Screaming is, typically, a bad thing to hear at an art fair. It’s an even worse thing to hear when you’re in an establishment like New York’s Javits Center, which with its towering walls of exposed steel latticework can feel like the world’s largest cage trap. Such was the case for this year’s Armory Show, New York’s art fair named after the fabled 1913 show that introduced Modern art to America.

The shrieking came from a performance piece by an artist aiming to “inhabit the persona of Lilit, an ancient aerial spirit demon. . . . from a feminist perspective.” Lilit’s renascence among the meandering crowds of the Armory attracted little notice, excluding the handful of crying toddlers it created. Though it’s unlikely any other piece in the building induced so many tears, much of the art was similarly ineffectual.

Prior to the 1913 Armory Show, American art was dominated by portraitists, imitators of the Academic style, and landscape painters descending from the Hudson River School. A nineteenth-century art fair in America would have thus consisted of booth after booth dedicated to the majesty of the land, aristocratic portraiture, and grand historical scenes, all conforming to a standard set of styles. One imagines that this selection could get repetitive, no matter how noble the subject or skilled the execution.

The 2023 Armory suffered from much the same problem. The landscapes look different, of course, as do the portraits, but the fundamental problem remains. Now, rather than a sublime idyll, America is presented as a wasteland. The wild growth of the frontier has been replaced by the excesses of capitalism in these broad canvases, and man’s attachment to that frontier has been replaced by an alienation from it.  A glut of vaguely surreal, almost interchangeable, works obsessed with this theme could be found in every direction.

André Griffo, O vendedor de miniaturas 7, 2023, Oil and acrylic on canvas. Photo: Erika Mayumi.

The problem was even more pronounced in the realm of portraiture. Every other gallery hung a portrayal of some twentysomething suburbanite or urbanite, always ostentatiously outfitted in name-brand attire, often scrolling his or her phone, usually dead in the eyes. Technology and the internet figure heavily into these pieces; the work is thus hyper-present, operating almost like a painted record of social-media trends. But social-media trends are homogenizing, and that homogenizing effect has leaked into the portraiture itself. The result is a surplus of images concerned with the same problem presented with the same trappings.

Chad Murray, Prairie in spring, 2022–23, Oil on canvas, Sebastian Gladstone, New York. 

This is not to say that all the pieces preoccupied with these themes are bad, or even that the impulse underlying them is misguided. Indeed, some are quite interesting, such as André Griffo’s painting O vendedor de miniaturas 7 (2023) or the eerie canvases of Chad Murray. But the prevailing winds at the fair were nonetheless monotonous.

Outside of this stream of tedium, however, there could still be found something to be captivated by.

Upon entering the fair, one was greeted immediately by some of the best work in the show: María Berrío’s A Feast for Ammit (2023) series. These depict scenes from a fictional play conceived by Berrío, but no familiarity with the imagined drama is needed to notice the special character of these compositions.

María Berrío, Act II, Scene 4: Threshold, 2023, Japanese paper, watercolor & acrylic on canvas, Victoria Miro, London. 

Berrío constructs evocative scenes flush with detail and atmosphere; they are at once enigmatic and earnest. Soft oil paint is overlaid with collages of Japanese paper treated with watercolor. The collages form flowers, masks, and the subjects’ clothes, in each instance granting a luster and added dimension to an already compelling arrangement. So effective is the strategy that the pieces almost look backlit.

On the other side of the floor stood Alexander Berggruen’s booth, this year reserved entirely for the artist Gabriel Mills. Berggruen hosted a solo show for Mills last fall, where the best work on display consisted of massive triptychs. The canvases of each triptych in the fall show alternated between thinly painted depictions of airy subjects, such as clouds, and canvases covered in inches of thick impasto. The idea, which is to generate a balance between the lightweight and heavy elements, was interesting then, but Mills has since taken it to another level.

Gabriel Mills, Glass and the Ghost Children, 2023, Oil on canvas, Alexander Berggruen, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Berggruen. Photo: Daniel Greer.

At the Armory, Mills’s Glass and the Ghost Children (2023), a massive diptych, served as the gallery’s centerpiece. It’s electric. In his prior work, Mills conjured interplay by juxtaposing heavy canvases against light ones. Now, that interaction occurs as well within each frame. Weightless currents of oil swirl and stream through their dense counterparts, the former lifting the canvas, the latter bringing it down; an equilibrium is achieved that makes the piece appear to float, suspended in midair. The smaller Ohenguai (2023) and Thira (2023) prove potent too.

Potency could also be found in the paintings of Modupeola Fadugba, a Nigerian artist represented by the Lagos gallery kó. Fadugba’s subjects are synchronized swimmers, gymnasts, and family members, and their coloration is lavender, bronze, gold, and silver. Her figures emerge gradually from the plane like rising dough.

Modupeola Fadugba, Silver Side Up?, 2023, Acrylic and graphite on burned canvas, kó, Lagos.

In Silver Side Up? (2023), for example, penciled outlines of a group of swimmers initially tease each individual’s shape; then, aided by Fadugba’s curious blotches of earthy paint, each figures’ substance swells until their full form is apparent to the viewer. The process rewards patience.

A gallerist mentioned to a potential buyer that Fadugba’s art is “about swimming pools”—a shibboleth-laden explanation about the socioeconomic implications of pools followed. None of it was necessary. The art speaks for itself, and it does so in a fresh language.

Robert Goodnough, Sheridan Square, 1959, Oil on canvas, Hollis Taggart, New York.

The array of pieces set out by Hollis Taggart exhibit a similar confidence. Taggart’s offerings were almost exclusively of the twentieth century—out from the vault came Grace Hartigan’s sweeping America’s Bicentennial (1976) and Robert Goodnough’s Sheridan Square (1959), alongside exciting work by Frankenthaler, Calder, Gottlieb, and more. Every wall in Taggart’s booth boasted something original and surprising, even as most of the work was created decades before everything else in the building.

Janet Werner, Sibyl, 2023, Oil on canvas, Anat Egbi, Los Angeles.

Scattered pieces throughout the rest of the fair possess this same spirit: Janet Werner’s clever portraits have the energy of a chainsaw, especially Sibyl (2023); Rebecca Brodski’s Ismerie (2023) and Amaranthe (2023) are uncanny and arresting; Tokyo’s Maki Gallery brought multiple works by Shiori Tono that buzz; and Pae White’s sotte voce (2023) series is lovely and thought-provoking.

What all these works have in common, besides being visually gripping, is an independence: they work without explanatory placards, their content is distinct, and their idiom exceptional. And none of them make toddlers cry.

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