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Who is Charles Saatchi and why does he matter now to the American Modern Art market?


The article below, from the Guardian newspaper, is worth reproducing in its entirety. Saatchi Art online is a product of this man and has recently entered the American Contemporary Fine Arts market. And they are penetrating it with a vengeance, viz the success of their partnership with The Other Arts Fair. As merchants in modern art they are without peer. That I am online with a company which has the expertise and nous to promote artists who can potentially make them money, a great deal of money, is my good fortune as, what Saatchi call, an Emerging Artist.

Saatchi are little known in this country, the United States, as was Sotheby’s before entering the American real estate market.

The Saatchi name is the magic that builds and ensures Saatchi Art’s future, at least for as long as they continue to do what they are doing. Who is Charles Saatchi and why should he matter to the American Modern Fine Art market, its buyers, collectors and museum collectors? This article from the Guardian of Sunday 10 July 2011, written by Ben Lewis, Sunday 10 July 2011, indicates why. The upper levels of art of whatever form of what ever vintage is about money, lots of it. Witness Venice’s metoeric rise to wealth and power during the early part the European Rennaisance. Do I have your attention?

What needs to be mentioned before going any further, and Ben doesn’t say, is that Charles Saatchi, together with his brother, built the foremost Brand Maker in the world, Saatchi and Satchi. Thus, Charles Saatchi did not arrive in the art world from nowhere. The Saatchi name was already a household name in many parts of the world.

I am probably the only person who can truly say that Charles Saatchi saved my life. During the holidays in 1986 I worked as a gallery assistant in Charles’s Boundary Road gallery in northwest London, during the installation of the Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer exhibition. I got to drill the holes for hooks in the back of the wooden supports of Kiefer paintings. It was nerve-wracking – one false move and there could be a hole in a £1m masterpiece. At the end of every day I swept the gallery clean of the straw that had fallen off these visceral, apocalyptic landscapes, where paint was mixed with earth, grass and photographs.

I was 19 and earned £80 a week. Cranes were used to position Richard Serra’s sculptures in which 1-ton slabs or rolls of rusting steel and lead leaned against each other. These works are quite possibly the most important sculptures of the past 50 years, with their dramatic but abstracted sense of danger, built on the simplest arrangements of materials – leaning, propping and balancing .They could also be lethal: one technician had already been killed installing a Serra in America, and the artist himself had spent months in a wheelchair after another accident.

One day Charles came on a lightning tour of the gallery to see how the installation was going. I and a few “riggers” were holding upright one of the four slabs of One Ton Prop (House of Cards) which leant against each other. As Charles indicated some instant changes he wanted to the position of another work, the head of the installation team motioned the rest of his team to come over. For a moment I was faced with the prospect of holding a ton of lead on my own. “Don’t let that young man hold that all by himself,” Charles said. I remember a number of stronger men rushing to my assistance. That was Charles –  impatient, controlling but also thoughtful towards his serfs. Like an emperor.

… Charles Saatchi’s achievement derives from an imperial character – single-minded, visionary, decisive, bold but also capricious, hot-tempered, hubristic, with a short attention span and a certain vulnerability, that emerges in turns as shyness and defensiveness. Once, he was invincible, but now that times have changed the empire appears too large and undefined. While the court poets still compose panegyrics beyond the walls of his palace, his power is fading. But it’s not too late. Charles can save his empire, but he will have to change his ways.

Saatchi almost never gives interviews. He didn’t even appear in his own recent TV series, School of Saatchi, on BBC2. When he does talk it’s light and unrevealing – as in his 2009 book My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic – so he has to be written about from a distance. The result is that his reputation is still shrouded in the myths of the 1990s, when Charles was the only collector in town. He was the puppet master of contemporary artists. He made and broke reputations with his cheque book. The legend is that he ruined the career of the Italian neo-expressionist figurative painter Sandro Chia by peremptorily selling all the work he owned by him – something he denies. But there’s more to the history of the Saatchi Gallery than that.

… There’s the first wife who pulled the strings – it was Doris Saatchi who set Charles off on his collecting passion. There are moments when friends fall out over fame and money – like the time when Charles threatened to dump a large number of his Damien Hirsts, including the shark, on the market, so that Hirst and his gallery were cornered into buying them back for millions of pounds more than they had sold them for. There’s meddling from rival princes – Saatchi had huge rows with the landlord of County Hall about what he was allowed to show where. There is the overnight accumulation of fortunes, as when Charles sold work for millions of pounds’ profit at auction; and there’s a climactic come-uppance – but we’ll come back to that.

It’s a shame Saatchi is not more forthcoming on these controversies, because they do not threaten his achievement. Behind these personal dramas Saatchi changed contemporary cultural history, three times. Between 1985 and 1992 he bought and exhibited Europe and America’s leading contemporary artists, from Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman to Philip Guston and Sigmar Polke. All these artists already had huge reputations abroad. Charles was certainly not making any of their names. He was an importer, but that is no criticism: no other collector was doing it in Britain. London was nowhere near being a centre for contemporary art like Paris, New York or Berlin; Charles was one of the people who began to change all that.

Then, in the 1990s, he had an altogether more single-handed success. He became the patron of young artists including Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Hirst. He bought their work early on from Hirst’s Freeze show in 1988, and then from the fledgling galleries of Jay Jopling, Karsten Schubert and others.

He showed them in 1992 in his show Young British Artists, from which the YBA term dates. Hirst had a dramatic solo exhibition at the ICA in 1993, and the buzz around these artists persuaded Norman Rosenthal to put on a show at the stuffy old Royal Academy, consisting entirely of their work, called Sensation. The 1997 show was a smash. The column inches became column miles. There was an outcry in the UK over Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley made with children’s handprints and, when the show travelled to the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1999, an outcry over Chris Ofili’s Madonna with elephant dung. Several of these artists now make works that sells for £500,000 upwards in the primary market.

Charles’s achievement here was massive in almost every sense. He invented a new movement – something every critic and curator dreams of doing. Just as Apollinaire came up with cubism and Breton with surrealism, Charles coined YBAs. This was not an empty slogan. The YBAs created a new and accessible fusion of pop and conceptualism that had the distinctively British feel of an indie band. Sarah Lucas’s melons and cucumbers were crude but uncanny – pub surrealism. Hume’s candy coloured abstract paintings looked like ice cream served by an American colourfield painter. Hirst’s shark was “Jaws – the art work”, with all its sequels, too. The YBAs made art that was simpler, punchier and more fun (but not necessarily more interesting or original) than what had gone before. The YBAs accelerated the trajectory of artistic style towards production line and brand identity.

Saatchi’s YBAs changed culture not only in Britain, but abroad. Takashi Murakami, a Japanese Warhol – perhaps the most successful pop artist at the moment, with huge studios in Japan and NYC, and a show currently at Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery – enthusiastically cites Hirst as an influence. So does India’s Subodh Gupta, who makes various $1m skulls, wheels and nuclear explosions out of amalgamations of Indian tiffin cookware. The most famous artist of the moment, Ai Weiwei, imprisoned and then released by the Chinese authorities, is another YBA-influenced figure with his huge studios in China, where a team of assistants follow his instructions delivered in mobile phone calls and occasional visits, and where scores of old Chinese earthenware vases half-dipped in random primary colours are arranged in large grids as installations. You can see these works at the Lisson Gallery in London right now.

I wonder where he got that idea from – you could cleverly exhibit a Hirst spot painting with one of these. It’s difficult to imagine the art history of the past 30 years being the same without the YBAs. And it’s even more difficult to imagine the YBAs without Charles Saatchi.

Having played a central role in inventing a new kind of art, Charles then led the way inventing a new kind of art economy. He was the most famous of the pioneering new breed of “specullector”, a fusion of the art collector and dealer/speculator who drove the art boom of the last decade. In the past, art collectors bought art and held on to it for 10 or 20 years, while dealers bought and sold it within a few months. But from the end of the 1990s Saatchi started doing this with his collection of British and other artists in cycles of five years and less. The art market is based on private transactions so it’s difficult to know the extent of this activity, but by the mid-2000s it became more visible through the auction rooms.

In the Triumph of Painting (2005), Saatchi put on wonderful exhibitions of paintings by Peter Doig, Martin Kippenberger and others, then a few months later sent the best of the work to be auctioned for a profit. One of his Doigs went for £6m to a secretive Georgian oligarch. The new owner flew it, along with his $100m Picasso, back to Tbilisi – where the airport was closed down to receive this special cargo – and it then disappeared into storage.

Since then, one often has déjà vu when visiting a contemporary art auction preview, as you turns a corner and suddenly find yourself in part of a previous Saatchi show. Today there are handfuls of specullectors, among whose American ranks are the Warhol-obsessed Mugrabi family and collector-commentator Adam Lindemann, while the entire Chinese art market is driven by Chinese specullectors who Charles inspired. He is now overshadowed by impulsive enthusiasts with far more money than himself. And so it has come to be that Saatchi has become the victim of his own success.

Charles once invited me to dinner in Kensington. I knew this was my big chance to find out how he worked. What I really wanted to know was: what was his strike rate? We know nothing about Charles’s inventory, and so we know nothing about his success rate. Perhaps he had thousands of works by forgotten artists he couldn’t sell languishing in storerooms. Maybe he took a scattergun approach, buying work from, say, 50 artists a year for £5k each, in the hope that five of these artists would become famous and their work would go up in value 10 times over five years, thus breaking even. That wasn’t an unreasonable proposition. But every question I asked was batted away with a cheeky grin.

Instead, Charles seemed more interested in getting stuff out of me – he particularly wanted to see the tattoo which the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye had inscribed on my back. That had been my big prank in my TV series Art Safari. Charles, I realised, was still a bit of a schoolboy, who enjoyed winding people up. He liked to say or create art, and then see what reactions people had to it. In his silences I finally understood the secret of YBA phenomenon. It was jerry-built. Charles splashed some cash and built a hype as best as he could, making things up as he went. In the months leading up to the Sensation exhibition some people bitched he’d even had to go on a new buying spree to acquire several “important” works to fill in gaps in the show. But there was no crime in that. He was adaptable, quick-witted and convincing. But he was also a have-a-go merchant.

The problem with Charles’s exhibitions over the past 10 years is that they have tried to repeat the YBA story in other parts of the world. Charles would tell us all about the YAAs – young American artists – in his exhibition USA Today – and the YMEAs in Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, not forgetting the YCAs in The Revolution Continues: New Art From China. Much of the time, Charles was following a few years behind the trend (a whole room full of Zhang Xiaogangs? You can’t make up for lost time with quantity, dude). The descriptions were floridly meaningless. In the Triumph of Painting show I tittered over the description of Dirk Skreber’s paintings of a car crash, as “empty spiritualism, transfixing the viewer with its awesome and ethereal presence”, while Albert Oehlen’s complex pictures “occupy a space between representation and abstraction, his forms and textures converging not to create an illusion, but a suggestion of invention”. Much of the work looks like it’s deliberately made to fit this story. Exciting but somewhat illogical whole-room pieces like rows of praying burqas made from silver foil, and the waxworks of world leaders in motorised wheelchairs in his basement.

Exhibitions today need more complicated thematic stories, and more scholarly descriptions and cataloguing. The age of curating is upon us, but Charles has so far been unwilling to embrace this change, as other London collectors with private foundations – Anita Zabludowicz, David Roberts and Alex Sainsbury – have wisely been doing.  The latest show The Shape of Things to Come exhibits many of the Saatchi flaws. It’s the YSAs’s – the young sculptural artists – show. Some marvellous work, but far too flashily installed. It’s another funfare and fanfare to the future of art from the art world’s self-mythologising enigmatic Svengali.

Last week I went to the Royal Academy’s graduate show party. The students and teachers were celebrating and between spells on the dancefloor, they told me breathlessly how Saatchi had bought up several of the students’ complete shows. He paid full price for some, but bargained others down ruthlessly, I was told, offering 50% or less of the asking price. There was no rhyme or reason to the prices he wanted to pay. The students asked me anxiously: did I think it was bad if Saatchi bought their work? Would he sell it all one day and destroy their careers? My answer: don’t be silly, it’s great if Charles buys your work. He is no longer the only major collector of new artist’s work in this country, so he can’t make or break your career on his own. But what a shame Charles’s image is stuck in the 1990s.

So what next? I … His exhibitions have failed to make a big impact, while the gallery, insiders say, is incredibly expensive to run. That is probably why last year he surprised everyone, including his own staff, by announcing he was going to give his museum to the nation. A large number of works of art would be donated for free, but discussions with the Arts Council and Ministry of Culture suggested the taxpayer could end up footing the bill for running the gallery. So, a year on, there is no Tate Saatchi as of yet. Jeremy Hunt is still saying no, albeit in the politest terms: “Ministers expressed their gratitude when Mr Saatchi made his very generous offer. We understand that Mr Saatchi is now considering how he wants to move forward, and we are very happy to facilitate any discussions,” a spokesman told Bloomberg last week. Cultural fads come and go, and Charles may be ahead of the curve for the first time in a decade, with his diminishing interest in the expensive sport of writing art history with a cheque book.

But I hope that is not the case. Charles has rewritten cultural history three times already. None of Britain’s other collectors have done that – or have an ounce of his musketeer-like panache. He just needs to hire a few curators and reinvent his acquisitions strategy. Then perhaps he could change the art world again.

Ben Lewis’ article is nominally a review of book about Charles Saatchi and talk of which is irrelant to the purpose of republishing the article. That material, and there is little of it, has been edited out to avoid distraction.

It remains to be seen whether I have the talent and nous as an artist to realize the investment Saatchi Art are making in me. It won’t be from lack of effort on my part. I make the art, the art speaks for itself.

Malcolm D B Munro
Saturday 21 October, 2017
Houston, Texas

 

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