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Sotheby’s Steve Cohen Show: Auctioneers and Dealers Become Pretend-Museums

Joachim Pissarro, who is both MoMA’s adjunct curator and Steve Cohen’s paid advisor, extolling the virtues of the collector and his collection at Sotheby’s (David Norman, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art, listens on left.)

Are commercial galleries and auction houses the new museums?

Lisa Dennison
, Sotheby’s chairman in North and South America (who, as former director and long-time curator of the Guggenheim Museum, has worked both sides of the street) says yes. She points to major shows organized by Gagosian, L&M Arts, Haunch of Venison and, of course, her own firm’s current Steve Cohen “Women” show (images of its 20 artworks at this link) as evidence that museums are now “in crisis,” in part because galleries and auction houses have the resources, connections and expertise to do what nonprofit institutions do, only faster.

I beg to differ.

Even Dennison conceded that museums may still have an edge when it comes to scholarship. Intelligent, insightful interpretation is what’s glaringly absent from the Cohen show—a jaw-dropping array of a works that any curator would rush to embrace, were it not for the properly insurmountable ethical barrier against bestowing an institutional kiss upon a private collection that is not betrothed to a public museum.

To give this show a (very thin) scholarly veneer, the services of Joachim Pissarro were engaged for a brief catalogue essay (which I’ve already labeled “turgid”) that is high on tangled verbiage, low on intellectual nourishment.

Unlike Dennison, Pissarro is working both sides of the street simultaneously (actually, both sidewalks and the roadbed). Joachim’s current positions include:

—Art history professor and gallery director at Hunter College
—Adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art (where he was curator from 2003 until joining Hunter in 2007)
—Paid art advisor to Steve Cohen

At the press preview for the Cohen show, Pissarro told me he knew Steve before the collector “came on board to MoMA” (as member of its painting and sculpture committee, not its board of trustees). Cohen’s hedge-fund firm, S.A.C. Capital Advisors, owns 5.9% of Sotheby’s stock, so everyone stands to benefit if this important exhibition burnishes the auction house’s and collection’s reputations.

Here are excerpts from my conversation with Pissarro on the 10th floor of Sotheby’s, usually the site of presale displays:

Rosenbaum: In advising Steve Cohen, what exactly are you doing? Are you advising on collecting activities?

Pissarro: Yes. When I was at MoMA, he and I were very close, discussing not only his own acquisitions, but also acquisitions that the museum was making. We were very much in dialogue. When I stepped down as full curator, I said, ‘Why don’t we continue to work as we used to work?’ So there was a continuum, once I left MoMA. I focus on the research aspects, on the academic aspects, and Sandy Heller, who is also very, very close to him, works on other aspects….I do exactly what I would do at MoMA, to be honest with you—research on what is the importance of the work of art in general terms and in relative terms, in the context of the collection.

Rosenbaum: Are you are retainer to him?

Pissarro: Yes.

Rosenbaum: Were you [on retainer to Cohen] when you were at MoMA?

Pissarro: That you could not do at MoMA.

Rosenbaum: Are there any other collectors you work with?

Pissarro: No.

Rosenbaum: Is there any chance that this exhibition may become a selling preview? I know that there are no plans to sell at this time.

Pissarro: I have absolutely no idea of what Mr. Cohen’s views are. I just can’t comment on that, really.

CultureGrrl‘s comment is that the “porous” relationship (as Dennison termed it) between the museum world and the commercial world is becoming too permeable. I was relieved to hear that Pissarro was not on Cohen’s payroll while he was a MoMA staffer. But I’m not at all convinced that his withdrawal to “adjunct” status is sufficient distance to render his dual role acceptable. (Pissarro curated the museum’s recent Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night show, and told me he is in discussion with MoMA about other exhibition ideas.)

As for Pissarro’s scholarship for Sotheby’s: You cannot acquire the exhibition catalogue in which his essay appears. This rare book was printed as a “limited edition,” distributed only to key staffers and select Sotheby’s clients:


No copies of the slim volume were provided to the press, nor could it be purchased at the catalogue desk. But Sotheby’s did kindly allow me to gaze upon it:

David Norman, modeling the Cohen tome

Peering inside, I found that the entries for individual works were essentially non-existent. This wasn’t up to the high standards of the auction house’s own sale catalogues—no information on provenance or exhibition history (and we’ve seen many of these works elsewhere), no “research on what is the importance of the work of art in general terms and in relative terms in the context of the collection,” as Pissarro described his art-advisory function.

Unlike most museum shows, this masterpiece exhibition of drop-dead femmes fatales, expertly installed, was not only assembled quickly; it will also be taken down quickly. It opened yesterday, and you have only till Apr. 14 to ogle these ladies:


From Sotheby’s Cohen installation, left to right: Freud, “Portrait of Rose,” 1978-79; Matisse, “Grande Nu Assis,” 1922-29; Modigliani, “Nu Couché au Coussin Bleu, 1916

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