A few thoughts on hearing who bought ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’

We may know the who, but will we ever understand the why?

Yesterday the New York Times’ Carol Vogel disclosed that Elaine Wynn, the ex-wife of Las Vegas casino mogul and Big Time  art collector Stephen A. Wynn, had purchased Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” back in November when the triptych set the all-time auction record for a work of art. Which was $142.4 million, in case you’ve forgotten.

But how could you forget? Because the three paintings are lined up just so in the Portland Art Museum as I type! And we’ve written about it all here several times, each time coughing out that very large number. Even us. I’d scoff at the crassness of other writers and media outlets for bringing it up all the time, except that WE DID IT TOO! In fact, I myself did it TWICE. And now…yet a THIRD time.

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," 1969/courtesy Portland Art Museum

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” 1969/courtesy Portland Art Museum

I suppose it’s mildly interesting that E. Wynn bought the paintings instead of S. Wynn, or some other Big Time art collector. Mildly. But not to me. Good for the museum’s Bruce Guenther for tracking her down and convincing her to take a tax break and serve the public interest by showing showing them to Portland. The public interest in Portland at least. But it’s a matter of nano-consequence to me who exactly owns “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” if it isn’t a museum I might visit or a close personal friend. Right, E. Wynn and I aren’t acquainted.

Since I wrote about the paintings qua paintings, I’ve thought a little bit more about how hard it is to see them through the dollar signs. I also had this thought: If I happened upon those paintings in a coffee shop on Alberta or Hawthorne, say, I’d appreciate them a lot more. I’d marvel at the careful painting of those weird heads, the line and color and smear of movement that Bacon managed. Maybe they’d even creep me out a little, the monster inside the shirt and slacks, garters and casual shoes, the monster who is Lucian Freud. The monster who is us.

I might ask the barista how much they cost.

—”Five hundred dollars.”
—”For all three. The artist doesn’t want to break them up.”

And really, even that gets in the way a little, yes? Maybe I just don’t want to know how much anything costs, though of course I want the artist to make a living. And if you wandered into the same coffeeshop, expecting to see those paintings, and heard that some dude named Barry Johnson had bought them, you wouldn’t give HIM a second thought, either, beyond maybe, “Must have a big wall.”

I like “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” as a sort of test. How deeply can we see into it, now that it’s a dollar sign followed by a large number and attached to a very wealthy owner (worth $1.9 billion per Forbes)? How sunk by its commodification is it? A reduction to a number, even a large one, is still a reduction, for a person, for a piece of art. Can we revive it? Give the monster his power back? Calling Dr. Frankenstein.

My language about the paintings reduces them, too, to a sort of cartoon—three panels and we supply the thought balloons. It’s amazing that ANY painting survives these insults to its person, the auctioneer’s gavel and the words we marshal to describe and then judge it. Somehow, paintings do. They even survived “the death of painting” back in the ’70s. And maybe that’s because they lead us into reflections about ourselves, our condition, a subject that arrests us for a moment at least from our food gathering, social chattering, firewood collecting. I don’t even have to interrogate Bacon’s paintings.

—What are you trying to tell me?
—I have ways of making you talk.
—By all means.

What did “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” say to E. Wynn? I suspect they said SOMETHING, that they weren’t JUST another form of investment, like a Manhattan penthouse or a venture capital portfolio, though I’ve already said I don’t know E. Wynn whatsoever. Maybe they were just the perfect embodiment of S. Wynn? The way you cross your legs, the way you sing off-key…the way you turn your head so monstrously. OK, this is rude and probably the reason E. Wynn wanted to remain anonymous. How we read a painting is important but we also should respect that reading’s privacy.

If we think of the purchase of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” as a crime we are investigating, we know that E. Wynn had the means to commit the crime and the opportunity to commit it. We just don’t know the motive. In those police procedurals, I always get hung up on that first M, motive, just because it reduces us to…automatons or cartoons or dollar signs. And we just know that our own motives for our own actions are impossibly murky and complicated and contradictory. We still manage to do stuff, but sometimes it seems so accidental.

Headline: Today E. Wynn accidentally paid $142.4 million for “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.”
Subhead: She’s still trying to figure out why

Right, the “why” business, the motive, is a rabbit hole.

Of course, “why” plagues (or enhances!) our own encounters with Bacon’s triptych, from beginning to end and beyond, because our descriptions and our meanings are so open-ended, so provisional.

Why am I drawn to that perfect yellow circle in the middle panel?

One Response.

  1. Bill Bulick says:

    Enuf Already!

Comments are closed.

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