francis bacon

New Cappella Romana CD, Shakespeare 2016, and misadventures of the very rich

Cappella Romana's new album is released today plus OSF's new season

Dear ArtsWatchers, today Cappella Romana, the great Portland choral ensemble, is releasing a new CD, and maybe you’ll want to drive it to the top of the Billboard classical charts? Of course you will!

And yesterday, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its 2016 season, early birds that they are, which features five Shakespeare productions (its the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death) and some tasty world premieres, not to mention the The Wiz.

Finally, the owner of that Francis Bacon triptych that launched a million words and cost 142.2 million dollars? She’s very unhappy. But not about the paintings.

cappellaromanaCappella Romana’s new album, Maximilian Steinberg: Passion Week, now stands at #2 on the Amazon list of new opera and vocal releases, and today is its official release date. What makes it such a big deal? Here are a few key sentences from Benedict Sheehan’s Orthodox Arts Journal review:

“While the discovery of this long-lost major work of sacred choral music is a milestone in the history of the literature, in no lesser degree is Cappella Romana’s rendering of the piece a landmark contribution to the modern canon of choral recordings. In every respect, and I don’t use these words lightly, their new disc is a triumph. Using their characteristic radiantly bright and clear sound—a welcome relief from the proliferation of performances that seem to be stuck in the wrong-headed notion that Russian sacred music has to be dark, dramatic, and ponderous, with a superabundance of vocal “cover”—Alexander Lingas and the singers of Cappella Romana bring a highly refined musical sensibility to the Steinberg score.”

It goes on in that celebratory vein!

And you can celebrate, too! Cappella Romana and Artslandia are holding a Listening Party, 5-8 pm Tuesday, March 31, at the Artslandia offices, 2240 N. Interstate Ave., Suite 200, in Portland. The available space isn’t unbounded, so you’ll have to RSVP. Don’t let the Add to Cart instruction fool you: It’s free. And it includes beer courtesy of Lucky Lab Brewery and snacks. Which is a lot to include for free.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, recently embarked on its 2015 season, has announced its 2016 schedule, per ArtsWatch friend Amy Richard. These guys are organized!

The Shakespeares: Twelfth Night (February 19-October 30) and Timon of Athens (July 27-October 29) in the Bowmer Theatre; Richard II (July5-October 30) in the Thomas Theatre; and Hamlet (June 7-October 14) and The Winter’s Tale (June 9-October 16) in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

The Musicals: The Yeomen of the Guard (Feburary 24-October 30), a World Premiere adaption; The Wiz (June 8-October 15).

World Premieres: Lisa Loomer’s Roe, part of the the company’s American Revolutions cycle (April 20-October 29); Great Expectations, adapted by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper (February 20-October 30); Marisela Treviño Orta’s The River Bride (February 21-July 7).

And Vietgone (March 30-October 29), Qui Nguyen’s play about the Vietnam War from the perspective of her parents, who fled the country in 1975 for a refugee camp in Arkansas, which is receiving its first production later this year at South Coast Repertory Theatre.

Tickets for the 2016 season will go on sale in November 2015 for members, and general sales will begin in early December.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie’s Images Limited 2013

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie’s Images Limited 2013

Elaine P. Wynne, the casino magnate who bought the $142.2 million Francis Bacon triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” that was parked at the Portland Art Museum last year, is in a fight to retain a seat on her own board. Naturally, we wrote at length about that triptych and its discontents here at ArtsWatch in “Dealing with Francis Bacon and all that money.” The New York Times also estimates that lodging the art here might have saved her an $11 million Nevada tax bill. We were so glad to be of service.

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?

Dealing with Francis Bacon and all that money

The exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum

The Portland Art Museum put itself on the international art map by snagging the first post-auction exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” which famously (or notoriously) brought a world-record auction price of $142.4 million last month. Even Philip Kennicott would have to admit that.

I can’t imagine that Kennicott, who writes about art and architecture for the Washington Post, has ever written about anything to do with the Portland Art Museum until now. Or that he knows much about Portland artists, collectors or the little art market here. I could be wrong.

I bring up Kennicott the day the exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” opens here, because he does know the international art world and its market, and as we look at those three paintings, lined up just so, we have to deal with his criticism of the Portland Art Museum’s decision to display the triptych, whether we’ve read it or not.

“By celebrating the painting with a specially organized exhibition, the museum aligns itself with the commodification of art and effectively endorses the idea that the price tag is a valid a marker of quality. Museums don’t just house art, they place art on display in such a way that the viewer is compelled to ask a fundamental question: Why am I looking this? Why here, why now, why in this room, next to these other paintings rather than some other room? That process of interrogation is fundamental to the museum experience.”

In Portland, we know exactly why we’re looking at this painting, and the interrogation is over before it even begins.”

As Lady Catherine de Bourgh might say: “Heaven and earth, are the shades of the Portland Art Museum to be thus polluted?”

Kennicott is arguing both that the art museum has aligned itself with dark forces, and that we, its visitors, can’t look past the $142.4 million and see the painting behind it. The price tag answers all of our crucial questions about the art before we encounter it.

I don’t happen to think he’s right, and I’m about to argue against the monkish way he looks at art, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to the critique that much of what we hold dear and meaningful has been “commodified”—and cheapened in the process—including art. After all, the hyper-capitalist society reduces every object and experience it can to a price, and those of us living in that society of prices can hardly ignore them. The great paintings of a major American art museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, in a major bankrupt American city have just been assigned a dollar value, after all. But perhaps we can prepare our defenses against this society of prices. Perhaps we already have.


Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie's Images Limited 2013

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie’s Images Limited 2013

The three paintings are large, 78-by-58 inches each. After seeing them in tiny digital reproductions, I wasn’t prepared for their size, their weird grandeur, framed in gold and hung on top of the deep burgundy wall the museum chose for them. A perfect color, that burgundy (or deep maroon), because it sets off both Bacon’s favorite mottled olive green bottom background color and the mustard yellow top color. Look closely and maybe you can get a glimpse or a “vibration” of that burgundy in the green.

Those colors: I find myself in disagreement with the catalog description for the 1999 American tour of “Francis Bacon: A Retrospective,” which insists that the mustard is a “sharp lemon yellow.”

And that calls to mind Bacon’s comment to interviewer Michel Archimbaud: “Basically, I believe that you simply cannot talk about painting, it just isn’t possible.”

Well, we’ll just let that one drop…

Back to the paintings, each of them set up the same way, same background, same cane chair, same geometric structure around the figure, same bedboard, presumably the same subject, the painter Lucian Freud, who wears the same white shirt and gray slacks, but different shoes and socks. The three form a sort of brief montage, views of the subject from different angles, though sometimes Bacon does a Cubist move by showing us different perspectives within the same painting. The pose is the same: seated, right leg crossed over left, hands in lap. The feet seem to escape the front imaginary plane of the geometric figure, but the rest of the human figure resides within it.

By this time in the history of modern art, we aren’t totally unsettled by the face, right? Which is rather “monstrous”? Maybe it has mask elements: the noses have a sort of beastly prominence. The eyes peer out from behind glasses, or the sockets are vacant. The mouths aren’t scary, exactly, but not quite human either. Those faces are beautifully painted, though, the effects achieved economically, the ambiguity in them completely intentional. They disconcert without repelling.

What I said about the faces extends to the rest of the figure. I love their economy, how they obey a logic of form that isn’t bio-logic, though it’s instantly recognizable.


Yes, Kennicott is right about one thing. When I walked into the foyer where “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is displayed, I thought about the money. Mostly, I thought that $142.4 million was probably enough to set up lots of little arts centers around the city where neighbors could make their own art and experience the art made by others and how great that would be.

And I was there to satisfy my idle curiosity about a painting that was newly famous because of its pricetag. What does it look like in person? How do I “experience” it? And I intended to write something about it, if something occurred to me, because that’s what I do.

“Why am I looking this?” Because the art museum managed to nab it. “Why here, why now, why in this room, next to these other paintings rather than some other room?” Honestly, I don’t even understand that question. I think Kennicott’s asking something like: “What’s at stake in this room that makes you want to be here?” But even then, I don’t get it. Maybe they are critics questions and I’m not a critic.

I’m in this room now, but I will be in another room soon. I don’t know what’s at stake until I get there. And what’s at stake is variable. Sometimes it’s personal, even intimate. Sometimes it’s abstract, in the sense that my understanding of Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” modern art, the art market, and the society in which it’s all embedded is abstract, an analysis or narrative I’m assembling in my head.

I don’t demand anything of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” Either I get something from it that I need or I don’t. If all I need is the ability to say to someone, “Hey, I saw the most expensive painting in the world,” then that’s easily satisfied (though if I were honest, I might add, “ever sold at auction”). We can imagine a brief exchange.

— How was it?
— Oh, I don’t know. OK, I guess. I don’t see the big deal.

And then it’s on to subjects more pertinent.


For me, the Bacons worth the big bucks would be the earlier ones, the paintings that seemed to be in revolt against the world, acidic, nihilistic reductions of “human” to monster or beast or meat. The ones that said we are insane carcasses of grotesque desire.

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," 1944/Tate Museum

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” 1944/Tate Museum

I’m partial to a 1944 triptych, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” with their gaping mouths, bulbous shapes and ghastly colors. They are based on The Furies (or Eumenides), the revenge gods of the ancient world, who drive guilty men insane, including Orestes, who killed his mother Clytemnestra, who had killed his father, King Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter and Orestes’ sister, Iphigenia.

Elektra: What’s wrong with your eyes? You’re slipping away again!
Orestes: O Mother I beg you—Don’t send the bloodyfaced women down on me!—ah
they are here!
Elektra: Stay quiet, poor mad one, there’s nothing there.
Orestes: Apollo! Here they come like killer dogs, goddesses hot with the glow of hell!

That’s Anne Carson translating Euripides’ “Orestes,” and Bacon’s painted version of The Furies seems to have emerged from Orestes’ worst nightmare.

Bacon’s paintings of screaming popes, wrestling and tortured men, sprawling figures, hanging meat, have some of the same power as The Furies, if you’re open to them. Maybe if you’re not.

The triptychs of the 1960s of his friends and lovers seem tame by comparison, almost sweet, if you could call those distorted faces “sweet.” He’s a better painter in those paintings (and the subsequent ones), more accomplished as a colorist and composer, but maybe he isn’t as sensitive a lightning rod for the larger culture.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these intimate paintings, including “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” And in some ways they represent an audacious turn for Bacon as he turns his swords into plowshares. OK, that’s going too far. Maybe all he’s saying is that we can learn to live with the beast within, along with proving that his vocabulary and style is appropriate to an entirely different sector of representation.


Francis Bacon, "Study for a Self Portrait," center panel/Wikimedia

Francis Bacon, “Study for a Self Portrait,” center panel/Wikimedia

Bacon’s life was novelistic, spent in the gay demi-mondes of Berlin, Paris, London, drinking and gambling and, um, other things, with the inhabitants. He came to painting late, without formal education, but his painting shows that his art influences were wide and profound, beginning perhaps with Picasso and going backward and forward from there. Lots of biographical resources exist, not the least, Wikipedia.

Lucian Freud was an old friend of Bacon’s and a frequent subject of his painting. Freud (the grandson of Sigmund Freud) was also a figurative painter, though of more realistic, less overtly expressionist bent. Were they “rivals,” did they argue about art, does it matter now? Freud was heterosexual, and had at least 14 children, two by his first wife and the rest by several mistresses.

If we know more about the lives of the artist and his subject, does it help us very much with “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”? I’m not sure it does for me, though I’ve done some research in the past on both of them, back in the 1980s when figurative art made a comeback and America realized that very large and important careers had been lived by figurative artists in Europe, such as Freud and Bacon. Let’s just say that Bacon was a complex character and that complexity reverberates in his art in his selection and treatment of subjects, mostly in subterranean ways, I suspect.

In the center panel there’s a perfect little circle yellow circle on the elongated left leg of the figure. How do we read it? Why is it there? Does it refer to some event in Bacon and Freud’s friendship? I’m just not convinced that’s a profitable way to proceed, and no, I don’t mean profitable in terms of money.

But then again, maybe we understand the bedboard in the paintings better if we know it represents Freud’s actual bedboard and refers to Lucian’s prolific sexual life. By the way the other primary elements are prevalent in earlier Bacon paintings: the triptych, the bare imaginary space, the geometric “room,” the large sections of color, the human figure.


Are there museums in America, major ones anyway, that don’t somehow align themselves with the commodification of art? That’s Kennicott’s specific charge against the Portland Art Museum.

Aren’t they all funded by donors who participate in the marketplace from time to time? And build their collections from art supplied by those donors? Don’t they buy paintings directly in that marketplace? Aren’t their exhibitions frequently underwritten by those donors or the corporations they control? At a museum aren’t we nearly always seeing something that has an appraised value and an endorsement from the market?

So, Kennicott’s list of offending institutions must be extremely long. And their accomplices in the apparatus of value generation, curators and, gulp, critics? What of them? How often does Kennicott find paintings that exist outside this circle to write about for the Washington Post?

So, that charge is hard to take seriously, just on the face of it, unless it’s intended as the beginning of a general indictment.

Is the Portland Art Museum especially evil for seizing the opportunity to exhibit this particular and spectacular example of commodified art? Or is it doing its visitors a service by showing them what all the fu$$ has been about? We don’t get a chance to see art commodified at this high a level very often, after all, here in Oregon. But maybe the museum is polluting our experience, not just of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” but through neglect, all the other art in all of the other rooms.

I don’t think Kennicott is picking on Oregonians, specifically, having decided that we are particularly susceptible to the process of commodification. I think he’s saying that no one can look at it without being thus polluted. This is an interesting proposition, and I wish he had a shred of empirical evidence to back it up. Maybe he should come to Portland, observe people in front of the painting, talk to them about it, and then attempt to ascertain the extent of their pollution.

We know how that would go!

— How was it?
— Oh, I don’t know. OK, I guess. I don’t see the big deal. I’m mostly here for the Samurai show, and then I want to check out the Native American galleries.
— Why are you here now?
— I have the day off from work.
— What’s the meaning of art?
— ??????

All I’m saying is that the audience for “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in Portland is likely to be skeptical of any claim for it based on its auction price. The same money would buy the total production of all Portland artists since Asian tribes crossed a land bridge into North America and made their way down to the Columbia River. We wouldn’t trade all that art, from the basalt sculptures of the Chinook tribes to the latest First Friday profusion, for that painting. Just to make that clearer: For me, there are hundreds of artworks produced in Oregon that have more value than the Bacon triptych does. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in looking at it and taking from it what I can.


Enough. The article was short, and there’s only so much fun in pointing out false purity. Our art experiences are compromised, by the art marketplace and by the bad clams we had at lunch, and we attempt to allow for that. And it’s not confined to art experiences.

“Three Studies of Lucian Freud” has been assigned a dollar value. That’s one of the least interesting things about it. That value is higher than any other painting ever sold at auction. That just shows the absurdity of the system. What’s the deal with the different colored shoes in the central panel?

I’m glad I got to see “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” that Chief Curator Bruce Guenther tracked down its anonymous buyer and convinced that very wealthy character to lend it to us for a little while. I enjoyed my time with it, if you consider “enjoyed” in a broad sense, because, sure, that aggregation of painting strokes is a little disturbing.

I wish that the museum had a bit more time to prepare for the triptych, which is part of its Masterworks/Portland series of one-painting shows. It might have assembled a show from the Gilkey prints and drawings collection, for example, that expands our thinking about “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” by showing the work of related contemporary artists or artists his work connects to—Lucian Freud, for one, and Picasso, but also Giacometti, Van Gogh, Frank Auerbach, Velazquez, Soutine, George Grosz, Leon Kossoff.

I don’t think that my sensibilities, coarse as they are, have been injured by the experience. And I don’t think I’ve become any more inured to the commodification Kennicott’s talking about than I was before I saw it. In fact, I’m maybe more skeptical, if that was possible.

Mostly, I think it’s a good thing when we turn our attention to art, for whatever reason. This painting will likely attract both the casually interested art crowd and the diehards to the art museum. We can’t begin to predict what their experiences will be like or what the consequences of those experiences will be, but I don’t think it’s naive of me to think it will be positive.

News & Notes catches its breath

Additional notes on Francis Bacon, the Oregon Secretary of the Arts, and The Nutcracker

Today, barring the unforeseen (which we have a hard time barring), we’ll take a breather and catch-up on some of the developments of the past few days. Crazy, even for Christmas.

For example, Portland’s holiday surprise opens on Saturday, but the news came yesterday: Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” the $147 million triptych that touched off endless columns about the depravity of the art market, will be shown at the Portland Art Museum. This combination of art and money led Bob Hicks to write, “In other words: Portland museumgoers are about to see not just a landmark of 20th century art, they’re also going to get to gawk at a trophy of the New World Order.”

Here at ArtsWatch, you can read the basic account or jump straight into Mr. Hicks’ deeper meditation. And we’ll be engaging with the paintings themselves soon enough.

The unanswered questions are the name of the owner and why that owner decided to show the painting here. The New York Times speculated that it might be Paul Allen because the Allen Foundation gave the museum a three-year grant to fund special exhibitions, but chief curator Bruce Guenther denied that. He did say that it was someone who lived on the West Coast, however. And Judith H. Dobrzynski on her Real Clear Arts blog mentioned Eli Broad, though goodness knows he has access to lots of potential exhibition spaces in LA, and why wouldn’t he save it for the opening of his own museum next year?


What’s gnarlier than Bacon’s portraits of his old pal Lucien Freud? How about the twisted flow chart of the executive director or the Oregon Arts Commission. (OK, yes: Or this particular segue…)

First, I took a look at the vectors of power bearing down on the commission’s director and the historical context that made the job practically impossible, for Christine D’Arcy, who was fired from it last month, or anyone else.

And then, I advanced a few ideas about how to create a new system that avoids the wacky structure, elevates the arts in both the legislature and the bureaucracy, and maybe then helps to change that historical context. I even invented a position: The Oregon Secretary of the Arts.

The rumbling I heard yesterday was that similar ideas are percolating down in Salem, even as I type, though as a practical matter the changes I talked about are going to take some time and heavy political lifting. I’ll be writing more as time goes by.


Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

If you’re looking for a full-blown review of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s version of Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” look no further. Martha Ullman West covered it for ArtsWatch, and I haven’t seen another version. West has tracked OBT’s holiday hit from the beginning of the company, and her account reflects both that long acquaintance and the far shorter one of her guest at the matinee.

PAM’s big coup & the art of money

Francis Bacon's $142 million triptych lands at the museum, bringing the game-shifting economics of the New World Order with it

Talk about a coup. The Portland Art Museum announced today that the most buzzed-about international painting of the year – actually, it’s three paintings, a 1969 triptych by Francis Bacon titled “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” – is landing at the museum, where it’ll go up in a solo exhibition opening December 21 and continuing through March 30 of next year. As they say in advertising and greeting-card land: Happy holidays.

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," 1969

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” 1969

It’s tough to exaggerate the size and splashiness of this coup. The paintings are modern masterworks, and the fact that one of the 20th century’s signature painters, Bacon, chose as his subject another signature 20th century painter, Freud (who also happened to be a grandson of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud), makes them doubly significant. Add to that the well-known fact that Bacon and Freud were good friends and also, in a way, professional rivals, and the backstory threatens to come out front.

But what really makes this huge news is economics – the “dismal science” all dolled up in a sexy new outfit and ready to party. “Three Studies” rocked the art world (and made waves in the large part of the world that couldn’t care two figs about art) when it sold at auction last month for an astounding $142.4 million. The sale price is a record at auction. So far. In other words: Portland museumgoers are about to see not just a landmark of 20th century art, they’re also going to get to gawk at a trophy of the New World Order.

We don’t know who bought the triptych (“It’s from a private collection and the lender asks to remain anonymous,” Portland museum spokeswoman Beth Heinrich said Monday), and that anonymity is an undeniable part of the story’s allure. Who is this free-spending art lover? Is he (it’s probably a he) truly a lover of art, or did he buy it mainly because he can, as a symbol of economic swagger, rather like buying a $5,000 bottle of wine and never drinking it? Could it possibly be both? The fact that the buyer is willing to put his purchase on public display almost immediately, and in a relatively little-known regional museum, at that, hints that there might be genuine passion for the art behind the purchase. And not just Portland but the whole art world is going to be bubbling with the question: Who is that masked man? You can’t buy better P.R. than that.

But what about that 142 million bucks? The art world has a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with money. Several years ago, when I was editing at a large (at the time) metropolitan daily newspaper, I suggested that reviews of gallery shows should include in their information boxes a range of prices for works in the exhibits being discussed. I was shouted down. Money has nothing to do with the quality of the art, the critic proclaimed. Art is above economics, maybe even in an alternate universe from it. To discuss prices would be to commodify something sacred. I gave up. It wasn’t, frankly, that big a deal.

Yet in another sense, money is everything in the art world. Artists build their sale prices to a certain level, and from there they can go up but they can’t afford to go down, or their reputations will take a beating. During the 2008 recession and afterwards, a lot of very good artists saw their work sit unsold because they couldn’t drop their prices to reflect the new realities of a depressed market. On the everyday level of regional and non-superstar artists, those days have eased but haven’t ended. At the top of the market, things are going crazy. The $100 million sale price, not so long ago almost unheard of, is like that quaint 1,200 barrier in the Dow Jones industrial average: a nostalgic reminder of simpler times. Collectors are buying on the margin, betting that today’s astronomical price tag will be tomorrow’s bargain – and also, in the world of vast sudden fortunes, buying to add a patina of culture to their newfound assumption of raw economic power. This isn’t a new story – ever heard of the Medici? – but as the world’s wealth flows ever upward, it’s a resurgent one.

What does this mean to museums? For one thing, it means that loans such as this one will be the best they can hope for. The secondary market – those resales at the big auction houses – has become so bloated that even the wealthiest of museums, such as the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, can afford only occasional and strategically plotted major purchases. Again, this is an old story, different now only because it’s become even more exaggerated. For the museum-going public, it means that fewer great works will be available for viewing in permanent museum collections, because more and more top-rank works will be in private hands. And what THAT means is that museums must double down on one of their quietest yet most important roles: currying private collectors in the hope that at least a part of their collections will eventually come to the museums as a result of donations or bequests. If you believe that great art should ultimately belong to the public – and I do – then you should also believe that museums should be throwing vast amounts of energy into their relationships with collectors, because museums will never be able to compete with private collectors on the open market: they must rely on the collectors’ largesse.

Bacon, "Study for a Self-Portrait," 1985-86, private collection/Wikimedia Commons

Bacon, “Study for a Self-Portrait,” 1985-86, private collection/Wikimedia Commons

The same thing applies to loans such as this one. (The Portland museum can’t even begin to join the discussion of buying such a work.) Portland museum director Brian Ferriso and chief curator Bruce Guenther should be congratulated for pulling this off: odds are very high that their “luck” is largely a result of long work making connections inside the art world, so when the chance came, they were able to capitalize on it. The Bacon triptych will be presented as the latest in the museum’s “Masterworks/Portland” series that has also included temporary solo exhibitions of Raphael’s “La Velata,” Titian’s “La Bella,” and Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls on the Snake River.”

It’s intriguing that the Bacon/Freud announcement came just two days after the opening of one of Portland’s most interesting annual art events, at least from a social point of view: the People’s Art of Portland’s Big 400 Art Show, which continues through January 12 at downtown’s Pioneer Place Mall. The idea couldn’t be more different – more than 400 artists (more than 500, actually, despite the title), from unknowns and amateurs to well-known gallery artists – creating 8-by-8-inch works that sell for $40. More than 4,000 works are available, many of them quite good, some of them otherwise, but the point is closer to that unnamed critic’s contention that art and economics live in different universes. A lot of these artists will undoubtedly lose money on the deal, but they do it anyway, for love of the game. Plus, a share of the money goes to the Oregon Food Bank – people’s art, indeed.

On the other hand, we don’t live in a pristine world, and what value the world at large places on art is invariably the sort of value that arrives with a price tag. Witness the ongoing spectacle (a very nasty one) of the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the nation’s finest museums, whose masterpieces are in danger of being sold off – to private collectors, almost certainly – in order to help pay off the bankrupt city’s debts. The auction house Christie’s has its fingers all over this one, supplying the bankruptcy referee with estimates of the market value of individual works in anticipation of an auction. It’s just business, after all, although one can hope that Christie’s is also trying to make the case that a sale would bring a short-term profit that wouldn’t be worth the long-term loss.

And the art marketplace is further being roiled by the emergence of China as a major international player. The New York Times has just filed a fascinating report on the rapid rise of the mostly state-owned Beijing Poly International Auction, which has become the world’s third-largest art auction house, and what that might mean to the world market. If you want to play, you’d better have a very big wad of cash, and quite possibly a lot of lubrication.

In the meantime, we’re going to have “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” to contemplate, in the flesh, and we’ll have a chance to think of the triptych in both its artistic and economic elements. In a way, that heady sales price represents a rebuke of sorts to the world of the mid-20th century critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg was a major champion of the abstract expressionists, and the economic triumph of Bacon and Freud is also a triumph for figurative art, which ab-ex and minimalism had so roundly rejected. The Portland museum’s purchase of Greenberg’s personal collection of mid-century art in 2000 may well have been its most recent big splash in international waters before the Bacon coup. What emerges, perhaps, is that Greenberg had a perceptive eye for something important that was happening in New York in the mid-20th century – and that the art he championed is now not the end of art, after all, but an honorable and honored chapter in the vast and continuing book of art history.

And what about these three Bacon paintings? Take a look, think, compare, contrast, soak in, feel, think again. Consider that $142 million price tag, but from a distance. What does it mean? Is it a reasonable measure of the paintings’ worth, whatever “worth” means? How does it compare to the Titian or the Raphael? Are we now to think of Bacon in the same way we think of Rembrandt, Brueghel, Delacroix, Dürer, Michelangelo, Turner, Picasso? Is he an Old Master? A New Master? A Not-Quite-New-But-Not-Old Master? Does it matter? How does he represent his time and place? How deep does his work go? When you see it, what do you feel? Are you in the presence of greatness? These are good things to ask. Let the questioning begin.






Portland Art Museum brings home the Bacon

Francis Bacon's record-breaking "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" will show here starting Saturday

Remember all our gnashing of teeth about the Francis Bacon triptych of fellow artist and pal Lucian Freud? The one that fetched the staggering $142.4 million at auction last month? Well, it’s coming to Portland, in one of the biggest arts surprises ever sprung on the city.

The Portland Art Museum just announced that the new owner had agreed to allow the museum to exhibit the painting(s), starting Saturday, December 21.

Museum Director Brian Ferriso and Chief Curator Bruce Guenther had been looking for an appropriate contemporary art piece to show in its Masterworks/Portland series, which previously featured Raphael’s “La Velata,” Titian’s “La Bella,” and Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls on the Snake River.” “When the collector agreed to our request to exhibit the triptych,” Ferriso wrote in the press release about the Bacon showing, “we knew that it would be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our visitors to see this seminal work.”

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

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

“Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969) received a ton of attention after the record-breaking auction sale, but mostly about the event, not the painting itself. This showing will give us a chance to engage with it as a painting and with Bacon as an artist instead of as a sign of the apocalypse, though I suppose its possible to argue that the painting itself may suggest that we are in the middle of the apocalypse now.

“Bacon captures the spirit of Freud, rendering him as a tightly coiled mass of energy, ready to spring from the caned bentwood chair positioned in front of a brass bed,” wrote Guenther. “The expressive, volatile brushwork that delineates Freud’s hands and face acts as a brilliant foil to the smooth rendering of the highly abstracted objects and space.”

The press release also detailed its ownership and exhibition history: “First shown in Italy and subsequently in Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971-72, the triptych was separated and sold into three different private collections. It disappeared from view for more than 15 years before being reunited by an Italian collector in the 1990s.” It will return to the private collection after the exhibition here, though it’s a good sign for future public access that the collector is willing to share it with the Portland Art Museum.


The unanswered questions from Day One’s accounts are the name of the owner and why that owner decided to show the painting here. The New York Times speculated that it might be Paul Allen because the Allen Foundation gave the museum a three-year grant to fund special exhibitions, but chief curator Bruce Guenther denied that. He did say that it was someone who lived on the West Coast, however. And Judith H. Dobrzynski on her Real Clear Arts blog mentioned Eli Broad, though goodness knows he has access to lots of potential exhibition spaces in LA, and why wouldn’t he save it for the opening of his own museum next year?

Bob Hicks placed the Bacon acquisition in its current context for ArtsWatch.

I wrote about the triptych after seeing it at the Portland Art Museum

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