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Takashi Murakami's Wink on view at Art Chicago 2001
courtesy Creative Time, Marianne Boesky Gallery and Häagen Dasz.

Jim Hodges
An Unfinished List
at Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

Andreas Fischer
Remakes of Preschool Self-Portraits
at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago

Tom Otterness
Frog and Bee
at Marlborough Gallery, New York

Heike Kati Barath
at Luis Campaña Galerie, Cologne

Kees van Dongen’s The Clown That Believes Himself to be President of the Republic (1905) with Henri Laurens’ The Large Nude (1950) in the foreground, at Landau Fine Art, Montreal

Drawings of circus animals by Alexander Calder
at Peter Freeman, Brooklyn

Zurich dealer Serge Ziegler and friends doing their bit in Daniel Knorr’s Not Another Ready Made (2001)
Hello, Art Chicago
by Walter Robinson

At the vernissage of Art Chicago 2001 last night on May 10, three huge balloon sculptures by Japanese Neo-Pop artist Takashi Murakami floated above the crowd of art-lovers assembled to benefit the city's Museum of Contemporary Art. The inflatables, imprinted with gazing eyes and smiling daisy faces, and titled Wink, are a fitting emblem of the fair. What's more, the works are sponsored in part by Häagen Dasz, which was giving away its famously rich ice cream bars at the gala reception. Now that's a symbol that goes right to your cholesterol count.

The ninth annual installment of Art Chicago, organized by Thomas Blackman Associates, presents works by over 2,500 artists from 225 dealers from 23 countries at Chicago's Navy Pier, May 11-14, 2001. This year the fair feels upbeat, with an invitational section of 17 hip young galleries (The Project and Andrew Kreps from New York, Kapinos from Berlin, Galleri Tommy Lund from Copenhagen) adding another dash of contemporary energy. And the dealers were happy with the introduction this year of a "professional preview" earlier in the day, at which collectors and other art-lovers could be given an insider's look at the wares before the arrival of the madding crowds.

Optimism was everywhere at Art Chicago, including in the art works on display. Perhaps the good cheer results from the fact that bold and colorful works tend to play well at an art fair, or perhaps it's just a case of whistling in the dark of a possible art-market recession. In any case, your correspondent had his rose-colored glasses firmly in place -- at least for a bit.

For instance, happiness was the word at Anthony Meier Fine Art, or at least so said a color pencil drawing by Jim Hodges that rendered the block letters "happiness" in bright pirate's motley. The piece, called An Unfinished List, actually consists of a group of 10 pencil renderings of concrete-poetry phrases like "melting mountain," "a tree" and "open joy."

Down the way at Zolla/Lieberman is a small painting by the young Chicago artist Andreas Fischer that may symbolize the way the fair's teeming crowds can look to the stalwart gallery staffers that clock long hours in the booth. Fischer's Remakes of Pre-School Self-Portraits shows a group of ghoulishly smiling pink faces advancing implacably towards the viewer on slender disembodied legs. It's a steal at $800.

As long as the subject is emblematic portrayals, one must not overlook Tom Otterness' 1996 bronze sculpture Frog and Bee at Marlborough Gallery. Done in an edition of six (the final number remains unsold, and is priced at $70,000), the work comically characterizes the patient dealer snagging the ever-buzzing collector. Or perhaps it's the artist who is the hungry one, capturing the elusive esthetic idea.

At Luis Campaña Galerie from Cologne, the jaded critic can't help but see metaphorical images of art-world players in the oversized paintings by the 34-year-old artist Heike Kati Barath. Her giant snowmen, monster bunnies and other escapees from a toddler's nightmare look like so many egoistic artists, critics and curators. Barath, who titled a recent museum show in Germany "Hast Du Lust?" (do you like that?), gives her portraits a special over-the-top touch by fashioning all the hairy parts out of painted silicon icing. Price: $8,000 each.

Though Art Chicago is more than anything else a contemporary fair, it does have its share of modernist masterpieces. Landau Fine Art brought down from Montreal a dazzling selection, including what may be the fair's most expensive work, a 1915-16 portrait of a Bride and Groom by Amedeo Modigliani that is tagged at $11.5 million.

Perhaps more in keeping with the off-the-wall approach of this report, however, is Landau's fabulous 1905 painting by Kees van Dongen showing the transcendently serene painted face of The Clown that Believes Himself to be President of the Republic. It's $6.5 million. Still another beautiful work at Landau is a Cubist collage from ca. 1916 by the Italian futurist Gino Severini titled -- as if in time for Mother's Day -- Homage a ma mère. It includes images of a pair of scissors and a sewing machine, along with a bottle of Chianti. Times were different back then.

Another great find at the fair is the collection of 40 drawings of circus animals made by Alexander Calder in 1925 and '26, about the same time he began making his celebrated circus sculptures, at the booth of Brooklyn dealer Peter Freeman. These works, which are being publicly exhibited here for the first time, have already piqued the interest of an unnamed museum, which could acquire the works and publish them in a book. Freeman, who deals privately out of a space on Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights, has been a curator at the Whitney Museum and worked with both Joseph Helman and Anthony d'Offay.

The award for the most avant-garde presentation at Art Chicago, however, goes to Zurich dealer Serge Ziegler. His apparently empty booth -- containing only the dealer himself, sitting on an inflatable clear plastic couch and peering at the screen of an Apple Powerbook 64 -- is in fact a work of art by Daniel Knorr. Called Not Another Ready Made, the work consists of the 10 x 24 x 12 foot booth, along with the dealer and the couch. It comes in an edition of 10 and is priced at $2,000.

In keeping with good Conceptual Art tradition, collectors get an invoice and nothing more (nothing that is material, anyway). In the meantime, Ziegler, who has had his gallery for four years, uses the laptop to show to interested parties images of works by his other gallery artists -- Carlos Amorales, Tony Cragg, Rico Gatson, Nic Hess, Peter Hujar, Alex Katz, Daniel Knorr, Vik Muniz, Yoko Ono, Man Ray, Javier Téllez and Minnette Vári.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.