Marlene Dumas is like Marmite. You either love her or you hate her. I have loved her since the 1990s, when I first encountered her paintings of nude women: transformed versions of the stock images of commercial pornography, thoroughly recognisable, unsentimental, sometimes brutal, but at the same time profoundly compassionate. These female figures have been dredged from the very edges of the world, complying perforce with their own exploitation, spreading their legs, squeezing their breasts together, looking at the viewer through bruised thighs. Dumas’s way of painting them veils them, dissolves their edges as if by pooling body fluids.
Some people rage that she is adding to her subjects’ humiliation and exploiting them in her turn, but it seems to me that her frame of reference includes the rest of us in a single venal culture that lives by prostituting everything, including art. Innocence would not have recognised these pictures for what they were. Dumas’s brush tars us all. She works slowly, distilling her archetypal image from all kinds of media sources, and for the last 10 years there have been more buyers for her work than there were works to buy.
Dumas was born in South Africa 57 years ago; she trained first in Cape Town and then at Atelier 63, an art school in the Netherlands. Success came swiftly. After one-woman shows in Paris and Basel, she entered into a relationship with the Galerie Paul Andriesse in Amsterdam, which endures to this day. By the beginning of the 1990s, she was becoming a name outside Europe, with important exhibitions in New York, Chicago and Tokyo. When Charles Saatchi featured her in his first Triumph of Painting exhibition in 2005, her prices on the primary art market increased tenfold.
Chief among her collectors, besides Saatchi, was Craig Robins, the developer who transformed Miami’s South Beach and masterminded the Miami Design District. Altogether, Robins acquired 29 works by Dumas, including Reinhardt’s Daughter, painted in 1994. (The Reinhardt it refers to is the American abstract-expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt, best known for his “black” paintings.) Dumas’s images of children, including her own, are always unsettling. To a shocked viewer who asked what age the child in one of her pictures was, Dumas snapped, “It’s not a child. It’s a painting.” (Go, girl!)
In 2004, Robins needed cash to finance his divorce, so he took Reinhardt’s Daughter back to Jack Tilton, the New York dealer who sold it to him. Tilton sold it to “a Swiss gallery” who had a buyer for it, for $925,000. David Zwirner, another New York dealer who was wooing Dumas, told her about the sale. Dumas keeps a blacklist of collectors who buy her work only to flip it, and Robins found himself on it. He wanted to buy three of the best pictures in her last New York exhibition and found that his money was no longer good enough. So in March he brought a lawsuit alleging breach of a confidentiality agreement by Zwirner, demanding $3m in compensatory damages, plus another $5m in punitive damages. He lost. Though the judge was disgusted by what the proceedings had revealed about the international fine art milieu, “a world of self-proclaimed royalty full of ‘blacklists’, ‘greylists’ and astonishing chicanery”, he could find no evidence of a binding guarantee of confidentiality, nor of any breach of contract or agreement.
As New York is the most parochial of cities, and the art scene its most incestuous clique, the court case kept the chattering classes entertained for weeks. Some of the blogs bitched that Dumas got thousands from the sale anyway, so where was the beef? She didn’t, and she couldn’t, because the New York art market acknowledges no droit-de-suite, which entitles artists to a share of prices fetched for their work on the secondary art market; that is, when a work is sold for a second or subsequent time. Some would say that the New York art market keeps its ascendancy because it has no droit-de-suite, but even if it had, Dumas would have had no more than a nibble of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Robins made from selling her work.
Droit-de-suite is so mean that you wonder if it’s worth the paperwork. It also hits the small collector much harder than the big. In Europe, which includes the UK, if the artist is alive or less than 70 years dead, he or she or the artist’s legatees can expect 4% of the first €50,000 (£41,000) reached in a secondary sale, 3% of the next tranche to €200,000, 1% of the next to €350,000, and so on in descending increments as the price gets higher. After the price reaches €2m, the artists can claim nothing; €12,500 is the maximum they can receive.
Even at the level of primary sale, artists make more money for other people than they do for themselves. Commercial galleries set their own commission, which is seldom less than 50% of the agreed price for a work; if the gallery is launching an unknown, it may ask for as much as 90%. Fine art auctioneers also set their own rates, with the difference that both buyer and seller will be expected to pay commission of 20% to 30%. It is far more profitable to trade in art than to make art. Marlene Dumas may live to regret that she bit the hand of her most loyal fan.