You may think the story of “The Armory Show: The International Fair of New Art” begins at the Hudson River piers that recently hosted 162 galleries from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Santa Monica, and thirty-three foreign cities. Or maybe in a suite of hotel rooms in 1994, where four New York art dealers first exhibited together in something they called “The Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair.” But actually the story begins on a dark drive fifty years ago on an unfinished portion of the New Jersey Turnpike, somewhere between the Meadowlands and New Brunswick. A teacher from Cooper Union was at the helm and described the drive in this way:
It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.
The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.
At the wheel was Tony Smith. As Smith emerged as a figure in the 1960s movement known as Minimalism, his endlessly quoted statement was a reminder that modernism’s interest in form and aesthetic achievement was giving way to a different sort of artistic activity. Minimalist sculpture relied less on the articulate satisfactions of well-wrought objects than the powerful monosyllables of contrived simplicity. Harold Rosenberg spawned a mini-critical industry with his memorable if incoherent idea of “action painting.” Minimalism took out the painting, leaving us with only the action of the viewer’s experience.
Smith’s midnight ride through the industrial parks of New Jersey may seem a far cry from the spectacular razzle-dazzle of the 2005 New York Armory Show, but the importance of “experience” remains the same. Guess what? Now we’re all along for the ride—collectors, viewers, the press, everyone. The ever-increasing influence of contemporary art megamarkets like Armory in New York, Basel in Switzerland and Miami, Frieze in London, and a host of other international locations tells us a great deal about the tenor of the contemporary art world. The fairs have become essential to the conception, production, and consumption of new art. Many contemporary galleries now earn upwards of 50 percent of their sales from fairs where once it was 10. Young artists produce work specifically designed for exhibition booths and the appetites of fair-goers. As the contemporary market has heated up, the fairs have become hothouses.
At Armory 2005, the exhibition space was redesigned away from the pier windows and more art put in the line of sight. You could just about make out the dirty stacks of Jersey out over the Hudson from the fair. Smith’s towers, fumes, and colored lights were all there too, domesticated at Armory in work like Cerith Wyn Evans’s Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (1990) (2004), from White Cube, London, an installation of chandeliers tapping out poetry and literature in Morse Code. The smell of methane gave way to the sweeter aromas of fresh-baked cookies: At Deitch Projects an artist named ESPO, AKA Steve Powers, “commissioned” cookies from a local bakery that could be “collected as art multiples or enjoyed on the spot,” and sold at a stand glowing with fluorescent lighting. Think flavorful Flavin. (For more RiboFlavin, there was Spencer Finch’s Ludens-colored fluorescent tubes called Sunset [south Texas 6/20/03]  at Postmasters, New York).
On the one hand, this may seem simply like an art fair’s art fare buttered-up for “the hedge-fund guys,” the beautiful people, and those curators caught up in art’s new cults of personality. With three exhibitions on in New York at once and a profile on Artnet.com that ran at the time of Armory, the artist Martin Kippenberger might be one such example of a cult figure. Printed by an art investor, “I heart Kippenberger” bumper stickers now memorialize this deceased German alcoholic who conceived of a subway line running between his favorite watering holes in Greece and Canada. His work fetched over $500,000 at auction in 1999.
On the other hand, with the consumption of new art so central to its meaning, the artistic aura now extends to the collector as well. Kippenberger would be meaningless without buyers to run up his prices (Kippenberger owners heart Kippenberger prices). You might even say that the art of collecting contending with the art of the object is the new tension that plays itself out on the fair grounds. A reaction against the art object combines with a desire to acquire it. New art becomes a potlatch and a pyramid scheme at once. Walter Benjamin would have had a field day.
The upside of all this for some observers comes from the belief that contemporary art now seems more in line with democratic capitalist values—the values that brought us “Fear Factor,” for instance. Anti-aesthetics is the new aesthetic. Untraditional materials, styrofoam for one, stands in for technical innovation. While we once complained that “my kid could paint that,” now it’s a problem if your kid couldn’t paint it, stack it, bash it, eat it, heckle it, play it on his Gamecube, tune into it on the Spice Channel, or fingerpaint it in his sleep.
The downside? How about the artists: well-fed but trading away autonomy for a style war that demands spectacle at every turn. When talent does shine through, as it did at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Nolan/Eckman, and some of the Japanese and German galleries at Armory (the foreign galleries were slightly better than their American counterparts, but not much), it’s as if you’ve caught a glimpse of art’s hemline. A shock of embarrassment shivers down the spine of not only talented artists but also the many collectors of bad new art and even yourself. Talent has the potential to destroy the illusions generated by new art, so of course there wasn’t much of it to go round at Armory. When Holland Cotter in The New York Times identified Rasmus Bjorn’s pinball machine design at Leisure Club Mogadishni as “a prime example of a species of stupefyingly virtuosic draftsmanship that is showing up with increasing frequency,” that’s when your internal TILT light goes on.
How about the press? With art dependent on the activities of consumption, which at Armory included a dance card full of VIP events, criticism goes the way of gossip in a closed circle of useless reporting. Artforum, the same magazine that first printed in 1966 Tony Smith’s observations of his car ride in New Jersey, now runs an online column called “Scene and herd.” Here David Rimanelli made this observation of the Armory Show:
The big-ticket early birds included MoMA chair Ronald Lauder and his wife Jo Carole, Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis, Rosa de la Cruz, Isaac Mizrahi, Patti Cisneros, Donald Marron, and Kathy Fuld, who huddled conspiratorially over a café table with recently decamped MoMA drawings curator Gary Garrels (now at the Hammer). PETA activists would have had a field day with their spray paint; ladies were resplendent in fur, and Guggenheim Chief Curator Lisa Dennison looked especially chic in a violet mink chubby.
A new generation of art writers share such an ear for culture gossip, if not the stomach of Mr. Rimanelli’s. Bloomberg News’s Tyler Green and the art-world gadfly Choire Sicha, a founding father of Gawker Republic, are among its most expertly dismissive. In an example of coveting thy neighbor’s art fair, Green noted, “In terms of an art-world industry convention, where collectors, curators, artists and critics gather, the Armory is really a distant second.” Sicha wrote in The New York Observer: “All the world’s a fair, baby—and the dealers, the fairs, the museums and the collectors are interconnected in deeply unwholesome and permanent and, most probably, totally vital ways.”
Just where is the vital art in this vitality, baby? The art blogger Josse Ford wonders, “Call me old fashioned, but shouldn’t art evoke some sort of response, some sort of ‘revelation’ that is as much about the journey in arriving there, as in the ‘sensation’ of the moment?” Sicha responds: “Things are in such great shape that we’re totally screwed.”
One show that has traditionally served as a welcome tonic to art psychosis is the ADAA “Art Show.”ADAA, the Art Dealers Association of America, is the trade group of top American galleries, mainly New York galleries, with an emphasis on twentieth-century masters. The association’s literature reads: “The ADAA seeks to promote the highest standards of connoisseurship, scholarship and ethical practice within the profession.” Check, check, and check. In years past “The Art Show” has been known to elicit cross-gallery dialogue from the likes of Marsden Hartley, Edward Steichen, Thomas Cole, Milton Avery, Edward Emerson Simmons, Ken Noland, Wolf Kahn, Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Stuart Davis, and H. C. Westermann, not to mention Fragonard, Rembrandt, and Dürer. After last year’s show, I wrote that the fair has “more consistently serious and sober art—painting and sculpture primarily—than you might find on a surprise inspection of the Whitney or Guggenhein Museums. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an example of video art at ‘The Art Show.’)”
Well, after the 2005 show, video art there is. If this year’s show shifted much of its emphasis from early to late twentieth century, we have fairs like Armory to thank. The actual retail price of Minimalist art, Donald Judd’s especially, has doubled in recent years as a consequence of contemporary art speculation, and there was plenty of it here, for example Fred Sandback’s Violet Day-glo Corner Piece (1968/2004), “1/32 [inch] Elastic Cord & Spring Steel . . . accompanied by certificate of authenticity” at Barbara Krakow. A loss of direction clouded Art Show 2005, and so instead of always the “highest standards of connoisseurship” you got trends. There was Christo. There was a number of late de Koonings dug up for the Stevens and Swan biography (as if anyone who read the book would buy a late de Kooning, especially compared to the 1948 de Kooning at Mitchell-Innes & Nash). There was a smattering of Diane Arbus prints keyed into the Metropolitan’s show. Not to say there weren’t pleasant surprises: a sharp pairing of Avery and Cornell with African art at Donald Morris, Morandi back to back at Acquavella and Elkon, and a best-in-show Avery at Knoedler called Crucifixion (1946). But “The Art Show” shouldn’t try to out-Armory the Armory. When one of the “selected works” of “The Art Show” is an oversize photo at Marian Goodman by Thomas Struth (Iglesia de San Francisco, Lima, Peru ), it’s clear the adults need a vacation without the kids. This sexed-up “Art Show” was a frumped-up flop.
Photography and Outsider Art, two fairs that went on in the weeks before ADAA and the piers, represent the two sides of the Armory equation. On the one side, at Outsider, there was bad art, or more specifically here, primitive and naive art. This is already the thirteenth annual fair for an art subgenre that many people have never heard of but that already has its superstars: Henry Darger and a handful of others who created atypical work that looks anything but primitive. Darger especially stands out for reasons that go beyond biography, but biography is now what you find at Outsider: wall labels spelling out one or another diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s, depression, water on the knee, you name it. And more than that, a few new “outsider” artists even attended art school. Why fake it, kids? There’s always room for more bad art at Armory.
On the other side, at AIPAD, there was a collector’s dream of inexpensive but far less “difficult art.” I spent my time at this amiable fair, at the amiable Midtown Hilton, searching out photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose retrospective at ICP I reviewed in these pages in January. I found a couple of haunting examples of late Meatyard at Scheinbaum & Russek of Santa Fe. A slightly damaged one was going for well under $5000. At AIPAD you might buy something just because you like it. Talk about radical.
If fairs are judged by sales, the final fair of this roundup, also the first up in the season, was a bust. It didn’t take a sales report to know that an Antiques Show surrounded by sheets of ice in January wasn’t going to make quota. The exhibitors screaming down the aisles that they hadn’t made a single sale said as much to me. But the “Winter Antiques Show” was my favorite fair of the season, with its range of objects of American folk art including a nineteenth-century sleigh discovered in a barn in Massachusetts, to textiles at Cora Ginsburg, Chinese ivory models at Gary E. Young, and some of the most interesting artifacts of the Pacific-Northwest Coast Indians this side of Franz Boas, including a “Salmon Rattle” at Donald Ellis Gallery that resembled a balsa-wood briefcase (just another day at the office for Mr. Shaman).
Common sense might dictate that the cool reception of the “Winter Antiques Show” would have been the best market in which to buy art. But I’ll defer to the hedge fund guys on that. It’s always 1999 somewhere, and The Armory Show offered up 1999 by the yard. Benjamin wrote that “Fashions are a collective medicament for the ravages of oblivion. The more short-lived a period, the more susceptible it is to fashion.”
We’ve done 1999. What about 2005?
- “The Armory Show: The International Fair of New Art” was on view at Piers 90 & 92, New York, from March 11 through March 14, 2005. Go back to the text.
- The seventeenth annual ADAA “Art Show” was on view at the 67th Street Armory, New York, from February 24 through February 28, 2005. Go back to the text.
- The AIPAD “Photography Show” was on view at the New York Hilton from February 9 through February 13, 2005. The “Outsider Art Fair” was on view at the Puck Building, New York, from January 28 though January 30, 2005. Go back to the text.
- The “Winter Antiques Show” was on view at the 67th Street Armory, New York, from January 21 through January 30, 2005. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 8, on page 51
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