To: Faculty Development Grants Committee and the Office of Academic Affairs
From: Natasha Degen, Art Market Studies
I would like to thank the committee and the Office of Academic Affairs for granting partial funding for my recent research trip to Los Angeles. The purpose of this trip was to consult archival materials at the Getty Research Institute and the Michael Asher Foundation in order to learn more about Michael Asher’s seminal 1974 show at the Claire Copley Gallery. The exhibition involved the dismantling of the partition wall between the “front room,” i.e. the exhibition space, and the “back room,” i.e. the office area—thus making visible the mechanisms of the market. Installation shots (such as the one to the right) show a conversation taking place at the gallerist’s desk, and paintings, no longer isolated and spot-lit, stacked against the back wall.
Since the rise of modernism, the authority of the commercial art gallery has been reliant, paradoxically, on the disavowal of commerce. In deliberate opposition to retail spaces, galleries relegate all business to the “back room” (which Asher’s work exposed); prices are not publicly displayed, nor are the tools of the transaction visible. Still, in Asher’s words, “the dealer’s prime function is to commodify the work of art, to transform the work’s aesthetic use-value into exchange-value.” Given the way it reveals the logic of the art market, this exhibition has interested me for some time. I included Michael Asher’s writings on this project in an anthology I edited, The Market (MIT Press, 2013).
At the Getty Research Institute and the Michael Asher Archive, I was able view personal correspondence between Claire Copley and Michael Asher; the artist’s handwritten notes; sales invoices; price lists; contracts; drafts for the exhibition press release; newspaper clippings; and installation shots which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been published. These materials were illuminating, providing new insights into the theoretical underpinnings of the exhibition, as well as the thinking of the gallerist in staging such a show. I also benefitted from leafing through the folders and ephemera that were in close proximity to the Michael Asher material. In particular, I also compiled a considerable amount of material on the history of the Claire Copley Gallery. Though open only five years—from 1973 to 1977—the gallery became an important outpost for conceptual art, hosting exhibitions by artists such as Bas Jan Ader, Daniel Buren, Joseph Kosuth, and Allan Ruppersberg.
I plan to use this material to write a journal article focusing on the 1974 Michael Asher exhibition in the context of the art market, and particularly the Los Angeles gallery scene, in the 1960s and 70s. This is the period in which the speculative potential of American contemporary art was first demonstrated, with a series of avant-garde styles forming a pattern of success, and with the market for young, relatively-untested art achieving blue-chip price levels and stability. Amid this market boom, a number of artists staged exhibitions that drew attention to, and even subverted, the role of the gallerist. In a 1969 exhibition at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles, James Lee Byars built a wall around his dealer’s office, separating it from the rest of the gallery. This work was called “Shutting up Genie.” According to the press release:
“Her name comes down from the front of the building, and ‘Shutting up Genie’ is lettered in red on the wall directly behind the Gallery window, visible from the street. Eugenia Butler is forbidden by the artist to enter the Gallery exhibition space during this five-day period.” At the same gallery a year later, Robert Barry locked the gallery doors and put a sign up that read: “March 10 through 21, the Gallery will be Closed.” Using Los Angeles as a case study, I will investigate this moment of professionalization in the gallery sector when, arguably, its strategies became increasingly insidious, exemplifying the situation of late capitalism and contributing to a concern about commodification.