'The Price of Everything': Film Review | Sundance 2018

An entertaining if not comprehensive look at the bubble in blue-chip art.

Fifteen years after his celebrated 'My Architect,' Nathaniel Kahn delivers a second doc about commerce and contemporary art.

A look behind the sensational headlines charting the ever-rising prices for art sold at auction, Nathaniel Kahn's The Price of Everything offers interviews with those who make, sell, buy and study the art in question. More conversational than journalistic in spirit, it avoids hard statistics (and the reasons those stats can be hard to come by) in favor of well-informed impressions and anecdotes. Though not the first doc to note the insanity surrounding this subject, it is easily accessible to non-insiders and holds interest even for those who follow art closely.

Structured fairly arbitrarily around a countdown to one of Sotheby's big contemporary art auctions, the film makes clear that this sort of thing is both what enables the absurdly inflated prices and what infuriates many artists. As far back as the 1973 sale in which taxi-cab magnate Robert Scull sold off 50 major paintings, Robert Rauschenberg was on hand to complain that he got no cut of the enormous profit collectors make when they resell what they got at a bargain.

In the present tense, Kahn visits with hot painters such as Marilyn Minter and Nigerian-born Njideka Akunyili Crosby, both of whom describe market pressure as a threat to their work, if not their sanity. Minter, turning 70 this year, only became commercially red-hot later in life, and says of her newfound marketability, "It's too dangerous to even learn about it. I don't wanna know." Other interviewees, like poster-boy for one-percenter excess Jeff Koons, have no trouble cranking out work of debatable quality — even if the fickle market is on the verge of dismissing it as "lobby art."

Sotheby's fine arts chair Amy Cappellazzo, who helps engineer those record-breaking sales, clearly knows her art history but acknowledges that her favorite part of the job is "the chase and the deal" in acquiring collections to resell. While many of her firm's customers are anonymous plutocrats who hoard art as an investment, there are also people like Stefan Edlis, a collector since the '70s, who have amassed world-class collections of things they actually like. While a socialist in the audience will resent that any human can afford to spend these sums on art while so many starve, Edlis does at least come across as someone you could talk to at a dinner party without wanting to lead to the guillotine.

In between talks with journalists and scholars, Kahn returns often to Larry Poons, an abstract painter whose stock dropped considerably after a successful period in the '60s. A grizzled, likeable character who continues to make art out somewhere in the boondocks, he cheerfully deflates any notion that art's price and its value are linked.

And then, toward the doc's end, a New York gallerist pursues Poons and organizes a show of the gesture-rich, colorful work he has made in the decades since abandoning simpler forms. It seems someone realized that Poons was an undervalued commodity and decided to package him for rediscovery. Next season at Frieze, prepare to see old Poons work brought out of mothballs and sold for sums that were unthinkable a decade ago.

Production companies: Hot & Sunny Productions, Anthos Media
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Nathaniel Kahn
Producers: Jennifer Blei Stockman, Debi Wisch, Carla Solomon
Executive producers: Jane & Mark Wilf, Audrey & Zygi Wilf, Regina K. Scully, Katharina Ott-Bernstein, Jeffrey Pechter
Director of photography: Bob Richman
Editors: Sabine Krayenbuhl, Brad Fuller, Phillip Schopper
Composer: Jeff Beal
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (US Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine

98 minutes