At 3 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2013,the 24-year-old conceptual artist Amalia Ulman woke up in a hospital in rural Pennsylvania with a bone sticking out of her leg. She had been in an accident: The Greyhound bus that was taking her from New York to Chicago to curate a show had smashed into a garbage rig, killing one passenger and wounding dozens of others. She needed surgery. She also needed a lawyer. Ulman knew that her parents, who lived in northern Spain, would be of no help. “Who do I know in the States who’s not a kid on heroin?” she asked herself. After a moment’s thought, Ulman instructed her nurses to contact a man she had met only once: Stefan Simchowitz, the controversial 44-year-old movie producer, Internet entrepreneur and industrial scion who over the last seven years has pursued a manic quest to assemble the world’s most lucrative collection of emerging contemporary art.
When Ulman’s bus crashed, she was traveling alone and without insurance, which might explain why, following surgery, the hospital talked about moving her to a hotel. But Simchowitz enlisted a Texas lawyer specializing in bus crashes, who insisted that Ulman undergo a second operation at the hospital and then arranged that she be transferred by ambulance to a recovery facility in New York City. He later filed suit against Greyhound for all of Ulman’s medical bills, which, after a month in the hospital and an additional month in rehab, totaled nearly half a million dollars. “Stefan was very supportive,” Ulman recalled. “He put all those ‘adult things’ together.”
Simchowitz had stepped out of a fairy tale — a godfather whose emissary swooped down from the heavens to rescue Ulman from catastrophe. Ulman had not yet heard all the stories about Simchowitz’s generosity and its fatal attraction for young, penniless artists whom he lured into Faustian bargains. He would provide them with “all those adult things” they needed and so often lacked: room, board, materials. In exchange for extraordinary support, Simchowitz asked not for his artists’ souls but for their art, a deal that many of his protégés lived to regret. In any event, lying alone in a hospital bed, broken and delirious, Ulman did not have the luxury of worrying about a far-off day of reckoning.
Ulman met Simchowitz earlier that year after an email introduction from the editor of Sex Magazine, an online arts publication, and was unaware of his reputation for aggressive accumulation. She agreed to sell him two giant paintings covered in blue eyes, but she was surprised by his brutal plans for them. Like a land developer subdividing a great estate, Simchowitz planned to chop up Ulman’s paintings into roughly a dozen smaller units. “He wanted me to cut the eyes into pieces so he could sell more paintings!” she said. Ulman, who put herself through art school by working as a librarian, was taken aback by the proposed dismemberment, but she wasn’t in a strong position to negotiate. “I was very desperate,” she said. “I didn’t have anything to eat.” She ended up selling Simchowitz the smaller units for less than $150 apiece, adding that he could “wipe his ass with them” if he really wanted to.
“He paid me nothing, basically, but at the moment it seemed like a lot,” she said. “And it was great. It allowed me to go to Berlin. I think I lived three months out of that.”
Since 2007, Simchowitz has sponsored and promoted roughly two dozen young artists. In addition to arranging sales for their work, Simchowitz often provides them with a studio, purchases their materials, covers their rent and subsidizes their living expenses. Perhaps most consequentially, he also posts photos of them and their work on his influential Instagram account, thereby creating what he calls “heat” and “velocity” for the artists he supports, who have included market darlings like the Colombian Oscar Murillo, the Japanese-American Parker Ito and the Brazilian Christian Rosa, all under the age of 35. But Simchowitz’s methods call down the opprobrium of art-world stalwarts, who are contemptuous of his taste, suspicious of his motives and fearful of his network’s potential to subvert the intricate hierarchies that have regulated art for centuries.
Although laypeople may look at a $30 million Richter and compare it to splatters from a second grader, Richter’s prices are determined not by chance but by the elaborate academic, journalistic and institutional infrastructure the art world has built to mete out prizes and anoint the next generation of cultural torchbearers. The collector class has traditionally come from the very top of the wealth spectrum and has included people looking to trade money for social prestige by participating in the art world’s stately rituals. Over the last few years, though, a new class of speculators has emerged with crasser objectives: They are less interested in flying to Basel to attend a dinner than in riding the economic wave that has caused the market for emerging contemporary art to surge in the past decade.
Critics charge that Simchowitz often preys on vulnerable young artists without gallery representation — some say without talent — and buys up huge quantities of their work, then flips the pieces back and forth at escalating prices among a cultivated group of buyers: a network of movie stars, professional poker players, orthodontists, nightclub promoters, financiers, football players and corned-beef magnates, many of whom hold Simchowitz in such high esteem that they’re willing to purchase the pieces he acquires for them sight unseen, artist unnamed. In March, in an online screed for New York magazine, the art critic Jerry Saltz tore into Simchowitz with unusual ferocity, dubbing him a “Sith Lord” and the Pied Piper of the “New Cynicism.” Simchowitz’s artists may enjoy a temporary surge in prices, his critics argue, but they typically see little of the upside; in any case, or so the story goes, once their bubbles pop, they’re left for dead.
Simchowitz has been blacklisted by many galleries as as a buyer, forcing him to take extreme measures to secure desired work, including using consultants as undercover mules. Simchowitz told me about a recent scheme in which he had a consultant buy three pieces from Essex Street, a Lower East Side gallery. The purchase was nominally on behalf of another client, but the ultimate recipient was Simchowitz; by the time the gallery suspected the ruse, money had already changed hands, but the pieces had not been delivered. The gallery requested that Simchowitz not only cancel the purchase but also return another piece by the same artist that was already in his possession, which he did. Moreover, the gallerist, furious over what happened, called the other client to inform him that he was colluding in fraud, an accusation that heartily amused Simchowitz. (Asked for comment, the gallery responded, “Essex Street has never done business with Stefan Simchowitz.”)
Simchowitz is the Michael Milken of the art world some say — someone who has created, through his extensive network and force of personality, a market for high-risk, high-yield investments that have little to do with the fundamentals of talent and critical acclaim. By contrast, Simchowitz sees himself as something akin to the art world’s Mark Zuckerberg, a 21st-century player using technology to disrupt the institutional establishment. Despite his reputation for transaction-driven opportunism, Simchowitz insists he is playing the long game. “I’m looking for the big fish,” he told me, predicting that in 30 years his investments in the next generation of art stars could yield him a fortune worth a hundred million dollars. “The downside is that it’s worth only $50 million,” he allowed. “But I want the big kahuna.”
He lives in a modest one-story home on the southeastern precipice of Beverly Hills, a region that real estate agents optimistically call “Beverly Hills adjacent.” When accused of greed, he’s fond of reciting the value of his home — $1.2 million — as proof of frugality, though he also rents an additional house across the street, co-owns two homes in Australia and until recently maintained a residence in SoHo before deciding that it was “cheaper to stay in hotels.”
The son of the South African industrialist and Clint Eastwood look-alike Manfred Simchowitz — “a gangster,” as his son admiringly describes him — Simchowitz was born in Johannesburg but sent away to a boarding school in England at 6. He came back to South Africa for middle school, only to endure severe bullying at his Jewish day school, where a group of boys twisted his ankle so severely that it fractured in four places; after the incident, he left South Africa to study karate in Japan. He finished his secondary education at boarding school in the United States and ultimately graduated from Stanford in 1992. After college, Simchowitz tried his hand at the movie business, unprofitably producing 13 independent films between 1996 and 2006 (his best-known film, “Requiem for a Dream,” netted him only $12,000). From Hollywood, he branched into the tech sector, co-founding a celebrity photo and video service that eventually sold to Getty Images in 2007 for $200 million (Simchowitz says that his cut, diluted following the dot-com crash, was only 2 percent).
It was only then that Simchowitz shifted into contemporary art. Having an art collection, he reasoned, was a bit like owning land: Art not only appreciated in value, it also afforded cultural cachet, something he learned by watching his father, who had built a renowned collection of modernist paintings. Instead of using his limited funds to acquire third-tier works from established stars — Simchowitz had no interest in buying a “minor Warhol” or a “second-rate Kusama,” as he put it — he decided to focus on emerging artists. He started out buying and selling works in the $10,000 range, acquiring about three dozen pieces by artists like Sterling Ruby, Joe Bradley, Tauba Auerbach and Cory Arcangel, all of which have appreciated considerably over the last six years (today a Sterling Ruby can fetch a million dollars or more in the secondary market). He estimates that since 2007 his collection has grown to some 1,500 pieces worth as much as $30 million, with about 5 percent of the works accounting for 50 percent of the value.
Simchowitz describes his house as a kibbutz, as it often swarms with visitors — young artists, old dealers, models, ex-models, his ex-model ex-wife, members of his ex-wife’s extended family, his ex-stepmother, clients, employees, members of the press, a variety of dogs, his 6-year-old child, his 6-year-old child’s 6-year-old friends. Less typical of a kibbutz, Simchowitz’s house also serves as the global headquarters of Simcor, the umbrella organization for Simchowitz’s art-world empire. In late July, when I met Simchowitz at his house for lunch, I found the space inviting but glutted with inventory. Comic details abounded, including an artwork in the bathroom that said “buy stuff” (Simchowitz’s unofficial mantra) and a doormat that read “the neighbors have better stuff” — almost certainly a lie. In any event, I learned that the house was rarely empty, making it an unlikely target for burglars, and there was even talk of renting the house next door for extra space, which would make Simchowitz his own neighbor.
On arrival, I was greeted by Simchowitz’s partner in both life and business, Rosi Riedl, a tall, silver-haired former model — one prominent curator dismissed her as “a Bond girl” — with a strong will and a buoyant disposition. Riedl was born in Austria but moved at age 12 to Australia, where her family lived on a sheep farm. (“Her family has no money,” Simchowitz later confided. “They had to eat their own sheep.”) When she was 21, she moved to Los Angeles, where she met Simchowitz on a beach. They married within two years and divorced within seven, but following the divorce they continued to live together and eventually had a child. “It was all Stefan-style, so nothing happened very politely,” Riedl said as she escorted me into a garage that had been converted into an art-market command center manned by additional beautiful women.
“I’m the poster child of evil speculation,” Simchowitz acknowledged, munching his veggies, “but it’s totally incorrect.” Every dollar he made, he claimed, went directly back to feeding emerging artists. “I am 100 percent invested in art. I have no working capital. I make $100,000, I pay my taxes and overhead, $50,000 goes back to supporting some young artist’s career. It’s a very efficient system.” Galleries and museums, he pointed out, effectively forced artists to subsidize sky-high rents and unwieldy bureaucracies. It was true that he traded pieces with speculators, but as a necessary evil to fund his artists in advance of their eventual payday.
Art speculators caused trouble,, not when they flipped their works but when they cashed out argued Simchowitz. “The problem is when the parasites come and extract dollars to buy a Ferrari or go to St. Bart’s for the weekend. You have a lot of people coming in — literally stockbrokers, bankers, speculators — who have no interest in art, who are just trying to gain. I am not one of these people. You can spend five minutes here and see I invest in cultural production.” Indeed, the fruits of Simchowitz’s cultural investments lined the walls. Over the sofa in the living room hung three large Parker Itos from the series “The Agony and the Ecstasy”; Sterling Ruby adorned his bedroom and kitchen.
Among art-world rituals, the studio visit is one of the holiest. Whereas film directors do their scouting like cattle drivers, corralling actors through humiliating casting calls, gallerists and curators cultivate relationships with artists by trekking to far-flung neighborhoods (Bushwick, Highland Park) and indulging long, wandering discussions about theory and practice, inflected by deadly, half-read undergrad syllabuses. Dealers make these journeys because they bolster the important art-world conceit that gallerists and artists meet as equals. For artists, studio visits provide the opportunity to explain how individual pieces fit within their broader practice, thereby giving contextual heft to work that might otherwise appear flimsy or mysterious. Simchowitz, however, mostly shuns this convention. If he’s interested in an artist’s work, he asks the artist to forward images via email or text message. His decision to drop by and check on Morgan Richard Murphey was partly for my benefit but also motivated by practicality: Murphey, who didn’t own a cellphone, seemed ill prepared for his impending show. It was face to face or not at all.
On the walls of the studio were a series of canvases smeared with black paint that feebly gestured at Abstract Expressionism. Bewilderingly, one was inscribed with a global-warming slogan. “There’s going to be three subcategories in the series, and then they all start cross-contaminating each other,” Murphey haltingly explained. As Simchowitz perused the works in progress, he began to look worried. “Just try to work out some of the ideas,” he said, looking straight at Murphey. “Keep the show focused. I need you to work. You’re very distracted.”
Cortright’s studio was a former punk-music club at the easternmost point of Los Angeles, on the edge of Alhambra, far from Simchowitz’s collector base in the Hollywood Hills. The artist and her fiancé had recently installed an archery range in the basement; we arrived to find her holding an arrow and wearing a white baggy blouse, white high-waisted jeans and white Comme des Garçons shoes. She looked like a movie star but exuded the aura of a cult member from the ’70s.
Cortright’s fiancé, Marc Horowitz, a lapsed painter whom Simchowitz had recently encouraged to wield the brush again (“just wait two years,” Simchowitz told me, “he’s going to be massive”), explained that they installed the archery range as a way of coping with creative mistakes. “It’s where all the bad work goes to die,” he said. I looked up and saw that instead of the customary bull’s-eye targets, the couple had mounted old paintings.
Cortright led us on a tour of the studio, passing through the two-story atrium, the showroom, the library, the kitchen and an expansive roof outfitted with chaise longues for tanning and a mist-sprayer to prevent overheating. Cortright’s actual work space was on the second floor and featured a pineapple plant and a collection of chakra-balancing sunglasses in multiple colors. “I always wear the pink ones,” she said. “They’re supposed to make you happy and playful.”
“Uh, absolutely,” Murphey responded, mumbling.
As we got back into the car, Simchowitz expressed disappointment. “It’s very weak. I probably spent $20,000 on that guy. That’s gone — whoosh. I won’t get behind it if I don’t think it’s good.” The work wasn’t ugly, but like Murphey himself, it seemed arbitrary and out of time. In addition, the artist seemed bent on endowing the work with an inner logic that would be impossible to convey on social media, clearly a red flag for Simchowitz. Murphey’s career was still germinating, though, and Simchowitz wasn’t prepared to write him off yet. “He could be good; it’s early. This happens a lot.”
Simchowitz considered further. “I don’t think he took it seriously.” He said that scaring artists sometimes served to quickly “snap them into place”; other times, he said, it would take them five years to figure it out, if they ever did.
Despite his dim opinion of what he had seen, and his pledge that he wouldn’t “get behind it,” he nonetheless instructed his assistant, who had accompanied us, to make sure they purchased all the work that was there. “I want the whole studio — and do it fast — paintings signed on the back, photography, the whole nine yards.” He didn’t say how much he would pay.
After leaving Murphey, we went to see Petra Cortright, one of Simchowitz’s most promising investments and a leading figure in what’s called post-Internet art. Simchowitz has collected works by many of the artists most closely associated with the term, including Amalia Ulman, whom Simchowitz refers to as “the Marina Abramovic of social media,” and rising talents like Artie Vierkant and Jon Rafman.
Art pricing is a pure confidence game — there are no fundamentals to anchor the price of a painting, because a painting doesn’t produce a stream of revenue. Emerging artists can be likened to start-ups, in that most eventually go to zero but one could become the next Jeff Koons. When an artist’s prices overheat, though, it can instigate a panic and cause his or her market to implode. Young artists momentarily heralded as the next big thing can just as quickly be tossed in the trash. As Riedl explained it, the trouble with speculators is that they “flip, flip, flip,” and the piece “becomes like a musical chair. When it tops out and they can’t get any more, they throw it away, and then it’s done, and the artist is over. You don’t go back to a reasonable price — you’re cooked, you’re finished.”
In November, a pair of Cortright’s digital paintings on aluminum sold at auctions put on by Phillips and Sotheby’s for $40,000 and $43,750, up from less than $13,000 at an auction in July. Simchowitz says he has no doubt that her paintings will eventually breach the $1 million mark (an achievement that would put her in the company of perhaps 2,000 other artists in the history of the world). An alternate trajectory for Cortright would be that of her studiomate and longtime friend Parker Ito, another Simchowitz investment, who had a painting sold at auction for more than $80,000 in July but who in his subsequent 13 auction results averaged just $30,000 per piece (in three other auctions during that period, his work failed to sell at all). Like many of Simchowitz’s more successful wards, Ito has now distanced himself from Simchowitz; Cortright told me that whenever he came to visit the studio, she informed Ito in advance so he could avoid an accidental encounter. Despite repeated hectoring voice-mail messages and emails from Simchowitz, Ito — who painted tanks for an oil company before Simchowitz met him — has barely spoken or written to Simchowitz in months.
Simchowitz uses the term as a generational marker to describe how art history has been “flattened” for artists of a certain age. “When they typed in ‘tree’ ” in a search engine, Simchowitz explained, “they got a thousand pictures of a tree: a picture of a tree made in the 18th century, a tree made last year, a cartoon of a tree. You have this flattening of time.” To the extent that “post-Internet” sometimes defines a sensibility, you could say that it’s characterized by positivity, the melding of satire and admiration, an emphasis on popularity over exclusivity and an uncomplicated reverence for fame and success.
Back in his BMW, Simchowitz took calls as we crawled toward the west side in rush-hour traffic. Some of Simchowitz’s most esteemed clients, like Anna Getty (heiress to the Getty oil fortune) and Nicolas Berggruen (the “homeless billionaire” financier famous for living in hotels) are friends who come from clans with a long history of collecting. Others, like Orlando Bloom, Harvey Weinstein and Steve Tisch, are Hollywood connections. Then there are the tech entrepreneurs, including Sean Parker (Napster/Facebook) and Bradley Jabour (medical imaging), as well as an array of lower-profile market sharks. Simchowitz’s method for managing relationships with these clients (some of whom are more active than others) isn’t very different from his method for dealing with adversaries: He screams at them, tells them they’re idiots, brags about his triumphs and assures them he has the inside track.
With each call, Simchowitz turned on the speakerphone and theatrically announced that he was sitting with a reporter and that everything uttered would be — and here he bellowed — “ON THE RECORD.” The first call came from Guy Starkman, a restaurateur and nightclub owner, who explained that he was thankful to Simchowitz for introducing him to the emerging art market. It felt, he said, like a game where a guy like him could actually get an edge.
“I’m not a big fan in investing in other people’s businesses,” he said in a raspy, aggressive voice suggestive of a minor character on HBO’s “Entourage.” “If you’re not an insider, you’re just some idiot throwing darts at a board. I don’t have a lot of input into what Tim Cook and Apple are doing with their next iPhone, but Stefan is finding these young artists that he’s trying to nurture. He shows me images, and I give him input, and I feel like I’m part of the process.” Starkman seemed to get a contact high from being, as he put it, “present at the creation.” The feeling was apparently infectious. “I can tell you 20 guys that I know that five years ago didn’t know anything about art and now they’re all over art.”
Starkman was referring to people like the professional poker player Justin Smith and the Buffalo Bills linebacker Keith Rivers. “They just want to go to Stefan’s house,” Starkman said. “They want to talk about who’s next and what he’s working on. He’s created a culture.” Starkman acknowledged that Simchowitz’s crew was different from the collecting circles typically found in Europe or New York. “In New York it’s all hobnob and high society, very aristocratic, all these old-school guys. Who says that art is only for Eli Broad and the Rockefellers?”
Most of Simchowitz’s clients weren’t rich enough to buy a Gerhard Richter, but they were rich enough to not have to think twice about dropping 20 grand on a couch. Why not spend that money on emerging art? Nobody cares about your couch, Starkman observed. “But if you have a great Oscar Murillo hanging in your house, and you can tell the story about how you found this guy three years ago and you loved his work, and you can chart it, it’s a much more interesting thing to do.”
After getting off the phone with Starkman, Simchowitz singled him out as exactly the kind of upstanding American that the traditional art world refused to countenance. “They’re not going to deal with Guy Starkman because Guy has three kids and he hasn’t missed a soccer match in three years.” Starkman couldn’t go to Art Basel if it meant missing five of his kids’ games. Other clients of Simchowitz’s were simply too busy. “Sean Parker does not have time to be at Art Basel at 12 o’clock — generally he wakes up at 3.”
Our last stop was the studio of the artist Simchowitz had repeatedly insisted would turn out to be the biggest fish of them all: the 27-year-old Iranian-English painter Kour Pour, who despite recent solo shows in New York and Dublin was still barely known to many in the art world. But Simchowitz had his collector network lining up to buy his paintings — intricate tapestry imitations verging on trompe l’oeil — for as much as $100,000 apiece. At first glance the paintings looked like faithful reproductions of actual Persian rugs, but upon closer inspection they turned out to be historical mash-ups. Pour is fond of nonsense juxtapositions, like picturing a Roman centurion next to a 15th-century samurai.
Simchowitz described the paintings as “neo-romantic” — though it wasn’t clear what he meant by that — and noted that the image of the carpet, and its inclusion of Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese figures, conjured global trade. He told me that he considered Pour, like Cortright, to be a post-Internet artist because his techniques, though analog, make use of images found on Google and connected by way of a hacker’s arbitrary logic; the overall effect was Silk Road meets digital superhighway.
Pour has long straight black hair and a quiet, diligent demeanor. He wore a ponytail holder around his wrist. “His story is great,” Simchowitz declared. “His mother passed away from brain cancer when he was 16. His father had a carpet shop, he was an immigrant. And the dedication — I have never called him once and had him not pick up the phone.” While Simchowitz liked to be involved in the careers of many of the artists he supported, he acknowledged that his degree of involvement with Pour was greatest “in that every aspect of the practice” was managed.
It was a demeaning thing to say in front of Pour, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Indeed, during our visit, Simchowitz answered most of the questions I posed to Pour, which suited Pour just fine. This struck me as unusual until I recalled that even on Pour’s website, when you clicked “contact,” Simchowitz’s email appeared alongside Pour’s. Mainly for this reason, several artists I spoke with had initially assumed that Pour did not in fact exist — that he was a computer-generated figment of Simchowitz’s prodigious imagination.
I asked Pour about his initial impressions of Simchowitz. He affectionately recalled that during their first studio visit, Simchowitz had spent most of the time yelling, declaring which pieces he considered good and which were garbage. “People are usually more polite,” Pour noted. Far from being offended, Pour was impressed with Simchowitz’s honesty. Simchowitz, for his part, was impressed with Pour’s biography and work ethic and offered to rent him a studio and provide him with a stipend if he agreed to quit his day job and work full time on his own art.
One key to Pour’s mystique, it seemed, was his meager, tightly controlled output. The supply was virtually nonexistent — it took Pour up to a year to finish a painting — and the demand was staggering. Simchowitz mentioned that the first time he posted an image of a Kour Pour painting on Instagram, he got a furious 2 a.m. phone call from a billionaire collector who demanded to know why he had never been told about this painter or given an opportunity to buy. Simchowitz had done little to hype the painting; all he did was post it.
“There’s a massive, massive collector base,” he told me. “I have standing instructions by multiple people who are worth over $1 billion to buy everything.” Pour’s work, for obvious reasons, seemed to be particularly appealing to collectors from Iran. The very next day, Simchowitz was scheduled to attend a lunch with Kamiar Maleki, a London-based Iranian collector who was planning on giving a dinner for 150 people in Pour’s honor.
As we walked around the studio, Simchowitz calculated that he had already invested at least $100,000 in Pour’s career. “It’s a partnership,” Simchowitz said, “one that will hopefully last a very long time and be a big story — a big story like Damien is a big story.” That would be Damien Hirst, the British mega-artist; but unlike Hirst, whose work uses kitsch — a diamond skull, a dead shark — to pose questions about the status of the art object as an engine of the sublime, Kour Pour’s work, to my eye, had kitsch as its endpoint. It played with anachronism but toward no purpose. Its alleged uncanniness felt like a red herring, a thin intellectual raiment for what was, in essence, an excuse to put an expensive tapestry on the wall.
But that, I suppose, was a pre-Internet way of thinking. Pour worked terrifically on social media, where the undeniable pleasingness of his images could be spotlighted. It occurred to me, as I processed Pour’s work, that the real post-Internet artist was Simchowitz himself. Although he didn’t grow up with the Internet, Simchowitz was entirely its creature. His nose-dive into the serene waters of the art world revealed a talent for collage and a carelessness about tradition that reminded me of his imaginary teenage artists, using their web browsers to search for pictures of trees. Kitsch meant something different in the age of Tumblr.