So there I am at the Morris Healy gallery in New York — full disclosure: I’ve never met Morris is, but Healy’s a friend of mine — looking at The Exhibit I alluded to yesterday, when I was trying to figure out what stocks are worth.
The gallery is way over on the lower West Side of Manhattan, and The Exhibit was of the work of Meg Webster, whose medium is food. And other organic substances.
On the main wall facing you as you entered was a 10-foot-square slab of sweet creamery butter. Not counting its backing (plywood?), it weighed 400 pounds — just the butter — which the artist had applied (smeared? spread? buttered?) shortly before.
There was, if memory serves, a slight buttery scent in the air — vaguely like a movie theater, although this butter was unsalted and Ms. Webster (to my knowledge) does not work in three dimensional food, like popcorn, only spreadables.
The work as, as you might imagine, was yellow. But the art stemmed from the concept (I guess), but also from its contours and texture. We are not talking about a thin and even spread here — that might have been sprayed on with one of those low-fat imitation butter aerosols. No, we are talking about thick, textured globs and waves and folds of butter . . . which by now were beginning to sag.
On walls further into the gallery there were smaller works. Chocolate, for example, was done on a five-foot-by-three-foot mirror. It sold for $6,000 and, while essentially brown, did have quite a pleasing and interesting look to it. The chocolate hardens, its contours preserved like those of a dry river bed. (But lest I mislead you, the chocolate was not on parts of the mirror, in some sort of design: the chocolate covered the entire mirror, which you only knew was a mirror by looking behind it or hearing the story from my friend Tom Healy.
You know it’s real art for three reasons. First, somebody paid $6,000 for it. Second, it did look quite interesting — there was something visually quite appealing about the chocolate (and about the butter, though not — to me — about some of the other works, like the one done entirely in blood). Third, Healy went to Harvard.
You’re not entirely sold? Harvard not your be-all-end-all? Well, how about this? Meg Webster, the artist, was spending the summer in Skowhegan, the art colony in Maine; was exhibited in the 1988 Whitney Museum Biennial; and is a sought-after teacher at Yale, among other places.
I liked “Molasses,” also, which went to some lucky buyer for $10,000.
Mind you, these artworks were not under glass — you could reach out and put you palm print in the butter (no one seemed to have done so, so I didn’t either) or lick a little of the molasses (I held my tongue). So how durable were these pieces? What were you really buying? Did the emperor’s butter, I found myself wondering in the most confused of mixed metaphors, have no clothes? (Are these works, I wondered — borrowing a concept from the Eighties and cocaine — “Nature’s way of telling you you have too much money?”)
Tom Healy explained that most of the work is actually quite solid. Chocolate could last a long time. Butter, admittedly, could not. Butter, indeed, was beginning to droop in the summer heat (Morris Healy is air conditioned, but it was still summer in New York) and would soon, as the exhibit wound down, begin to smell. With butter, Tom explained, you were really buying the “concept.” You could have Ms. Webster come and do YOUR wall in butter (just before that special party), and would own the drawing for it, perhaps the photos of it. I think I’m getting this straight, but my mind kept wandering. What happens, I wondered, if globs of the butter actually came loose and slopped off onto the floor? It wasn’t anchored by the nooks and crannies of a giant vertical English muffin slab, after all. That might have provided some grasp. It was simply smeared on a flat surface.
Not to worry, Tom laughed. If that happens, it will be part of the art. The piece will simply be dismantling itself. (Or, as Meg told Tom when this did begin to happen: “it’s erasing itself.”)
So what is 400 pounds of butter worth? Four hundred pounds of beach sand, configured just right by Intel — I think that’s how they make those chips — is, after all, worth millions. Perhaps it is worth the $12,000 it was priced at by Morris Healy, but presumably less, because it did not sell. (Much of the rest did.)
But Meg — and you — may have better luck next time. You, because if you’re in Copenhagen in 1997, you’ll have a chance to see Butter again. Meg, because Copenhagen is a cooler climate. It may be longer before the gallery is pervaded by the faintly rancid smell with which, Tom Healy told me later, the exhibit happily, but none too soon, concluded.
In short: pay any darn thing for a share of Netscape (or any other stock) that you want. If you’re rich enough, or whimsical enough, what difference does it make? You’re not making an investment, you’re participating in a late 20th Century experience.
Quote of the Day
Be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy.~Warren Buffett
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