At the thriftshop recently, I picked up a hardcover edition of Anthony Haden-Guest’s True Colors, The Real Life of the Art World for two bucks. Published in 1996, the book is an amusing account of the1970s-1990s NYC art world, and makes a nice companion to “Reinventing Abstraction,” the exhibition that revisits 1980s abstract painting at Cheim & Read through August.
David Kaufman’s 1997 review in the NYTimes called Haden-Guest’s chronicle a “devasting account of the art scene:”
Artists, dealers, collectors, auctioneers, critics — seemingly everyone involved with the contemporary art world makes an appearance in True Colors, Anthony Haden-Guest’s devastating account of the art scene during the past three decades, when vested interests supplanted esthetic concerns. The book is top-heavy with revealing anecdotes and names — it sometimes reads like a directory. One must also endure Mr. Haden-Guest’s occasionally irritating prose, punctuated by snappy jargon and ho-hum metaphors. But drawing on his background as a cultural journalist, he proves a valuable guide through an art landscape that acquired ”a heated, garish quality, like the set for a game show.”
True Colors may surpass an outsider’s worst suspicions about the ”nonchalant ruthlessness” of ”an art world where all that anybody talked about was money.” ”I really enjoy sales. Sales is a form of conscious control,” says Jeff Koons, a one-time Wall Street broker who became a prominent artist in the mid-80’s. Advising other art dealers on how to handle their clients, Mary Boone suggests, ”Get them into debt. . . . Get them to buy lots of houses, get them to have expensive habits and girlfriends. . . . That’s what really drives them to produce.”
There is ultimately a tedious sameness to such candid venality. But in addition to in-depth looks at Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and their kind, the story is supplemented by a rich variety of stomach-churning reports on artists whose work entails self-mutilation. The grisly extremes some people have stooped to for their 15 minutes of attention suggest they would welcome even the scathing treatment they receive here.
I agree with Kaufman that the prose often feels like an unedited first draft, but the stories about art world financial shenanigans, dealer machinations, and the artists’ ambition are priceless. At the time Haden-Guest wrote it, Damien Hirst was considered more of a DIY impressario than an artist, curating exhibitions of his contemporaries rather than making his own work, and several of the artists, such as Dutch It-boy Rob Scholte (who had his legs blown off in a 1994 car explosion) and precocious Thread Waxing Space curator Christian Leigh (I can’t even find a good link) have gone completely off the radar. And, to get a sense of how abstract painting fared back in the day, I’m sorry to report that very few of the abstract painters in the Cheim & Read
exhibition are even mentioned.