The Armory Show, The Art Show and the multitude of satellite fairs brought everyone to town. The fairs masquerade as an essential art experience. In reality they are affairs of commerce, with the added seduction of parties, lectures, panels and so on. Some provide an edifying experience, others disappoint. Either way, they have changed the way art is viewed and consumed.
The fairs themselves are evolving and are increasingly hierarchical. By necessity, they need to distinguish themselves and their exhibitors. Maastricht is the pinnacle because not only are the exhibitors carefully selected, but every single work of art on view is vetted for quality and authenticity. The Basel Fair in Switzerland is so impressive because the entire fair is comprised of the most respected practitioners internationally in the field.
By contrast, the New York fairs ran the gamut from respectable to chaotic. The Art Show (ADAA fair) was modestly sized, elegant and offered a number of one-person shows. It was digestible if not overly exciting. The Armory Show at the Piers was mixed. The contemporary section was overwhelmingly large with a blizzard of individual works of varying quality that quickly became anesthetizing. The modern section benefitted from a more spacious installation with bigger booths and stronger material. The satellite fairs such as Volta and Scope were like a bad bazaar. Pulse was the best of the three.
Many of the dealers boasted strong sales. Albeit the activity occurred amidst lowered expectations, a rebound from the previous dismal year and at price points still below the peak. Dealers report that they can do more business in one week at the fairs than in several months in the gallery. No wonder the fairs proliferate and everyone wants to be present.
Buying at the Fairs can be daunting, unless you’ve done your homework beforehand or are attended by someone else who has done it. Otherwise, one must sort on the fly and learn in situ. This requires engagement with the dealer or sales person who can educate, create context and provide the details that contribute to a confident purchase. What used to take place in the galleries leisurely on a Saturday is now anxiously attempted amidst the crowds at the fairs. Alternatively buyers forgo an investment in knowledge for the appeal of a quick purchase in the moment.
On the Museum front, I was looking forward to seeing the Whitney Biennial and the collection of Dakis Joannou at the New Museum. At the Whitney, I did appreciate the discovery of the quirky sculptor Jessica Hutchins. And I am a big fan of Los Angeles based painter, Lesley Vance. At the New Museum, I admired Robert Gober’s installation and Kara Walker’s drawings, among others. But in many ways, the Whitney and Dakis shows felt like the institutional equivalent of the art fairs. One piece of this and that in a cacophony of different voices and viewpoints that struggle to out-scream each other.
The museum highlight for me was the William Kentridge and Tim Burton exhibitions at MOMA. Two giant talents are showcased. They may be opposites in sensibility but they are brothers in their extraordinary imagination and the ability to transcend.
Speaking of transcendence, Jean Clair, the former director of the Musee Picasso wrote a provocative article in the March issue of the Art Newspaper titled “Has Culture Gone to Hell”. He argues that “once culture lost its connection to the transcendent, its identification with financial value artificially constructed by the market has led to a slide into banality and squalor”. That sentiment had a ring of truth amidst the blur of the fairs.
However, three days later here in LA, I received some true art nourishment. Blum & Poe has an outstanding show of new paintings by Mark Grotjahn on view until April 3. I had attended the opening with pleasure, but revisiting the exhibition without the crowds was even more rewarding. Additionally, upstairs is a striking installation of the unsung Northern California sculptor, J.B. Blunk (1926-2002). What a delight to see two great gallery shows. Faith restored.