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Eyeballing “The Scream” at MoMA: Is It Worth $120 Million?

The short answer: YES!

After having been frustrated by the wire barrier (not to mention the dense crowd) when “The Scream” was exhibited at Sotheby’s before being sold last May for the highest price ever achieved by an artwork at auction, I finally got to see it up close and personal last week at the Museum of Modern
Art, where it’s on view to Apr. 29.

It was even better than I had expected:

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Edvard Munch, “The Scream,” 1895, photographed by me at the Museum of Modern Art
© 2012 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

 

This lurid, fervid pastel is not worth its outsized price to me personally: I haven’t yet stashed away $120 million in mad money, nor, I assume, have the critics who have recently denigrated “The Scream.” NY Times senior art critic Holland Cotter, for example, recently dismissed it as “undistinguished.”

I disagree. The recent critical backlash against “trophy art” (for which Munch’s masterpiece is a poster child) likely has more to do with economics than aesthetics. Many (if not most) “trophy artworks” are rightly coveted on their merits. They’re worth what well-heeled buyers are willing to pay—the “willing buyer, willing seller” yardstick of “fair market value” (although not very “fair” for those of us with champagne tastes and beer budgets).

My visit to get a proper view of the iconic work that I’ve repeatedly written about was full of surprises. There was a line to get into the museum’s 5th-floor galleries, circumvented by visitors flashing members’ passes or (in my case) press passes. Once inside, anyone could walk right up to “Scream,” with one or two people, at most, temporarily blocking the view. (The experience may be different during this holiday week.) After enduring the press scrum at Sotheby’s, I was expecting a mob scene.

This shows you how close visitors are able to get. We had to stand behind the black line on the floor (and you could lean forward):

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While you can see a reflection on the protective, transparent box when viewed from
an angle, above, it disappeared when viewed head-on (as you can see from the top photograph, taken by me while standing directly in front of it).

A surprise even bigger than how close I could get was how lenient MoMA”s photography policy was. Although at press previews I’m generally allowed to photograph works on loan, the general-visitors policy for works not owned by the museum is expressed on this sign at the entrance to MoMA’s temporary exhibition, Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde:

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Almost everyone who made pilgrimage to worship the gold-framed icon came away with a photo of it.

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But there’s a sign that MoMA really needs to install, in big letters, above “The Scream”—a screaming “NO FLASH” sign. About once every two minutes, while I was in the gallery, camera flashes disrupted my reverie and jeopardized the long-term vibrancy of the colors on this light-sensitive pastel-on-cardboard.

Whoever owns this precious jewel (said to be Leon Black,
founder, chairman, and CEO of Apollo Global Management, the alternative asset management firm) should insist that a conspicuous “No Flash” sign be posted there immediately.

In addition to hearing the guard stationed by “The Scream” periodically bark out, “No flash!” (after the damage has already been done), you will also have to put up with a fair amount of this:

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My biggest surprise, though, was how moved I was by Munch’s cri de coeur and how wowed I was by its execution. After having been prepared by the commentary of distinguished critics to find it unworthy of its monetary value, I was ready to hock my jewels and market my co-op. (That wouldn’t have come close.)

For the first time, I could get close enough to appreciate its vigorous surface. No photo (least of all mine) can do justice to the visceral jolt you get from the rough scraping of its pastel marks, leaving lines as ragged as the psyche of the anxious, angst-ridden soul producing them and leaving the bare cardboard harshly exposed. Munch transformed a medium customarily associated with delicacy and prettiness—pastel—into a gut-wrenching scrawl:

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The gush of anxiety and alienation that engulfs the transfixed viewer is reinforced by MoMA’s surrounding installation of prints and paintings by the artist—a mini-reprise of the museum’s acclaimed 2006 retrospective, Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul. “The Scream” was notably absent from that show, save for two lithographs.

MoMA brought out its own lithograph for the current exhibition:

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“The Scream,” 1895 (signed 1896), Museum of Modern Art

The current monographic display includes not just works from MoMA’s collection, but also several loans, which visitors were also allowed to photograph, contrary to usual policy. Here’s the one perhaps most closely evocative of “The Scream,” with its swirling sky and neurotic humanoid crouching in the left corner:

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“Madonna,” 1895, lithograph with hand additions, private collection

And here’s a privately owned work that I remembered from the prior MoMA retrospective:

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“Melancholy,” 1891, private collection

I didn’t recognize how heavy-hearted I felt in this hermetic, soul-crushing environment until I was released into an adjoining gallery of life-affirming Matisses and took a deep sign of relief as the burden was lifted. This is not meant as a condemnation of Munch. It’s an appreciation of his art’s power.

Evidently, the critics who have belittled “The Scream” were not as overwhelmed by its force as I was. But my guess is that their revulsion for excesses of “the 1%” may have had some role in alienating them from a billionaire’s bounty. The Munch and other worthy “trophy art” shouldn’t be tarred with guilt-by-association. In opposing social inequities, don’t do the art an injustice.

Whether megabucks art like “The Scream” will hold its value is an open question, at a time when collectors at alternative-investment firms in general and mega-collector hedge-fund mogul Steve Cohen in particular are facing financial and regulatory pressure. I’d like to think that the Leon Blacks and Steve Cohens, who have assembled superlative collections, are buying art for the love of it, not as an “alternative asset.”

But this passage from a fascinating profile of Cohen by Jenny Anderson, Peter Lattman and Julie Creswell on the front page of last Sunday’s NY Times Business Section, gave me pause:

Mr. Cohen was turning heads in the art world, too. He had become a sought-after client for top dealers like Mr. [Larry] Gagosian. He paid $8 million for “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” a 13-foot tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde, by Damien
Hirst
.

At one point, Mr. Cohen told an acquaintance that he was eyeing
paintings of Mao Zedong by Andy Warhol. He figured that they would be good investment. The thinking was, “there will be a lot of Chinese billionaires someday,” [emphasis added] a former SAC trader says.

Maybe so. But the Chinese economy in general and that country’s art market in particular are currently showing signs of a slowdown.And Cohen’s failed attempt to sell a 1983 abstract Richter at Christie’s in November (estimated at $9-12 million, awarded its own separate press release from the auction house) suggests that he may be more savvy as an art buyer than as a seller. If he unloads now, it could be regarded as a distress sale, at a time when regulators are zeroing in on Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors and when at least one skittish investment firm is pulling out its money, citing “headline risk.”In the dicey world of art-as-investment, using “technical analysis” to predict where the markets are going is an unreliable indicator. More crucial are the fundamentals: How good is the art and how likely is it to stand the test of time?No computerized trading program can figure that one out.

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