CHELSEA DIARY, No.35: Is The Armory Show Friezed Out?
March 6-9, 2013
There was already a slithery mix of snow, rain and sleet falling in Baltimore on Wednesday morning when my wife and I bravely or foolishly decided to keep our appointment with Armory Week in New York. So we boarded the train not knowing what to expect from the possible nor’easter Saturn or from the art world. By 11:30 we had dropped our luggage off at our hotel, the streets were dry and we made our way to West 57th to visit two of our favorite galleries, Marian Goodman at 24 West and the newly relocated Peter Blum at 20 West. Seeing Blum in his new space really made us feel old; he occupies the light-filled gallery where Ameringer spent several years after Blum/Helman was in the same location for a long time. We knew them all. Now Blum has left both SoHo, nearly empty of galleries, and Chelsea, a wind-swept, storm-cleansed area filled with gigantic commercial emporia to head back up town to a more traditional art environment. Here he is still showing an excellent mix of conceptual objects and process-oriented paintings. The latest in the latter category is Rosy Keyser, born in Baltimore, who attaches Duchampian objects, sawdust and videotape to slashed canvases with a decidedly morose darkness and chemical veneer a la Sigmar Polke crossed with Motherwell or Kline. Keyser is not afraid to acknowledge her sources but has the emotional energy and intellectual verve to stamp the work with her own personality. We thought it unlikely that the Armory Show at the Piers (94 & 92) would contain anything this fully conceived, let alone the estimable large wall drawings and films of the more senior Tacita Dean at Marian Goodman.
Rosy Keyser Unfortunately, our prediction proved correct. This wan edition of the Armory show at the piers took place on the 100th anniversary of the much more exciting original Armory Show in 1913, the one that introduced America to Matisse, Duchamp and Picasso; as it happened this year was also the 50th anniversary of the much more elegant Art Dealers Association (ADAA) fair (actually held in the Park Avenue Armory) and the 25th anniversary of Warhol’s death. We saw the Armory show on Wednesday afternoon with the “VIP” crowd; they were assailed by shopping bags and tea shirts designed by this year’s commissioned artist, Liz Magic Laser. In a lousy conceptual follow-up to last year’s Theaster Gates, Laser trumpeted the average income of the fair’s attendees, the cost of a booth and other fiduciary details better left unspoken. This was the most dispiriting Armory Show in history. As the Times made clear in its review, it’s a little late in the day to crown Warhol the symbolic father of an art fair. The link between art and commerce or art and fashion is blatant enough without rubbing it in the face and eyes of those hoping to see visually significant work. Reducing the number of booths, increasing the width of the aisles and emphasizing single-artist shows only made the vacuity of the work on display more evident. For a change, the classic modern section on Pier 92 was even more depressing than the giddy contemporary scene on Pier 94.There were exceptions. The wrap-around flat screens of Diana Thater’s new flower-themed video at Zwirner were beautifully imposing and the re-discovery of a classical African-American Minimalist forefather, McArthur Binion, by Chicago’s Kavi Gupta was inspiring. The two best group shows were at Francis Naumann’s booth, where the eponymous Duchamp scholar convinced a number of contemporary artists (including Sophie Matisse, the granddaughter of Henri) to do clever riffs on the master’s Nude Descending A Staircase (1913), and at Armand Bartos who managed to collect his usual number of late-modern treasures, including an Andre floor piece, two de Kooning drawings and a ravishing Cavallon painting. Major pieces by the great figures of the last 50 years were thin on the ground; no doubt some of the best dealers are waiting for May’s second edition of Frieze/New York, either as participants or if they were at the Armory show saving their best things for the other fair. Unlike Miami, the piers felt empty without the presence of Sonnabend, Barbara Gladstone, Pace or White Cube; a few real Warhols at Gagosian and fake cardboard Brillo Boxes as free Armory gifts for the rich hoi polloi couldn’t make up the difference.
The state of the Armory show was a frequent topic of conversation at dinner that evening with close art world friends and the next day at the ADAA Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory (it confuses cabbies too: the Armory show is at the piers and not at the Armory, got that?). Major changes are afoot. There’s a new business model on the horizon given the paucity of mid-level dealers, the financial pressures on small galleries in Chelsea, especially after Sandy’s sojourn in their basements, the dominance of internationally-oriented mega-dealers like Gagosian, Pace, David Zwirner and White Cube, the faltering of the entry-level art market at auction and of young galleries in the face of unrealistic rents and artist expectations. Everyone we spoke to, including collectors, thought the Armory was crowded, physically unpleasant and artistically uninteresting. Blue-chip dealers and visitors continue to be charmed by the ADAA show, its manageable size, it’s relative calm and quality, and the chance to have a meaningful conversation. On the other hand, the Frieze show attracts deep pockets that fly in on private jets to attend the May auctions; more and more dealers will leave the Armory for Frieze and some will follow Peter Blum’s lead and leave Chelsea. The most memorable one-person shows at the ADAA fair on Thursday included one by Jannis Kounellis, the Arte Povera master, who closed off the entire front of Cheim & Read’s booth with a giant wall of steel plate, cobblestone and ancient sewing machines. We also liked the copper-foil covered paintings by Tam van Tran at Ameringer, the stellar collection of Motherwell’s work from every period at Lillian Heidenberg (the recent publication of the gorgeous 3-volume catalog raissonne is going to change Motherwell’s market), the dark thinly striped canvases by Sean Scully from the early 1970s at Lelong, and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, the works in different media by Damian Hirst at van de Weghe. Early circus-based Milton Avery paintings from the 1930s made for one of the most unusual and powerful shows at the fair; the fact that this took place at David Zwirner only made it more bizarre. Other strong shows were those of Mona Hatoum at Alexander and Bonin, Sal Scarpitta at Boesky, Mary Corse at Lehmann Maupin, Zarina Hashmi at Luhring Augustine and Louise Lawler at Metro. At Pace, Kiki Smith seems to be making decorative product for the market; John Zurier’s paintings looked washed out at Peter Blum. One of the most beautiful group shows was at Barbara Mathes; there were impressive pieces by Italian process artists like Enrico Castellani and Agostino Bonalumi as well as a stunning black and white painting by John McLaughlin. Terrific things were to be had at Brooke Alexander, including an early Albers. Sitting there one had an excellent view from across the aisle of a remarkable Frankenthaler paired with a luscious Morris Louis at John Berggruen. Two wonderful young photographers, who don’t use cameras and new to us, were Chris McCaw and Alison Rossiter at Yossi Milo.
John McLaughlin at Barbara Mathes, ADAA
Before visiting the ADAA Show we had an early morning private view of the remarkable Surrealist drawing show at the Morgan Library followed by the special treat of seeing Inventing Abstraction at MoMA. Both exhibitions expand their respective fields by emphasizing formerly little known artists (like the Spanish-American surrealist Federico Castellon) or by revising the geography of pioneer abstractionists (i.e. Eastern Europe). The MoMA show practically opened with five major paintings by Frantisek Kupka, from Czechoslovakia, and an extremely imposing mural-sized work by Picabia. Important contributions by women were everywhere from figures such as Sophie-Tauber Arp, Sonia Delauney and Georgia O’Keefe. However the primacy of Arthur Dove’s 1911 drawings, as old as anything by Kandinsky or Kupka, were not in the show, and his role as O’Keefe’s role model was scanted. The influence of Robert Delauney on American Synchromists like Morgan Russell and Stanton McDonald Wright was never clearer. Balla looked like a major artist here, not just a niche Italian Futurist and a single gigantic painting by David Bomberg revealed why all later members of the so-called School of London revered him. There were lessons to be learned in every room. And we ran into Baltimore friends everywhere who also regretted going to the piers. After the ADAA fair we had cocktails at our hotel and a fabulous dinner at Blue Hill in the Village.
Friday morning the bad weather finally arrived with slush and snow but it didn’t stop us. We took a cab from the hotel to the Guggenheim and explored its massive tribute to the Gutai artists of Japan (1955-1971), a group of visionaries who seem to have invented minimalism, process art, happenings, interactive sculpture, artistic social action and just about everything else at the same time as or even earlier than their contemporaries did in the West. We felt overwhelmed by our ignorance. One of Gutai’s earliest and most significant members was Atsuko Tanaka, the inventor of the notorious electric dress (1956). There were beautiful paintings by the group’s founder Yoshihara Jiro and by Sadamasa Motonaga. Off the ramp the Guggenheim had an excellent survey of contemporary art from Southeast Asia (mostly political, some of it derivative in form from Mona Hatoum) and a nice survey of Hashmi’s meditative prints and paper works. Then it was off to the Met to learn the art of painting from Matisse, In Search of True Painting. In this grand show the degree of his struggle with materials and composition came alive as never before. Subjects were represented by pairs or trios of paintings illustrating his approach to revision; almost always the most recent version was the best solution to the problem he had set for himself. An increased degree of abstraction, a scumbled or bare background and a liberal use of black were frequently used strategies. In other rooms single works were surrounded by a squadron of photographs Matisse himself had ordered made of each stage in the construction of a masterpiece; he had engaged the photographer with the specific goal of educating the public as to his methods in an attempt to dissuade their belief that it all came too easy to him. It obviously didn’t but the final result always appeared effortless. Lastly we tried to see the fashion, modernity and impressionism show at the Met but the crowds were too much for the small distances between the paintings and the vitrines containing dresses, shoes, hats etc. Many of the paintings were not first-rate and our feet were killing us. So off for drinks at the Algonquin and a ride uptown for another wonderful dinner. By then the rain had stopped and the snow had melted from off the streets.
Tanaka, Electric Dress, 1956
Saturday’s weather was the best for our highly adaptable schedule: clear skies and warming temperatures arrived just in time to see The Independent fair in Chelsea and lots of galleries. We started out on West 20th with a private tour of David Zwirner’s newest gallery, an impeccable five story building designed and constructed to museum standards. The opening show in the public spaces came from the estates of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin and the works (floor boxes and quadrilateral light pieces, respectively) were of size as they say. In an upstairs viewing room we saw the best three-piece survey of California finish fetish imaginable, a John McCracken blue plank, a Craig Kauffman plastic color curtain hung on a bar and a translucent De Wain Valentine yellow pyramid. Whether you call it California Minimalism or Light and Space, it looks gorgeous, some of it done so early it had to come from the example of John McLaughlin and not from New York. Another room was practically wall-papered with outstanding drawings by Al Taylor. The less intimate series of galleries on West 19th will continue to show contemporary shows by gallery artists. On West 21st street we visited an outstanding group show of New York Minimalism at Paula Cooper and a remarkable show of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings from the 1950s at Gagosian. The single most impressive object in New York has to be Miroslaw Balka’s The Order of Things (2013) at Gladstone. Two gigantic steel reservoirs of water colored to look like oil re-circulate their liquid contents from bottom to top, from behind forward, the “oil” pouring down into the boxes towering above you like spouting oil wells. A small wooden platform (the original organic source of the oil) gives one a place to sit and watch all the menacing grandeur and ponder its implications.
Balka: The Order of Things, 2013
After all this, the 40 galleries on three floors at the Independent didn’t give one much to delight the eye or confound the brain. As before the fair was located in the former Dia Museum at 548 West 22nd street. All of the art received beautiful natural lighting through the building’s many windows and the absence of conventional booths (and terrible or non-existent labeling) caused the offerings to interpenetrate the space of their neighbors. You often couldn’t tell which gallery was showing which artist even if you could identify either one. For oldsters like us the single miserable elevator and the two-way traffic on the narrow staircase were a nightmare but each floor had convenient bathrooms. The best looking gallery space was that of Maureen Paley, a real pro and a refugee from the bigger fairs. She showed new drawings by David Salle and a nice contrasting pair of Rebecca Warren sculptures, one organic in lumpy ceramic, the other a pair of steel bars leaning against the wall like bent skis. Bjorn Braun’s colorful bird nests at Meyer Reigger, rescued by him and embellished by finches with colored ribbons and threads supplied by the artist achieved a good deal of notoriety. A display of bundled money (“Art Cash”) from 1971, originally made by Experiments in Art and Technology ( Rauschenberg’s E.A.T.), at the stand of Broadway 1602 was a cheeky hit. There were terrific Richard Aldrich paintings, big and small, at Bortolami, and deposed dictator faces on the clocks by Meschac Gaba at McCaffrey were worth a brief conceptual chuckle. This fourth edition of the Independent was the weakest by far and not a disconcerting competitor to the more established Armory and ADAA shows.
Bjorn Braun, Bird Nest, The Independent
The gallery offerings on West 22nd weren’t much better. Nayland Blake at Matthew Marks is still using stuffed bunnies as stand-ins for his black/white and gay/straight identity issues and Elger Esser’s enormous photographs at Sonnabend still look like over-exposed plates from the nineteenth century. We get it. So we hurried over to 24th street and saw every imaginable size of Alighiero e Boetti’s woven alphabets at Gladstone’s original location; a very colorful treat. William J. O’Brien’s simulacra of paintings created from a wide variety of materials according to minimalist principles of organized chaos looked a little dry and academic at Marianne Boesky. At Andrea Rosen, Aaron Bobrow’s first NY solo showed some punch; his abstract paintings seemed to have turned their backs (i.e. stretchers) to us in displaying their rents and imperfections much like his urban videos do. There was video by Ragnar Kjartansson at Luhring Augustine and lots of little paintings by Andrew Masullo, the smallest of which seemed the best composed and the least like Tom Nozkowski. Gagosian on West 24th was absolutely packed for the retrospective of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the legendary artist who can look like the best mash-up of abstract expressionism and Pop (1981, 1982) you’ve ever seen or, towards the end of his brief but explosive career, totally out of control.
Al Held, Cheim & Read
On 25th Street we visited Cheim & Read and saw the enormous Alphabet paintings by Al Held; these were so cropped that it was often impossible to discern which letter was the subject of any given painting. They gave the impression of true massiveness, a feeling usually encountered only with Minimalist sculpture. At the Pace outpost on 25th there were new paintings by Jim Dine in a new style or with a new subject (thank goodness); the most abstract work he has ever produced. In this centenary year for the Armory Show of 1913, Dine’s new and very welcome paintings look like Orphic relations of Stanton McDonald-Wright and Robert Delaunay. We really wanted to see some more galleries on West 26th but four days of gallery-going, museum-tramping and art-fair roving had finally done in our legs. So we aborted our mission, headed back to the hotel and cabbed it to the train. Much of the best art we saw all week was at the galleries on our last morning. Whether the Armory can ever deliver the excitement of 24th street remains to be seen.