New York City
7–10 March 2013
by JILL SPALDING
“The Armory” is a brand, which is all you need to know about why this year’s attendance was through the roof – and this despite dire expectations to the contrary. Last year’s onslaught (not too strong a word) of London uber-fair Frieze’s New York launch deflected attention, dealers and revenue to the chic of Randall’s Island. Armory morale slumped, exhibitors brought lesser work and major collectors held off to check out the new kid on the block. Yes, it was hard to get to and lines were long, but we all went to look and were not disappointed – it was a whale of a show, beginning with a state-of-the-art tent that could have swallowed a thousand Jonahs with no effort. Word got out that this year a band of collectors like Eli Broad, the de la Cruzes and Rubells, themselves become a brand, had made Frieze their club and determined to hold off on the Armory.
Nothing gets the blood going faster than the prospect of a hanging. Official Armory 2013 artist, Liz Magic Laser, was charged with a soul-searching documentary involving a smattering of the art cognoscenti while management re-grouped with a programme of transparency, novelty, tighter vetting, less clutter and more solo-artist presentations. Imagine then the relief of both dealers and viewers on preview day, 6 March, to encounter palpable buzz, serious dialogue and new work. Only the press weighed in gloomily, hinting that the Armory had lost its mojo with phrases like “a bit off”, allegations of the “deathblow” dealt by Frieze and rumours that the fair was up for sale, possibly to Louise Blouin Media.
Charges of milking a so-over Andy Warhol with familiar prints, wallpaper and give-away Brillo boxes fingered a crass tie-in with the 1913 Armory show, whose bona fide betenoire had been Marcel Duchamp (represented here at the Pierogi gallery by a functioning urinal and more ambitiously at Francis Nauman with nudes engaging staircases that had been commissioned from 31 bold-faced contemporary artists). But if you were a business, which an art fair is by definition, would you not reference a hundred-year connection?
More pertinently, stale though Warhol is beginning to look (even wrapping 33 feet of the Gagosian booth) there was so much else going on that got our attention. That dealers had defected to Frieze or been axed for a lazy showing last year stimulated established galleries to bring stronger work and made room for first-time exhibitors and new artists from places not seen before – case in point the Isabelle van den Eyende gallery from Dubai (“we’re taking the New York temperature with this show”) which distinguished its booth from the surrounding white cubes with a black cave of a space hung with small, gripping works which viewers were invited to navigate by flashlight. As one inveterate fairgoer put it: “last year I wondered why I had come all the way to New York to see the same work I’d seen at Art Basel, but now the energy is fresh.”
The energy played out in a large section of Focus, a curator-driven showspace for US artists – many LES (Lower East Side) – that was thoughtfully installed with more room to breathe than in the past; in the fair’s wry take on itself, streaming through Laser’s documentary in the video lounge; in neon word pieces that refreshingly did not depend on the unprintable for effect; in fresh material like a Super-8 film made by Alighiero Boetti with a camera placed on a moving turntable; with work that was new to the eye like a photograph at Yossi Milo composed from a process involving a light-sensitive emulsion that the artist exposed then washed away to reveal an image of real bees; and with work that, if it didn’t knock your socks off, made you stop in your tracks – think a floor-to-ceiling spine made of human vertebrae, and at Sean Kelly’s space a video of Marina Abramovic making out with a skeleton.
Praise too for fully thought-out presentations like those at Rod Bianco and Magnan Metz, supporting documentary-maker Grela Orihuela’s observation that fair booths are becoming installations themselves; and for original approaches to installation by established galleries, such David Zwirner’s wraparound videos by Diana Thater: the artist was present, guiding admirers through her construct of purple wind-blown clematis. Actually, I spotted over 30 artists – they are becoming accustomed to sales – many were fancifully dressed and some gave out their catalogues, inscribed to viewers who showed interest.
Trend-spotters also noted closely curated installations, and a less-is-more aesthetic of fewer works on view at one time that could easily boomerang with fewer sales. I would add that the art fair is now entrenched as the day version of a night club for high visibility meeting, greeting and rubbing up against totally unknown members of our species. The only hushed area was the fair’s modern art section on Pier 92, which functioned as a sanctuary until late afternoon crowding brought spillover viewers up the elevator. Though there was enough strong material with such as Degas, Picasso and Morandi front and centre, the modern art section hosted noticeably fewer galleries than last year and fewer come-look-at-this presentations. Exceptions like Tom Duncan’s intricate mechanical model of Coney Island seemed to have wandered up from Pier 94.
Bean counters ticked off celebrities - “Oh m’gosh, that’s John Waters! And Sofia Coppola wearing sneakers!” – new tastemakers; Kyle de Woody, Costanza Theodoli, Jack Shannon, and big art world names; collectors Agnes Gund, Richard Chang, Stavros Merjos, Martin Margulies. Dealer-collectors like Christine Wachter and the Mugrabis came to buy; dealers who weren’t showing came to check out the competition. Museum directors, easily spotted because they generally walk in flocks, were represented by MOMA’s Glen Lowry, The Whitney’s Adam Weinberg, MoCA’s Bonnie Clearwater and the Bass Museum’s Silvia Cubina; (Miami Art Museum’s hold out for Frieze suggested sour grapes or low finances).
Asked what they thought of Armory 2013, some liked it (“there’s more to see this year”) and some thought it disappointing (“I found nothing I wanted to buy”). Most thought the quality far higher than last year, though none raved, and those who hadn’t left before the VIP silver-coded 2 pm hour hated the crowds, but all were heartened by the humming of transactions. After all, the bottom line for a brand’s expectation is sales, and few dealers went home with what they had brought. “The fair has been fantastic for us”, said Berlin dealer Thomas Schulte; Suzanne Vielmetter from Los Angeles sold three of the four pieces she showed the first day, all I spoke to mentioned the monetary value down the line of new contacts made (“less than 20% of the business we do is in the gallery” said Miami’s Fred Snitzer), and everywhere dealers could be seen making deals with each other.
While The Armory is the major draw, the week’s activity rounds out with the satellites, a more manageable group this year since Pulse and NADA have, yes, held out for Frieze. A quick trip to its new Soho venue galvanized a record attendance at Volta, always interesting for its solo artist format; those keen on supporting the kind of work that art consultants still call “edgy” headed as always to Independent, which happily returned to its original Dia space in West Chelsea. Only Scope received lackluster reviews, for not fully realizing a problematic environment in a cavernous post-office, despite two strong installations at its entrance featuring a revolving diamante headless horse and an interactive piece in a shipping container lodging artist David Rohn playing Walt Whitman, who is accessed by peepholes and a flip switch that permits you to converse with him.
I would list the scattering of private collections VIP passers could sign on to, but that their limited capacity required such advance booking as to eliminate most of them. As in past years, those not headed out on Saturday opted for a return visit to the piers to visit works they had missed or to buy at a discount - proof that “bought at The Armory” still carries the cachet of a very good brand.