Marvellous Steven Cohen misdemeanour

A recurring nightmare of many an auction buyer must surely be successfully bidding on the wrong item. Well trust me, it can and does happen.

But first some back story. If memory serves me it was the early nineties when I first saw Steven Cohen’s work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. It was an installation staged as a domestic setting using hand printed fabric to cover arm chairs, shown with exotic throws and chandeliers. I was intrigued by his splendidly colourful screen printed ‘uneasy chairs’, so flamboyantly gay, cheekily, cheerfully camp, shamelessly and shockingly erotic.

Steven Cohen work auctioned at Russell Kaplan last year

Steven Cohen work at Russell Kaplan (photograph courtesy RKA)

It is practically incomprehensible to me that the maker of these at first glance charming screen printed works is also compelled to conceptualise extraordinarily controversial, unbelievably brave and oh so public intervention performances in the most outrageous costumes – not to mention his deliberately incongruent settings to audaciously comment on societal taboos and atrocities. Captivating, scandalous and extreme (arresting?) are words that spring to mind.

Privately I’ve always wondered what drives the artist to expose himself literally and figuratively in public when in person he seems so unassuming. I got to pose this question when, much to my delight, I got to meet and chat to Steven during his short residency at NIrox in the Cradle of Humankind some two years ago. That single minded drive of the artist to make and create will inevitably remain obscure to me – yet he spoke of the sheer terror and debilitating fear before each performance. But I digress.

A chance meeting at Nirox, Cradle of Humankind, Steven Cohen and Marion Dixon

A chance meeting at Nirox, Cradle of Humankind

Not so long ago I was comfortably reclining on a sofa at a Russell Kaplan auction in Johannesburg when I began chatting to a very well known and knowledgeable figure in the art world. He was bidding on some works for his private collection and I was bidding for a collector client of mine. I had just bailed out at the tail end of a fast and furious bidding session for a sculpture and was still flush with adrenalin when I decided on a whim to bid for myself on a framed fabric silkscreen featuring Steven Cohen’s Bathing Beauties.

As the blood coursed through my hot head I have a vague recollection of very briefly reflecting on the partner piece (a chair upholstered by the artist in similar silkscreened fabric), and thinking where on earth would I put another chair in my already overcrowded home.

Talk of the artist’s arrest in Paris the previous day during a public performance under the Eifel Tour may well have spurred me on, but it goes without saying that I was not thinking too clearly. Steven Cohen Paris public performance conviction (Huffington Post)

It all happened so fast.

I interrupted my banter with my congenial neighbour when the words Steven Cohen reached my ears and proceeded to bid madly and successfully – but ending up spending a heck more than I intended!

Soon after that the auction came to a close, and a mutual friend of the auctioneer and me approached and I breathlessly blurted out ‘I got the Cohen, but think I have just bought the most expensive piece of wall paper on the planet!’ (Apologies all round) With raised eyebrows our friend slowly and quizzically said “No … actually you bought his chair.”


Steven Cohen Bathing Beauty Chair

Steven Cohen Bathing Beauty Chair (photograph Russel Kaplan Auctioneers RKA)


Shrieks of (nervous) laughter on my part and then Russell Kaplan confirmed that I was indeed the proud owner of Steven Cohen’s Bathing Beauty arm chair. That took me a while to digest. But if truth be known I am delighted – and it is actually a much better buy! So obviously it was meant to be. Usually when I try to rationalise my actions (it happens often) a very good friend says with a healthy dose of irony ‘Dit is the Here se will’. God’s will. As if He doesn’t have anything bigger and better to worry about in the world…

I’m still recovering from the unintended dent to my wallet, and the shock of being so cavalier while bidding, but Steven Cohen’s chair has found pride of place in my home.

As to my clients, I would like to assure you that I focus, focus, and focus when I bid on your behalf, scared stiff that I make a mistake, and now even more so. Even though this misdemeanour on my part has turned out well, I have learnt my lesson. Well and good.


About marvellousartmusings

Marvellous Art Musings interactively muses on a personal journey in the field of twentieth century and contemporary South African art, and showcases the vibrant South African art scene and more ... Marvellous Art provides art consulting, curating and writing services
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