Six Degrees of Separation
By Heidi Lee | April 22, 2009
Every month, Heidi Lee of Heidi Lee Art Advisory, helps us filter and digest the market, news, and collecting trends. This week, Lee trekked up to Sotheby’s to check out Steve Cohen’s private collection viewing.
For twelve days in April the public was given a unique opportunity to view a select group of paintings from the collection of Steve and Alexandra Cohen at Sotheby’s auction house. If you traveled to the Upper East Side of Manhattan and rode the elevator to the 10th floor you would have been stunned by the 20 masterworks neatly installed around the room by some of the world’s more renowned artists Picasso, de Kooning, Munch, Warhol and the like. This show was noteworthy in more ways than one. Artists notwithstanding, figures of nude females abounded throughout the secured room. Lucien Freud’s iconic fleshy full-figured woman, Portrait of Rose (1978-79) alongside Marlene Dumas’ gaggle of women lined across a dark canvas, The Visitor (1995), were among the provocative and unexpected selections. Viewers were challenged by the unusual juxtaposition of the artist’s works in their new context. Although specifically featuring women, each work represented a triumphant in that artist’s oeuvre.
The Cohen’s are shareholders in Sotheby’s with a 5% ownership stake. The collector’s relationship with the auction house naturally arose questions about the motivation behind the show. The paintings were never shown before and most of their collection has been kept private aside from a few major works on display like Damien Hirst’s shark at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sudden decision to show these raised a few eyebrows. Some art collectors in New York openly protested visiting the show because of the obvious connection. However, it is interesting to note that neither Cohen nor Sotheby’s had much to benefit from doing such a generous show – at least not financially. The cost of insurance to cover the works on loan alone is a significant burden to Sotheby’s. So far, there has been no evidence that the auction house was significantly revitalized by the “Women” exhibition.
The show was not originally Cohen’s idea. When Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art, attended a dinner at the Cohen’s house, he saw Picasso’s Le Repos and Warhol’s Turquoise Marilyn together and had a eureka moment. He claimed he was moved by the range and depth that was achieved by a single subject by such different artists. In the press release Meyer stated, “One work was intensely physical, intensely sexual, while the other was almost reverential, a glorified and spiritual expression of stardom. When you see something extraordinary you want proximity to it.” And thus the show was born.
The Cohen’s loan exhibition at Sotheby’s may mean that if and when they decide to sell those paintings they may end up at Sotheby’s, a tremendous win over the competition. Given the current state of the art market, this is not likely to happen for a while. Regardless of the collector and auction house relationship, the public needs more opportunities to access private collections, especially of this exquisite caliber. The Cohen’s collection of 20th century art is one of the most significant in the world. As collectors, they inspire others to open their collections up for the public for education, enjoyment and appreciation. Alas, we are in a new art era!