The Artist’s Tag Sale
The first Artist’s Tag Sale took place in January of 2014 in the cafeteria of a senior center in the heart of Chelsea. The Tag Sale was inspired by a shipment that had recently arrived at my door, quite unexpectedly: my parents returned every single work of art of mine that had accrued at their house and in their storage over the last 30 years. Every test print, every failed idea, every school project, and of course, those seminal pieces that were so crucial to my development as an artist.
As I went through unmarked parcels of bubble wrap and packing tape, I asked myself, “What was I saving this for?” I rarely hang my work in my home, and I certainly wouldn’t want to show the outdated and slightly embarrassing pieces in any upcoming exhibition. My mother (also an artist) was simultaneously clearing out her studio of 25 years, and asking herself the same questions; a sobering glimpse of my future self.
In an ideal world, the practice of making art is an evolutionary one. We want to believe that progress is made, that our work is better today than it was yesterday. Whether you remain partial to an older piece or not, an artwork is a physical record of the care that went into its making (and material costs). The decision to throw away one’s own work is not made lightly. But storing that work ad infinitum firmly positions the artist in a lifelong practice of accumulation. Most artists I know skirt the issue in an unproductive way—they keep their old work, but allow it to slowly deteriorate, incur damage, and collect dust, until they are finally forced to throw it out.
The Artist’s Tag Sale offers another way to grapple with this common dilemma. The contributing artists dig deep through their archives and participate in a collective purge of the permanent storage. In the spirit of a traditional Tag Sale (“Yard Sale” in west coast dialect), works are be priced to sell: $50 or less. Some works are framed, mounted, stretched, others are scrawled on scraps of paper, marked with the artist’s notes or torn from the pages of a sketchbook. Artists act as dealers, haggling with customers in an effort to sell every last piece. The list of participating artists is published in advance, but at the Tag Sale, each artist takes a pseudonym. The “collectors” are forced to buy according to taste, not according to speculative value.
The sale begins with artists trading, buying, and selling amongst themselves in a frenzied state, getting drunk on the opportunity to “collect” the works of their peers. The location of the sale—a community space, not a museum or gallery—results in a mixed demographic of the shoppers: teenage girls, senior citizens, passersby, and art world cognoscenti vie for the same works. People walk through the aisles with their arms full of drawings, sculptures, and photographs, grabbing as much as they can hold. Supermarket Sweep meets Art Basel Miami. For the artists, there is unexpected pleasure in selling directly to this rag-tag group of “collectors,” unmediated by the gallery or institution, shrouded by the simple tack of a silly alias. At the end of the day, all the unsold works are piled together and photographed as a momentary installation—a portrait of the work that we could not even give away—before being unceremoniously tossed in the dumpster.
Part personal therapy, part naive entrepreneurism, The Artist’s Tag Sale is meant to be a recurring event. It aims both to question the commodification of art and to enable artists to sell their work themselves. In one afternoon, I sold 27 pieces. As someone who identifies primarily as a video and performance artist, this is unprecedented. I must admit, it felt amazing. Sure, I only made $600, but work that would otherwise never see the light of day was adopted by people who will truly appreciate it.
The Tag Sale works were bought because the buyers wanted to live with them, not because they were precious works of art, or had nostalgic value, or because they will appreciate in value. These works, from all stages of the artists lives thus far, spoke to someone, somehow.
Julia Sherman’s work has been shown at SculptureCenter, Recess Activities, Lincoln Center, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. She has been a contributing artist/writer to Triple Canopy, White Zinfandel, and Cabinet Magazine, and her work has been featured in such publications as Whitewall, Art in America, The New York Times, and Frieze. She is the co-founder of the Los Angeles artist-run gallery Workspace and an alumnae of Columbia University, where she received her MFA in New Genres. Her studio practice is mutable, ranging from a performative re-staging of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to a ready-to-wear collection of nuns’ habits, a handmade wig, and a reenactment of the 1968 Miss America Pageant.