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$1m artworks up for sale at online fair

Ray Johnson, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George and Sarah Lucas are among artists represented in online innovation

Ray Johnson has a good claim to be called the godfather of virtual art.

In 1962, this New York collage artist and friend of Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol founded the New York Correspondence School and started to send his small, witty works of art through the mail. By the time of his death in 1995, he was a recluse whose only contacts with the art world were those regular mailouts, making him a virtual, rather than face-to-face, member of Manhattan's art community.

It is highly fitting, therefore, that he is to star in the world's first online art fair alongside such living celebrities as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. Johnson's works are being presented at the VIP Art Fair that goes online today in space allotted to the Richard L Feigen gallery which represents his estate.

Some would say that gawping at collectors and gallerists is half the fun of art fairs. But an impressive collection of leading dealers, including White Cube, Gagosian, Sadie Coles HQ and New York's Metro Pictures, have put their faith in people registering for free to be online fair flaneurs. However, if they want to get into the private rooms and VIP lounge and fully experience the collecting vibe and chat with dealers, it costs $100 (£62), falling to $20 after the weekend.

VIP stands for View in Private and this two-tier access system means the fair is far from being a bargain basement online auction. More than 50 of the works on sale are priced at $1m and above, points out Jane Cohan, one of the fair's four founders.

The fair hopes to offer an experience that replicates the actual, worldly experience of an art fair, with virtual halls from which you enter the booths of individual galleries to look at a sample of their wares.

In the White Cube room, Terror, a 2006 work by Gilbert & George, is the first thing you see, and at Metro Pictures, a self-portrait by Cindy Sherman is a highlight. There are also booths for smaller galleries including London's Limoncello, which will be showing one of the fair's emerging artists, Sean Edwards.

With this comprehensive digital mimicry of the art fair experience, does VIP pose a threat to what has become the defining ritual and meeting place of 21st-century art?

Two decades ago, art fairs were not unlike trade fairs in any other industry, visited by specialists and insiders. In this century, they have become popular theatres of art, not least in London where the Frieze Art Fair in October now shapes the annual cycle of exhibitions around itself.

In fact, the VIP Art Fair is not so much an attempt to challenge this model as to apply its lessons to the internet, according to Cohan. She and her husband, New Yorker James Cohan, were discussing with their digital specialist partners how to set up a single space on the internet where all the galleries in the world could ultimately be found. "The model for that in our business is the art fair," she said.

The VIP site is not just designed to support annual fairs, but intends to grow into a central directory for the art market online.

The galleries involved, most of whom are regular participants in fairs such as Frieze, are clearly not trying to kill a profitable formula, but they cannot resist trying out yet another way to sell art in a business that has so far proved impervious to austerity.

They also appreciate the internet's accessibility to a young audience. "The gallery is always interested in exploring new ways of reaching a far wider audience for its artists and their work," said a spokesperson for White Cube.

The fair's co-director, Noah Horowitz, argues that it may offer a more educational experience to students and the general public than art fairs normally do.

He said the galleries' "default position" was to use the VIP Art Fair as a chance to sell second-hand and especially pictorial objects that look good online, but many have recognised a chance to provide a deeper level of information about their artists than a stroll around a conventional event might provide.

Visitors can do their viewing at home on screen, at any hour, enhancing the opportunity to learn. All they will miss are the random encounters, spectacles, and social comedy of the fair.

Ray Johnson, who refused to even have gallery shows in his later years, would surely find poetry in the ethereality of it all. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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