The Arts: Beyond Reviews and Revenues; ART

Compared with the dynamic and turbulent '50s and early '60s, this has been a quiet and relatively placid decade. The thing one notices leafing through the art magazines of the '70s is that the face of art didn't change much in the last 10 years. With a few exceptions, the leading figures of 1970 are still very much in evidence today and their work now looks pretty much as it did then. Perhaps a bit richer and a little more subtle after all these years, but essentially the same.

And the younger artists, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they may be, somehow haven't managed to stir up quite the interest their predecessors did.

This has been a cautious and wary decade, a time of consolidation and rethinking rather than of great imaginative leaps forward. It certainly hasn't produced anything startlingly new or profound. Whatever high points the '70s gave us were the result of ideas and forms given birth in earlier decades.

Yet there is intense activity underneath. Seldom has raw ambition manifested iteself with such passion as it does today. Success before 30 is not only desired, it is viewed as essential to the verification of one's life and style. Starving for one's art is more often seen as proof of failure than of integrity. Young painters and sculptors barely out of art school are forced to spend almost as much time promoting themselves as they do working in their studios.

Young artists -- and it is almost unbelievable how much exceptional talent presents itself to the gallery world each year -- are often forced to make decisions about their art before they are fully aware of their creative identities, and to exercise their cleverness rather than their sensibilities in the production of their art.

No wonder then, that so much of the art being produced, as we leave the '70s, is eclectic. How could it be otherwise? If artists are not given enough time to grow and to mature, they can only borrow from what already exists: a little from here, a bit more from there. That can result in exciting, colorful, and even brilliant art. And it can result in art which is empty and shallow.

At this point it seems more exciting and brilliant than empty, but time will tell.

But perhaps the biggest news within the art world itself during the 1970s often had to do with money.

It took the form of information leaked about the dramatic increase in price of the work certain artists considered particulary good investments. Or it was the astronomical amounts paid for works by established moderns such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or David Smith.

And it was front-page newspaper accounts of records broken at auction sales.

Even the cynical art world, however, was stunned by the $2.5 million (plus 10 percent buyer's premium) paid for Frederick Church's "The Icebergs," and the $ 750,000 (plus 10 percent premium) paid for Man Ray's "Observatory Time: The Lovers" at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York this season.

With the sale of the oil by Church, this decade now holds the record for the three highest prices ever paid for paintings at auction. The two others: Velasquez's "Portrait of Juan Pareja" which sold for $5.5 million at Christie's, in London in 1970, and Titian's "Death of Acteon" which sold at Christies for a bit over $4 million in 1971.

Money also played an important role during this decade in how and where New York art galleries functioned and survived.

The '70s was the decade in which the middle-class decided to put at least some of its investment money into art. Buyers crowded the galleries and auction houses looked for bargains. They could be seen at parties comparing prices with others of like mind, or trying to pry inside information from art- professionals. "Investment portfolios," made up of art "guaranteed to accelerate rapidly in value," were put together and advertised for those who had neither the time nor the inclination to hunt for bargains on their own.

For every person who paid a few hundred dollars for something he liked, a dozen would-be collectors were writing checks for at least 10 times that amount for paintings largely because they had been advised they would increase tremendously in value. Sometimes these works were consigned to vaults, but mostly they were heavily insured and proudly displayed where they could advertise their owner's business acumen.

This emphasis on price rather than on value had its effect on a number of dealers who found they were unwilling to take a risk on unproven talent. They could pay their rent by selling original prints by famous artists like Calder and Miro, or by selling minor and inferior -- but nevertheless signed -- works by artists of established reputations.

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