Of all the art that’s displayed in “The Price of Everything,” it may be the largely unseen hand of filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn and crew that proves to be the most invigorating. Zipping around the highest echelons of the New York art world where millions of dollars are flying around at auction for a rarefied few, the filmmaker, who once went searching for a greater understanding of his father, the great architect Louis Kahn, in the 2003 film “My Architect,” offers a panoramic view of the easily caricatured yet exceptionally complex art market where artists gain legitimacy when their work is valued at top dollar yet the artists that may stay the most true to their own instincts may turn up their nose at having a price attached to their work, believing they’ll lose their way chasing money.
While Kahn visits the studios of artists whose work is heavily coveted such as Jeff Koons, George Condo and Marilyn Minter, it is his choice to spend time with those keeping a lower profile that pay the greatest dividends, whether it is the ferocious Amy Cappellazzo, Chairman of the Fine Arts division at Sotheby’s whose ability to stoke interest in higher bidding serves the unofficial purpose of suggesting who’s important in contemporary art, the circumspect collector Stefan Edlis, whose fortune in plastics has allowed him to scoop up some of the greatest fine art to hang in his penthouse and his quirky tastes often setting the market, and Larry Poons, a contemporary of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who changed direction from the dot paintings that put him on the precipice of becoming just as well-known, ultimately retreating away from the New York scene to a farm upstate where he could stay attuned to his passions.
“The Price of Everything” is well aware of the absurdity inherent in the culture it’s capturing, with no less than Gerhard Richter wondering aloud if one of his paintings should cost more than a house or doubling back to the Guggenheim to question whether a golden toilet, concocted by Maurizio Cattelan as a criticism of excess, actually merits a place there. But in dizzying and often dazzling fashion, it is a celebration of why art deserves to be so valuable in the first place as a means of cultural expression, whether tethered to economic currency or not. As the film itself begins to make its way out of hallowed halls of the festival circuit following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year out into theaters around the country, Kahn spoke about how he first got interesting in making the wildly entertaining documentary and the production team that made it come alive, as well as how he obtained access to such esteemed key figures in the art world and being inspired by artists who stay true to their inner voice.
I grew up in a family of artists and I saw firsthand this relationship between art and money and realized that artists have to put self-expression ahead of financial interests if they’re going to be any good because you require freedom to be able to create art. Seeing this recent phenomenon of these incredibly crazy prices of art at auction and art being brought up by a certain group of people as an asset class was something that shocked me, so to see art being used in this way just seemed both fascinating and a little bit terrifying, [which] tends to make for a good film.
While the film is sprawling, you gravitate towards Larry Poons, an artist who fell out of favor with the world. How did you even go about finding him?
The producers of the film were involved in the art world and one of them, Jennifer Stockman, had been at the Guggenheim for many years and had seen this phenomenon firsthand. Because she and the other producers Debi Wisch and Carla Solomon knew many of the artists and many of the collectors, [they] were able to provide fantastic access to incredible people like Amy Cappellazzo, Jeff Koons, Marilyn Minter and George Condo and Stefan Edlis. I had these incredible interviews and conversations with them – and they’re not really interviews. They’re like scenes with them and we began to put this together and it became clear to me that something fundamental was missing. Every film needs and emotional thread, which takes you through it. It’s not enough for a film to be about something. Ultimately, it has to be something and for that, it has to have people in it who you follow that you care about and take you on a journey.
I [realized I] really needed a voice of a person that had been hot in the art market and then [cooled down] for whatever reasons, but continued to make art and when I described that to an art dealer friend — “They should live off the grid, maybe a house in the boondocks somewhere and maybe they’re a little bit philosophical or cantankerous” — suddenly this person said, “Stop, stop! I know exactly who you’re describing. You have to meet Larry Poons.” I was not familiar with Larry, but I saw his dot paintings, and I liked them very much, [as well as] some of his other work that he’d been doing, but I didn’t know what he was doing now. So Larry was a later discovery, but the moment we began to film him, it just became very clear that he would be very much an emotional center.
Then what happens in documentary films are things that you can’t predict, [but a story arc came about where] you understand his struggle, how he was so hot and then how because he followed his own dream and his own heart, he had to reject the market – he ultimately pushed it away because they told him, “Keep doing that thing that worked. Keep making those dot paintings.” But he knew in his heart he doesn’t want to keep doing that. The artist has to evolve, so the idea he was evolving and the price of evolving was to be dropped by the market, it’s tough to survive, but he did and to see him, now 80 years old, just as enthusiastic and hopeful as he was, or even more so as a young person, I think that gives people hope.
You also follow Njideka Akunyili Crosby, an emerging artist from Los Angeles grappling with the same issues Larry did, but in this hyper-financially driven art market. How early did you know you’d want that perspective?
One of the stories we follow is Amy Cappellazzo putting together the fall auction, which was a wonderful way to create a clock in the story — a countdown [as] you’re seeing the auction being put together and then by the end of the film, auction day arrives. I realized that a number of the artists that we’d already spoken to, like Gerhard Richter and George Condo were already represented in the auction catalog, so what’s wonderful about that is you’re seeing the commercial aspect of their work being talked about and marketed, if you will, but then you see them and what’s behind that. One of the pieces that was given a pride of place in the catalog is “Drown,” this incredible painting by Njideka. I did not know her work before, but there’s a scene with Amy Cappellazzo as she goes to prospective clients with the auction catalog to interest them in particular things for the fall sale and when I saw Amy talking about it with such passion with a prospective collector and I saw the work and was immediately extremely moved [myself], I realized this is somebody I would really love to have in the film because she also represents the younger artists. It represented a point of view that we didn’t have in the film yet – someone who’s young, but on the super fast track.
Luckily, Njeideka welcomed us to her fantastic Los Angeles studio and I would love to make a movie just about her. She has an incredible story of coming from Nigeria to America and going to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Yale School of Art and then the incredible Studio Museum of Harlem and then ultimately moving to Los Angeles because she felt that there was great freedom [there]. I was especially impressed by [how] she’s enormously grounded and you feel that from the energy that she has in the studio as she explains to us that ultimately what matters to her is longevity. The market – that’s its own thing and [she’s conscious of the same issue] Larry encountered a while ago, [which is] if you’re doing one kind of work and the market is approving of it, you would be encouraged in a way to keep doing that, but to survive as an artist, you have to follow your inclination. There are artists that hit one thing and keep doing it, but more artists commonly evolve and their work changes, sometimes radically, and you must have the courage to leave behind that which you’ve done already.
One of my hopes is that this will be seen by young artists, artists who have even yet to really fully emerge and find their voices. I hope the stories in the film encourage that, that you must follow where your heart takes you. You can’t pander to what the marketplace might think is hot today. The moment you do that, you start to lose your soul and the moment you lose your soul, well, you can’t be an artist anymore. There’s so many forces in our world today that are conspiring to suck your soul out of you [just as people], just the idea that so many of us have to work jobs that we don’t want to do, or we have to tailor our lives to these expectations that come from where? Who says what a good life is? It shouldn’t be something where we’re constantly comparing ourselves to how somebody else lives all the time and the artist is the prime example of that. The artist has to find their own way of expression and you can’t do that if you’re worried the whole time about what the market is going to say about you.
[Still] it’s tough because artists have to survive, so I want artists to sell their work and I’d like for more artists to be rich, but I would hope in getting rich, you’re succeeding financially because you’re following your heart. And if the market picks you up and drops you, you’ve got to be like Larry. You’ve got to hang onto what’s inside you and not be ruled by this idea that the definition of success is financial and monetary. Success means being true to yourself. Socrates had it right. Know thyself. It’s the core of Greek philosophy, and the core of art, ultimately. All of this world that goes on with the marketplace and all of the noise, that’s just distraction from listening to that inner voice. But that’s hard [to block out] in our current system.
The film is incredibly energetic, which surely can be attributed to choices you made in post-production with editing and music, but the style seems to be embedded into the shooting style of the film, which uses a lot of zooms and the camera whipping around the room to get a certain sense of frenzy. How conscious of the style could you be when shooting this on the fly?
I’m very lucky to work with some of the truly great documentary artists working today and Bob Richman, the cinematographer I worked with on this and also “My Architect” is truly an artist. I trust him. These days, people seem to favor using a prime lens, 4K, you set it up, you do your interview or whatever it is and then [you have more control] in post-production where you vary the focal length by punching in on the image because there’s enough definition there. Personally, I don’t favor that approach. I favor a zoom lens because Bob Richman’s camera listens. His camera is a compassionate witness of the emotions in the room and that’s ineffable. Even though you think you might be able to reproduce that in the edit room, you really can’t. It’s like being in a live theater. A play is different from a movie and the reason filmed plays are usually not very good is because you’re seeing what’s happening, but there’s so much more going on in the room.
When we’re shooting, usually [Bob] and I are in sync enough that I’m asking a question that’s maybe a little more intense and he senses that and he tightens in a little bit on the zoom lens, if there’s something emotional that’s happening and that amplification I find surprising and the whole thing works as this organic whole. That’s risky because you can miss things — and that happens all the time and it’s incredibly frustrating — and there is also this tendency [in documentary] because everybody’s so anxious about losing the attention of people that they’ll move in too much or they cut too often, so we’re a little bit on the high-wire when we go in together, but if something’s happening that’s very emotional, many times [Bob will] just hold and in the silences between people, everything gets revealed.
Another component of that, of course, is Eddie O’Connor, the sound person because a sound person who’s interested and puts people at ease is essential, in addition to getting good sound, and they set the mood of the shoot almost more than anybody. Then of course this film was in editorial for more than a year, because it was complex structurally, so we tried many, many different permutations of things and realized this worked best as a kind of series of juxtapositions – that the meaning came out by putting contradictory points next to each other and to get that to work, you have to try a lot of combinations. So I was very lucky to have Sabine Krayenbühl, my main editor on this film [who I also worked with] on “My Architect” and two additional editors Brad Fuller and Phillp Schopper working on the film, [both] together and sometimes on separate sections. Some of the sections are very highly tweaked editorially like a frame here or a frame there, and some, for instance, the history of all of the painters [we see] working with the David Bowie song “Fashion” [playing over] over it, we worked for weeks to get it right.
I was also just so lucky to have Jeff Beal, a truly great composer and just a real artist [in his own right] and he got this film. He’s done other films about art — a beautiful film of Jessica Yu’s called “In the Realms of the Unreal” about Henry Darger, and “Pollock,” of course, with Ed Harris, [where] he was able to [create] a music that almost drips, like spots of sound, so this was a guy who deeply gets art and was able to find tonal qualities that get the art and amplify what we’re supposed to see. He can deliver sonic narratives and certainly we had some that were about the painting, but also some that were about creating this underlying tension that has to do with this idea that money is threatening things and the auction’s coming, so that’s something he did beautifully. Then just to put another piece on it, we had an incredible archival producer Judy Aley, who works with the very best. When she found footage of Larry Poons actually painting the dot painting [from the ‘60s]? That’s insane. It’s good enough to find something [where it’s like], “Wow, we found old shots of Larry.” But Larry actually making the paintings that he’s talking about? You’ve got to thank the gods for that, but that happens because we have a brilliant archival producer working with us.
It is truly remarkable when you identify the Robert Scull auction in 1973 as essentially the patient zero of when the modern art market began and then you actually have footage of that auction. What was it like to lay your hands on that?
Finding that was wonderful. There’s a filmmaker named E.J. Vaughn, who made an amazing film specifically called “American’s Top Collector” about the Scull Auction and through Judy Aley, we met E.J. and we hit it off. We’ve actually restored that footage with him. We went back to the negative, which was stored at the Modern Museum of Art, and restored that film and he’s going to be releasing it. It’s a wonderful film and he allowed us to use some footage of that auction and [there were three key moments for our film] — the painting that we track in the film, Jasper Johns’ “Target” that ends up with Stefan Edlis, was sold at that auction in 1973 by Robert Scull the collector, so to see it coming off the wall was wonderful. Then of course there were two Larry Poons’ dot paintings that were collected by Robert Scull and he comments about them, so that was gold and then finally, the key moment that comes back to the core of the film is [when you see] the great artist Robert Rauschenberg, an inspiration to so many other artists of the time and still to this day – he was the ultimate generous artist, throwing out ideas and trying this and that and maybe he couldn’t do it perfectly, but someone else picked it up.
And here [at the Scull Auction] a piece of his has been sold and he comes up to the collector Robert Scull, who bought the piece from him [initially] – and [he and his wife] Ethel were close to Rauschenberg, and Rauschenberg feels like, “Didn’t you love my piece? And now you’re selling it at auction? What are you doing to me?” Rauschenberg is understandably shocked by the idea that maybe he sold it for a few hundred dollars [to Scull], and suddenly the piece is going for tens of thousands. He goes up to Scull and he pushes him and says, “Hey, that was a great markup you just made. You should give me flowers.” And Scull, of course, says, “Flowers? For what? Nothing happened.” And Rauschenberg is obviously hurt, not just about the money. He’s also hurt that suddenly what he thought was this love bond between them had now been turned into commerce and Scull embraces him and says, “Come on, it’s good for you too. It’s good for both of us. We both do well from this.” And there is that embrace between art and money and that uneasy embrace that has been there since the beginning [where] the artist is much less comfortable with it than he or she lets on, is at the core of “The Price of Everything.”
“The Price of Everything” is now open in New York at the Quad Cinema and will open on October 26th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, Minneapolis at the St. Anthony Main Theatre, Chicago at the Arclight, San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse, Dallas at the Alamo Drafthouse, Silver Springs at the AFI Silver Theatre & Cultural Center, Miami at the Silverspot and Brookline, Massachusetts at the Coolidge Corner. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.