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A portrait of supermodel Kate Moss painted by artist Lucien Freud is expected to fetch $6.65 million at auction next month, though it will probably bring more. Freud shot from the top tier to superstardom when he painted the official Jubilee portrait of QE II. Freud is a British subject but not a sycophant.   Witness the dark, complex, rather threatening portrait he painted of his sovereign. She looked like someone you would not want to meet in a dark alley -- or tunnel. Moss, who learned that Freud wanted to paint her by reading it in a magazine, sat for the work in 2002 while she was pregnant with Lila Grace, her first child.  A friend and I were discussing this over a lunch of grilled prawns and saffron rice, and she asked, "How do contemporary artists make it into the big money? And are the prices worth it?" Good questions. She then mentioned three other heavy-hitting artists who pull in the megabucks: Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, and Richard Serra.
Lucien Freud is the son of Sigmund, the father of psychoanalysis, which, as much as anything else, defined the twentieth century. He put new words like subconscious and superego into our vocabulary, and was a recognizable world figure.  Naturally, Lucien had all the connections, but also  the talent. He inherited his father's fascination with the human psyche, but rather than talking to prone patients on couches, he paints portraits. Once he labored six months to get his wife's eyes right in a sketch. You meet one of his portraits and you don't forget it.
What about aspiring artists whose fathers, unlike Sigmund Freud, were butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers? If these artists keep working, will someone discover them sipping a soda like the movie star Lana Turner? Not likely. Today one has an art career played like a game of chess. The kingmakers, of course, are the dealers and the museum directors, but it doesn't hurt to have a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant or a Guggenheim to join the faculty of a prominent art school or university with an exceptional department.  Having a curator at a significant museum or art center like Detroit's DIA ( give you a show helps, too. 
Not to say that breakaways don't exist. Jean-Michel Basquiat, the spectacularly talented African American  who became famous through his lyrical and powerful graffiti, literally turned into an art star by roaming around Harlem with cans of spray paint, to say nothing of talent.  Robert Rauschenberg, probably the dean of American artists, lived on the streets of New York for awhile, creating montages of found objects. One of Rauschenberg's first and most famous works, "Monogram" (1959), consisted of a stuffed angora goat, a tire, a police barrier, the heel of a shoe, a tennis ball, and paint. I remember talking to the abstract expressionist pioneer Clyfford Still, an admirer of Rauschenberg, who said, "He does it, he makes art, even with that bottle of Jack Daniels by his side, but most artists today are careerists and whores who chew the shoestrings of the downtown dealers. Money is their God, and that goes double for (the late) Mark Rothko. Great art ultimately comes from who you are. The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection."
At another party I chatted with the white-clad, soft spoken Tom Wolfe. A Southern gentleman with an almost shy manner, he seemed the opposite of his words. He said, "Today drugs and sex are so plentiful they don't work as tools to get ahead. You have to express the moment." I brought up Jung, who said great art expressed the collective unconscious of a civilization, and Wolfe agreed, adding that he didn't get into "because."  "If you start to say 'because,' you get into art jargon," he added.  Wolfe likes Cy Twombly, a particularly handsome painter and my favorite among the Twombly-Marden-Serra trio. Twombly could sketch brilliantly as a child, but he credits his life choice to a horror of having to work as a stockbroker or an accountant in an office. He wanted a free and creative life and calls the defining moment in his career as the day he met Robert Rauschenberg in New York. Robert said Cy had the talent and urged him to study at Black Mountain College near Ashville, North Carolina, the fertile crescent of artists at the time. Twombly's style began when he worked as an army cryptologist, which reinforced his love of linear pattern. After his military stint, he painted in New York, sculpted in Rome, moved toward a more literal use of text and numbers, and then developed a vocabulary of strokes and carvings inspired by mythology, poetry, and classic history. He plays out the contradictions he feels, the anxieties and dilemmas, in images that are often sexually charged, always beautiful, combining grace and intelligence. He made it to the big-time: solo exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Musee d'Arte Moderne, Paris, a prize at the Venice Biennale -- you get the idea. His prices zoomed.  A great artist affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. Do I think Twombly is one of these? Yes, though his prices have little to do with it. They don't buy eternity. Take novelists. Two of them, Mary Higgins Clark and Margaret Atwood both make the big money, but only Atwood is likely to survive. It's the same with artists. The modern art world's getting a good shakeout at midlevel while prices of "masters" like Picasso soar.
Brice Marden's work has a specific vocabulary with its often joyful imagery, like a cat playing with a string. He paints feelings, forms, does not feel the job of an artist is to see things as they really are; if he did, he would cease to be an artist. He studied art at Boston University and then got a degree in architecture from Yale that influenced his painting, primarily his use of muted tones and preoccupation with geometric format. He had his first show at Bykart Gallery in New York, then became an assistant to -- guess who? Robert Rauschenberg. The great artist influenced the aspiring one, as he had so many others before. Rauschenberg had a unique track record of international stature, generous mentorship of the young, reaching out to help other artists better their situation. I don't know of any artist who's done that as much as he did. In time Marden exhibited at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, which shot him to international stardom. Since then, his work has evolved without losing touch with its roots. He feels he can't always reach the image in his mind, so even if the abstract rendition of it is not quite there, a work gets to the point where he can leave it. 

Richard Serra was born in San Francisco, and one can immediately see he's legit as an artist and a person. His constructivist sculptures have great power and are madly in demand right now. However, whether he's considered a top tier artist in future generations is, in my opinion, problematic, because he lives in the shadow of David Smith, the giant of constructivist sculpture.   But despite the overpowering presence of Smith, Serra's gotten more than his share of attention, especially when he created the perhaps overly massive outdoor steel sculpture for Manhattan titled Tilted Arc in 1981. After its installation, people hated it so much and launched such protests that it was removed, and in doing so, destroyed. However, Serra had his defenders, and the controversy, his prices quadrupled. He deserved his success, having trained at the highest levels-- literature graduate of the University of California at Berkeley,  art at Yale, then in Paris and Florence on a Fulbright grant. As a young man, Richard Serra worked in steel mills to support himself, and much of the raw intensity of his work derives from that experience combined with his magnetic masculinity. While he works on a piece, he can feel when he begins to love it, and experiences a slow comprehension. What counts most to him is finding new ways to recreate ideas in sculpture on his own terms. He can say things with sculpture that he can't say any other way, things he has no words for. It is this direct emotional truth in his work that I believe accounts for his huge success.

 All of the artists I've discussed are the real thing, but who am I to say? Andre Malraux described art critics this way: "The dogs bark but the caravan moves along." True, but in the twentieth century, the artists who made it had the full backing of the critics, people who had learned from their mistake at the Salon d'Autumne where they called Matisse and friends "fauves," wild beasts. Still, even the best "barking dogs" can't tell you for sure who will still be hot in 2099.




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