Josh Baer is curating Not Californian, a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s New York S|2 galleries.
NEW YORK - This September the gleaming S|2 Gallery at Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters in New York will be filled with works by some of the most important artists to have practiced in Los Angeles during the last half century, among them Paul McCarthy, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden and Mike Kelly. They’re part of Not Californian, a selling exhibition organized by guest curator Josh Baer, which is the latest offering in a series of such selling exhibitions overseen by Miety Heiden, Senior International Specialist and Head of Contemporary Art Private Sales at Sotheby’s. “We inaugurated the series late last year with a small selling exhibition of works by Sam Francis,” explains Heiden, who says the impetus was to find alternative uses beyond the occasional private sale for the Richard Gluckman–designed space on Sotheby’s second floor (hence the S|2 moniker). “The Francis show was such a big success, and so we decided to make this an official programme.”
Subsequent outings have included a show of cutting-edge contemporary works curated by Vito Schnabel and, in Hong Kong, a collection of signature works by Yayoi Kusama, co-organized with the artist’s primary dealer, Tokyo’s Ota Fine Arts. “We are not competing with galleries – we absolutely do not want to represent artists,” Heiden says. “These sales are an opportunity to give our clients instant gratification and offer a different kind of service. For instance, you would never find thirty-nine Sam Francis works in one auction.”
For the latest S|2 selling exhibition, Heiden has turned to Baer, who in the 1980s and ’90s oversaw the non-profit space White Columns as well as his own eponymous commercial gallery. In more recent years, Baer has been a peripatetic lecturer, writer, curator, private adviser and, perhaps most visibly, the creator in 1994 of The Baer Faxt, a weekly missive that remains a must-receive for anyone seriously interested in the art world’s latest news (and gossip) delivered in Baer’s minimalist just-the-facts-ma’am style. “I’d seen some wonderful shows Josh curated at Gagosian and Lehman Maupin,” says Heiden, who adds that Not Californian came about because, “quite simply, he brought us the idea and we really liked it.”
I recently spoke with Baer about his career, his California roots and the exhibition, which runs from 6–30 September.
Josh Baer during the mounting of his exhibition Not Californian at Sotheby’s S|2 galleries.
Of all your accomplishments in the art world, did you ever think a faxed, now emailed, newsletter would be among your most influential and enduring?
It’s coming up on twenty years and almost one thousand issues and I’m kind of shocked by how seemingly influential it is. It was an idea that I had in the shower after I closed my gallery in 1994. But what I think makes The Baer Faxt unique and appealing is that it’s written by somebody who is actually a participant in the art world rather than an observer or a journalist. I’m an art adviser who sometimes organizes commercial gallery shows; I write about the art market but also conduct a lot of business in it. I’m an ultimate insider full of conflicts of interest [laughs].
So how do you maintain your credibility?
People pay to subscribe, so I have a duty to try to make it honest, timely and reliable. If I don’t do it well, they stop paying for it.
What are some of the more colourful stories you’ve reported on over the years?
I’ve covered my fair share of lawsuits and stories about fakes and frauds. But most of the news I report is more upbeat: who’s the newly appointed museum director or curator; what artists have recently changed galleries. The Baer Faxt features a range of stories beyond just the buying and selling of art.
How about memorable transactions?
I was the first to write about what is supposedly the largest private sale ever: the Embiricos Cézanne for $250 million. And on the auction side, I can say with confidence that I have the most complete list of buyers and underbidders at auction going back nearly two decades.
How has your audience changed since you began?
It’s more international – I have subscribers from something like thirty countries now. And the Internet has been a game-changer in terms of the speed with which I need to produce the newsletter to get information out there first.
And when you started out, the art market essentially operated in the shadows. Now there are numerous venues reporting on the latest gallery news and auction results.
As I say in my lectures, most people are over-informed but undereducated. You might have information, but do you have good information? You might have analysis, but do you have good analysis? I hope, and hope others would say, too, that what I do is useful.
There is no doubt that the market has grown exponentially since you started producing the Baer Faxt.
It’s truly global now. Twenty years ago you could know everybody who mattered in the contemporary art scene. No one does now. But the people who come closest to knowing everybody are auction houses like Sotheby’s, which will be able to market Not Californian to an international audience.
Josh Baer directs art handlers at the installation of Not Californian at Sotheby’s S|2 galleries.
Speaking of the show, what was the impetus for wanting to do it now?
This winter I went out to Los Angeles to visit Pacific Standard Time (PST) [the Getty initiative in venues across the city that spotlighted the art being made in southern California from the post-war years to 1980]. It occurred to me that while they did a first-rate job of showing what was going on locally during that period, a lot of the art on display made it feel like a provincial movement. I would argue that the art coming out of California after the period covered by PST was in fact deeply in tune with international movements and consistent with the history of the avant-garde.
The Getty initiative and your show share one salient point: that the work being produced in California was as vital and informed as anything coming out of New York.
I came of age professionally in New York in the late 1970s and ’80s and it’s certainly true that these artists were marginalized as West Coast artists. Even Nauman, who was showing with Castelli, was thought of as a California artist and hardly sold a thing.
Other than Nauman and Ruscha, another Castelli talent, were any of these artists being shown in New York?
When I was running White Columns, I think we were the second place on the East Coast that had a work of Mike Kelly in a show — Annina Nosei was the first — but because he came from LA he didn’t get as much attention as he deserved. It took a long time for Kelly and his ilk to break through.
And LA didn’t really have a market, or institutional infrastructure, to champion the work locally either.
MOCA was just being founded. LACMA wasn’t the cultural anchor it is now. What was and still is dominant in Los Angeles is the university system.
Schools such as UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts have always been extremely influential, both through nurturing young talent and providing established artists a platform – and a steady income – through faculty positions.
John Baldessari was already a prominent teacher at CalArts. At the same point you have Charlie Ray, Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins at UCLA. There was a very strong community of artists, there just wasn’t much of a collecting community.
Tell me about some of the artists in Not Californian and how their work supports your thesis.
In describing the show I like to make some general comparisons. For instance, I compare Chris Burden, who is the master of dealing with real things – we’re showing something called The Scale Model of the Solar System, 1983, which is, in fact, just that – with Charlie Ray’s work, which is often about an illusion. Then I like to think of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelly, who are both dealing with popular culture and youth culture, but McCarthy was coming from a starting point within mainstream culture whereas Kelly was coming at it from a performance-based, hard-rock subculture. You might think of them as Californians but the fact is, they’re really dealing with global topics.
So what was your first interaction with art by Californians?
Well, I’m from Los Angeles. I grew up between LA and New York. My mother [the Minimalist artist Jo Baer] and stepfather, John Wesley, moved to New York when I was four, and I would go back to LA a few months a year and live with my dad, who was a television writer.
So your mother, and ultimately you, had to come east to find your places in the art world.
I guess in some ways that makes me the quintessential Not-Californian.
And what do you make of the LA art world now?
There are first-rate galleries and first-rate collectors – it’s a big important scene – but LA’s always going to be a Hollywood town first and foremost.
The schools are still incredibly influential so there are wonderful artists living and working there. They’re not considered local artists anymore. Whereas once you had to live in Tribeca or SoHo to be considered a serious artist, now you can live in New Mexico or Detroit – or Culver City!
Anthony Barzilay Freund is the director of fine art at 1stdibs.com and is a contributing editor for Sotheby’s at Auction.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]