By Irina Tarsis.

I’d sit alone and watch …

~ Queen, “Radio Ga Ga” (1984)[1]

Have you heard “Yes, we have no bananas today”? It was a big hit back in the day. And did you know that the invention of radio is credited to an Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi? One Italian invented radio and another, Maurizio Cattalan, delivered a banana to the art-hungry masses in Miami. Someone still must care. 

On November 13, 2019, Christie’s set a new record: a work by Ed Ruscha sold at auction for a whopping $46-million hammer price for “Hurting the Word Radio #2” (the “Radio”).[2] The sky blue background with five yellow letters (evocative of the Ukrainian flag, perhaps) spelling “Radio.” Two of the letters are disfigured by c-clamps, hurting.

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964. Oil on canvas. 59 x 55 in (149.9 x 139.7 cm). Sold for $52,485,000 on 13 November at Christie’s in New York. © Edward J. Ruscha IV. Source: Christie’s.

At more than $9 million per letter, was this the finest hour of Radio?

When Ruscha made his 1964 twin paintings “Hurting the Word Radio #1” and “Hurting the Word Radio #2,” playing with the word and the message, he was 26 and living in LA for almost a decade. The same year, he also made works that read “1964,” “Scream,” and “Lawyer.” It was the year the pirate radio stations proliferated[3] and the year when Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge opened, joining Staten Island and Brooklyn and charging .50 cents per trip. The same year, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law[4] and quickly tested in court.[5] Also in 1964, Sidney Poitier won the best actor Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field;” the Beatles dominated top five positions on the America singles Billboard; Picasso painted “The Painter;” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Button married for the first time; China exploded its first Nuclear bomb; “Murf the Surf” stole the Star of India sapphire from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the US Surgeon General Luther Terry reported that smoking may lead to lung cancer.[6]

Fifty-five years later, Ed Ruscha’s “Radio” made news for being the most expensive lot in the Christie’s 2019 November sale. A hot statistic in the cold art trade. According to the catalog essay accompanying the lot description, “over the decades Ruscha, an internationally-renowned and celebrated artist, developed a reputation as a deadpan observer of contemporary society, a guy with ‘the coolest gaze in American art.’”[7] In anticipation of the sale, Christie’s estimated the painting’s value between $30 and 40 million. Actual price realized exceeded conservative expectations and “Radio” sold for $52,485,000 (hammer price and buyer’s premium). Christie’s hard work to market the piece generated an impressive result and a win for the House both in profits and PR. In the dissipating afterglow of the sale, who else won?

In the Art Market Value System, who Trumps: Owner or Artist?

Provenance of this work has been impeccable and unimpeachable. The catalogue explains that the piece was “Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, early 1970s.”[8] First line in the lot description, just above artist’s name (in all caps) is a clear statement that the piece is from “The Collection of Joan and Jack Quinn.” “Radio” debut on the secondary market went with a bang––and much ambient noise.

The lot essay starts with brief bios of Joan and Jack Quinn, a couple that owned this piece for nearly fifty years. They were collectors, patrons and friends of artists. John J. “Jack” Quinn was “a notable Southern California attorney who utilized his skills to help artists and dealers, including the Ferus Gallery, navigate the complexities of law and business.” Joan Agajanian Quinn, a life-long friend and patron of artists was one of the former West Coast editors of Interview Magazine and a subject of many portraits by the leading artists of the second half of the 20th century.[9] In 2018, Joan received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for her support of numerous humanitarian, educational and cultural activities. She has been involved with the California Film Commission; the California Arts Council; Cedars Sinai Hospital Arts Council; Commissioner for the Beverly Hills Architectural Council; and she was a Trustee of the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Boston.[10]

Joan’s husband of 35 years passed away in 2017. Christie’s catalogue does not mention it but following his service in the US Army in German, Jack went to law school at USC and completed his Juris Doctor with Order of the Coif distinction for academic achievement. He provides more “law” to the “art” narrative. For fifty years, Jack practiced at multiple firms, including Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, an international law firm. It’s been said that he knew “how to be a lawyer and yet remain a decent human being.” Once President of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, recipient of the Shattuck-Price Award for “outstanding dedication to the improvement of the legal profession and the administration of Justice” and the Learned Hand Award. One of his obituaries mentions that “Jack was a friend to Los Angeles artists from the early days of the LA art movement in the 1960s through the present” and that “[it] was most important to him that their rights were upheld and respected.”[11]

How much did this provenance contribute to the hammer price on November 13, 2019? The location of the collector’s bios (a lead to the art historical section on Ruscha’s work) would suggest that provenance did, in fact, play a great role. It was not only the power of the artist’s brand recognition and Christie’s efforts that ensured the impressive results. With consignor and auction house making a profit, how did the 90-year old artist himself benefit from this one sale?

He did not. Given the fact that the US has no resale royalty rights, living artists like Ruscha enjoy no direct financial benefit from ‘gigaresults’ their works generate in the secondary market.[12] Ruscha’s finest hour was not this November. An artist who is represented by one of the leading international galleries (Gagosian), Ruscha seems to treat the secondary market as background noise. Gagosian’s bio for the artist, all 34 pages of it, is silent on the auction results and achievements. It gives a brief synopsis of awards Ruscha received over the decades but it ends with the 2009 Artistic Excellence Award from the Americans for the Arts. As for the primary market, Ruscha’s latest artwork recorded in the online catalogue is his 2016 acrylic on canvas called “Tulsa Slut.” Neither Ruscha nor Gagosian issued statements or went on record regarding the result of the recent sale. While the art world goes “ga ga,” the artist is more concerned with his legacy, such as seeking his missing paintings, listed on his catalogue raisonné website, and engaging in social activism.[13]

In 2015, Ruscha was one of the founding members of a nonprofit in California, called Desert Biennial, a charitable organization created to bring international artists to the Coachella Valley for a public art biennial called Desert X. In 2019, Desert Biennial announced its plans for an international franchise and exhibition at Desert X AIuIa in the United Arab Emirates. Ruscha and two other members on the organization’s board of directors resigned in protest.[14]

Also this year Ruscha accepted the 2019 J. Paul Getty Medal, a prize awarded “to honor extraordinary contributions to the practice, understanding and support of the arts.”[15] Few spectators of the art market rodeo in November seemed to notice either the Getty Medal or the resignation from the Board of Directors of Desert X by the nonagenarian with too many accolades to mention.

Back to Black

Following the auction, Joan Quinn, the consignor, was quoted as saying “This evening was a tribute to the great artist Ed Ruscha and to my beloved husband Jack Quinn. […] My family has been blessed to enjoy “Radio” for the last 40 years, and I feel like we have all won tonight.’”[16]

The winning bidder of the Ruscha painting is anonymous. Whether or not they experience buyers’ remorse will not make the news. And what of the work of art itself, what’s next for this record-setting top lot? Will it become “a backdrop for the girls and boys who just don’t know or just don’t care” in the words of Freddie Mercury?[17] Will it disappear into a storage facility or reappear in a museum? Which, if any, of the 3 Ds (Divorce, Death or Debt) will propel this artwork back onto the art scene? How important is this particular work in Ruscha’s vast oeuvre? Objectively speaking, it is one of hundreds. He wrote so many words on canvas over the decades, that at the time of this writing, this particular painting is not even included on his website among other 1964 works. Does it somehow fall under the rubric of “That was then, this is now”? 

The record set by “Radio” is quickly receding in time. That was already back in November. Now, a banana called “Comedian” is making the news for its reported sale price ($120,000 at Art Basel Miami) (the “Banana”) and public consumption (maybe the performance artist who consumed it was trying to quit smoking). How long if at all should we care for the record hammer prices, art prices in general or even the growing toll prices for crossing Verrazzano Bridge, which is now hovering at a whopping $19.00? At the end of the day, “when we grow tired of all this visual,” the “Banana” resold in the secondary market (under certain circumstances) is likely to get some resale royalty rights to the artist who thought of sticking it on the wall.


Endnotes:

  1. Roger Taylor, Queen, Radio Gaga (1984), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azdwsXLmrHE.
  2. Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, Sale. No. 17649, Lot. 6B (New York, 13 Nov. 2019), https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Paintings/ed-ruscha-hurting-the-word-radio-2-6236034-details.aspx?lid=1&from=relatedlot&intobjectid=6236034.
  3. Douglas Boyd, Radio free America: The US government’s reaction to pirate radio, Central States Speech Journal, 203-209 (1983), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10510978309368141.
  4. Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, et seq.
  5. Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241, 85 S. Ct. 348, 13 L. Ed. 2d 258 (1964).
  6. Office of the Surgeon General, Health Consequences of Smoking, Surgeon General fact sheet (2014), https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/reports-and-publications/tobacco/consequences-smoking-factsheet/index.html.
  7. Christie’s quoting, Ballard, J. G. “The Coolest Gaze in American Art.” The Guardian, August 14, 2001, section G2, pp. 10-11.
  8. Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, Sale. No. 17649, Lot. 6B (New York, 13 Nov. 2019), https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Paintings/ed-ruscha-hurting-the-word-radio-2-6236034-details.aspx?lid=1&from=relatedlot&intobjectid=6236034.
  9. Phillip Valys, Who is Joan Quinn? Any Warhol knew, SunSentinel (Sep. 23, 2016), https://www.sun-sentinel.com/entertainment/theater-and-arts/sf-joan-quinn-warhol-cornell-museum-20160923-story.html; more about Joan Quinn at http://craigcarlisle.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/quinn.pdf.
  10. AIWA to Honor Artist Joan Agajanian Quinn, Asbarez (Jan. 9, 2018), http://asbarez.com/169683/aiwa-to-honor-artist-joan-agajanian-quinn/.
  11. “John J. Quinn” 1932-2017, Los Angeles Times (Mar. 31, 2017), https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/latimes/obituary.aspx?n=john-j-quinn&pid=184773095&fhid=11399.
  12. Sam Francis Foundation v. Christies, Inc., 784 F.3d 1320 (9th Cir. 2015), aff’ing Estate of Graham v. Sotheby’s Inc., 860 F. Supp. 2d 1117 (C.D. Cal. 2012).
  13. Frances Anderton, Ed Ruscha, Neville Wakefield on Desert X in Saudi Arabia, KCRW (Oct. 22, 2019), https://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/design-and-architecture/saudi-arabia-invites-dialogue-with-american-artists-and-designers-but-theres-pushback/ed-ruscha-neville-wakefield-on-desert-x-in-saudi-arabia.
  14. Deborah Vankin, Desert X art exhibition heads to Saudi Arabia — and into contentious territory, Los Angeles Times (Oct. 7, 2019), https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2019-10-07/desert-x-saudi-arabia-alula.
  15. Stephan Annelisa and Sarah Waldorf, 2019 Getty Medal Honors Artists and Thinkers with a Commitment to Truth, The Iris (Sep. 16, 2019), http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/2019-getty-medal-artists-thinkers/.
  16. Christie’s, New World Record for Ruscha in $325.2 Million Evening Sale (Nov. 14 2019), https://www.christies.com/features/Christies-Post-War-and-Contemporary-auction-results-November-2019-10198-3.aspx?sc_lang=en&lid=1
  17. Roger Taylor for Queen, Radio Gaga (1984), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azdwsXLmrHE.

Additional Resources:

About the Author: Irina Tarsis is an art historian and an attorney admitted to the New York Bar. She is the Founder and the Managing Director of the Center for Art Law. Her full bio can be found here.