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THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING (2018) review

October 27, 2018

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produced by: Kayla Malahiazar, Lisa Remington, Carla Solomon, Jennifer Stockman & Debi Wisch
directed by: Nathaniel Kahn
rated: not rated
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: January 19, 2018 (Sundance Film Festival), October 19, 2018 (limited), October 26, 2018 (Arclight Theatre, Chicago, IL) & November 12, 2018 (HBO)

 

The best part of Nathaniel Kahn’s art world documentary “The Price of Everything” for HBO is the chance to hang out with some amazing artists. Some of them you may have never heard of, while others you may have thought were dead. I know I did. Either way, here they are. We see them work and hear them talk about art, life and the business of being an artist. It’s the business part of the art world that I never had an interest drifting off. I’ve always preferred the art process over the commerce of it all. I’d rather gaze at artwork than bid on something, but that has more to do with the size of my wallet. It is indeed the artists that stand out as Kahn counts down the weeks to New York’s Fall Auction, in a film that looks at all aspects and sides of the contemporary art world, but especially the money-making side.

“It’s very important for good art to be experienced,” we hear Ed Dolman, Chairman and  CEO of Phillips Auction House, offer his perspectives on art, “if something has no financial value, people don’t care. They will not give it the necessary protection.” Hmm, there’s much to unpack there. Let’s put a pin in that and come back to all that. Later on in the film, we’ll hear an artist lament how it’s a shame that anyone with thousands or millions to spend on a painting, a sculpture, or an installation, can take it home and display it in their penthouse, instead of having it placed in a museum for anyone to see.

It’s one of many statements Kahn wants the viewer to think about and determine whether or not we agree. We don’t have to, but it’s still something to ponder. Since you asked, I tend to agree. I’d prefer great works of art remain in a museum display, but there are also plenty of collectors who offer a piece from their own collection to museums for an exhibit, which may even help out the museum with storage. Such is the case with a pair of prominent married Chicago collectors, Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, who display in diverse and eclectic collection in their Streeterville high-rise. Since the early 90s, they’ve spent millions on art, often trading an demand piece for something on the market that attracts their attention. This is the couple who donated 44 works of pop art in April of 2015 valued at $400 million to the Art Institute of Chicago (that’s some philanthropy, right there) – the biggest gift in the museum’s history. So, I’m not going to be too upset when art-savvy millionaires make it possible for museum patrons to see such art. The only thing I wonder is whether or not the artist (or their estate if they’re deceased now) sees any of that money.

 

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If you’re already put off by the fact that a Picasso can be sold for $179 million (or a painting from Pollock or Basquiat, for that matter) or the latest sculpture from Jeff Koons, this film won’t necessarily escalate your repulsion, but Kahn’s back-and-forth from the artists to those who seek to curate or purchase the artist’s work, can be jarring and leave you thinking there is an uncomfortable disconnect between the purity of the art process to the high-stakes bidding war after the art is complete.

On the auction house scene, along with the aforementioned Dolman of Phillips, we also meet someone who’s presence will be felt throughout and that’s Amy Cappellazzo, the savvy and shrewd chair of the Fine Art division of Sotheby’s in New York City. During the second half of the film, we hear her say,  “There are three kinds of people in this world. Those who see, those who only see when they’re shown, and those who will never see.” It’s a statement which certainly punctuates the importance she feels her job has, while implying the importance of the monetary-focused machinations in the contemporary art world. It’s also one of many statements in the film which lead us to several questions about art and money…

Can the value of art really be measured in dollars and cents? Who does art belong to? How are these values assigned and who assigns them? Does the art market have a chilling effect on our great museums and the ability of the public to engage in the art of our time? Most importantly, what does this new consumerist approach to art mean for artists themselves?

I’m not certain “The Price of Everything” answers all these questions or that Kahn (who earned an Oscar nomination for his first documentary feature, 2003’s “My Architect”, which focused on his father) sets out to, but at least they’re out there for us to consider. Personally, that’s the sign of a successful documentarian, to offer up different sides of the issues and themes covered and present questions, not solutions. In doing so, Kahn makes attempts to connects his ideas about the role of art and an artist’s passion in a money-driven society, one where the consumer places the value on art.

 

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While all this is definitely interesting, the film is at its best and benefits greatly when Kahn places the variety of artists front and center. The range and richness is both impressive and informative – we hear from abstract and photorealist German painter Gerhard Richter (along with his wife, painter and graphic designer Sabine Moritz-Richter) and Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby from L.A., as well as New York-based artists like photographer/painter Marilyn Minter, painter George Condo (who emerged in the East Village scene in the 70s along with Basquiat and Pollack), and Gavin Brown a charismatic artist and dealer responsible for introducing artists and attracting A-list patrons of the arts.

Most interesting though is a case of extreme contrasts found between certain artists, which can be found in how Kahn presents Jeff Koons and Larry Poons. Koons is arguably one of the most successful contemporary artists, who’s sculptures typically sell for tens of millions of dollars to high-profile collectors around the world. The Chelsea-based artist (who studied and lived in Chicago years ago) rose to prominence in the mid-80s and has many divided on his work, which is a reflection of art in a media-saturated world with some dismissing his work as cheesy kitsch, while others see it as pioneering and important. Then there’s Poons, a once-prominent abstract painter known for Op Art, who emerged in the 60s and then went under the radar (for various reasons that Kahn doesn’t necessarily get into) and here can be seen working in his update New York studio (with painter wife Paula DeLuccia) and then interacting with viewers at a gallery exhibit of his work. With his wavy white-hair and wiry eyebrows, Poons looks like a walking illustration and while his irrelevant position on the price of art is understandable, he also clearly gets a kick out of his late-career notoriety. While I respect both artists, Kahn certainly features them in such a way that viewers will wind up preferring one over the other.

Along with featuring artists, “The Price of Everything” also seeks to track when the money-driven atmosphere of the art world started. Those in the know will agree with Kahn that it may have begun back in 1973, when the infamous New York collector/taxi-cab owner Robert Scull auctioned off his priceless collection of abstract and pop art for an outrageous sum. It’s said that this kicked off an art-sales craze where we now insane price tags attached to golden toilets and inflatable ballerinas. Of course, artists weren’t necessarily thrilled by Scull’s sale. American painter and graphic artist, Robert Rauschenberg took up his fight for artist resale royalties after Scull sold part of his art collection during the auction, including his 1958 painting Thaw, which he had originally sold to Scull for $900 but brought $85,000 at an auction at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York, motivating Rauschenberg to unsuccessfully lobby Congress to pass a bill that would compensate artists when their work is resold. It’s information like this that leaves us with a sour taste, knowing this is probably something that still occurs today.

When I was in college studying art, I gave up on the age-old question, “Is that art?”, and just focused on creating. Whether or not someone thought what I was working on was art or not wasn’t my business, but I understand where the context from which the question came from nevertheless. I painted and drew out of a quest to discover and I was more concerned (consumed at times) with what it all meant to me. Ultimately, what art means to me or you is subjective, but “The Price of Everything” reiterates how a dealer, an auctioneer or a collector finds value in its marketability.

While Kahn’s film sheds light on how the art market resembles the stock market, with  a healthy mix of art collectors, connoisseurs, curators and dealers, in such a assembly it’s refreshing (and important) to come back to the source of it all: the artist. This is why what will linger most from “The Price of Everything” has nothing to do with money. It’s the time Kahn spends in upstate New York with Poons as we simply admire an octogenarian painter in his element, doing what he loves.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

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