Editor’s note: Because of the frenzy of commentary in the United States over the recent Simchowitz profile in the New York Times Magazine, we reached out to Berlin — where “flipper” means “pinball” and concept usually trumps market — to veteran art reporter Kimberly Bradley. Here she offers us her opinion of the situation from a Central European perch.
BERLIN — He’s back, but he never truly went away. Art collector/dealer/advisor/“flipper” (accurate or not, for me the latter name always evokes chirpy dolphins) Stefan Simchowitz, by virtue of a long exposé in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, is again on the lips and fingertips of artists, art pros, and now mainstream culture vultures everywhere.
The piece’s headline — The Art World’s Patron Satan — is more New York Post than New York Times; illustrating it is a shot of Simchowitz on the phone wearing only coordinated underwear and socks. Surrounding him is a trio of striking women, one of whom is his longtime partner Rosi Reidl. Visible through the window are some paintings by an artist I identified (via Simchowitz’s Instragram account) as Zachary Armstrong from Dayton, Ohio.
Simchowitz’s story as an art flipper began in early 2014 with a mention in an art-market story on Oscar Murillo’s meteoric rise, by Bloomberg News’s Katya Kazakina. In late March, a long one-on-one with Andrew Goldstein on Artspace exposed Simchowitz’s philosophies, ability to sell art to the tech and entertainment industries, and the boldness of a shrewd salesman – which spawned an especially acerbic piece by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine, a profile in the New York Observer, various spinoff pieces, and lots of alarmist conversation in art circles. Is this guy indeed manic, predatory, a bane, a boon, is he sincere or a player?
The Times piece has come months later, and stirred what had been a simmering pot. Heated Facebook discussions started late last week on Art F City’s Paddy Johnson’s page; then, beginning Friday, on our own Hrag Vartanian’s page; then, on Sunday, on Jerry Saltz’s (Saltz managed to “stay out of it” for the most part, maybe because he was too busy writing his own piece to grapple on Facebook). By Sunday night the web version of the Times story had garnered nearly 220 comments.
The arguers fall into three overall camps:
- The “what’s the problem” camp – those who think Simchowitz’s patronage promotes young and otherwise starving artists and expands the reach of the art market;
- The “what the f—” camp – those who disapprove of (to put it mildly) his “disruptive” methods of circumventing traditional market parameters and claim he’s running a pyramid/Ponzi scheme; and
- The “what’s the fuss” peeps – those who get that he’s shaking up the status quo but wonder just how unusual Simchowitz’s tactics actually are.
The art market has always had its share of speculators, just without Instagram, Facebook, “virality,” and a bare chest in the Times. And then Simchowitz himself, famously active on social media (his Instagram is one way he creates buzz; on it are not only images of artworks he likes, but also some sweet family photos and lots of frontal portraits of Simchowitz wearing some rather snazzy draped clothing) swoops in to speed-type loquacious, high-energy, and often fascinating rebuttals to as many points as he can — a comment on artist Morgan Richard Murphey’s saddish appearance in the Times story is just one nugget; Simchowitz explains that still possesses all the eyes cut up from Amalia Ulman’s huge canvas. He even cropped up on the Times comment board, then disappeared.
It’s head-spinning. The raw emotions and words like “hustler” and “pyramid scheme” from his critics, juxtaposed with Simchowitz’s sheer number of words (around 6,000 on Johnson’s page) and sometimes fragmented yet often valid counterarguments. I dropped Simchowitz an e-mail warning him that I’d be asking him some questions over the weekend — and he IMMEDIATELY ANSWERED MY FIRST QUESTIONS IN ALL CAPS IN TWO SEPARATE EMAILS late at night on the other side of the planet (he was on his way from Australia to Los Angeles. I must say that he was very polite, worrying about how much information I had to digest; on the last one he even signed off with an “X”).
- He answers mails nearly instantly when not on a plane, can type faster (perhaps voice recognition is involved?) than a Mad Men-era secretary, and has clearly read a lot of Greek philosophy, and while he rightfully says “he can respond rationally” (he also says he rarely personally attacks, only counters, which is also largely true) he often dances around direct questions.
- Simchowitz sometimes answers questions not even asked, in what seems like preemptive defense (he sent me a mail on the topic of “who are the other collectors?” – it read like a stream of consciousness prose piece, but I can only assume his prior media reception compelled him to write it; he mentioned his stigmatization and rightly how the media seems to copy itself). But I have to be honest; his viewpoints aren’t so different from talks I’ve had with some other collectors (no generalizations here; collector personalities of course run the gamut of humanity; doing things for love, money, or some combination thereof).
- He thinks about things like who defines culture, how to break mythologies; he delivers pithy quotes like “We can only try to do better: all of us” and seems to want to be known in a way that goes beyond just publicity. One thing I wanted to know from him and didn’t learn, however, was exactly what attracts him to a given artist’s work (he wanted to fill me in on this but was typing from his phone and asked for more time; my deadline came first).
Is Simchowitz sincere? Or a guy after the fast sell? Without having met him in person, it’s hard to say, but it might be … both. His online personality felt familiar; its tone and velocity reminds me of an amped-up Wall Street day trader, a techie start-up guy, or, yes, a Hollywood producer (which he is; he’s listed in the production credits to 16 films). As to whether Simchowitz is good or bad for artists, or good or bad for the market, I find myself in the third of the aforementioned camps. Maybe I’m just old, but why be outraged? Why be worried? In an unregulated overheated art market, is any of this that unusual?
What is unusual is that he bluntly discusses the connection between money and art. This is off the art-world script and unsettling for a trade that has long thrived on gentlemen’s agreements. He poses in his underwear (he explains the Times photo as an allegory of stripping down in front of the art world, and stripping down the art world:
“YES THE PIC WAS A RISK AND I KNEW IT WHEN I SUGGESTED WE SHOOT IT. I WAS IMPRESSED THE TIMES WENT FOR IT. IT WAS A SACRIFICE I KNOW MANY PEOPLE WILL READ IT POORLY […] BUT IT HELPED THE STORY, MADE IT FUN AND SORT OF RIDICULOUS AT THE SAME TIME. THAT KIND OF HUMOR AND ABSURDITY IS IMPORTANT.”)
… which an eccentric artist (Schnabel often goes shirtless) but not dealer or collector might traditionally do. I and many of my fellow critics tend to question the work Simchowitz is most associated with (by mostly male artists, and too much work that looks good on Instagram, i.e. easy to sell online — but he interestingly wrote to me in an e-mail from an Australian airport that he also supports “noncommercial” artists like Jimmy Merris, and has been collecting a lot of ceramicists lately — I’d love to see them). Overall, the bluster, hubris, transparency, whatever you want to call it, incites a moral outrage because it intentionally counters the art market’s prescribed subtle dance.
But it also shines a light on transactions that go on all the time, and have for decades. Don’t many galleries find very young artists, hold their early inventory, cultivate groups of buyers, sell art on the secondary market? Isn’t the accrual of symbolic value, to ultimately be transferred to market value, usually if not always abstract, arbitrary, and ultimately very difficult (I suddenly feel the need to review Pierre Bourdieu)? Didn’t artist Gustave Courbet court scandal in the mid-1800s, ultimately to sell? Rembrandt? Warhol? Is Simchowitz the first collector to buy from the studio when rebuffed by a gallerist? How much does he flip, anyway? (In another e-mail he claims he’s more hoarder than flipper, with 1,500 pieces in his collection and only ever having earned “less than 500K” at auction.) Are the artists really victims here, as so many articles and comments imply?
Many see Simchowitz as a Satan or Svengali, but I see him more as a mirror of our current society, or a segment thereof. Here we sit in the precarious throes of late capitalism/high neoliberalism at a time in which fast money screams the loudest. Old structures are shifting quickly; income inequality causes rips in the societal fabric and as artist Andrea Fraser has written, this imbalance often feeds and is amplified in the art market. Why are we surprised that someone with a technophilic, libertarian bent like Simchowitz would emerge and use wide image distribution and inflationary economics to buy and sell “virally”? “Disruption” is happening everywhere else; why would disruptive business methods not touch the art world? The art market, too, is more corporate and more popular with new consumers (by this I mean starstruck viewers and neophyte buyers) than ever, a situation that Simchowitz certainly didn’t cause. Simchowitz wrote to me that someone said he was “to the art business what Uber is to the taxi business and in a way they may be right.” Not a flattering comparison considering the ethical breaches that Uber has perpetrated in recent months, but the controversies behind both Simco (Simchowitz’s art-advisory company) and Uber clear a path to discuss what’s productive or not under old systems, and raise thoughts as to how to create new ones.
To be clear, I sit firmly on the art world’s non-monied, nerdy side (I write, teach, and hang out more with artists, critics and curators than with dealers or collectors). But why fret or orchestrate a witch hunt? Why not let Simchowitz do this thing? He’s interesting and entertaining. He’s making everyone stop and consider the fraught relationship between art and dosh. The artists and clients seem well aware of what he’s about. Even the outrage over flipping in general seems exaggerated: In the latest issue of Texte zur Kunst, Dutch sociologist/ anthropologist Olav Velthuis cites Tutela Capital, an art market research firm that claims that less than two percent of works entering the art market have been flipped. Since 2007, the “holding period” for emerging artists, those under 40, has in fact increased. “Besides reselling a piece by a younger artist, a collector, in the second half of the 1980s, would keep it in his collection an average of less than five years. In 2010, this expanded to just over five years; and nowadays, the norm is almost eight.” (Note: He refers in part to this article.) And most of all, this art-world and art-market moment will be over faster than oil paint dries. It won’t be long before Post-Internet art — or some other new marketing term — critically sorts itself out and the quick-collect, fast-fashion set has moved past Zombie Abstraction; a handful of artists will of course stick; others won’t. Same as it ever was.
By then Simchowitz may have moved on or out, or have been absorbed by the establishment after all (memories can be short, generations shift focus). Or he may have carved himself a little niche in a fragmenting, expanding, and changing market. To close, an anecdote that brought up another association. When I showed the Times photograph to my Austrian-artist partner, he said, “Bist du deppat (very loose translation: holy crap, wow), so art dealing is looking more and more like the porn industry.” That got me thinking of another figure, Hugh Hefner, who created a mini-empire out of controversy, willing buyers, eager participants, and a dash of serious (Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut, even Margaret Atwood all wrote for Playboy). Hef, too, deals in his version of beauty, illusion, allegory, promotion, and provocation. His empire was born of its era. It’s neither mainstream nor moralist, but it doesn’t need to be. Something tells me that Sim wouldn’t mind hanging around in his skivvies with a cache of abstract paintings and some funky ceramics when he’s pushing 90, too. But by then, Stefan, please consider donning a robe for your press shots.