“Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), by Gustav Klimt, is a showboat painting that, last month, fetched a showboat price: a hundred and thirty-five million dollars, the most on record for a work of art. The cosmetics magnate and collector Ronald S. Lauder bought it for the Neue Galerie, the spruce little museum of Austrian and German modern art at Fifth Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street which he co-founded in 2001 with the late dealer Serge Sabarsky. “Adele” is now on display there, along with four other Klimts, among them “Adele Bloch-Bauer II” (1912), which are owned by “Adele” ’s seller, the estate of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. An Austrian Jewish sugar industrialist and Adele’s husband, he fled the country after the Anschluss, in 1938; his belongings were seized by the Nazis. (Adele had died in 1925, of meningitis; Ferdinand died in 1945.)
The subject is placed off-center, to the right, on a canvas more than four and a half feet square. Imperious and smart, making her slightly horse-faced features seem a paradigm of feminine perfection, she wears a shoulder-strap gown with a cloak-like, billowing outer layer and broad gold and silver bracelets and a bejewelled silver choker. A storm of patterns—spirals, targets, nested squares, split ovals, checks, dots, short vertical bars, arrowhead triangles, ankh-like eyes—may represent fabric, furniture, and wallpaper, or they may be sheer invention. Most of the ground (not background, because almost everything in the picture that isn’t flesh snugs up to the picture plane) is mottled gold. Her asymmetrically upswept hair is painted matte black. Her right hand is oddly raised to her shoulder and, wrist bent at a painful-looking right angle, is grasped by her left, as if to restrain it. (On a Viennese note of that epoch, the pencil-outlined fingers faintly suggest claws.) Her frontal gaze turns inward, registering sensations that can only be sexual. Her dark-shadowed hazel eyes, under tapering black brows, are wells of seduction; someone could fall into them. Her bee-stung red mouth parts to expose two competent teeth. Blue tints along her collarbones, wrists, and hands hint at subcutaneous veins: erogenous zones. She is a lighthouse, or shadehouse, of desire. (Lauder, speaking for the Neue Galerie, has called the painting “our ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” I have seen the “Mona Lisa,” and “Adele” is no “Mona Lisa.” Not very much is mysterious about this cookie.) The picture is most excitingly viewed, after close inspection, from afar. Patterns shatter into drifting, pure abstraction while the facial expression still reads at full power. The double pleasure dizzies.
Is she worth the money? Not yet. Paintings this special may not come along for sale often, and the hundred and four million dollars spent for a so-so Picasso, “Boy with a Pipe,” two years ago indicated that irrational exuberance could be the booming art market’s new motto. But Lauder’s outlay predicts a level of cost that must either soon become common or be relegated in history as a bid too far. And the identity of the artist gives pause. The price paid is four and a half times the previous high (already a stunner, in 2003) for a Klimt; until a few years ago, the artist ranked as a second-tier modern master both at auction and in the estimation of most art critics and historians. Unlike another painting that was made in 1907, Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” “Adele” was the climax, rather than the big-bang launch, of an era. The design and the architecture of the truncated modern movement in Vienna proved vastly more consequential than the Middle-European style of Klimt and his roguish younger colleague Egon Schiele—a blend of Symbolist portent, Jugendstil chic, and archaic elements (Byzantine opulence in Klimt’s case and neo-Gothic contortion in Schiele’s). Klimt made serious art of frankly decorative aesthetics, in service to a reigning aristocracy of wealth and sensual indulgence, and his greatness is secure partly because no subsequent, first-rate talent or comparable milieu has arisen to rival its terms. Klimt and his world remain marginal to the battered but still persuasive avant-gardist chronicle of Western modern art: roughly, Paris to New York, and Cubism to abstractionism, with special status for futurism, Dada, Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, Dutch de Stijl, and Surrealism. The purchase of “Adele” tests the possibility—ever less to be sneezed at, these days—of rewriting art history with a checkbook.
On varying scales, such manipulation has been a regular feature of the art game in the century since the Machiavelli of dealers, Joseph Duveen, in order to boost his trade in Old Masters, was said to have bullied a seller into accepting more payment from him than had been asked. But attempts to make self-fulfilling prophecies of publicized prices have never seemed more a participatory sport than they do today—among collectors, auction houses, and dealers. (Lauder sometimes sells works from his collection at auction.) Money talks, always. Lately, it roars, drowning out other measures of comparative value, among them the humble sentiments of critics, curators, and independent scholars. A rule of gold uniquely befits the art business, whose material goods, by any criterion that is not strictly subjective, are worthless. And no chemical analysis can sort out, in a given sale price, a ratio of considerations that may include honest judgment, heartfelt passion, and competitive exigency. Plainly, a decisive factor for Lauder is his devotion to his institutional scion, the Neue Galerie. However the publicity haloing “Adele” affects the expensiveness and prestige of Austrian modern art, it certainly escalates the prominence of the museum, which, to date, has been less well attended than its consistent excellence deserves. (It is miles above the class of Huntington Hartford’s short-lived Gallery of Modern Art, though that 1964 folly, on Columbus Circle, promoting the supermarket heir’s anti-modernist taste, can’t help but come to mind as a precedent.) I met Lauder by chance at the Neue Galerie, days before the opening, and remarked that, thanks to “Adele,” the intimate place may soon have a crowd-control problem. He replied quickly, “I hope so!”