Fairs USA

New York fairs put on their game faces

With competition on the horizon, the Armory Show, The Art Show and Independent have all sharpened up

Not so painful: Ragnar Kjartansson's "Scandinavian Pain", over the Pommery champagne bar near the entrance of the Armory Show, sold for $55,000 to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm

new york. According to New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, kicking off the week at The Art Show on Tuesday, more than 80,000 visitors are currently in Manhattan to visit the 11 art fairs opening this week. The main attractions are the 14th edition of the Armory Show on Piers 92 and 94, the 24th edition of The Art Show, run by the Art Dealers Association of America, and Independent (all until 11 March), each with distinct offerings. Clustered around these events are eight other fairs, including Moving Image, Volta, Scope and Fountain. Traditionally, this is the art fair season in New York, but the forthcoming arrival of Frieze in May and the fact that the city has never had a single, dominant fair like Art Basel, have encouraged most fairs to sharpen up their acts.

The Armory Show

This fair began in 1994 as a cool, cutting-edge (if sometimes chaotic) boutique event but mutated into an increasingly large, directionless and rather corporate affair. It has shed several major galleries as exhibitors in recent years and is arguably the most threatened by Frieze New York—a fact acknowledged by The Armory Show's founding director, Paul Morris, last month, when he told us: “I am focused on survival”.

The organisers have given the fair a facelift, helped by architects Bade Stageberg Cox, and reduced the number of exhibitors sharply. The result is most noticeable on Pier 94, the contemporary section, which now has wider aisles, bigger stands, more space to show off the works of art, and numerous cafe and VIP areas. The organisers have also introduced three new programmes: a section devoted to 11 emerging dealers showing single artist presentations called Solo Projects; Armory Film, showing contemporary video; and Armory Performance. As in previous years, there is also a section with a geographical focus: this year on 19 exhibitors from Nordic countries (see related story).

The changes were warmly welcomed by the galleries exhibiting in the contemporary section as the fair opened yesterday afternoon. “It's leaner, meaner and more handsome,” Edward Tyler Nahem said. He is showing a new body of work, “Anarchy”, by Andres Serrano, who recently joined the gallery. Large-scale photos of disturbing toy figurines shot against brilliantly coloured backgrounds fill the stand. One sold almost immediately, Anarchy (Made in China), 2011, priced at $30,000 for the first work in the edition of three (subsequent pieces are $40,000 and $50,000). A caustic joke, it shows the silhouette of a plastic Statue of Liberty, arm pointed defiantly skywards.

Before the fair opened, there was speculation that this is make or break for the event, but at the VIP opening, galleries were more circumspect—and the flood of visitors suggests no lack of enthusiasm from collectors. “New Yorkers will always come to the Armory. In the first half hour, I saw 30 faces we wanted to see,” Borkur Arnarson, the director and owner of Iceland's i-8, told us. He had sold a neon sign by Ragnar Kjartansson, Scandinavian Pain, which looms somewhat ominously over the Pommery champagne bar near the entrance, for $55,000 to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Marianne Boesky, who has a prominent central and largely monochrome stand, showing works ranging from a large outdoor sculpture by Rachel Feinstein to a wall piece by the veteran Italian artist Pier Paolo Calzolari, said: “I don't think that this fair is going away because Merchandise Mart [the owners] has too much invested in it. But the Armory rested on its laurels, they were losing a lot of important galleries, so they had to step up their game and I think they did.”

Whether it will be enough to encourage galleries such as Matthew Marks, Barbara Gladstone (who was spotted at the VIP opening), Hauser & Wirth or Thaddaeus Ropac to return, remains to be seen. Although the organisers succeeded in enticing respected dealers such as David Zwirner and Spruth Magers (attracted, some in the trade say, by heavily discounted stand prices), the majority of the exhibitors are of less long standing. A leading European museum director, who didn't want to be named, said: “It looks much better, but ultimately an art fair is about the art more than the fair. The Armory is still missing some major names, both galleries and artists.”

The Art Show

This fair stuck to its tried-and-tested formula, bringing together a select group of 72 American galleries under the vaulted roof of the Park Avenue Armory. To qualify, galleries must be members of the Art Dealers Association of America, and put forward their proposals for the boutique fair to be voted on by their peers. This, unsurprisingly, leads to a set of carefully thought-out presentations: solo shows, works around similar themes, or artists' works “in dialogue” with each other. The show is generally more “blue chip” than the Armory, aimed at a sophisticated crowd, and this edition is no exception.

Space is limited in the historic venue, but this appeals to some dealers. A show of works by Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures, timed to coincide with her major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (until 11 June), is among the highlights of the fair. The series of cut-out collages, “Murder Mystery”, 1976, is priced between $200,000 and $350,000 (several sold within hours of the VIP gala benefit on Tuesday 6 March). The gallery's director, Allison Card, said the works suited The Art Show setting. “It's small, it's do-able. It allows you to do projects [like Murder Mystery]; you don't have to go bombastic.”

Women artists, and works with artists with a track record from the 1970s and 1980s, are particularly in evidence. A set of prints by the late Francesca Woodman, on show at Marian Goodman, anticipate the forthcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim (16 March to 13 June), while Galerie Lelong has devoted its entire stand to women artists including Nancy Spero, Ana Mendieta and Catherine Yass. The fair promises “a high level of quality, expertise and integrity”, said Lelong's director, Mary Sabbatino. “It fosters collegiality, we are all trying to support fellow gallerists.”

To top off this high-end, all-American fair, Sarah Sze, who has just been announced as the choice for the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013, has a solo show with Tanya Bonakdar, close to the fair's entrance. Sze was much in evidence on the opening event—and pulled out of the crowd by an ebullient Bloomberg, who held her up as an example of what New York artists contribute to the city.

Independent

There are art fairs and then there are non-permanent sales-oriented art events. Independent, now in its third edition, has since 2009 defined itself as “a temporary exhibition forum”, by galleries, for galleries. A quick look around during The Art Newspaper's early-access visit on Tuesday confirmed the project's distinctive otherness. Taking place at the former Dia Center for the Arts building in Chelsea, from 8 to 11 March, it featured calm dealers and fair organisers speaking learnedly about art and hanging in an oddly collegial atmosphere.

Conceived by dealers Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook together with White Columns' Matthew Higgs, and helmed by co-directors Jayne Drost Johnson and Laura Mitterrand, Independent has stuck by its post-Great Recession promise to provide the Prius of art fairs—a hybrid model that runs somewhere between “a collective exhibition and a re-examination of the art fair model”. After the experience of previous editions, this retail art experience without booth walls is now a grown-up event featuring established and new galleries and artists.

Covering three floors and a rooftop airily designed by the New York architect Christian Wassmann, Independent provides plenty of room for different types of dealer presentations. The open-plan space filled by the Independent veteran Andrew Kreps Gallery, for example, includes five unglazed, fired ceramics on fibreboard pedestals by the young American Frank Benson (priced at $8,500 each) and a dozen blurry colour C-prints of babes in the wood by the German conceptualist photographer Peter Piller (the set of images, originally snatched from internet dating sites, come in an edition of six and are priced at €16,000).

The expanse occupied by the fair's founder Elizabeth Dee hosts a handsome painting of graduated red vertical stripes by Philippe Decrauzat (€11,000) as well as the performance artist Ryan McNamara's colourful leotard as a sculpture ($6,000). McNamara also has a solo show on at Dee's 20th Street gallery and reportedly admittance is only allowed to the show's ongoing performance if audience members agree to join in.

Among returnees from last year—co-director Laura Mitterrand says Independent boasts 25% new participants annually to “keep things fresh”—is London's Herald St. Its display of Matthew Darbyshire's Accessorized Columns (shelving units filled with colourful found and cast gewgaws, £9,000 each) is one of the fair's standouts. And then there's newcomers Labor, a spunky Mexico City outfit known for hard-hitting work. Its space features Pedro Reyes's haunting story of a Brazilian political murder as an eight-panel “fotonovela”, in an edition of three ($12,000).

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