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Walking around Jacob Kassay’s exhibition at the ICA, it’s hard to shake the sense of there being an elephant in the room. The gallery bumph talks about the New York-based painter’s ‘dialogue with the traditions of the monochrome and colour-field painting’ and, certainly, his work is all about formalist concerns to do with surface and objecthood – electroplating his canvasses with a thin layer of metal to produce a beautiful, iridescent, slightly singed effect, one that captures the viewer’s own shimmering reflection.
Yet this description feels like an evasion of what’s surely the most salient fact about Kassay, and the reason why he’s such a prominent name at the moment: the utterly astonishing prices his works fetch at auction. Sotheby’s recently sold a similar so-called ‘silver painting’ (actually ‘Untitled’) for £145,250 – and while that’s some way off the insane prices at the very top of the art market, it’s still pretty unbelievable for a 27 year old without any solo museum shows to his name.
More than anything, it’s the sheer rapidity of his rise which has been garnering column inches in the States – works estimated at $8,000 suddenly selling for more than ten times that last autumn, then prices tripling again some months later to $290,500. Inevitably, there have been suggestions of market manipulation by interested dealers – yet it’s undeniable that a veritable, one-person bubble now exists, along with all the attendant anxieties over the likelihood of it bursting, and how this would affect Kassay’s market in the long term.
The ICA, of course, can hardly be criticised for not addressing such market issues: it’s not a commercial space, but a public institution. Even so, avoiding all mention of it feels slightly disingenuous. It’s surely no coincidence that Kassay’s show opened during the week of the Frieze Art Fair, when the world’s biggest collectors are in town, and when the ICA can expect the highest return on their accompanying limited-edition artist’s print.
As for Kassay himself, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him – as sorry as one can be, that is, given that his primary prices have presumably also skyrocketed. But for an artist to receive so much attention early on in their career can end up being, in the long run, quite debilitating. At the very least, it must get frustrating – this constant focus on the commercial aspect of his art, over and above its actual meaning. And yet, what’s interesting about the ICA show is how these two aspects appear implicitly, intrinsically linked – as if the very form of his works is intended to deflect attention away from his commercial success.
Most obviously, none of the works here are single, commodifiable objects – rather, they’re all installations. Even his quartet of ‘silver paintings’ are incorporated within a continuous structure, mounted on a semi-opaque wall opposite a trio of muslin-covered windows – the idea being that the paintings reflect changes in daylight, as a kind of comment on the conditions of their own exhibition. And there’s a similar notion in the upstairs galleries, where the various components all interrelate. There are canvasses whose concave or convex edges echo each other, geometric lines on the wall that lead the eye through to similarly bisected paintings as well as monochromes which are all painted the same creamy colour as the walls themselves. Everything seems designed to focus attention on the objective here-and-now of the viewing space, to make visitors forget about any extraneous context.
All of this is hardly new territory for art, of course; and much of Kassay’s work seems like a rehash of, in particular, various minimalist tropes from the 1960s – throwing together Robert Mangold, some Robert Ryman, perhaps a bit of Robert Morris. In that sense, Kassay is at the forefront of a formalist revival that’s been bubbling away for a few years now among younger artists – presumably as a kind of reaction against the bombastic, media-saturated excesses of recent artistic generations. There’s a greater sense of playfulness, though, with Kassay – his upstairs installation, especially, coming across almost like a kind of cerebral game, a puzzle to be solved, with precisely the sort of easy, distanced humour that’s only really possible with a nostalgic look backwards.
As for his ‘silver paintings’, it’s not difficult to work out, despite the ICA’s attempts to shift focus, why they might be such a hit with collectors. Simultaneously cutting-edge yet also reassuringly familiar, they evince a simple, contemplative, purist sensibility. And during what are ostensibly more economically downbeat times, such relatively pious fare offers an alternative to collectors sick of gorging themselves on slick, high-concept pieces – in which case, the paintings can perhaps be seen as akin to an expensive course of colonic irrigation, a way of purifying the system. At the same time, though, more than any other work being made by Kassay’s peers, they manage to tap into the most basic, most elemental motives for collecting: their shimmering auras, their sense of burnished luxury acting as a reflection – quite literally, in this case – of the collector’s own status.