Caribbean Pirates, 2001–2005, a hellish, hard-to-watch work that McCarthy made with his son, Damon, has been shown in different incarnations in five European spaces: Munich’s Haus der Kunst, London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, Denmark’s Aarhus Kunstmuseum, and Ghent’s SMAK. The sprawling work, which consists of four installations (Frigate, Cakebox, Houseboat, and Underwater World), is on offer for a nominal $5 million. An artist primarily motivated by his bank balance would likely release the works separately for, say, $3 million apiece, but McCarthy wants them to stay together. As Wirth says, “Paul continues to work on these pieces, which is often easier if he keeps them. We’ve had interest, but the situation must be right. We’re relaxed; we think long-term.”

In contrast with artists who seem enslaved by the voracious demand for contemporary art (and so churn out paintings and cheery domestic-scale sculptural editions), McCarthy is having fun with it—and making fun of it—in a way that only an artist with a healthy indifference to the market can. Santa’s Chocolate Factory, 2007, a parody of the gallery as shop and of the art world’s obsession with easily portable collectibles, is not on offer as a static sculptural installation. “I want to sell the Chocolate Factory as a kind of franchise,” says McCarthy with a low chuckle. “It needs to be bought as a factory and run as a failed business.” Given the prudent financial attitudes of most people able to afford this work, that’s the funniest test of a collector’s commitment to art that I’ve heard of in a long time.

Of course, McCarthy also makes sculptures that are easier to maintain and more straightforward to sell. Santa with Butt Plug, 2002, a twenty-foot-high bronze statue in an edition of three, stood serenely outside Art Basel last June and sold for more than $2 million to a private American collector. The first Santa in the edition was bought by Sculpture International Rotterdam for the Dutch city, while the second sold to a French collector identified by Hauser & Wirth only as “not François Pinault.” (Pinault is a proud McCarthy collector.) As McCarthy admits, “In order to make the pieces I make, I have to sell something. . . . I’ve got my feet in different buckets. I’m not consistent.”

While the market may play havoc with our perception of the cultural worth of many artists (particularly conspicuous auction darlings such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst), price lacks symbolic power when it comes to McCarthy. When an artist’s intentions run against the grain of the commercial, when his influence on younger artists (such as Jason Rhoades, Jonathan Meese, and Jake and Dinos Chapman) is so evident, and when European museum support is so unequivocal, the significance of dollar values is infused with qualitatively richer smells.

Sarah Thornton is a writer and sociologist of art.