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As the trending art fair culture continues to grow, another phenomenon we find ourselves experiencing in the 21st-century art world is the emergence of young artists at auction.

The art world has a long history of tradition and is distinguished as an environment where maturity comes with time. As artists mature, their work develops a stronger, more reflective and ultimately more critical understanding. It requires experience to be an intelligent artist, hence the reason retrospectives are often awarded during an artist’s mid to late career.

This notion is being directly challenged by the emergence of a group of young artists producing artwork that is in high demand. This is not a new phenomenon, however, as the art market boom of the 1980s was also characterized by a global push to acquire artworks by fresh, young, emerging artists. Due to this frenzied trend, artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat became overnight celebrities. Money was free and easy to come by and the art-market bubble was inflating at a rapid rate. Artists were pushed by dealers to produce work in order to satisfy demand. It was a situation unfolding much like the one we find ourselves experiencing today. By the end of the ’80s, the art market had crashed and both Basquiat and Haring were dead, succumbing to the life they had both so fervently embodied.

The art world rebuilt and even after another crash in the mid-2000s, we now find ourselves in the middle of an extraordinary art world expanse. With the way the art market is growing in the 21st century, aided by the rise of art fair culture, it is easy to draw comparisons to the boom of the ’80s. Similarly, our boom today is driven by a host of fresh young faces.

Listed among these many artists are Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo. At 23 and 27 respectively, they are both already prominent fixtures at contemporary art auctions around the globe.

The youngest and most fascinating is Lucien Smith. A Cooper Union graduate and former assistant to artist Dan Colen, Smith has come to symbolize this movement of young painters in contemporary art. He has already had or been part of shows at OHWOW, Jonathon Viner and Salon 94. His practice is multifaceted and includes painting, sculpture, video and installation-based work. His most well known works are his Rain paintings. As a testament to his rapid ascent, Artspace Magazine reported that Smith’s undergraduate painting, Hobbes, The Rain Man and My Friend Barney / Under the Sycamore Tree, which was his first ever piece at auction, sold for $389,000 USD. What is remarkable is that he has achieved all this despite never being part of a museum exhibition.

Murillo, too, is experiencing a similar increase in demand. Born in Colombia and currently living and working in London, Murillo is the artist to watch at auction. He bears a resemblance to Basquiat thanks to his dreadlocked appearance and uncanny levels of productivity. Perhaps the most striking resemblance between the two is the way they have rapidly ascended to art-world superstardom. Murillo is also experiencing a rise in popularity in a similar fashion as Basquiat did. According to the GalleristNY, Murillo’s work at the Frieze 2013 auctions brought in a combined $1 milllon USD and his current auction sales record stands at $401,000 USD.

Murillo first rose to prominence thanks to an artist residency at the Rubell Collection for Art Basel Miami Beach 2012. He impressed the Rubell’s with his incredible productivity, reportedly turning out nine pieces in 48 hours in preparation for their visit. In the two years following, he has had shows at Serpentine Gallery and was just recently added to David Zwirner’s stable. What is perhaps most astonishing is that two years ago you could purchase a Murillo piece for less than $10,000 USD and now they regularly fetch between $20 – 30,000 USD.

The meteoric rise of these young artists is both exciting and problematic.

Renowned critic Jerry Saltz has been openly critical of the rapid ascent of both Smith and Murillo, turning to Twitter to voice his concerns: “Idiot collectors fighting over who gets to buy terrible painting by Lucien Smith or Oscar Murillo.”

There is some truth in his concern. History has shown us numerous examples of how the media inspires superstar celebrities only to watch them fall from grace. There is no doubt that these artists have the potential to make a mark in contemporary art history, but with all the hype, speculation and ridiculous amounts of money surrounding their work, their true impact is being overshadowed.

“I kind of wish my work wasn’t at auction. I am too young. It’s a sign of how ridiculous the art world is. It’s like market hype.”

The rapid inflation of the bubble combined with collectors and dealers ultimately determining the value of artwork, artists once again find themselves at mercy to those more concerned with the pursuance of wealth rather than the longevity of a career. Fueled by hype, the demand is placing increasing amounts of pressure on these young artists to produce. Parker Ito, another emerging contemporary artist is quoted as saying: “I kind of wish my work wasn’t at auction. I am too young. It’s a sign of how ridiculous the art world is. It’s like market hype.”

Both Smith and Murillo’s work has appeared mainly on the primary market (artwork having never been auctioned before) but the real test is how well their artwork does on the secondary market. Along with collectors and dealers, market performance is used to determine the artwork’s value. If it has no previous market value, speculation and projection are determining factors. This means that young artists are subjected to an incredible amount of speculation surrounding the value of their work. Bill Powers, owner of Half Gallery where Smith held his first New York solo show in 2012, points out that, “One season means absolutely nothing in terms of secondary market value.” As a result, speculation has given rise to the practice of flipping art. Much like flipping real estate, it is what happens when collectors and dealers look to cash in on the hype surrounding a young artist. Works are bought and then quickly sold as collectors and dealers try to strategically position themselves.

The trend of flipping art has grown into a serious concern. In much the same way that art fairs are serving to commodify the art world, this practice of flipping young artists means the central focus of the artwork becomes its value. This is problematic not just for the art world as a whole, but more importantly, it is a major concern for the integrity of the artwork being created by these young artists. This focus on monetary value has serious repercussions for the development of the artist and their body of work.

However, the success of Smith and Murillo is a sign that there are possibilities for younger artists. In essence, young artists now have role models they can inspire to that are much closer in age. Artists like Smith and Murillo are unapologetically challenging the model of tradition in the art world – for them age is not a limit. They are making it possible for emerging artists to garner reputations much earlier in life.

These young emerging artists are also having an impact on the aesthetic trend of the art market. Interestingly and necessary to point out is the fact that painting has begun to feature more prominently again at contemporary art auctions thanks to the emergence of painters like Murillo, Smith and Ryan Sullivan. Alexander Rotter, co-head of Sotheby’s, spoke about the popularity of “painterly paintings” after the first auction of the 2014 calendar in London. He pointed out that conceptual art was unusually less in demand.

The emergence of artists like Smith and Murillo is also perhaps a result of the development of a new generation of young collectors. In much the same way emerging artists are getting younger and becoming more highly sought after, young collectors are beginning to alter the collecting demographic. This trend was confirmed by a Telegraph report at the October 2013 Frieze auction, stating that the majority of collectors at the auction were under 30.

With Smith and company having shown resilience in the face of criticism and young collectors beginning to change their demographic, we find ourselves in an interesting situation – one that is brimming with possibilities but could yet bare serious consequences. Perhaps if we find ourselves preparing for a mid-career retrospective of Smith’s or Murillo’s work in 20 years’ time, we can look back on this period in a more appreciative light. For now, let’s just hope the ’80s aren’t destined not to repeat themselves.


This article was written by Houghton Kinsman for Highsnobiety.com

  • Photography: Independent UK, Arrested Motion, Paddle 8, Abstract Critical, The Guardian
Words by Staff
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