Pablo Picasso’s Multi-Billion Dollar Empire

I enjoyed this piece in Vanity Fair on Pablo Picasso’s multi-billion dollar empire.

Picasso did not leave a will. The division of his holdings took six years, with often bitter negotiations among the heirs. (There were seven then.) The settlement cost $30 million and produced what has been described as a saga worthy of Balzac. The family, writer Deborah Trustman noted at the time, “resembles one of Picasso’s Cubist constructions—wives, mistresses, legitimate and illegitimate children (his youngest born 28 years after his oldest), and grandchildren—all strung on an axis like the backbone of a figure with unmatched parts.”

It is unbelievable how prolific Picasso was:

When Picasso died, 43 years ago at the age of 91, he left an astounding number of works—more than 45,000 in all. (“We’d have to rent the Empire State Building to house all the works,” Claude Picasso said when the inventory was completed.) There were 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, 30,000 prints, 150 sketchbooks, and 3,222 ceramic works.

Much more here.

On Art Galleries in Trucks

Since the rise of the food truck scene, the trend for mobile (fill-in-the-blank) has been going (presumably) more mainstream. The New York Times has a great article on a recent trend of galleries in trucks.

While statistics on mobile galleries are hard to come by, social media shows the trend catching on in Los Angeles; Seattle; Santa Fe, N.M.; Tampa Bay, Fla.; Chicago; and even Alberta, where a ’60s teardrop-red trailer presents works from a changing lineup of local artists. Pinterest boards show a range of designs on pages dedicated to mobile galleries, and Twitter is full of people advertising their whereabouts with hashtags such as #keeptrucking. Ann Fensterstock, a lecturer on contemporary art and the author of “Art on the Block,” a history of New York art galleries, said these galleries are “part of the zeitgeist of this moment in art creating.” Critics, however, point out that artists may not be taken seriously without gallery backing. This is hardly the first time American artists have gone mobile. Before opening a gallery in the East Village, Gracie Mansion staged her “Limo Show” in 1981 in a rented limousine, parked in SoHo, where she invited passers-by into the back seat for Champagne while she pitched her friends’ art.

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 10.44.56 AM

If one doesn’t care for the commercialization (selling) of art, this movement makes sense:

Ms. Fensterstock agreed that the truck model has limitations. “It doesn’t make for return business; it doesn’t make for contemplation of the art by spending time with it; it doesn’t make for building a strong commercial place out of which the art gets sold,” she said.

The Welding Robot e-David and Art Forgery

This is quite interesting: e-David is a welding robot programmed to copy art pieces via a select number of algorithms. Watch this video:


This brief piece in Wired has more:

The thing that sets the bot apart from his contemporaries is a visual feedback system, a technological set of eyes that continually checks to see how close he’s coming to the mark. Every so often, e-David will take a photograph of his canvas and, after some image correction, subtract it from the image he’s trying to reproduce. Looking at the difference between the two, it determines which areas of the canvas are too dark or too light, generates a hundred or so potential brush strokes, and then chooses which of those are best suited to minimize that difference.

In many ways, the project sidesteps some of the thornier conceptual issues painting robots typically grapple with–concerns like authorship and intent. “Regardless of what we implement, the machine will never be a person,” Oliver Deussen, one of the researchers behind the effort, explained to WIRED UK. “It will only have a very limited idea about what it is doing, no intention. Our simulation is only about the craftsmanship that is involved in the painting process.” In other words, Deussen and his collaborators don’t expect their robotic arm to think like an artist. They just want it to paint like one.

There is much potential here:

The machine works mostly in acrylic, because it dries quickly and is thus easier to correct. It can do color, but it’s a bit tricky. And since e-David needs to ensure the same amount of paint is on the brush for its algorithms to function as intended, it has to make a stroke off to the side every time it dips its brush.

But e-David’s creators think there’s plenty of room for their apprentice to learn. It could be programmed to distinguish between certain styles of painting, for example, and choose its strokes accordingly. Or even, Deussen suggests, to gain some rudimentary understanding of what it was painting, and to know the difference between the sky and leaves on a tree, say, in terms of what they demanded from the perspective of paint applied to canvas.

From Lawyer to LEGO Artist

As part of her “Thrillable Hours” series, Jodi Ettenberg posts a great interview with Nathan Sawaya, who went from being a lawyer to a LEGO artist:

I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a lawyer. When I think back I can’t remember feeling passionate about practicing law. It’s all kinda foggy. But I do have crystal clear memories of wanting to be an artist. Of wanting to create, and to transform nothings into somethings. So at the end of a long day lawyering, I would be craving creativity. Sometimes I would paint, sometime draw and sometimes sculpt. And I sculpted out of various things. One day I challenged myself to sculpt out of a toy from my childhood. I did a large scale piece out of LEGO and my friends and family encouraged me to try a few more. Soon I put a website together to showcase my large sculptures. It was the day that my website crashed from too many hits that I realized it was time to make a change and leave the law to go play with toys.

This, to me, seems like a recurring trend when people go from traditional, salaried careers to entrepreneurial ones:

Making that transition can be hard. When you’re ready to take that leap, all I can say is that you really find out who your friends are. It’s amazing how people I thought were my friends became so negative about me leaving the law.

Rest here. Worth exploring further: Nathan’s Brick Artist web site.

MoMA Says: Video Games are Art

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently acquired 14 video games to their permanent collection. From their blog post, and perhaps much to the chagrin of Roger Ebert:

Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design. In order to develop an even stronger curatorial stance, over the past year and a half we have sought the advice of scholars, digital conservation and legal experts, historians, and critics, all of whom helped us refine not only the criteria and the wish list, but also the issues of acquisition, display, and conservation of digital artifacts that are made even more complex by the games’ interactive nature. This acquisition allows the Museum to study, preserve, and exhibit video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.

The list of games in MoMA’s permanent collection:

 Pac-Man (1980)
• Tetris (1984)
• Another World (1991)
• Myst (1993)
• SimCity 2000 (1994)
• vib-ribbon (1999)
• The Sims (2000)
• Katamari Damacy (2004)
• EVE Online (2003)
• Dwarf Fortress (2006)
• Portal (2007)
• flOw (2006)
• Passage (2008)
• Canabalt (2009)

Of those games, I’ve played Pac-Man, Tetris, Myst, SimCity2000, The Sims, Portal, and Canabalt (this was a surprise addition to the collection, I think). How about you?

Read the rest of MoMA’s post to discover the criteria for admission of these video games into their permanent collection.

Platforming Books, A Case Study via Art Space Tokyo

If you’re at all interested in the future of publishing, you should read Craig Mod’s post titled “Platforming Books.” In the post, he goes into detail how his book, Art Space Tokyo, went from a Kickstarter campaign for a physical book to a digital manifestation:

And so, in the last two years a simple, strong truth has emerged: The future of books is built upon networked platforms, not islands. More than any surface advancement — interface, navigational, typographic, or similar — platforms define how we read going forward. Platforms shape systems — those of production, consumption, distribution — and all critical changes happening in digital books and publishing happen within systems. Post-artifact books and publishing is not just about text on screens.

As part of our Kickstarter campaign, we promised a digital edition of Art Space Tokyo. We’re finally delivering on that promise today. But more than dump some files in your lap and run off, we want (as we are wont) to fully open the kimono.

So Art Space Tokyo exists as a physical book, an e-book, and on the Web. Why all three platforms? As Craig explains:

Art Space Tokyo needed a touchable home. An online, public address for all its content. We gave it just that: The entire book is there. All the interviewsessays and art space information. Everything has an address to which you can point.

Why do this? I strongly believe digital books benefit from public endpoints. The current generation of readers (human, not electronic) have formed expectations about sharing text, and if you obstruct their ability to share — to touch — digital text, then your content is as good as non-existent. Or, in the least, it’s less likely to be engaged.

I also believe that we will sell more digital and physical copies of Art Space Tokyo by having all of the content available online. The number of inbound links to the site should increase exponentially. is one of the largest collections of publicly available text about the Tokyo art world online. Organic search traffic should increase accordingly, and by having upsells on every page, the conversion to paid users should follow suit. We’ll report back with numbers in time.

Just because a collection of text is called a ‘book’ doesn’t mean it can’t act like a website. On we purposely broke the strict linearity of the physical Art Space Tokyo. The ambition is to extend the content indefinitely in more organic ways.

Craig’s conclusion on publishing:

If you’re a publisher wondering what to do, the lowest investment, highest return action in this liminal stage of digital publishing is to embrace open EPUBstandards. Unless you want to architect a cross-device platform with cloud syncing, hire a full dev team to support that platform, and iterate relentlessly as standards are hacked apart and reconstituted, then your best bet is to build off existing platforms.

A not-so-long time ago there were no digital books. There were no Kindles or iPads. There were self-contained objects. Objects unnetworked. The only difference now is that they’re touching, they’re next to one another. The content is the same. But that small act of connection brings with it a potential sea change, change we’ll explore as we continue to platform books.

A must-read in its entirety.

The Google Doodle Profile

The BBC has a nice profile of the team behind the Google Doodles, those fun animations/interactives that take over the Google logo on the search engine’s main page every so often.

Below, two recent favorites of mine. The Gustav Klimt doodle to celebrate the artist’s 150th would-be birthday is wonderful (Jennifer Hom, one of the Google Doodle artists, explained how she made this doodle in this post):


The javelin throw doodle appeared on August 6, during the Olympics. But notice something in the air? That’s right, Google also paid homage to the Mars Curiosity rover when it landed safely on Mars:



You can search through the entire Google Doodle archive (more than a 1,000 in all) here.


A $65 Million Sculpture That Can’t Be Sold

What is the fair market value of an object that cannot be sold? That’s the lead of this New York Times piece focusing on the intrinsic value of Canyon, a masterwork of 20th-century art created by Robert Rauschenberg. Because the work, a sculptural combine, includes a stuffed bald eagle, a bird under federal protection, it would be a felony if anyone ever tried to sell. So the appraisers have valued the work at zero.

Two key insights:

The 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act make it a crime to possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, import or export any bald eagle — alive or dead. Indeed, the only reason Mrs. Sonnabend was able to hold onto “Canyon,” Mr. Lerner said, was due to an informal nod from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1981.

But the Internal Revenue Service thinks the sculpture has a larger value (to the of $65 million) and is demanding that the owners pay $29.2 million in taxes. So if the owners of the painting can’t sell it, how is the IRS coming up with a non-zero market value for Canyon? Turns out, it is possible that someone overseas may want to purchase the painting illegally. But the NYT points out:

Still, the notion that the I.R.S. might use the black market in this way to determine a fair market value has surprised some tax experts. James Joseph, a tax lawyer with Arnold & Porter in Washington, noted that the I.R.S. has taxed illegal contraband at its market value, but added: “I don’t know of any instance where the I.R.S. has assumed taxpayers will engage in an illegal activity in order to value their assets at a higher amount. Al Capone went to jail for not paying income taxes on his illegal income, but this is very different than that.”

A very interesting Catch-22 in the art world.

On Art as Investment

Sarah Thornton writes about the “gravity-defying surge” of people buying art as investments:

The bulk of revenues comes from “ultra high net worth” individuals, many of whom operate at a level far above national economies. Even those who have taken blows in recent years remain super-rich. If they were worth £3bn in 2007, maybe they’re worth £2bn now. It’s not like they’re feeling the pinch.

The burden for the stinking rich is what to do with their money. There is currently no interest to be earned on cash, so they can’t leave it in the bank. The property market is nearly paralysed and, for these globetrotters, the drawback of real estate is that it is tied to specific currencies. A Mayfair flat sells in pounds, but the Francis Bacon painting that hangs on its wall could sell in Hong Kong dollars and take up residence on a yacht in the South Pacific. Like historic or extra-large diamonds, works by artists with international recognition are a hedge against volatile currency fluctuations.

Fifteen years ago financial advisers were not in the practice of recommending that rich people diversify their portfolios by buying art. Now it is the norm. While buying emergent art is high-risk, speculative investment, acquiring established masterpieces is perceived as the opposite – a back-up in hard times. If all goes wrong in the world, if the eurozone cracks, the Middle East erupts in war, and a tsunami hits Manhattan, that rare, portable 1964 Marilyn by Andy Warhol will still be worth something.

The auction houses are fostering a globalisation of taste with the help of galleries with international outposts such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and now White Cube. While wealthy Belgians used to spend their money differently from wealthy Indonesians, this is decreasingly the case.

Felix Salmon counters:

This would be a lot more convincing if Thornton actually named or quoted any of the financial advisers who are reportedly “recommending” buying art as an investment. Because I’d love to talk to one. Art’s a dreadful investment: it’s got a negative carry, it’s highly unpredictable in terms of value, there’s no reason whatsoever why prices should go up rather than down, and, of course, you can put your elbow through it at any time.

In my experience, the only people who ever recommend that rich people diversify their portfolios by buying art are people who are going to make money, somehow, from the deal: people selling art investment or advisory services. Everybody else is generally pretty sensible, and sticks to saying the simple truth: Buy art because you love it, not because you think it’s going to rise in value.

More generally, the stinking rich are, as a rule, swamped with bright ideas from people guiding them on what to do with their money. They all have family offices, replete with highly-paid investment managers: The alternative here is not to simply leave the money in the bank, earning no interest. (More likely, they own the bank, take other people’s deposits, and lend them out at a healthy profit.)

And the idea of art as “a hedge against volatile currency fluctuations” is just bonkers; I’m not at all surprised that the line appears in a column for the Guardian, rather than in Thornton’s normal home of the Economist. If you have billions of dollars and you want to hedge against currency fluctuations, then — and I hope you’re sitting down for this — you hedge against currency fluctuations. Options and swaps and futures and forwards and the like are as commoditized as they come in the foreign-exchange markets, and much easier and cheaper to buy and sell than any major artwork.

Thornton’s wrong, too, about the intrinsic value of a 1964 Marilyn by Andy Warhol. If it was worth 10% of its current value a few years ago, it can be worth 10% of its current value in a few years’ time, too. Admittedly, 10% of its current value is still “something”. But that hardly makes the Warhol a remotely sensible investment. The whole point of art is that it has no intrinsic value: that its financial value is a magical number which is some highly variable function of how much various incredibly rich people love and covet the work.

I agree with Felix Salmon. Artwork is not a viable investment: it’s illiquid and highly speculative and subject to modern tastes and preferences. Buy artwork because you enjoy looking at it on your wall. Don’t buy it thinking that you can sell it later for a profit.

Robert Walser on the Artistic Individual

The passage below is from Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, which have been translated into English for the first time by Susan Bernofsky, and just published in a new edition by New York Review Classics. Walser arrived in Berlin from Switzerland in 1905 and wrote hundreds of short reflections about the city’s charms. This passage on the successful artist is excellent:

The artist who is crowned with success lives in the metropolis as if in an enchanting Oriental dream. He hastens from one elegant household to the affluent next, sits down unhesitatingly at the opulently laden dining tables, and while chewing and slurping provides the entertainment. He passes his days in a virtual state of intoxication. And his talent? Does an artist such as this neglect his talent? What a question! As if one might cast off one’s gifts without so much as a by-your-leave. On the contrary. Talent unconsciously grows stronger when one throws oneself into life. You mustn’t be constantly tending and coddling it like a sickly something. It shrivels up when it’s too timidly cared for.

The artistic individual is nonetheless permitted to pace up and down, like a tiger, in his cave of artistic creation, mad with desire and worry over achieving some output of beauty. As no one sees this, there is no one to hold it against him. In company, he should be as breezy, affable, and charming as he can manage, neither too self-important nor too unimportant either. One thing he must never forget: he is all but required to pay court to beautiful, wealthy women at least a little.

Featured in full here.