The day after the disappointing Christie’s sale at which even the greatest Picasso flopped, solid black clouds moved inexorably towards Navy Pier, threatening the “vernissage” of Art Chicago. Yes, the storm did break and a thunderous downpour welcomed guests, but meteorological analogy should not be taken too far, for if the gloomy weather of recession rumbled throughout the fair, it did little to dampen the actual event. Dealers brought fine quality stock—the more nervous the market the better the goods—but the usual squads of collectors from Toronto, Texas or California were thin on the ground. Local collectors and American museums roamed the aisles along with eager schoolchildren and enthusiastic tourists, an enjoyable atmosphere unlike some pretentious fairs based on avant-garde exclusivity.
As always there was a huge mix of works with certain artists everywhere, this year being the turn of Vik Muniz, Jeremy Dickinson and Caio Fonseca.
The fair gathered an estimated 2,500 artists and 225 galleries from schlockiest to snootiest, roughly arranged with the low-brow at one end, Blue Chip in the middle and “cutting-edge” groovers at the other. Thus one could see unintentional regional kitsch at one end and deliberate kitsch by teen stars at the other, the meat of the sandwich being impressive big-money modernist works.
Landau Fine Art (“Only Masterworks” TM) of Montreal milked much attention from their ex-MoMA Modigliani for $11.5 million. Their $5 million Picasso “Dora Maar” received several offers of “swaps and trades”. Directly beneath the Picasso, Landau had a table selling Hundertwasser postcards at $2 to $5 each and did a roaring trade. This shocked purists, but Robert Landau rightly thinks visitors should be allowed to purchase a souvenir. “I’ve seen these same Hundertwasser framed on sale for $30 in Europe. I keep telling fair organisers, “you have 20,000 people coming through and they long to buy something”. It’s the same principle to buy our Picasso or a postcard, they want something beautiful.” Landau’s exceptional stock attracted crowds automatically, “Someone asked me, what sort of people buy these things? I said, you’re looking at one! Just one good client is all we need,” said Landau handing out free postcards to a six-year-old collector. Indeed regular crowds passed through the booth offering thanks, “Wow! It’s a privilege. I head here everyday.”
It did seem difficult not to gravitate back towards the highest quality work, whether Munch’s “Summer night” of 1902 for $6 million at Galleri Faurschou or Hopper’s “Moonlight interior” from Addelson for $9.5 million. Peter Freeman of Brooklyn maintained an impeccable little room with sisal flooring, Tom Sachs lamp and the Judd furniture his wife represents. The walls were filled with Calder 1925 animal sketches, hidden in a trunk until a month ago. At around $300,000 these were going directly to a US museum acquisition committee. Likewise his 1961 Oldenburg plaster piece was already bought by an institution. “It was originally bought straight out of ‘The store’ for something like $249.”
One of the best booths was Mitchell-Innes & Nash & Matthew Marks, showing Tony Smith and De Kooning at relatively reasonable prices, both De Kooning paintings lingering firmly under $1 big ones.
Equally elegant was James Cohan’s exhibition, its title written large on the wall “The passions: joy, fear, sorrow, anger”. Gathering works borrowed from other galleries, whether a Van Leyden of 1529 or Rachel Harrison of 2001, its theme was inspired by Bill Viola whose two works were the only ones belonging to Cohan.
Despite the hippest London galleries pulling out of the “International Invitational”, others relished the spaces at half price (around $4,000) and the free hotel offered. The latter provided the most impressive conceptual art project of the whole fair, changing identity overnight from Motel Six to Red Roof Inn, all logos, soap and towels swapped in literally a few hours leaving several dealers lost.
While Blackman Associates supports radical young galleries, it is a shame more care could not be taken of Chicago’s own bohemian outsiders. Local performer “Springman” crashed the opening in his much loved “Spring car”, was violently tackled by the police, receiving physical injuries, was handcuffed to a chair, and spent a night in jail for “indecent exposure”. If only he had had a modish international gallery to bail him out.
Sadie Coles had led the other London spaces not to do the “Invitational” out of fear that their sort of collectors would not be there, and it was largely true. However another young London gallery Rocket did well, selling inexpensive works including Cedric Christie sculptures at $3,000.
Likewise Glasgow’s The Modern Institute attracted much attention thanks to Jim Lambie, actually cutting out his works of art at the stall as well as spinning discs at an after-hours party.
A more curious British gallery was Belloc Lowndes Fine Art, run by two impeccable English gentlemen (one a descendant of Hilaire Belloc) and showing such UK figures as Chadwick and a beautiful early Uglow, the gallery has actually been based in Chicago for the last six years.
Further flung galleries from Asia and Australia agreed it had been worth the trip despite somewhat flat sales.
Galerie Bhak of Seoul was confident that Chicago remains finer than Miami or San Francisco, “It’s not VERY good, but will definitely get better.” Sherman Galleries of Sydney did well with Janet Laurence and Mike Parr. “It’s much better than 1999 when we last did it. We’ve sold a few, and some heavy breathing should culminate in a haggle tomorrow on the last day.” Sherman had flown 24 hours with a staff that included a collections development manager. “We arrived in LA three hours before we had set off from Australia. We only do Tokyo and Chicago. The major problem with this fair is the truly dreadful food available.”
Giò Marconi, also in the Invitational, was amazed by the variety of people: curious crowds of Midwesterners willing to look at anything, once. He sold one of his Grazia Toderi “Olympia” video works, edition of four, to an American collector for $15,000, covering his $5,000 booth and costs. “My interest was to show the work, not to sell it. It’s easy to show young Italian artists because they’re seen nowhere else anyway. My only complaint would be that there are not enough serious galleries of real contemporary art.”
Invitational galleries also had “Statement” booths with some excellent solo installations by younger artists including Slater Bradley’s Times Square Burger King video and James Hyde’s air cushion filling the whole space. If that was the most expansive exhibit, the most minimal belonged to Serge Ziegler Galerie of Zurich who was selling a $2,000 archival certificate which gave one conceptual rights to a similar empty booth space. The only object in his stall, an inflatable plastic sofa, was not for sale.
Chicago maintains a very specific sense of its own art history, the official tourist guide explains; “Local collectors in the 1890s ignored the advice of the New York art ‘experts’ and bought paintings by the French madmen known as Impressionists. Today, the Art Institute of Chicago owns one of the finest collections of Impressionist art anywhere.”
There were some fine Chicago-specific works on sale, a Frank Lloyd Wright study “April showers” for $75,000 from Danese or drawings by sculptor John Storrs at Robert Henry Adams Fine Art. The felt-draped railway ties of local young star Helen Mirra were on show at several galleries and at The Renaissance.
Yet galleries now can be located anywhere, relying on passing collectors on holiday and the art fair network. From the remotest French countryside came Galerie Pietro Spartà of Chagny and Barbara Farber, who featured her luxurious Chateau Vallat gallery in the catalogue. Shark’s Inc from Lyons turned out to be from Colorado.
At final tally an estimated 32,000 people had come through the fair and total sales were at around $60 million. One might suspect most of that buying was concentrated on lesser-known galleries and artists, that straightforward “something to take home” nobody should be ashamed of. To quote one of Chris Johnson’s wall drawings at Vendanta Gallery of Chicago ( $50-700); “ The midrange is a really great place to be.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Low brow at one end, Blue Chip in the middle and cutting edge grooves at the end'