The End of Pop Art

Even in those first tumultuous weeks last year when it looked as if the entire global financial system might collapse, art dealers and gallerists from New York to London were stuck in the euphoria of the boom years, convinced that prices for contemporary art could only keep climbing. After all, they giddily reassured themselves, values had shot up 55 percent in the previous year, and on the very day that Lehman Brothers went belly up, Damien Hirst—the undisputed champion of the British contemporary-art world—raked in $200 million at an unprecedented Sotheby's auction that saw fierce bidding over diamond-encrusted canvases and a golden calf immersed in a giant tank of formaldehyde. "We're going to look back and think we were living at a time when art was so cheap," exclaimed one ebullient collector.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. Confidence in the art market soon hit rock bottom, and prices have plummeted as much as 50 percent since last year. Estimates for the upcoming fall sales of contemporary art in London are more than 80 percent lower than last year's. A pair of Hirst's paintings valued at as little as $2.4 million flopped just six months after the $200 million Sotheby's sale. So, naturally, it seems the perfect time to explore the codependent relationship between art and money in the Tate Modern's new exhibit Pop Life: Art in a Material World (through Jan. 17).

The show demonstrates how artists beginning with Andy Warhol and continuing through Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami expanded their role from cultural commentator to commercial icon. "Good business is the best art," Warhol once proclaimed. And indeed, it was the American pop artist's overt embrace of celebrity stardom, combined with his cunning marketing prowess, that was the forerunner to the highly polished art empire that Hirst oversees today, including storefronts in several of the world's poshest neighborhoods. In the era of easy money, artists readily forsook the cliché of the tortured, penniless bohemian, and instead sought fame and fortune by branding their own glamorous, eccentric personas as a tradable commodity. But as the Great Recession takes its cultural toll—excess is out, thrift is in—art's flashiest, wealthiest practitioners (and their loyal customers) now appear as out of step with the "new normal" of financial restraint as bankers pocketing multimillion-dollar bonuses on Wall Street.

The Tate's exhibit was designed to tell the story of the rise of the celebrity artist, from Warhol to Tracey Emin. But given the timing, it serves as a kind of loving farewell to the luxurious age of pop art. When exactly that era began is up for debate, but there's little doubt it was already in full swing by the time Warhol starred as himself in a 1985 episode of the American sitcom The Love Boat, and that it ended late last year with the final strike of the auctioneer's hammer at Hirst's profitable Sotheby's sale. In the two decades in between, art prices increased 10-fold, and starting in 2004 they outperformed the S&P 500, according to the market-research firm Artnet. Exuberant collectors on the lookout for the next high-yield investments poured vast fortunes into new art faster than the artists' studios could crank it out.

Like Warhol's legendary Factory in Manhattan, pop art's latest round of practitioners—whose signatures alone have been enough to fetch record-breakingsums—employ extensive armies of craftspeople to make their masterpieces for them. Koons—perhaps best known for his larger-than-life sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles—briefly held the title of most expensive living artist at auction when one of his baroque, oversize Christmas ornaments (assembled by his assistants, of course) went for more than$23 million in 2007. In fact, the very materials with which pop art is made have become increasingly lavish, with gold plating and precious gemstones replacing more pedestrian media like pigment, paper, and wood. Even Warhol was layering diamond dust into his canvases by the late 1970s.

To be sure, there's always been a fine line between the high end and the highbrow. Koons moonlighted as a commodities broker, in part to help cover the substantial costs of making his work. Warhol, always the salesman, started in advertising before churning out portraits of the rich and famous for a sizable fee. He later lent his deadpan stare and shocking white wig to ads selling everything from cassette tapes to services at a high-end investment bank (which subsequently filed for bankruptcy). One of the priciest artworks sold to date is a silk-screened photo of a fatal car accident Warhol clipped out of a 1963 copy of NEWSWEEK that reaped nearly $72 million at the height of the art-market bubble in 2007. Fittingly, the exhibit ends with Murakami, whose talent for shameless self-promotion would have made Warhol proud. The Japanese artist's Disneyesque images and sculptures of manga-inspired cartoon characters—including Kanye Bear, a teddy bear that graces one of Kanye West's album covers—have landed him his own line of Louis Vuitton handbags. But the art world's glitterati are not always so tame. Koons's Made in Heaven series, which helped launch him to stardom and is reunited at the Tate Modern in a rare showing, graphically chronicles the artist's sexual exploits with his then wife, the Hungarian-born porn star turned Italian parliamentarian Ilona Staller.

Pop Life is part homage, part cautionary tale. Now that the decadence is finally over, the question preying on auction houses and galleries is whether the market can ever sustain the kind of lush lifestyles that art's superstars have grown used to. There may be some signs that the art market is slowly regaining some ofits luster. Surveys show long-termconfidence edging upward, at least in big-name artists. Even now, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is working out plans to realize Koons's bewildering $25 million vision of a full-size train engine that will be suspended from a crane high in the air, blowing puffs of smoke.

But ultimately, kitschy cult personalities like Hirst, Koons, and Murakami may be the last of their kind—a rare breed that evolved during a unique time in the world's financial history. In that sense, they're not unlike the legions of business-savvy 17th-century Dutch artists who rode a wave of new money painting scenes of everyday life forthe well-heeled merchant class (another overheated market that eventually crashed). Art's lucrative golden ages come and go as abruptly as the ephemeral wealth that spurs them on. Pop art's future torchbearers, if there are any, could be the first to find themselves poorer than their predecessors.