K ennedy Yanko makes ambitious and complicated sculptures. The 33-year-old’s studio is filled with huge abstract compositions made from found metal and “paint skins” – paint that has been poured out and left to dry so it forms a rubbery sheet. Now, after years of hard slogging, Yanko’s career is taking off.
Last year she became the first sculptor to take up a residency at the Rubell Museum in Miami, the esteemed private institution founded by collectors Don and Mera Rubell. And in June this year she showed By Means Other Than the Known Senses, a cascade of suspended, contorted metal and paint skins almost six metres tall, at Art Basel’s Unlimited, the sector of the prestigious fair dedicated to large-scale works.
But she still describes an artist’s life as “a delicate existence”, often defined by the challenge of finding enough space, time and cash to keep up the creative momentum. This is one reason why she has seized the chance to take part in a new type of auction being launched by Sotheby’s this autumn.
To support artists like Yanko, and starting as a section within its Contemporary Curated season-opening auction in New York in September, Sotheby’s is launching Artist’s Choice. Whereas auction houses typically deal in the secondary (or resale) market, Artist’s Choice forges a novel path for presenting new artworks – the all-important primary market – in the salesroom in direct partnership with artists and their galleries.
It is an opportunity from which, strikingly, all parties benefit. Through this new format, artists are able to tap into Sotheby’s considerable marketing resources and global collector-base. And collectors will be able to access some of the most ambitious newly created art with the full confidence of Sotheby’s specialist knowledge and auction platform. All proceeds of such sales (minus buyer’s premium) will also accrue directly to artists and their galleries. What’s more, 15% of the hammer price – the winning bid – will be donated to an institution, cause or charity of the artist’s choice, with half drawn from the artist’s takings and the other half matched by Sotheby’s out of its buyer’s premium.
“This outlet will empower artists and their galleries to take a more proactive role in shaping their market”
Noah Horowitz, worldwide head of gallery and private dealer services at Sotheby’s, says the initiative is intended to complement the gallery system rather than rival it. “Gallery prices are static regardless of how much demand there is, so this is an outlet to supplement that by empowering artists and their galleries to take a more proactive role in shaping their market,” he says. “All the while, it opens an innovative channel for today’s increasingly mission-driven artists to fundraise for causes that are dear to them.”
Sculpture on the scale that Yanko makes requires extensive resources – not only money, but also what money enables. “It takes time and it takes consideration,” she says when we speak via Zoom – she is in Brooklyn, I am in London. To illustrate the point she directs her camera around her studio, where twisted compositions are laid out on the floor in various stages of completion. Yanko’s participation in Artist’s Choice is organised in partnership with Jeffrey Deitch, whose gallery will present a solo exhibition of the artist’s work in New York next March.
Artist’s Choice also hopes to capitalise on the increasing demand for contemporary art. Total sales of work by living artists rose by 44% in 2021 to $3.3 billion – the highest level in five years – according to Art Basel’s 2022 Global Art Market Report. Demand is particularly strong in China, where work by living artists made up 62% of the value of all sales in the post-war and contemporary category – the highest proportion anywhere. “Newer collectors coming into the market are often looking for confidence indicators,” says Horowitz. “Demonstrating an auction price is an important factor in this equation.”
In the US, just over 40% of the value of sales last year was work by living artists. And most of the highest-priced lots were sold in New York, including Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1993, which fetched $33 million at Sotheby’s as part of the sale of The Macklowe Collection, the most valuable collection ever sold at auction.
“As soon as I learnt that this platform would allow me to raise capital that I could use to help build the school, then I was totally down for that”
For her nominated charity, Yanko has selected Free a Girl, which works to end the sexual exploitation of children. “Girls are being held in cages, exploited daily; Free a Girl is rescuing, rehabilitating and spreading awareness about this cause and has now opened a US-based arm,” she says.
Another artist taking part in Artist’s Choice at the inaugural New York sale is Todd Gray. The 69-year-old African American multimedia artist is at a different stage in his career from Yanko. As a long-established artist and a professor emeritus in photography, he is less concerned with the day-to-day challenge of maintaining a fledgling career, but is strongly drawn to the charitable potential of the initiative.
Gray has spent recent years building a pre-school for local children, Sedabuda House, at his residence in Akwidaa in Ghana, and he plans to use the funds he raises to complete the project. “My wife and I bought a few acres 15 years ago. It’s a fishing village in the bush, and I noticed there was a need. I thought: how can I use creativity to help young people?”
So far, Gray has funded Sedabuda with proceeds from sales of his art and the coconuts grown on his palm trees. “We’re between 60% and 70% complete on the building – all locally sourced materials, and built by local builders,” he says. “As soon as I learnt that this platform would allow me to raise capital that I could use to help build the school, then I was totally down for that. It’s quid pro quo. I can see that the local community in Ghana needs help, and I can give that. That’s what the auction market gives you.”
Gray’s work often deals with themes of colonialism and African American identity, drawing on his archive from a nearly 50-year career as a photographer in the music industry and working with artists such as Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Euclidean Gris Gris (2), 2018, an assemblage of images in which Jackson’s head is replaced by a silver disc, is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
David Lewis, of the David Lewis gallery in New York, which represents Gray, sees Artist’s Choice as an opportunity. “It presents a broader set of possibilities,” he says. “Todd gets to present his work differently, and the gallery gets to collaborate with Sotheby’s.”
The work Gray will submit to auction in September, Atlantic (New Futures), relates directly to Sedabuda. “The image of the child in this work relates to the fact that Todd is building the school, while the palm trees relate to its environment,” says Lewis. “So for him it’s a holistic presentation of a much broader, wider sense of who this artist is. It’s a way to share another aspect of his vision as a creative person. Every element of his work is chosen for a very specific resonance.”
Back in her studio, Yanko is hard at work on her submission. “I’ve been working with metal, paint skins and different elements – marble, wood – for five or six years,” she says. “The piece for Artist’s Choice is a very clear reflection of the things that I’m experimenting with.” The piece is still under wraps, but Yanko strikes an enticing note of positivity: “When we give artists what they need, incredible things happen.”
Cover image: Kennedy Yanko in front of her work No More Drama, currently on view as part of Brooklyn Abstraction: Four Artists, Four Walls at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. She wears: Amorphose jacket, Marc Jacobs shoes, Ninna York earrings and rings. Bodysuit, stylist’s own. Photo: Menelik Puryear at Home Agency. Stylist: Krisana Sotelo at No Name Management. Make-up: Esteban Martinez. Fashion assistant: Kassandra Bialkowski.