The art world’s “It Girl” — the work that brought in the highest price of any painting ever sold at auction — is Three Studies of Lucian Freud by the British painter Francis Bacon and it goes on view today at the Portland Art Museum for a special 15-week exhibition.
Want to know who bought the work at Christie’s last month? The details of its arrival? You’d have more luck getting the birth date and Social of your neighborhood CIA operative.
But the museum’s chief curator, Bruce Guenther, says getting the painting to Portland is a bit like the Rolling Stones tour.
Like much of the one percent, it travels in a system of transportation that you and I don’t have access to. It’s three sealed cases. it goes into special unmarked truck. it will arrive by 18-wheeler with an accompanying car of security people.
Guenther is the architect of the agreement with the yet-unnamed buyer who purchased the three-panel work at Christie’s in New York last month. Three panels, a full 15 feet across when shown together, are studies of Bacon’s friend and colleague, Lucien Freud. In the three views, the subject appears slightly rotated, almost as if he turns to confront the viewer at every turn, his face and limbs a kinetic jumble against Bacon’s signature vivid colors.
Guenther told OPB’s Think Out Loud he considers the paintings an artifact of the dialogue between these two restless minds: Bacon, the brazen, openly-gay expressionist, giving form to what he saw as unpleasant realities of human nature and Freud, the gregarious, womanizer who made unsparingly realistic portraits of florid, corpulent nudes. According to Guenther:
Bacon renders his friend Freud as an abstraction and as an energy force, not as a physical blood and flesh person, where Freud would do the opposite with Bacon.
But the story of Bacon’s triptych has been redefined this winter. Art watchers, critics, even some dealers fumed that the work’s auction price represented a new low for an inflated market. The revelation in The New York Times that the triptych changed hands at least one other time within the past year led some to conclude the painting was being flipped by the seller for steep profit.
Given that back story, Philip Kennicott, an art and architecture critic for the Washington Post, wonders if Portland’s single-work exhibition could bring viewers an appropriate understanding of Bacon’s triptych. Museums, he says, tell stories about art. Right now, the stories we hear, he says, are dominated by the notoriety the market brings to works like Three Studies of Lucien Frued. Kennicott wonders:
Why would Portland scramble to show this piece of work at this particular moment? It seems fairly clear that one of the most important reasons is it now has this putative label of being the most expensive painting.
Kennicott says a painter as important and interesting as Francis Bacon should be put in context. He’s not convinced the stand-alone exhibition of one work can achieve that. Further, he notes the Portland Art Museum is one of many institutions that relies heavily on its relationships with art collectors. They need collectors to loan works the museums could not otherwise afford — such as the Bacon triptych. And these collectors can be important as donors. He sees the relationship as troubling, and possibly perpetuating the market forces that make $142 million art auctions possible.
At least one gallery owner isn’t buying Kennicott’s assessment.
“He can go gripe all the way to the Hirschorn — which is free,” quips Charles Froelick, owner of the Froelick Gallery in northwest Portland’s Pearl District. He defends the Portland Art Museum’s strategy, and sees the museum doing what it can to secure loans of meaningful work — and doing so without the resources of larger, better-resourced institutions, like the ones Kennicott has access to every day.
Froelick says he’s aware of other exhibitions Guenther chases for months or even years before they open. Froelick doesn’t see the quick turnaround as making the museum complicit in art price inflation.
I’m thrilled we get to see another Francis Bacon painting in Portland. Maybe I have rose colored glasses about this, but it is a positive message that there’s value in art - especially tough psychological art. It is valued in culture. That’s reassuring to me.
And of course, Froelick adds, with a smile, he’s an art dealer and a capitalist. To say price inflation is raging out of control implies the market is not correctly rewarding artists in their creative work.
Whatever the message the museum is sending by exhibiting the Bacon triptych, it’s forged a deeper alliance with a potentially important collector. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance confirmed their state’s policy allows art buyers to forgo paying sales tax when a purchase is immediately shipped out of state.
Curator Bruce Guenther confirms the triptych went straight from the auction house to Portland.
It’s hard to say whether someone with $142 million available to spend on art cares about another $11 million in sales tax, but the benefit is there.
There may be additional tax benefits for a collector who loans out a work for public display like this, depending on the circumstances of its purchase. When a major work goes on display like this, some collectors even enjoy a bump in the market value of their works - or at least maintain the work’s prestige.
We may never know the motives of the Bacon triptych’s new owner, as long as his identity is a mystery. While speculation is still running high, the museum isn’t saying, beyond that it’s someone —male — on the west coast who has lent works and donated to the museum before.
Jeffrey Thomas says he’s not bothered by the mystery. He’s been involved in Oregon’s art world as a gallery owner and non-profit administrator. Meeting up at a local tea house, Thomas calls the arrangement an adaptive and nimble strategy by the Portland Art Museum. And if the donor won’t come forward?
In an age when we see so much trophy hunting in the contemporary art world,” says Thomas, “we have someone who has actually asked to be anonymous. I appreciate that discretion in this age of unbridled celebrity.
Having bested several colleagues who may have been out to secure an exhibition of the triptych, Guenther says the work is powerful enough to push the hype aside.
We present works of art which are $50 and $150 million. And we do it because they speak volumes about the epoch in which they are created,” Guenther says. They have relevance to the lives we live today.
And in a world where the Portland Art Museum couldn’t even afford the insurance for handling a work like Three Studies of Lucien Freud without donors’ help, he calls this a unique chance for both the museum and audiences.
The work will be showcased at the entrance to the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Wing, through March 30th.