‘The Price of Everything’ Explores the Cost of Paint on Canvas

Jeff Koons in the documentary "The Price of Everything." Courtesy photo

April Gornik does not want to make “The Price of Everything” any harder to swallow than it has to be.

That is why she’s waiting to watch the explosive documentary about the contemporary art market with an audience — one likely to be packed with artists such as herself, all eager to deep-dive into the brutally dizzying, oftentimes disheartening, but nevertheless captivating dissection of the scene at large, screening Saturday night at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

“I’m so terrified to see that movie, just because it’s about art and how excessively materialistic everything has become,” she said. “The subject pains me so much. So much of what I loved about art has become so awful. So I’m sort of afraid of this film, to tell you the truth.”

Nathaniel Kahn, director of “The Price of Everything.” Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

She paused. “Having said that, I’ve spoken to all these artists who are older, like me, and a couple younger artists whose work I like and admire, and everybody says it’s really brilliantly done,” she continued. “I was already thinking that — before I even knew it was done by Nathaniel Kahn, whose documentary ‘My Architect’ is one of my all-time favorite movies, period.”

Kahn grew up in a family of artists — his mother, landscape architect Harriet Pattison, and his father, the late architect Louis Kahn and subject of the aforementioned documentary — and came on board the HBO documentary after producers Jennifer Blei Stockman, Debi Wisch and North Haven resident Carla Solomon had already conceived the idea.

“Jennifer had been steeped in the art world for over three decades — passionate about art and was the president of the Guggenheim Foundation for 10 years. It’s the air she has lived and breathed for a long time,” Solomon said. “She felt something had changed, some indefinable something. The boundaries between art and brand and luxury goods seemed to be blurring, and it felt like a different art world from the one she had come into. So she wanted to do a documentary about this, and we reached out to Nathaniel — the perfect person to direct this film, being immersed in that world himself.”

Starting in the spring of 2016, interviews with artists, collectors, auctioneers and critics quickly came together, and a common theme soon emerged: “the increasing monetization of art and, in general, everything in our society, and what that means for the world,” Kahn said.

“There’s something completely revolting, terrifying about that, but you’re also drawn to that story like a moth to the flame,” he said. “It’s fascinating. What does this even mean about us as a culture, if this is what we’re doing? And what does it mean for the artist and this pressure to keep making the thing that’s selling?”

Oscar Wilde once depicted a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” but in the film, collector Stefan Eldis uses the phrase to describe some of the power players in the art world — of which he is not, he said. During a tour of his collection, he shows off the Jeff Koons “Rabbit” that he bought for $945,000, now estimating its worth to be $65 million.

Koons himself brings the film crew into his studio, where he makes no attempt to hide an army of assistants reproducing Renaissance masterpieces for his “Gazing Ball” works — paintings he never touches himself, yet still fetch millions — while artist Gerhard Richter wonders aloud if one of his multi-million-dollar paintings is actually worth the sticker price.

“It’s not good when this is the value of a house, it’s not fair,” Richter says. “I like it, but it’s not a house.”

To top-earning artists, painter John Alexander says, “Good for them. I’m not even angry about it.” But, like many, he is concerned about a “top-sidedness” in the art market — and more specifically, its arbitrary nature.

“That’s very troubling. It’s so random. It makes no sense,” he said. “How something goes from $20,000 to $200,000 to $10 million, it’s perplexing. It’s a good thing to let people understand what’s happening in the art world. There’s a real danger with everybody being priced out.”

Among the wealthy, the missing link in the film was a contemporary artist who had risen to the top, but then fallen — now perhaps holing up somewhere in upstate New York, Kahn mused. He wanted someone who was a bit cantankerous with a lot to say, and a good head of hair wouldn’t hurt.

Little did he know, he was describing Larry Poons.

Larry Poons in a scene from “The Price of Everything.”

“We went up to his house and Larry started in immediately — walked off the porch with a coffee cup in his hand and the footage you see with him talking in the woods is literally 10 minutes after we met him,” Kahn said. “He just started right in. It was this wonderful three-, four-hour conversation that went on and on, and I was afraid to go into the studio.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this person so much, he’s such a marvelous character, he’s such a marvelous person. I really hope the art, somehow, lives up to this great conversation.’”

It most certainly did, Kahn said — “In fact, it was just a complete shock,” he laughed — and in that moment, the director found his anchor for a film that explores the origin story of the contemporary art world, delves into the public versus private debate, and questions what art truly is, straddling awe and absurdity at every turn.

“Pricing has gotten so unrealistic and I think even the collectors will tell you that — that it is taking many of them out of the thing. When you’re talking about $100 million paintings, that’s an enormous amount of money,” Alexander said. “And, so often, the paintings are bought and stored, and not even bought to be looked at. They’re bought as investments and the painting disappears. I don’t care what goes on in the contemporary art world, whether Jeff Koons gets all this money. I don’t care. But I do care about the really great works of art that public venues can’t get. That’s what troubles me the most.”

For Gornik, art needs to ultimately be seen. It has the power to move. It can offer a different lens into the world. And, at its best, it makes souls expand, and connects people to one another.

But now, that can come at a steep price — one often out of reach.

“The art market has managed to make what had been a very circumspect, careful, well-educated activity into this astonishingly vulgar behavior — everything wrong with society,” she said. “And then there are people who can’t afford art, but they’d love to have it. As an artist, you feel like you’d love everyone to have your art, and on the other hand, you feel kind of jealous that somebody else is going for way more than your work, like, ‘Why shouldn’t I?’”

In the film, up-and-coming Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby merely shrugs as one of her pieces flips for just shy of $1.1 million at Sotheby’s New York — a piece she originally sold to a collector for a fraction of the cost, and a profit she would never personally see.

There is power in those numbers, Kahn and Solomon insist, and it is time for the artists to take it back.

“We want this film to spark the conversation of the role of art in our world. We want it to spark the conversation of what art is telling us about the current state of our world and how we commoditize everything today,” Kahn said. “It should be a potent reminder, I hope, that without artists making art, none of the rest of this hoopla exists.

“It ultimately all comes back to the artist — the artist who is willing to risk everything by painting that empty canvas and create something that didn’t exist,” he continued. “That’s really what it’s all about. And artists actually have the power and need to take more of the power.”

The course of action is easier said than done, noted Alexander, who will lead a talkback with Kahn and Solomon following the screening. But conversation is progress, he said, and he imagines it will be a lively one at Guild Hall.

“I certainly don’t have any answers and I don’t have an explanation. I think that should be one of the most interesting things that would compel people to care about the cultural fiber of our country — that they would want to come to this event because, hopefully, we can get answers.

“We don’t have to talk about how well the film did and how beautiful it is and how much pride [Kahn] should have in making this little masterpiece, but rather, where do we go from here?” he continued. “What’s next? Is Andy Warhol going to sell his paintings for $1 billion a piece? Nothing makes any sense.”

“The Price of Everything” will screen on Saturday, January 26, at 6 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. A talkback with director Nathaniel Kahn, artist John Alexander and producer Carla Solomon will follow. Advance tickets are $10, or $15 at the door. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.