I saw you around the art fairs two weeks ago. What are your thoughts about art fairs? Thank you.
I used to be a real hard-ass about art fairs. In 2006, when I was still at the Village Voice, I wrote a column titled "Feeding Frenzy," in which I called them “adrenaline-addled spectacles. . . perfect storms of money, marketability, and instant gratification. . . tent-city casinos.” They still drive me crazy and wear me out, but now I see them for what they've always been: Big sleepover parties where people sniff each other's scents and make connections in a hurry. Artists get a chance to make a little money, and critics -- almost by accident -- get to see galleries we might not otherwise have the chance to visit. So I've corked my blowhole.
This season, I went to the three big art fairs and breezed through several smaller ones. People always ask, “What did you see?” and I answer, “I have no idea.” I don't go to fairs to look at art, because you can’t spend more than ten seconds with any one piece. I go to gauge group temperatures, glean what's going on in other scenes, get an overview of stylistic tendencies, eat free food, and get out of my office and my own head.
I missed the opening of the uptown Art Show (which has the best hors d’oeuvres of the year) and spent only an hour there. So all I saw was that there were good galleries participating, more contemporary art than ever before, and fewer eccentric dealers in modernism. I liked what I saw, but I felt that booths were geared toward figuring out particular uptown audiences. This caused a certain flatness to set in.
The gigantic Armory Show, with 270 dealers in two huge west side piers, has seemed ready for the boneyard lately. Over the past few years, good galleries have opted out, owing to crappy conditions, reported shoddy treatment and overcrowding (of both booths and viewers). One good friend wrote me, “This fair makes me miserable. The pier is godawful. . . . All I see is a money mill that doesn't give any comfort or fun back.” Another friend joked that the Armory “needs to hire Temple Grandin to redesign the Piers.”
Or maybe not, because I was surprised to see the Armory Show find new life this year. In place of the galleries that left, there were new names from all over the world: 18 from Latin America, a handful from Africa, many from Europe. A working rule at art fairs (and almost everywhere else) is that 80 percent of what's on view isn't interesting. The catch is that the stuff you find uninteresting is usually totally different from the stuff I do. That means there's always more going on than meets the eye (if your eye can overcome the insanity). Much of what I saw at the Armory Show was new to me. The socializing wasn't as intense; hierarchies weren't as apparent; the looking was harder. I came away impressed with the vitality. It’s also a relatively egalitarian event, packed with curious non-art-worlders. To everyone who’s been grousing “The Armory Show is dead,” I say, “It may be dead to you. But you and your galleries were once in the Armory Show and it served you well. Now it's serving other galleries, a lot of which aren’t allowed into the other fairs. Maybe you should be more gracious.”
The third fair where I spent time is the Independent, now in its second year. Run by Elizabeth Dee, Darren Flock, Jayne Drost and Laura Mitterrand, along with Matthew Higgs, it’s the best of the trio, because it makes you feel that the forces of art, community, activism and group action -- along with the inevitable moneymaking instincts -- are alive, well, and flourishing. With just 45 hand-selected in-group galleries housed in the charmed spaces of the old Dia building on West 22nd Street, the Independent came alive this year. With few labels and relatively inconspicuous dealers, the fair is unlike the others, and it’s harder for the public to navigate or feel comfortable in. It’s more tribal -- yet it’s also a breath of fresh air.
I should also mention two other promising start-ups with great energy. “The Moving Image Fair,” organized by the intrepid dealer Edward Wickleman and held in a long, twilit tunnel space, actually found a way to present only video, much of it good, without producing an existential nightmare of boredom and isolation. And special mention has to go to the Dependent, the one-night exposition installed in teeny hotel rooms in the Chelsea Sheraton on West 25th Street. This makeshift fair not only had art hanging off TVs, on bedspreads, in bathrooms and hallways; it had all the right ingredients for new life: spirit, good art and a self-reliant, non-cynical attitude.
I'm coming to town next week for two days. I know what I'm seeing at uptown museums and galleries. Can you tell me one show I shouldn't miss downtown? Thanks.
I didn't want to name only one, but when I started this column, my editors said, “Just answer what people ask.” So here goes. Don't miss Rirkrit Tiravanija's paradigm-rocking tour de force of institutional critique, "Relational Aesthetics," the disruption of the chain of command, spatial politics and time-shifting. Tiravanija (pronounced Tear-ah-van-ee-jah) has removed all the windows and doors from Gavin Brown’s gallery, so there's no difference between outside and inside. The gallery is open or exposed 24 hours a day. People can go in and do whatever they want whenever they want to. The windows, window- and doorframes, and associated hardware are spread out on the gallery floor and leaned against the walls. Spray-painted in big, bold floor-to-ceiling black letters on the walls is the title of a Fassbinder film, Fear Eats the Soul.
Around the gallery are dirt, stools and picnic benches at wooden tables. There are also two plywood rooms that turn out to be time machines of a sort: Both are exact replicas of Brown's first tiny Broome Street gallery, opened in 1994. In one, Tiravanija has installed a ghost doppelgänger of his 1994 show there, only this time, everything is made of silver-glazed ceramic. A ceramic Warhol Mao sits next to a stack of empty Rolling Rock bottles, a clay Warhol Brillo Box near one of Tiravanija's woks. In the other simulated gallery is a shop where you can pay $20 and have attendants make you a T-shirt bearing a slogan like “The Days of this Society is Numbered,” “Rich Bastards Beware,” or “Out Now.” These spaces are open Thursdays through Saturday. So is a working “Soup Kitchen” where Tiravanija and other guest chefs cook food and give it away for free to anyone who stops by.
What makes all this so good -- other than the free food (even better than at the art fairs!), the selflessness, the turning of space inside out, the way in which visitors are subtly transformed from being passive viewers to active participants, the tangible ways Tiravanija bridges mind-body splits, and the breaching of private and public barriers -- is the lithe feeling of being in touch with the spirits of self-actualization that triggered such enormous growth in the art world in the early 1990s. To me, Tiravanija is the George Washington and Johnny Appleseed of the Relational Aesthetics movement. He is a medicine-man artist who not only invented this rangy way of making identity politics, metaphysics, and the gravitational forces of Warhol's Factory spring to life. He creates a social-conceptual-sculptural field whereby new systems are created and the artist displaces the traditional functions of a gallery and rejoins them with real life. Susan, don’t miss this show; come have lunch with me.
I see that the New York Times is starting to carry more reviews/articles about art that’s outside the city -- mainly opera, classical music, theater and ballet. As a culture vulture, I’m thrilled to see this. But magazines don’t cover the arts outside New York. Will it ever be possible to get an art critic to Boston? I have a solo show coming up. I could take the heat. Thanks!
I wish I could write about shows outside New York. I often feel like the last person to know anything, because I almost never get to leave town, and when I do, I tend to go for three days max. Seeing between 30 and 40 shows a week in 100 or so galleries and museums takes up nearly all my time. I don’t want to grouse, but I should add that this magazine doesn’t even pick up my dime when I go to Brooklyn to see shows, let alone to Boston, Washington, D.C., L.A. or anyplace else. When I review the Venice Biennale or Documenta, I pay my own air fare, hotel, meals, everything. I’m, like, 100 years old, and still fly economy and stay in crappy Venice hotel rooms by the train station where people are always outside my windows screaming, and the last time I was there, a bogus online server robbed my identity and bought phone cards and plane tickets in Russia. Wait! Was all that out loud? Sorry about that. Move along. Nothing to see here. No art critic acting out.
Besides: Boston in April is off-limits. Opening day of baseball season is only days away, and as a Yankees fan, I don’t go anywhere near Fenway Park.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com.