LONDON — In case you were in any doubt as to the true source of authority in the art world today, we now have an answer. Just before her boss chucked me out, a gallerina at Ordovas in London told me a work by Picasso couldn’t possibly be unfinished: “This work,” she declared, “has sold very well at auction several times.”
Cycling down Savile Row, my eye was caught by a Damien Hirst shark in Ordovas, the gallery of former Christie’s honcho Pilar Ordovas. I went in. Admission was only granted once the security guard had sized me up and asked me to deposit my backpack safely away from the art.
A gallerino jogged over to give me a show guide. The Big Blue — a motley selection of items arranged in that fashionable cross-period style — was “conceived by Damien Hirst” to explore “some of the ways in which the sea influences art.” A Roman sarcophagus fragment with a Nereid on hangs alongside a banal Baroque painting, “The Triumph of Galatea.”
As I was browsing the Sugimoto seascape and the Klein sponge, another man came in. “I’ve never seen a Hirst before, can I take a look? How many of these has he done?” The gallerina said there were 11 unique works but when he asked if they were for sale, she said, “I’m not going to comment on that,” as if its sale status were on a par with the nuclear passcodes or the president’s love life.
There is a 1920/21 Picasso in the show of a male bather standing upright at the center of the painting with two recumbent female bathers flanking him, and it would be a good painting if it were finished. A subtle square of sky behind the man’s head doesn’t match the rest, while around a woman’s head is a much darker patch with a black spot, as if an amateur restorer had spilled the varnish remover.
The gallerino assured me that the picture was fine, not badly restored or unfinished as I suggested. Then the gallerina came over. I gestured at the dark blotch and said that surely Picasso wouldn’t have left it like that in a finished form. Then came that response — “This work has sold very well at auction several times” — which knocked me sideways, and which indicated quite how inverted, perverted even, the art-money relationship has become. Ah, the market! I forgot that we have conceded all forms of cultural judgment to the thud of the gavel.
Never one to take rudeness unchallenged, I told the staff they were the snootiest I had ever met — and I include Gagosian in this — and to my surprise the other browser loudly agreed. This man, who had wandered in off the street, is unlikely to chance that again, but who cares, he wasn’t likely to buy anything anyway. That is a poisonous attitude.
The gallerini adopted a reflexive position of passive-aggressive abasement (“I’m so sorry you think that”) when the gallery manager came over, asking us to lower our voices and saying she’d heard every word, the fault was wholly ours. “My staff,” she said with an imperial self-assurance unsuited to someone retailing bibelots to the ungrateful wealthy, “have impeccable manners.” It was a mere second before she firmly, haughtily, asked me to leave — she was polite but would brook no refusal. My admission had been rescinded, my presence dispensed with. I picked up my bag from next to the looming security guard, there, I presume, in case anyone else had an opinion on the art, and left. Out I had been thrown.