The failure to sell a Monet “Water Lilies” painting at Christie’s London on Wednesday was seen by art market scribes as a herald of market correction. The 1906 painting, estimated at $45-60 million, attracted a bid of £29 million (around $43 million) – not enough to meet the consignor’s reserve. But that offer more than doubled what the picture sold for at Christie’s a decade ago, and can hardly be deemed a signal of a stumbling market — especially when one considers that more than two dozen late Monet paintings, most of them depicting his garden and water lily pond, have been on view at Gagosian Gallery’s West 21st Street space for weeks.
The gallery does not disclose which if any are for sale, but ten are in private collections — one belongs to mega-collector Steven Cohen — and therefore free game for lustful buyers. It may be years before we know if any of them change hand as a result of the exhibition, but it seems likely that anyone recently interested in acquiring a painting from Monet’s “Water Lilies” series would have sought to do so in the back room at Gagosian’s rather than amid the adrenalized competition at Christie’s.
(The show remains open only until Saturday evening at 6pm, but the gallery web site offers a video with commentary by curator Paul Hayes Tucker.)
I was in good form when I visited the show. I was rested and relatively free from preoccupation, ready to make way for slow time. But my encounter was diminished by other factors mainly having to do with the installation. Though sensibly a rough chronology, it is far from optimal.
Art responds to context, by which I mean the physical setting and its ambience. The commercial nature of Gagosian’s was not enough to deflect my aesthetic experience of the works, but the architecture and design of the show were. The hard surfaces, sharp angles, glossy gun-metal-grey floor and pale-grey dry walls of the industrial chamber felt inhospitable, perhaps even inimical to the painterly arabesques and delicate sfumato spumes of Monet’s colored mists.
Here, locked within the cold clinical vault, the paintings were like patients etherized upon the table. And it did not help that I shared my visit with a throng of fellow aficionados. It wasn’t the shoulder-to-shoulder discomfort engendered by the Art Institute of Chicago’s superb but overpacked retrospective of 1995, but it was enough to disturb and distract.
Impressionist paintings are at home with carpet or parquet, fabric walls with boiseries and moldings, chandeliers, pier tables and Louis XVI upholstered chairs. They had such a setting for the last Monet retrospective in New York, organized in 2007 by another commercial gallery, Wildenstein’s, and held in that establishment’s Upper East Side mansion. (By contrast, the late-career still-lifes by Roy Lichtenstein filling Gagosian’s sprawling West 24th Street space sing. Their crisply delineated forms, broad flat fields of color, and mechanical style are right at home in cool white cubes.)
Never mind. Gagosian’s late Monet exhibit is a must-see panoply of paintings so lush they inexorably renew our jaded eye for Impressionism. Eleven works from Musée Marmottan alone are worth the trip, and there are more loans from museums in Chicago, Honolulu and Japan. Nine works have not been seen before in the U.S., and a picture of the Japanese Bridge, ca. 1919-24, from a Canadian private collection, has not been exhibited at all. Painted in vibrant gold and red with the expressionistic intensity of Van Gogh, the 18 x 36-inch canvas it is one of the most powerful works in the show. The third and final room features studies for the great mural Monet made for the Orangerie in Paris, some of them thinly painted experiements perhaps never finished, but remarkable and pleasing nonetheless.
It’s worth noting that the exhibition surpasses in scale and interest the meretriciously titled “Monet’s Water Lilies” show at MoMA earlier this year, a one-room installation of an arbitrary array of half a dozen works. Intended mainly to use the Monet name to bolster attendance, the primary scholarly value of the undertaking was the modest but readable catalogue about Monet and Giverny. Gagosian hired guest curator Paul Hayes Tucker, an art historian at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a leading expert in Impressionism. His essay for the Gagosian catalogue chronicles Monet’s shifting style and sensibility over the course of his engagement with his garden. (The book also reprints in translation a lyrical 1962 magazine essay by Michael Butor, a Monet chronology by Charles Stuckey excerpted from the catalogue of the Chicago retrospective that he co-curated, and a bibliography of reviews by Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts.)
As an expression of a commercial gallery’s economic clout it would be hard to top putting on a Monet exhibition. It’s not clear what’s for sale. Six works dating from 1904-08 and four later ones are from private collections, including two from the collection of the late great Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler. Gagosian may have spent millions to mount and insure the show, but if he identifies a buyer for one or two of the works – he knows their owners and can serve as intermediary with a buyer – he stands to make back his investment and more.