Critiques

Art Alert! What We Saw and Loved at the Armory Show

The first weekend in March is a significant one for contemporary art in New York City, with a dozen art fairs happening all over town, plus new gallery openings and exclusive VIP parties. Dealers, collectors and curators from cities all over the world convene to celebrate the new and to conduct some serious business – it’s one of the busiest times of the year for the art world elite, and we, your intrepid Dandelion Chandelier correspondents, decided to plunge into the fray.

This year we decided to focus on the Armory Show on Piers 92 and 94. Spending three hours there reminded us of why a trip to a museum, a gallery or an art show can be a truly restorative and energizing luxury experience. Especially when it involves a bamboo chicken and a silver Mark Zuckerberg painting. Our time at the show was both deeply civilized and just plain fun. $50 gets you an all-day pass (buy it online and skip the lines when you arrive). We think you’ll love the adventure of it, and you might even go home with something – this year, within one hour of the VIP preview, one large-scale installation had already sold for $1 million, and several paintings in the $500,000 range were also already spoken for.

The Armory Show – now in its 23rd year – was originally founded by young art dealers, but it has since grown to become the largest art fair in the city. That makes it an ideal place to roam and explore, as the range of works and the number of galleries means that it’s a microcosm of the broader world. This year, galleries from locations as disparate as San Francisco, Sao Paolo, Shanghai and Seoul – as well as SoHo – were gathered. In total there were 210 dealers from 30 countries.

We started with Pier 92 – featuring early to mid-20th century works – and decided to arrive promptly as the show opened, so that we wouldn’t become so engulfed in the crowd that we couldn’t see anything (of course, if you went to any of the VIP preview parties, you didn’t have this issue). Even before the 12 noon opening, there was a long line of people queued up for entry – we love it that people will actually stand in line to see art (and not just for the shoe sale at Saks).

The space is exceptionally pleasant to wander through: clean white walls, exposed ductwork in the ceiling, and a color palette of beige, charcoal grey and dark blue. In past years, the show’s industrial waterfront setting was viewed by its leadership as a negative and something to be hidden away – the new director has decided to embrace it, and we love the results. The new layout absorbs the crowds well, and the sightlines are excellent. Around the perimeter, there are areas where the structure’s towering windows have been left exposed, so that the natural light, the adjacent piers and the Hudson River are all easily viewed. The subtle juxtaposition of the natural and constructed worlds is unexpectedly powerful, as it is at the Whitney. This is further amplified by one of the exhibits in Pier 94, which is an off-kilter reconstruction of a lawn, a hammock, boulders and grass done in luscious shades of green, orange, pink and rust. It’s like nature, only more fantastical.

Gallery booths line either side of the walkways on Pier 92 – in the larger Pier 94 space (focused on contemporary art), many booths have only two walls, so that the various galleries feel as if they are all of a piece. The works are beautifully staged, and around almost every corner there is something compelling that commands your attention. Some of the images are lovely and soft; some are provocative; many employ a mix of textures and colors that will make you feel as if you’ve never seen them used in quite that way ever before. All of the spaces are manned – many by chic people in interesting spectacles – which starts to feel like part of the aesthetic experience after a while. Those of us who grew up in the sticks and dreamed of New York as children thought that it would look exactly like this. Turns out, it does.

There is ample food available for purchase (including from sleek adorable roving Juice Press carts), and we had no problem finding a perch to sit and have a sandwich from Colonia Verde while watching the crowd go by. Later we celebrated the end of a good outing with a glass of bubbly at the swanky Pommery Champagne bar.

Every single item in the cavernous space is curated – not just the art, but the chairs and ottomans, the food vendor signs, and the wastebaskets. That precise attention to detail is part of what makes the experience so luxurious.

The attendees seemed quite curated, as well. The people-watching is excellent – it’s a very international crowd (we heard 6-7 different languages as we ambled around). Many of the attendees clearly paid close attention to their ensembles for the day – that’s to be expected at a contemporary art show – and one could happily spend an hour or so just watching how various guests have put their looks together (if you have a great wool coat, this is the place to wear it, nonchalantly open and swirling around you as you stride through the space). We spotted several really great hats, if that’s your thing. Also some way-cool sneakers.

There were far too many galleries and works for us to see or to share them all with you. Here are few high points and images that stayed with us after we left (all of these and more are in the slideshow at the end of this post)

Bold color. In paintings, video installations and sculpture, vibrant color was everywhere from artists as diverse as Joan Miro, Tadaaki Kuwayama, Alighiero Boetti, Mel Bochner and Gene Davis (the occasional bucolic pastel paintings became afterthoughts as a result). Color blocks, panels of 12 related images, portraits, abstractions – we even found several gorgeous paintings by Jacob Lawrence at the Jonathan Boos gallery and an Andy Warhol blood-red Elizabeth Taylor portrait from the Ludorff Gallery. Some of the galleries in Pier 92 had midnight blue walls that were drop-dead gorgeous (never mind about the art). It was both dazzling and almost overwhelming to see such color play. Two different artists created color-saturated bulls-eyes (Kenneth Noland and Poul Gernes). A triptych of circular swirls of yellow, green, purple and orange dominated one large gallery space. At first it was fun to be awakened. But after 90 minutes, our eyes started anxiously seeking something neutral, as a palette-cleanser. We lit on an austere painting of a prison, done only in shades of grey and white and employing fiberglass, steel and acrylic by Peter Halley, and lingered there until our heads cleared.

Reflections of all kinds. Several works used reflection as a way of forcing us to see strangers in a new way. One gallery on Pier 92 featured a sculpture that was like origami, but in metal and mirrors, angled and placed on the floor so that unexpected views of people passing by popped up as we circled it. Another, on Pier 94, generated a similar effect with two mirrored boxes with “windowpanes” of varying sizes. One gallery featured over 60 small rectangular mirrors juxtaposed with a large emerald green dot that reflected not just passers-by but also the work by other artists in the adjacent gallery. A hanging light sculpture of filigreed black metal cast lovely shadows on the surrounding walls. An artist reflects on the work of others in a simple black-and-white painting entitled “Alternate Titles for Recent Exhibitions I’ve Seen.” And an installation featuring a solid red brick pedestal encircled with the words “balanced on the edge of a hole in time” in orange letters outlined in black on the grey slate floor caused us to reflect on Harvard, Princeton and precarious moments in history. A shared reflection can be a profound form of connection, and it feels like the right time for those random moments of affinity with other people.

Neon lights. Like graphic T-shirts, several neon installations had pithy comments to share about the challenges of modern life – some political; some about electronic overload; some about war and peace. The one that was the most visually arresting and the most emotionally captivating for us was from the gallery White Cube. It featured a lengthy quote suspended from the ceiling in white neon lights that hung like a semi-transparent curtain before a small space that held two crystal chandeliers (one lit, the other dark), a potted tree, and 20 framed black-and-white photographs along one wall. The way the neon lights rendered the space behind both visible and opaque, the dreaminess of the colors, and the poignancy of the haunting passage illustrated in lights were lovely and melancholy. That was a powerful way to generate reflection, in addition to the aforementioned mirrors.

Dreams. One of the first works we saw on our way in at the Pier 92 entrance was a phantasmagoric painting in moody purple, midnight blue, pink and sea green by Fiona Rae called “Are You Dreaming.” These days, we frequently wonder that ourselves. This particular painting made us wonder why there was no question mark at the end of its title – are we meant to infer that its true title is “You Are Dreaming”? Another gallery featured works under the umbrella “The Trajectory of Dreams.” Kind of nice that no one seemed interested in nightmares.

Translucence and Whiteness. There were several stunning works of white objects viewed through glass, or not – some readily identifiable and some quite mysterious until you came closer: a piece of white coral in a vitrine reminded us of the bleaching of the coral reefs and how someday we may need a museum to remind us of what coral looked like. A wonderful collection of framed white ordinary objects, including a movie ticket stub from Brokeback Mountain, a receipt from a visit to Monument Valley Tribal Park, a photos of stars, the lyrics to the song “Climb Every Mountain” and an appointment card for a urology exam made us think hard about how all of them might be related. Or not. A whimsical installation of recycled and reclaimed objects included robots made of white plastic, and figures veiled in white metal mesh. In this same room a weathered brown log inscribed with the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” hung suspended over a sculpture of two figures all in white locked in what appeared to be a fight to the death.

People of color. Maybe it’s because we were looking for it, but at this show, we saw an unusually high number of photographs, collages, sculptures and paintings with black subjects. Particularly black women. Maybe that’s a thing now? We would be really happy if it were. Turiya Magadlela’s work, presented by a gallery based in Cape Town, features an installation formed by stretching pantyhose in every hue of human flesh across a canvas. At Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Deana Lawson’s photographs, including “Wanda and Daughters,” feature black subjects looking piercingly and regally at us. We loved the heroic way in which the Hales Gallery arranged a series of 5 busts of black men on plinths – exactly the way you would see Greek or Roman sculptures displayed throughout the major museums of the West. Made of gold leafed aluminum composite and mounted on Italian slate bases and quartzite plinths, the works by Thomas J. Price rendered these men as the stuff of legends. Jeffrey Deitch’s booth, featuring an iconic 1920 painting by Florine Stettheimer of a beach scene whose figures are predominantly black, was one of the most buzzed-about of the show.

Commercially, the show started strongly, with one gallery stating that it had sold out its entire booth by midday Thursday (interestingly, even with all of the global visitors, one gallery said that 80% of the sales were to New Yorkers). That’s generated optimism for what the rest of the spring selling may bring.

As with the Kerry James Marshall show held recently at the Met Breuer, we came away from the Armory Show feeling privileged to have seen it. Art events can be so fleeting – by the time you know they’re happening, sometimes they’re already gone. We’re really glad we made time for this one – we hope that if you missed it, this will give you a taste of what it was like so that you’ll catch it yourself next time. If your appetite has been whetted, mark your calendar now for May’s Frieze New York, which is the next big happening of this type in Manhattan (followed in short order by the Venice Biennale and Art Basel). BTW, the opening of the Whitney Biennial is only two weeks away.

Let’s end with some advice from a long-time art collector about how to experience an art fair. Quoted on the website art.sy, Alain Servais went to his first art fair at age 31 (13 years ago). His tips? “Go to an art fair to learn, not to buy. You want to enjoy the art.” “Start collecting with little money, because little money means little mistakes.” “Remain focused on the art itself, because it can, if you’re open to it, change your life.” “This is not just another luxury object. This is something special.”

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