Great art is subjective. Whether an artist succeeds or fails in his or her lifetime remains in the hands of the promoter and/or gallery owner. Added to this, like many situations in the arts, it is all about who you know and quid pro quos. What are you willing to sacrifice? What wealthy woman or man is willing to support you while you create? Are they able to set up the right connections for you? Is sex included in the transaction? These are a few inferences we take away in Beneath the Gavel, devised by Bated Breath Theatre Company, written and directed by Mara Lieberman.
The innovative production – which is multi-dimensional and includes screen projections, classical music, paintings, and contemporary art – is interactive and billed as “immersive.” It involves audience participation in three live auctions interspersed among the flashbacks of the story of Haddie Weisenberg and Daniel Zeigler.
Theirs is a May/December “romance” and Haddie Weisenberg inspired and was the subject of some of Daniel Zeigler’s art work that eventually coalesces in the Haddie Weisenberg Collection. Was Zeigler manipulating her to “achieve greatness?” Did he really care about her? Did she care about him? Did she merely want to massage her own vanity and be immortalized in art? The answers are subject to interpretation like much in this production.
The play provides the backstory of how Daniel Zeigler leaves Haddie Weisenberg’s present influence and moves from Berlin to New York to “become famous.” The playwright chronicles Zeigler’s New York adventure which begins in 1990. Eventually he is set up by Haddie with a dealer who exhibits his work and sells various paintings priced from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to the millions. Their value seems (by the end of the production), to be growing exponentially driven by an artificial market. Haddie provides the sterling connection to Larry Gagosian’s gallery after Zeigler goes through a rough, troubling, and unsettling time in New York. It is this dealer who makes Daniel Zeigler famous. And it is this dealer who auctions off three of his paintings which the audience has the opportunity to bid on, if they have enough cash.
A prominent segment of the production is the auctioneering phase where faux money is randomly distributed, shot out of a plastic “gun,” and audience members who wish to participate, scramble to pick up their millions and hundreds of thousands. For those elites who are the V.I.P. patrons that are Trumpesque billionaires (not that 45 is an art collector), they have received a packet of millions beforehand. Thus, indicating once again, in the world of high-priced Modern Art as well as antiquities, not only is the landscape undemocratic, in the “real” playworld of this auction house and “behind-the-scenes gallery,” the uber wealthy are the heady ones. All others need not apply. Art like anything else is consumer driven and, in this case, the consumers are the gazillionaire elites.
The first half of the performance is rather stilted and intentionally mannered to consolidate and represent with mime, dance, and movement the information in the backstory quickly. The shift back and forth from the past to the present, the auction house and gallery, occurs in brief scenes as themes about the art market are underscored: “the art market is the least regulated market in the world;” the only barrier to entry is the size of your pocket book;” dealers must be ahead of the public and anticipate what they want before they even know they want it.”
The undercurrents of irony are obvious. The art market is a fickle mistress. Contemporary art prices may skyrocket one moment and plummet the next. It is a matter of perception and salesmanship/saleswomanship and, if one can dupe another into desiring the work of a particular artist whether or not it actually appeals to him/her, then all the better. After all oligarchs, billionaires of all shapes and sizes are stepping into a new phase of prosperity and they are looking to “park” their money into a sexy place of investment. What better than “art” which is a bit gold rush, especially with “new,” undiscovered artists like Zeigler.
Via a discussion in a gallery boardroom, we are privy to latest trends in the market and the intentions of the sales competitors. In the boardroom are also highlighted the trends regarding Zeigler’s Haddie Weisenberg Collection. The the first Zeigler painting is auctioned and the “lucky” highest bidder walks away with an original Zeigler (the painting in faux money sold for around $250,000). In a scene immediately following, the auctioneer gives inside tips about how the auction is conducted, how auction houses receive fabulous art (through debt, divorce, death), and how the auctioneer with eyes in the back of his or her head knows and is aware of everything in the salesroom with bidders. The principle caveat we walk away with is that most bidders actually end up paying more than they need to, as they are caught up in the heat of the warfare to purchase. The warfare is stimulated by the auctioneer.
I enjoyed the second half of the production which revisits how Leo Castelli created the contemporary art market with his exceptional promotional skills and eye for innovation and particularity. He initially exhibited works by Jasper Johns. Within the next decade his gallery became the international center for Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual Art and included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol. A few of these folks show up, for example Warhol and an obstreperous, grumpy Pollack (whose work is projected on a white screen used for his and other illustrative projections). Some icons share their humorous opinions: the greatness of America is that the richest consumers can buy the same things as the poorest, for example Coca-Cola which everyone drinks regardless of their wallet size (spoken by Castelli and Warhol).
Castelli weighs in on first missing what Andy Warhol was about until he realized his greatness. Critics also weigh in on Warhol in a variety of opinions: “cheap,” “vulgar,” “genius.” Interestingly, Castelli is quoted as knowing where to push forward in the future of art. When someone asks if he has any Picassos or Monets, he replies, “Not only are they out of reach, they are also yesterday and I want today.” Hence another theme of contemporary art is established: it’s all about the future and making artists’ works valuable in the future, regardless of whether one believes in their work or not, or even finds in their work something which is exceptional. It’s all about making an artist an “artist.” Unlike fashion trends, art will not go away and that is the business of the gallery and the dealers, to make sure that art sale prices continue to skyrocket.
In the final segments actors portray the meeting between Zeigler and gallery proprietor Larry Gagosian, effected by Haddie Weisenberg who Zeigler has immortalized in his work which is shown in the Haddie Weisenberg Collection at the Gagosian Gallery after Haddie dies of cancer. Another theme of art abides. Just like with the Medicis who sponsored artists in their time to achieve immortality, wealthy patrons may select young, vulnerable, hungry “artists” to immortalize them. In an initial quid pro quo for affection, money, and power, they set up the artist to paint. When he/she is ready, they introduce them to a dealer who will exhibit and sell the work. Who is not to say that the dealer does not receive cash to exhibit the artist? For the artists? It’s only a matter of finding someone credible and reliable with whom to make such a quid pro quo deal. And both parties must choose wisely and not be scammed in the process.
The ensemble, directed by Mara Lieberman, does a fine job in representing Daniel Ziegler’s difficulties in New York after he arrives and continues with various interesting bits to represent the art icons, the insider business of the art world, and more. The music selections are excellent and the production employs the talents of the cast in dance, movement and mime; their skills are obvious. I also enjoyed the screen projections of splays of color coordinated with Satie’s music and the balletic dance toward the end. The themes about Contemporary Art examined in Beneath the Gavel are excellent and leave one thinking.