The art of selling a $53.9 million Van Gogh. Also, Guggenheim marks its 50th with spectacular exhibitions

There is something unreal about the fact that it was a Van Gogh painting that recently broke the auction record (at $53.9 million) for a work of art, and that three other Van Goghs rank among the 10 most expensive artworks ever sold at auction. Not even quite a century after his death, Van Gogh, who sold only one painting during his lifetime, dominates the auction market as no artist ever has before. Combined, his four record auction sales total a whopping $123.9 million, against $63.1 million for his six closest competitors combined.

If we take into account that the latter include Mantegna ($10.4 million), Rembrandt ($10.3 million), Turner ($10 million), and Manet ($7.7 million) - all great artists in their own rights - Van Gogh's astonishing success becomes even more strange.

And yet, in some ways, it's not that surprising. Van Gogh's passions and frustrations have made him the most identified-with and accessible painter of the late 19th century. But even more important, he is one of the founders of modern art.

His art-historical pedigree, in short, is impeccable. And if that weren't enough, his extraordinary popularity and highly idiosyncratic behavior at times of stress would keep his reputation alive for a very long time to come.

Showings in Tokyo, London, Geneva, Zurich

Even so, $53.9 million for a smallish painting of irises that doesn't even rank among the artist's greatest masterpieces makes no sense at all.

Sotheby's, the New York auction house that held the sale, had let it be known, of course, that ``Irises'' was of very major importance, and had even sent the painting on a month-long tour of Tokyo, London, Geneva, and Zurich before actually putting it up for auction in New York.

All that, quite naturally, helped. As did the fact that Van Gogh's ``Sunflowers'' had gone for $39.9 million last March, and ``The Bridge of Trinquetaille'' had brought $20.2 million in June.

Obviously, no matter how one looked at it, a Van Gogh painting was a blue-chip investment, and a bargain at any price. Although it couldn't always be expected to jump as dramatically in value as ``Irises'' had since its 1947 sale to Joan Whitney Payson for $84,000, it could be expected to advance significantly in dollar value - at least for as long as the market for Van Goghs kept going up.

The market this time did even better than expected. No one knows, however, how much longer it will continue to rise, or how much higher it will go. The figures are already so out of proportion, so insane, that a new auction record of $70 million or even $100 million would hardly be more fantastic than the ones already achieved.

The sad thing about all this is that, while it has absolutely nothing to do with art, its effect on our perception of art is distorting and demeaning.

For thousands, perhaps even millions of individuals, Van Gogh's importance will henceforth hinge primarily on that $53.9 million figure. Little else will matter.

And that is bitterly ironic, for such blatant commercialism of art is the exact opposite of everything Van Gogh lived and worked for.

The Guggenheim's 50th anniversary

Even for a world-class museum, it's a spectacular event: an exhibition of 424 outstanding paintings, sculptures, and works on paper - including a significant number of modernism's most important creations - beautifully displayed in a building that is itself a great work of art.

I am referring, of course, to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's 50th anniversary celebration at the Guggenheim Museum here, an occasion that has brought together major works from both the New York museum and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

Organized by Thomas M. Messer and subsidized by a grant from the Chase Manhattan Bank, ``Fifty Years of Collecting: An Anniversary Selection'' underscores the richness and range of the foundation's permanent holdings. It is presented in three sections: ``Paintings by Modern Masters,'' ``Sculpture of the Modern Era,'' and ``Painting Since World War II.'' The newly refurbished Thannhauser Wing features paintings from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries; another gallery wing includes works by the Cubists and other pioneers of abstract art; and still another pays special attention to the art produced between the two world wars.

Sculpture, ranging from pieces by Degas to Beuys, can be found along five ramps of the museum's grand spiral, in the High Gallery and in the Rotunda. And finally, at the top and occupying the sixth and seventh ramps, are the paintings produced since World War II. These will be shown in three consecutive installments: the art of Europe (ends Dec. 20); of Latin America (Dec. 23-Jan. 31, 1988); and of North America (Feb. 4-March 13, 1988).

Although conceived as a celebration, this mammoth exhibition also serves as an excellent introduction to the history and ideals of modernism. It presents concrete evidence, in the form of one remarkable work after another, of the quality, range, and depth of 20th-century art.

At the Guggenheim Museum through March 13.

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