Over-production is a serious problem; I would say the limit was reached in 2013 or 2014. And it has got to change, because it could eventually destroy confidence in the contemporary art market.
Stéphane Custot, art dealer and gallerist
November 2016: The taxi to Zhang Huan's studio in the suburbs of southwest Shanghai takes over an hour, and deposits me in front of a barred entrance, with a gatekeeper's hut inside. As the gate slides back, a uniformed guard lets me in; I wait. Soon the studio curator and a translator arrive, and then a photographer, who records every detail of my visit, followed by Zhang Huan himself. Neat, lithe, dressed in his trademark high-necked sweatshirt, glasses propped on his peaked cap, Zhang moves with cat-like grace as he shows me around his domain.
Zhang bought the site, formerly a state-owned hydraulics machine factory, in 2005, after his return to China following 20 years in New York. The sheer scale of the factory/studio begins to dawn on me as we step over train tracks and past three wrecked carriages, one propped up against buffers – salvaged from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. As our little group sets off, we see vast, neatly swept hangars displaying Zhang's characteristic ash paintings and further on, a cathedral-like workshop houses a huge cow-hide sculpture, Hero (2009). Motioning to a giant bear and her baby made of flawless polished stainless steel, Zhang informs me that it is destined for a casino hotel in Vancouver. An architectural model shows a store he is creating in partnership with the jeweller I Do, as a 'concept/shop/museum' with a total budget of $16 million.
Other hangars house equally huge works: the bearded head-and-shoulders Q Confucius No. 2 (2011), part of the Q Confucius exhibition held at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai. A darkened room contains models for a forthcoming video, featuring the face of a menacing King of Hell lapped by flames; another room has ancient Chinese stone coffins and the stone markers put on burial places. Zhang is collecting them for display in a planned 'Ash Museum'; he is a practising Buddhist, and the religion infuses much of his work. One of the buildings, he says, contains a library housing both Chinese and Western material, which is accessible to students. Outside, waterways run through vegetable gardens and around a cage of inquisitive monkeys.
Zhang's reputation was established in the 1990s with performances, some of them extreme, such as 12m2 (1994), which involved him sitting in a stinking village toilet at the height of summer, covered with honey and fish oil amid swarms of flies. Among the best known of his pieces are To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), a photograph of naked bodies stacked one on top of another, and Family Tree (2001), a series of photographs of his face covered with increasingly dense calligraphy, denoting family relations, until it is completely blackened out. But while performance was a major part of his early practice, today he and his studio produce mainly painting, sculpture and video, sometimes on an immense scale. In 2015, an ash painting shown at Pace Gallery in New York, June 15, 1964, was 37 metres long and 2 metres high: it took three years to make, with 10 assistants working on it at a time.
Zhang employs some 80 assistants in the studio, but in the case of such large-scale projects (he says he makes about two a year) this can rise to 200. 'They stretch and prepare the canvases, separate the ash, apply plaster to sculptures, order materials, work with silicone, but I do the final creation,' says Zhang. I ask him how many artworks he produces a year, but he doesn't answer the question, simply responding, 'I am under no pressure to produce work. I follow my own ideas.' I certainly do not see many assistants during my visit, although one is scraping away at what looks like a bone in one workshop, while a group are working on some plaster in another.
Zhang's studio is large, but the factory-like aspect of his practice is by no means unique in China. Other artists, mainly in Beijing, have similarly large studios, often in former factories, leading to accusations of formulaic mass production. Zhang Xiaogang, for example, according to an interview in the South China Morning Post has 'lost count' of his 'Bloodline' series. These expressionless, stiffly posed family portraits that made his reputation in the early 2000s can command immense prices: Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 (1995) made US$12.1 million in Hong Kong in 2014.
As I take my leave, Zhang asks me, 'Have you ever seen a studio this big?' 'No,' I say, 'but I am visiting Sterling Ruby's in Los Angeles in two weeks' time. I believe it's just as big.' I can see he is miffed, disbelieving. He asks me who Sterling Ruby is, and asks me to write out his name.
* * *
Later that month I ring the bell at an unmarked door in Vernon, an industrial city to the south of downtown Los Angeles. Almost no one lives in Vernon, which is mostly given over to warehouses and factories; huge articulated trucks thunder across railway lines embedded in the streets.
This is where the Californian artist Sterling Ruby has his studio, housed in a former truck factory. Again, I am astonished by the sheer scale of the place, which covers four acres – even though the original vast hangar has been divided up by temporary walls. In one area are lines of racks of clothing, while long 'soft sculptures' are laid out on the floor. In another, shelves are heaped with rolls of fabric while a hoist rope, reaching up 37 feet, suspends sculptures. Oversized glazed ceramics are crowded around kilns; a series of welding tables from the original factory have been turned into artworks, with splashes of the original weld still visible, while Ruby has added in disparate objects – a plate, a pipe.
Laid out across one workshop floor is a huge succession of figures in Stars and Stripes fleece, their big-footed legs overlapping. The dappled abstracts Ruby is often associated with hang on the walls. Outside there are a number of courtyards; in one stands a forklift truck, in another parts of a chopped-up submarine, while blue tarpaulin cloaks a refurbished bus once used by a Californian prison and a giant canary-yellow 'electric chair' stands bleakly against a wall. A battered car is propped up, sitting on a pipe.
Ruby, impeccable and athletically dressed in an orange sweatshirt and green baseball cap, tells me he has between 12 and 20 assistants in the studio, where he moved in 2014. 'I was paying a lot for storage of artworks, and I thought, why not have somewhere to keep everything together. This is where I can realise my dreams!' he said. If the studio complex is large, then so is Ruby's packed exhibition schedule – with 18 exhibitions in 2016 alone, demanding hyper-prolific output to supply them. His practice ranges from quilts and 'vampire mouth' soft sculptures through metal 'stoves', ceramics, video, photography, flags and abstract paintings to towering stalagmites made of shiny urethane. 'Production is not a problem, but I never make work specifically for shows,' he tells me. And then there are his fashion designs, which include paint-splattered 'work wear' produced from off cuts of other projects, and a collaboration with fashion designer Raf Simons, whose flagship store Ruby designed. Images from Ruby's paintings on dresses and a coat were used for Simons's first haute couture collection for Dior in 2012.
As one of the hottest artists in the contemporary art scene, Ruby has been unabashedly commercial in driving his career, burning through galleries. At the time of my visit he was represented by Foxy Production, Gagosian, Sprüth Magers, Taka Ishii and Xavier Hufkens, having left the mega-player Hauser & Wirth in 2015.
SUPPLY AND SIZE – WHAT THE MARKET WANTS
These behemoth-like studios reflect two aspects of art production in the second decade of the twenty-first century: supply and size.
It would be wrong to assume that 'huge' art is a modern phenomenon; centuries-old artworks such as the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Medici gallery in the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris or the great Baroque palaces in St Petersburg were all vast undertakings. But a number of elements in today's world have stimulated the need for large scale artworks. Public institutions are pressured by the need to attract the public with a 'wow' factor; huge new private museums want impactful, striking works; and even the increasing magnitude of buildings in urban spaces has demanded scaled-up public projects. Examples range from the 'Monumenta' series of installations in the Grand Palais, Paris, or Tate's Turbine Hall projects in London to Christo's 3 kilometre Floating Piers project across Italy's Lake Iseo – all part of an event culture that demands BIG.
This appetite for size is mirrored by the growth of the major art galleries, as illustrated by Hauser & Wirth's massive Los Angeles space, a sprawling, 100,000 square foot former flour mill converted into galleries, a sculpture garden, restaurant and shop. Artists need to be able to make work to fill these spaces; they need assistants to help, and heavy lifting gear and forklift trucks to move it around. As Ursula Pasero has noted, 'Many large studios are incorporated and registered as a company and need a turnover of millions of euros or dollars simply to sustain themselves.'
Outsiders to the art market often find it difficult to comprehend the importance of supply in the art market. This is not an industry like most others, where the problem lies in finding buyers for your product. The problem here is to find desirable works for sale, notably on the secondary market. In the primary market, there is a theoretically endless supply as living artists create new work. The reality is more complicated. Galleries control the market for their artists, 'rationing' it in order to maintain prices and high demand. Only a small number of artists account for the bulk of the market and so the pressure on them to produce enough for their galleries can be intense.
In the case of the secondary market for art – meaning its resale, along with anything by a dead artist – the inventory is limited, and cannot be increased (at least, not legally, although plenty of fakers try). Museums and private collectors have the means to constantly cream off the best works, and while collectors can and do resell, museums do so more rarely – in Europe, many are legally forbidden to do so.
The art market almost doubled between 2005 and 2015 when it reached $63.3 billion, before falling back to $56.6 billion in 2016, for both for sales at auction and those through dealers (though the latter are trickier to evaluate). And yet this extraordinary leap in size of art sales is only part of the story; the most astonishing aspect is how contemporary art has come to dominate the market today, with growth in demand from many different sectors, and not just for buying and selling.
'The cross-pollination of celebrity culture, fashion and glamour has given contemporary art in general, and art events in particular, a promise of enjoyment, excitement and the promise of exclusivity,' writes Marta Gnyp. There is now a proliferation of books, websites, articles devoted to artists and exhibitions in magazines, fashion and luxury goods tie-ups, plus the rapidly expanding calendar of biennales, art fairs and displays around the world. Art is used to sell real estate, to brand a hotel, to give a new building project or a restaurant the most hip and 'now' credentials. At the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, alongside the 20 or more satellite events, even companies such as Uber, Airbnb, Volvo and Mazda, as well as a gourmet food company, Dean and DeLuca, have put on art-inspired projects, while luxury goods firms also tout their products with art.
All this needs supply. And possibly one of the main reproaches levelled against today's art market, particularly the higher-end segment, is that of over-production, with some well-known artists locked into producing more and more – often similar – works, just to satisfy the demands of all these events. 'You can only get so much out of a single artist, and the market wants repetition rather than innovation,' says New York-based journalist Christian Viveros-Fauné. 'Over-production is a serious problem; I would say the limit was reached in 2013 or 2014,' says Stéphane Custot. 'And it has got to change, because it could eventually destroy confidence in the contemporary art market.'
'TWAS EVER THUS?
The issue of producing enough art to supply demand, and outsourcing production, is by no means new. Historically, some famed artists had large studios, with numerous assistants painting backgrounds and clothing while the master completed the hands and faces. However, according to art historian Michael Savage, the number of assistants was nowhere near today's count; 'There's not a lot of academic research on the subject but I think the key constraint was physical space,' he says. 'We know where Rembrandt and Rubens worked, and you couldn't fit in dozens of minions. There are some records of apprentices, but that doesn't include family members helping out, or hired help. The artists are also likely to have been fairly flexible, adding labour at busy times, if other early cottage industries are anything to go by.'
All the same, Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop produced hundreds of portraits of Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century: 'We can get an exact idea of Luther by means of the almost five hundred pictures, while we have not a single portrait of Luther's predecessors, John Wycliffe or John Hus,' according to Professor Martin Warnke. Pieter Brueghel the Younger's large Flemish workshop churned out dozens of copies of his father's paintings, in one case making 30 renderings of his father's Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (original painted in 1567). J.M.W. Turner was highly prolific, producing in his lifetime 550 oils, over 2,000 highly finished watercolours and an astonishing 30,000 works on paper.
TOO MUCH ART?
When we read of how many works some twentieth-century artists produced – for example, Andy Warhol's estate transferred over 100,000 works of art to the Andy Warhol Foundation after his death, while Christian Zervos's 33-volume catalogue raisonné for Picasso lists 16,000 works – it is worth remembering that the production of multiples has always been a way of democratising the market and making art more affordable, as well as providing income for those artists who produce major works slowly.
Damien Hirst has eagerly embraced making multiples, with a vast number of items available at his Other Criteria store in London, from teacups to chairs, from tote bags printed with butterflies at under a fiver to a full set of Cathedral prints, each of the eight in an edition of 50, retailing at £204,000. At the other end of the spectrum are his spot paintings, almost all made by assistants, which numbered 1,435 in early 2017. However, Hirst's overproduction, plus his 2009 sale Beautiful Inside my Head Forever, which generated over £40 million in sales, had a chilling effect on his market, and subsequently prices slumped, sometimes by a half. 'As an investor, which I am, before undertaking such an investment you have to really make sure that the production is somewhat under control,' dealer David Nahmad has told the New York Times. 'The market doesn't like chaos and the market doesn't like confusion ... How many units exist? How many butterflies? How many spot paintings?' he asked.
'The phenomenon of over-production was not created in the last ten years,' says New York dealer Adam Sheffer; 'I would say it dates back to the 1980s when artists suddenly became famed and successful. This was a new thing for them, the notion of an artist as a celebrity, they could make a lot of money ... some started cranking out paintings and in the process some damaged their market quite seriously.' And according to London dealer Vanessa Carlos, 'The galleries push for stock, stock, stock. Sometimes the artists become quite greedy or megalomaniac or just simply want to keep their galleries happy. Over-production is one aspect, but the other thing that concerns me is the quality of the art. There just aren't enough conversations with the gallerist saying, "Actually, that's not good enough. That's not interesting." It's just: "Yeah thanks, give it to me, beautiful, you're a genius." And I am seeing a lot of that.'
Any visitor to a major art fair will be struck by the similarity of offerings by the bigger galleries. Most will feature a mirrored sculpture by Anish Kapoor (the 'Pottery Barn of Void', quipped one dealer, referring to a US homewares chain), a stack of bicycles by Ai Weiwei, a leaping hare by Barry Flanagan, some photographs by Gilbert & George with a few rude words and the ubiquitous pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. Here, again, the supply seems to outstrip demand, and on Artsy no fewer than 21 pumpkin sculptures were on offer in late 2016.
'There definitely is an issue of volume,' agrees London dealer Cornelia Grassi. 'If one were to do a catalogue raisonné of certain artists you would find that they have done hundreds of this, hundreds of that. With great artists, you feel that there is a young style, there's a middle style and there's a late style. What you're finding today is that the young style, if it's successful, is being carried through for a very long time.'