Art fairs, like biennials, seek to create large-scale environments that exert their own gravitational pull. For a short period of time, these temporary worlds generate their own thriving ecosystems—of art handlers and preparators, sales directors, curators, critics, collectors, students, strivers, and the odd bemused local who has wandered, for their own inchoate and private reasons, into the circus. Unlike biennials, however, art fairs only need to clad themselves in veneers of relevance and criticality. Art fairs exist, truly, to make money. You can package the art nicely, with interesting themes or cutting-edge curatorial frameworks, but in the end, only one question matters: did it sell?
Ever since Covid, the big art fairs that descend on New York twice yearly, in the spring and the fall, have become increasingly blasé about their status as the trade shows of the art market. The booths are less interesting and less experimental than those pre-Covid. Galleries bring what sells, and what sells, these days, are flat works—paintings, mostly, some drawings or other works on paper, sometimes textiles. Given the cost of transporting artworks these days, and the unpredictability of supply-chain logistics, galleries seem resigned to shipping work that can be easily packed. Lots of galleries show small sculptures (most smaller than, say, an armoire or dresser), or ceramics, which easily fit on tables or plinths. Gone are the days when galleries dedicated entire booths to installations. At the Javits Center, the Armory Show’s home since 2021, we encounter acre upon acre of well-lit white booths. Most galleries aren’t even bothering with custom wall colors anymore. Just pop the work on a white wall and wait for it to sell.
But in the end you can’t fault the art fair for being what it is, a place to sell art. It is written in its nature. An art fair is a marketplace where galleries gather to sell. This is the reason for its being.
The Armory used to generate a good number of satellite fairs, but these, too, have diminished in number since Covid. This year, I only went to one satellite fair–Independent 20th Century, the Independent Fair‘s bid to stake a claim in New York’s busy fall art season. Independent has always been one of my favorite fairs. It is usually smaller and more tightly-curated than the bigger fairs, and the fair is usually beautifully designed.
Altogether, I only visited 2 fairs during this Armory week: the Armory Show itself, and this newly-minted version of Independent. But that was more than enough. Between the two fairs, I visited (or at least scanned) something like 270 booths. Independent featured 32 galleries. The Armory Show was almost 8 times as large. It brought 240 galleries to fill the massive Javits Center. The Armory was so large, we had to navigate it with a map, and even though the map came with helpful color-coding and a compass, we still managed to get lost walking the fair’s aisles. When I left the Armory, I was tired, hungry, and I desperately needed a nap.
One fair was very large. One fair was very small. It was easier to be thoughtful at the small fair, but the big one was more fun. The small one had things it wanted to say, but those things were mixed with — and sometimes undercut by — the fair’s commercial purpose. There was a sobriety in the air, a sense of earnestness and tension, that was hard to ignore. There was always an underlying buzz: See? Concept and commerce can coexist.
Fairgoers at Independent 20th Century. Left: Kate Millett at Salon 94 Design. Right: Joe Ray’s astral-galactic paintings at Diane Rosenstein Gallery.
The big fair looked and felt like a bazaar—so many objects, all laid out for examination. It was the last day of a long week, and the gallerists paid little attention to the groups of fairgoers that darted in and out of booths, like foraging shoals of fish. We were left to our own devices, to take photographs, pose with artworks, investigate displays. There was something childlike and primal about this experience, the art fair as an investigation of personal taste. What is it? Do I like it? Do I want it? Would I take it home?
What specific objects do I remember, from my hours wandering these two fairs? I went back through my photo roll, looked at my annotated fair map. The works that caught my eye, and stayed with me, stuck for very personal reasons. Jake Longstreth’s paintings, for example. It turns out that Jake and I are very loosely connected, we both share the same Bay Area art world ties, and his California landscapes are nostalgic and familiar because they are the landscapes that we all saw, all the time. Would I like to take one of his works home? Yes! Will someone else value the same painting as much after my death? Who can say.
The small fair was easier to grasp in totality. I walked away from Independent with some sense of the general concepts that structured the fair. The Fair’s stated aim was to provide a platform for “the ongoing, and necessary reassessment of the art historical canon” by highlighting artists and artworks that that typically sit outside of the 20th-century art canon, through “focused presentations by a cross-generational community of defiantly idiosyncratic artists.” In her review of Independent 20th Century, Valentina di Liscia wrote: “As I wandered this fair, I asked myself: Who is being served by the purportedly revisionist undertaking of singing the unsung?”
I understand this criticism. An older colleague lobbed a version of it at me when I was first starting out as an art historian. He asked me what I wanted to accomplish as a curator and a critic. He asked me to justify my desire to show art from certain regions of the world, made by certain groups of people. “It’s about representation,” I told him. “It’s about being seen.” To me, that seemed enough. To him, it wasn’t. At the time, this pierced me to my core. I still remembered the visceral effect of seeing a frieze of dancers in Joanna Williams’s “Art of Southeast Asia” class at Berkeley. Until that day, I had never seen anyone remotely resembling myself in a piece of art labeled “classical” or “canonical.” And yet here, in these beautifully sculpted dancers, I could find echoes of myself. I almost wept.
Of course, a thing can be emotionally resonant without necessarily also being conceptually rigorous. And an aesthetic judgment need not pass peer review.
What I remember from both Independent and the Armory Show are the works and artists that surprised and delighted me, the ones that made me back up and look again, or take a second pass through the booth. I’m not sure if, in toto, they come to embody any kind of argument, or if they make any sort of proposition beyond “things I liked.” But in a hard season (of war, and famine, natural disaster, and other terrible things), these works made me feel something inside.
What is absolutely fascinating about taste is the way that it can be so resolutely individual and personal, and also social and shared. How strange–at once alienating and reassuring–to see that the object I liked has already sold. How equally strange to find others drawn to the same works and artists that appealed to me. How strange and improbable that this thing–this painting, or photograph, or sculpture–made us all feel something.
Part of the strange magic of large art shows–whether biennials, art fairs, or any other large-scale exhibition that draws crowds of spectators–is the way that an alert observer can watch the formation of taste in real time, in the flood of photographs, videos, social media posts, blogs, reviews, and articles sparked by the event. Individual moments of aesthetic experience compound and multiply. There is magic in the way that collective taste forms before our eyes, but the process is also strange, discomfiting, a little bit uncanny. My eye is no longer my own. It joins a sea. And I don’t know if I’m comforted–or dismayed, to find what I thought was most intimate, this aesthetic experience that radiates from my body, my senses, now alienated and distributed–shared–across a collective body.
Highlights from Independent 20th Century:
Vincent D. Smith (Alexandre Gallery) – I wanted to stay a while in Alexandre Gallery’s booth and soak in the work. The large canvases are full of a quiet intensity. Richly textured–done in oil paints with organic elements like sand and rope–they reward careful looking. They also need to be seen in person, as their colors and textures are diminished in reproduction.
Smith’s Moonlight in Togo (1976) is the work I want to take home.
I also want to take home this entire set of small watercolors.
These small works on paper — watercolors and gouache on paper — were created for a children’s book on African folklore, Stories from Africa (1975). They are really wonderful in ensemble. I hope some museum acquires the whole set, so they can stay together.
Chico da Silva (Galatea Galerie) – joyful, rich paintings that embody a particular kind of tropical modernism. These would look at home alongside designs by Roberto Burle Marx. According to Gabriella Angeleti, “Chico [da Silva] Chico was born in 1910 to an Indigenous Peruvian father and a mother from Ceará in northeastern Brazil. His childhood was spent in the Amazon rainforest before the family relocated to Quixadá, where his father died after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Chico eventually settled in the slums of coastal Fortaleza, where [the Swiss critic and curator] Jean-Pierre Chabloz found his murals.”
When my husband saw my photographs of these paintings, he actually asked me to look up the prices! We both loved them. Alas, they are out of our budget. I dream of finding a smaller Chico da Silva piece…
Joe Ray (Diane Rosenstein Gallery)– generating wonder through micro- and macro- worlds — Diane Rosenstein Gallery paired Ray’s astral-galactic paintings of stars and nebulae with small, luminescent resin sculptures (almost small enough to hold in the palm of your hand), a delightful and dreamy combination.
Kate Millett (Salon 94 Design) – What can I say? These sculptures made me laugh.
Two views of Kate Millett, Bed, 1965. Carved wood, ticking fabric, paint, wooden legs, bedstead, milner’s forms, 60 × 48 × 60 in. Courtesy of Salon 94 Design and the artist. © Kate Millett Trust. Photo: Dan Bradica
Highlights from the Armory Show:
Angela Nguyen (Albertz Benda) – Angela Nguyen’s tenderly funny flattened dog walker framed by a constellation of dogs. The work, titled A Gig’s A Gig, was installed on the floor at the Armory.
Here’s a view of the entire work, from the Albertz Benda website:
Lucia Hierro (Charlie James) – a giant sculpture of a Cafe Bustelo bag, it gives me Claes Oldenburg meets Andy Warhol. How about a bean bag version?
Left: Lucia Hierror’s sculpture in situ in the Charlie James booth, to show the scale of the work. Right: Cafe Bustelo all on its own. Both photos courtesy of the Charlie James Gallery.
Jenny Morgan (Mother) – These paintings need to be seen in person. Not because they are gorgeous objects (though they are) but because they simply do not photograph accurately at all. In person, they are soft and dreamy, but somehow the AI/facial recognition software that drives the iPhone camera will pick up on the fact that there’s a face in the painting, and sharpen it. My friend tried photographing the same painting, and encountered the same problem.
Fast Ponies (Donald Ellis) – I always want to see what Donald Ellis brings to the fair. This year, it was a juxtaposition of ledger drawings with large-scale portrait photographs by Dana Claxton. I usually want everything in the booth. If I could get everything I want, what I want is to see this grid of graphite drawings on lined paper displayed beside a grid of Wendy Red Star’s take on ledger drawings. (And if I can’t have–that is, can’t afford–entire walls of each type of drawing, perhaps I can have just one of each?)
Howie Tsui (Patel Brown) – How often do you see an entire goat parchment at a contemporary art fair? How about a goat parchment covered with creepy drawings? Tsui’s drawings make me feel some kind of way, and I’m not sure I want to give words to those feelings.
Gregory Halpern (Loock Galerie) – These are houses that are photographs, or maybe photographs that are houses. They look like houses on one side, and I thought that they would, like dollhouses, display the innards of the house on the other side, but instead the interiors of these little houses are papered with photographs of the night sky and other things. They are sweet, sentimental, and a bit tawdry, like a Mary Gaitskill story.
Jake Longstreth (Nino Mier Gallery) – pure California Nostalgia. I see that light and I want to go home. Then I remember that home is in a glass tower in NYC.
1. More unusual–and awkward–works, like Sarah Sze’s sculptures (on view in the Victoria Miro booth), prompted discussions within our group on the best method to pack and ship a work that prominently features, say, an assemblage of precariously-balanced toothpicks? Our group was divided between those who believed that Sze’s sculptures must have been disassembled for shipping and then re-assembled in the Javits Center, and those who felt strongly that this strategy of dis-assembly and re-assembly would compromise the integrity of the work, and believed instead that Miro must call on some talented and ingenious art handlers to work their magic, building custom crates with internal suspension systems. (This was actually something that I did, once, to ship a delicate orb-shaped sculpture, and if my memory is reliable, the process involved copious amounts of foam, and the strategic use of rubber bands and anchors.)
2. Those with long(ish) memories will remember the disaster that struck the 2019 edition of the Armory Show. As the New York Times reported, “Just over a week before the Armory international art show was due to open in Manhattan, a city inspection has revealed that one of the two West Side piers that house the event is structurally unsound.”