Picasso $106.5 Million Nude, Feisty Ai Weiwei Star in 2010

The age of austerity has been a jolly time for the art world, so far at least.

For Picasso, the year brought a record price for any work of art at auction when his 1932 painting “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” sold for $106.5 million at Christie’s International in New York in May. It’s a fine work, though some, including his biographer John Richardson, prefer “Nude in Black Armchair,” which the artist painted the following day (March 9, 1932).

As a reward for one day’s work, $106.5 million may be a record in itself, although admittedly Picasso would have had to reach the age of 128, and kept hold of the picture, to reap it. Still, he may posthumously be experiencing some satisfaction.

Giacometti, on the other hand, might have been miffed by his own prices. His bronze sculpture “Walking Man I” fetched the equivalent of $103.4 million at Sotheby’s in London on Feb. 3 -- only just missing the world record of $104.2 million, for a Picasso, in 2004. An austere man who worked and lived in a tiny Paris apartment with an earth floor, Giacometti was intensely competitive with Picasso.

Living artists who made an impression this year included James Turrell, whose spectacular exhibition at Gagosian, Britannia St., London, included a large white sphere into which visitors were inserted, one by one, to experience a mind-blowing sound-and-light installation. Another of the autumn’s art hits was “The Clock” by Christian Marclay at White Cube.

Addictive Viewing

This consisted of a continuously screened, 24-hour collage of film clips in each of which a character looked at a watch or glanced at a clock. The time on the screen was the real time at that moment. It was strangely addictive viewing. Both shows underlined the message that the big commercial galleries now put on shows that rival public museums in ambition and expense.

That competition can only heat up when -- as has been announced -- the powerful Pace Gallery of New York opens premises in London next spring. Already, White Cube and Gagosian had Tate outgunned this year in the contemporary-art wars. The Turner Prize was a quiet, almost lackluster affair, while the Unilever Series sculpture commission in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, “Sunflower Seeds” by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, ran into health and safety trouble.

Dust from the installation, which consists of around 100 million ceramic models of seeds, was deemed a hazard when walked upon. The public was banned from close contact with the work on Oct. 16. This was a disaster, since the point of the work is to walk or sit upon it. From a distance, it looks like gray gravel.

Artist Arrest

Poor Ai Weiwei, a brave and outspoken critic of the Chinese government, had a tough autumn altogether. His new studio in Shanghai was demolished for planning infringements, and he was placed under house arrest. A move he claimed was aimed at preventing him attending an (ironic) party to mark this event.

Although there were reverses, contemporary art continues to advance worldwide. In Rome, a striking new Museum of Art of the 21st Century or MAXXI, designed by Zaha Hadid, opened on May 30 and won the RIBA Stirling Prize in October. As the year ends, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, opens in Doha, capital of oil-rich Qatar, on Dec. 30. Going into the second decade of the 21st century, art -- like health and safety regulation -- remains a potent force.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)