A fair to remember?

Armory08.jpgNow that the Armory Show and it’s progeny have packed up, perhaps it’s time for a little stock taking. For my own part, the Armory began as something of a disappointment. “Sleepy” was the word I found myself using to describe it. There were no grand gestures, such as Kris Martin’s one-minute-of-silence loudspeaker announcement at last year’s Frieze or Sassolino’s sovereign robotic metal claw at ABMB. Even the requisite installation piece by Thomas Hirschorn was rather subdued, opting to display a library of High Theory books instead of images of decimated bodies.

But as I returned over the course of a couple of days, I grew more comfortable with what I think can only be called the Armory’s “maturity,” which may be summed up thus: less spectacle, more substance. I was particularly taken once again with the Ronald Feldman Gallery’s commitment to a solo showing of an artist of particular historical import; in this case, Eleanor Antin. And I was happy to find that the absence of Gagosian, Goodman and Gladstone, amongst others, did not necessarily “diminish” the fair.

Of the other venues, I believe Volta NY will stand as a signal example of how art fairs can successfully adapt to their ever-changing fitness landscape. The small size and single-artist exhibition directive put to rest, definitively to my mind, the idea that art fairs cannot possibly be good places “to see the art.” It’s a risky venture to be sure, and not all galleries will find it suited to the necessities of their bottom line, but it seemed good for the artists, who can confidently add it to their CVs as one more “solo show,” and it was a gift to the viewer, one which obviated the need for a stiff drink once the rounds had been made.

I’m curious, of course, to know what others think.

7 thoughts on “A fair to remember?”

  1. “Sleepy” and “mature” both seem apt words to describe the Armory Show. So does “safe” — a word that also applied to ADAA last month.

    Most galleries brought works that you could put under your arm and walk home with. There was an almost total absence of sex and nudity. Politics is basically AWOL from this and other recent fairs, to the point where the contrast with the reality of the outside world is almost comically (or tragically) palpable. As with the Biennial, we may be seeing some kind of backlash against digital media and video, and a retrenchment into the commercial safe havens of painting and other paper genres.

    The connecting thread, if there was one, was toward a kind of hard-working, craft heavy, visually appetizing literalism. If values these days are wobbly, the works on view leave no doubt that we’re looking at art with a capital A. Easy concepts are out. Mind-bogglingly difficult, fussy, technically virtuosic flourishes are in. You’re invited to kick the tires and be reassured that you’re really getting your money’s worth.

    I agree that Volta was a success. It was truly exhilarating, at least from a visitor’s point of view (it would be interesting to hear from people if the single-artist strategy paid off from a business standpoint, too). We’re seeing an evolution of what an art fair is or can be.

  2. I suppose we must first discuss the market. Despite the Bear Stearns debacle and other recent economic dislocations that have worried many art dealers and become standard fare on this site, sales at the Armory appear to have remained strong and steady. Did dealers hedge their bets and veer towards a more conservative display, bringing tamer work that shied away from controversial issues or presentations? Was the art less conceptually or spatially audacious, more politically neutral, sleepier? Maybe, although there certainly was challenging work on display. I found Hirschhorn’s Tool Table, with its upthrust mannequin arms alternately clutching the means of production and tomes of theory and theater, to be both resonant and sardonically revolutionary, and seemingly less “subdued” than you did. Similarly, Sylvie Fleury’s bisected, fuschia painted car wreck also had potential “grand gesture” status, on an enticing curve between high fashion excess and J.G. Ballard. Perhaps someone knows whether Arndt & Partner and Eva Presenhuber found buyers for these.

    Ronald Feldman continues to make heartfelt gestures, with both a single-artist booth at the Armory and a SoHo gallery entirely devoted to the work of Eleanor Antin. It is admirable when a dealer shows this level of concentration and commitment, also apparent in the one-artist stands of Jenny Holzer at Cheim + Read, Martin Creed at Hauser & Wirth, and Annette Lemieux’s country cousin, gingham-inflected installation with her new gallery, Paul Kasmin.

    Of course, one booth-one gallery-one artist was the rule at Volta NY, most likely the reason why many observers (myself included) considered it the most successful satellite fair. This was aided by a pristine physical presentation (not as infernal as my comment on Artnet might indicate) and midtown accessibility to public transportation, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, away from the wild, woolly and often unapproachable West Side piers.

    Volta’s status as a curated fair sometimes gave it the feel of a project space or biennial. This would have been reinforced had all art been of biennial quality. Standouts include kinetic sound sculptures by David Ellis at Roebling Hall, Ian Burns’ assemblages of domestic detritus at Spencer Brownstone, an Old Testament pool of miracles by Itamar Jobani at Tel Aviv’s Noga Gallery, incendiary paintings and collages by mid-careerist Herbert Volkmann at Leipzing’s LfN Gallery, work by William Pope L and Muir Vidler (oops — two) at Kenny Schachter’s ROVE, David Ersser’s roomful of balsa wood replicas at London’s Seventeen (the entire installation sold to a New York collector) and Khalif Kelly’s inspired paintings of black kids at play at Thierry Goldberg. The latter show was reportedly bought in its entirety by Charles Saatchi, a recognizably reassuring “grand gesture” from those good old pre-jitter days.

    It almost seems unfair that Volta, runner up to the Armory Show, is in fact owned by the same Merchandise Mart conglomerate. Perhaps it is just this sort of deep pocket support that allows for experimentation and adaptability, for tweaking the current model of the art fair and making it more responsive to the needs of artists, dealers and viewing public. It’s not just what you know but whose support you can enlist, as Volta director Amanda Coulson seems to realize quite well in her continuing Missoni Impossible.

  3. I am not a seasoned veteran of the fairs, nor am I a buyer, seller, or socialite. And so, in New York, I do find myself wondering about these fairs, as a silent visitor who much prefers the space and presentation in the galleries and where in a good day’s work I can actually see more art than in these cubicles. In the mazes, then (I was limited by time to Pulse and the Armory) I found myself noticing and really appreciating how gallerists occupied their spaces with some sort of intelligence beyond the hawking of wares. Of course, seeing Eleanor Antin, Jenny Holzer and Adrian Piper honored in monographic presentations was notable, and I wonder when exactly it happened that the exhibition of such politicized female work is tame and unpolitical. But that does seem to have happened. It was particularly nice to see Antin’s work so extended beyond the context of Carving, a feminist documentation of herself on a diet for which she has been most remembered, and to wonder who it was in the early ‘70s who also posed as a nurse in the bedroom with her paper dollies.

    Little touches, like the beckoning door of Martin Creed’s installation at Hauser and Wirth, went a long way towards breaking up the flea-market daze. Exploring affinities between two very different artists, such as that of Fiona Banner and Matt Mullican at Tracy Williams’, or Carol Bove and Steven Claydon at Galerie Dennis Kimmerich, also drew me in, and I would assume collectors appreciate this as well. As far as watching how and where people were gathering, of course there were the occasional gimmicks, but by far the most engaged response that I witnessed was in front of Yevgeniy Fiks Lenin for Your Library at Winkleman in Pulse. Standing in front of Walead Beshty at the Armory, I overheard strangers talking about Lenin’s book in the mail – it was the only such comparison I overheard being made all weekend. Installation-wise, I really enjoyed seeing Jason Rhoades reflected in John McCracken at David Zwirner. And I always wonder about all those artists that keep showing up in multiple places, this year I kept noticing Mai-Thu Perret, for ex.

    I would be interested in hearing more about why these fairs are, and how to understand them as a success. Because if all galleries could be having an exhibition like Gagosian’s current Prefab, or we could have lingered longer and seen more of Eleanor Antin’s fantastic films and tableaux vivants in Feldman’s actual space, I just don’t see the point.

  4. Considering those aspects of Armory Week which might be remembered in days to come, I predict the Dark Fair will resonate in the annals of art history, and not just for the central conceit of doing it off the grid — of using no plug-in electrical devices or overhead lights at its Swiss Institute venue, instead substituting candles, flashlights, battery powered devices, kerosene lamps and other glow-in-the-dark initiatives — but for its subversive stance as an anti-fair, an event that emulated the form but not necessarily the mandate to sell. It opened on Friday, closed on Saturday, and in the interim attracted a crowd that wrapped around the block.

    To be sure there were certain similarities to the “adult” fairs — exhibitors and rows of booths separated by aisles — but said booths were more in the Joe’s Diner vein, a table and benches fashioned from plywood sheets painted matte black. Four persons (including the dealer) huddling closely together was not just a crowd, it was SRO. And there was art to be purchased, although decidedly of the head shop variety: Spencer Sweeney dressed as a ghost hawking an edition of dildos in black wax at the Gavin Brown booth; lava lamp-like efforts by Sue de Beer at Marianne Boesky; a Martin Creed 7 inch on a battery powered turntable at White Columns.

    The Dark Fair was the brainchild of the same Midwestern crew (which includes artist brothers Tyson and Scott Reeder and James Riepenhoff) who organized the notorious Milwaukee International in October 2006, a similarly modest but cunning event in a working class Polish beer hall/bowling alley. By bringing their circus to New York opposite the Armory Show, they have upped the conceptual ante and produced the hippest event of the week, a slacker parody of rampant commercialism, a spoof, a prank, pulling the rug out from under the seriously entrepreneurial fairs that had set up shop all over town.

    Their insouciance was their great strength, because the Dark was all about hanging out, about sharing thoughts and suds. A good excuse for a party, and yeah, dude, you could also buy some art. As such, it was the perfect end run around the parentals, an irreverent smiley face offered to a worried market, a signpost that marked (and mocked) this uncertain moment in the economy. It hardly matters whether we are in the middle of a recession (or a Recession), whether more homes will be foreclosed, whether the art market will implode, whether we are at the bottom and things will soon improve, or whether the inexorable slide will continue. The Dark Fair is (or pretends to be) “unplugged” from doomsday culture and couldn’t care less.

  5. This comment in from Paul Rosenbaum, in Fontainebleau.

    After several years of experience working at fairs and setting up various exhibits, I find it refreshing that more galleries are taking the opportunity to showcase work rather than hang an array of obviously “for sale” items. This signals that the fairs are part of a healthy and inevitable evolution of the market and I look forward to such change. Many smaller galleries earn a majority of their revenues at these fairs making their participation critical. Filling some booths with solo displays and strong statements helps bring access to people who, like some galleries, use the fairs as their main access to art. The fairs, like gallery shows, are great events and bring together an array of people by generating hype. If this year’s Armory fell short of expectation, I hope that it either means other channels have been created for some galleries (or artists) or that perhaps the Armory staff made some mistakes. In either case, I hope that it doesn’t mean the end of great collections, but, as you mention, it could be that the Armory is growing a bit old in many ways and needs a new strategy. Art has, of course, enjoyed an enormous growth over the past decade and many large corporations and even countries have promoted the investment in artwork to generate image and growth. Seeing this fair mature follows in line with art becoming, in some ways, closer to the mainstream and hence a bit less gritty. This is lamentable, but also inevitable. Ultimately, I would even favor this acceptance as it benefits artists and art world professionals by legitimizing their contributions to society (instead of being chastised as distant observers). Days of revolution are long gone and our times are more commercial, so it’s not surprising to me that some of the fun falls by the wayside. Working in art is still a lot more fun than most things, and that will be very, very long to change.

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