Two square canvases by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami flash Louis Vuitton logos, cutesy pink and yellow graphics and the price of US$350,000.
Ubiquitous in the auction salesroom, Murakami’s work now greets the visitors at Rental, a Lower East Side gallery overlooking the Manhattan Bridge and US$20 buses to Philadelphia and Washington.
The downscale venue, known for showing emerging art, has installed 20 upscale works by fashionable and commercially tested names for its summer group exhibition. Don’t Panic! I’m Selling My Collection assembles pieces from four anonymous private collections, with price tags prominent.
“It’s a sign of the times,” said owner Joel Mesler, 35. “There’s been a huge paradigm shift in the art market. People who know how to adapt and are not rigidly operating the same way they have been for the past five years are going to prevail.”
Don’t Panic! is an attempt to attract new clients during the lean times, said Mesler, a mellow and soft-spoken West Coast transplant. He closed his Los Angeles-based Mesler & Hug gallery last month to focus on Rental, where he often partners with
like-minded out-of-town galleries.
“On Sept. 15 our phone stopped ringing,” said director Philip Deely, 25, remembering the day when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy last year. “It lasted into early spring. But people are not panicking any more. There’s renewed hope that wasn’t there six months ago.”
Don’t Panic! encapsulates many sectors of the art bubble: Blue-chip artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; speculators’ darlings Richard Prince and Murakami; young overnight sensations Barnaby Furnas and Hope Atherton; veterans John Wesley and Marilyn Minter; Chinese artists Huang Yan (黃岩) and Zhang Dali (張大力).
While there are no masterpieces here, several works are appealing and priced to sell. A striking black-and-white image of a bound woman by Japan’s Nobuyoshi Araki would set you back US$13,000. David Salle’s sensual etching with an Asian motif is US$1,500.
At US$350,000, Murakami’s 2005 diptych Eye Love Superflat seems overpriced. An identical work, with an estimate range of US$350,000 to US$450,000, failed to sell in November last year at Sotheby’s in New York, according to Artnet.com, a database that tracks auction results.
The show’s curator, Claire Distenfeld, who is 23 and the gallery’s latest hire, put it together in three weeks by drawing on her art-world connections.
A native New Yorker whose family lives at a pricey East 79th Street and Madison Avenue address, Distenfeld graduated from New York University, interned at the New Museum of Art and is getting a master’s degree at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Her father owns a luxury-leather-goods company in Manhattan.
Her uncle is real-estate developer Richard Born, a collector of contemporary Chinese art whose BD Hotels owns or operates Manhattan boutique hotels such as the Mercer, Chambers and Maritime and is behind the Richard Meier towers in Greenwich Village.
“I knew where to go, and I hit the ground running,” Distenfeld said.
She drew up a list of 15 collectors and succeeded in convincing four of them to consign works to the young gallery. The most expensive artwork Rental has sold up to now was a US$35,000 painting by Henry Taylor, Mesler said.
“Claire went to individual collectors and said, ‘Don’t you want to sell something?’” said Cynthia Nachmani, Distenfeld’s mentor who teaches art and gives gallery tours in New York. “She is recycling art at the time when people need to sell.”