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by Rachel Corbett
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Give people a little extra legroom, some champagne and they’ll be happy. That seemed to be the attitude at the VIP preview for this year’s spruced-up Armory Show at Piers 92 and 94 in Manhattan, Mar. 8-11, 2012.

Facing stiff competition with the launch of Frieze New York on the horizon, May 4-7, 2012, the Armory fair hired architects Bade Stageberg Cox to add more seating areas, design a sound-proof VIP lounge and reroute foot-traffic into an easily navigable loop.

Dealers across the board at yesterday’s preview seemed grateful for the upgrade. At the contemporary section of the fair on Pier 94, winnowed down by 25 percent to 120 galleries, the bigger booths and wider walkways have made casual browsing easier for the window shoppers, such as director John Waters, who arrived yesterday declaring, “My only plan is to go wandering.”

Armory Show co-founder Paul Morris said the redesign means we’ll see more solo shows, which require the extra space to show an artist’s range. “Some dealers are saying that you can have a show at a gallery for five weeks, or you can do it here for five days.”

That’s what one big holdout from last year is doing. David Zwirner, who has returned to the fair this spring noting that “everything looks much better,” has sparsely curated his booth with a wallpaper installation and three silkscreen panels by the German artist Michael Riedel. “We sold everything in the first 20 minutes,” he said (not including the wallpaper, which isn’t exactly for sale unless someone wants a commission). Each work went to a separate collector for $50,000 apiece. Clearly, Reidl's work has global appeal; last fall, Chinese-Indonesian collector Budi Tek bought three similar works at the Frieze Art Fair in London for $150,000.

Sprüth Magers director Andreas Gegner said the European powerhouse has only now returned after 11 years because of the more boutique redesign. It seems to have served him well -- by the time the doors opened at noon, Gegner said the gallery had already presold five works, including one of Cindy Sherman’s famous film stills. It may have also helped that the gallery didn’t take too many risks with its selection of market stars from the 1980s, including a Barbara Kruger text photograph, an Andreas Gursky photo of Niagara Falls and a red Rosemarie Trockel wool picture.

“There’s a rising interest in the ‘80s. It’s just being looked at again,” said Gegner. However, the gallery’s planning a more contemporary booth for Frieze New York, he said, as celeb art advisor Kim Heirston whisked him away.

But not everyone is mesmerized by the new layout. “It’s not fundamentally different,” said New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. “Art fairs are all the same.” That’s probably a hint at the nature of his next article for the magazine, on “art fairs as a phenomenon,” about which he sighed, “I’m bewildered by the research.” Schjeldahl’s last entry on art-world sociology, a consideration of the boom in biennials, for which he coined the term “festivalism,” is still being talked about.

At Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, a single or two-person show has long been the norm. This year the front half of the booth is devoted to Brooklyn artist Cameron Martin, and by mid-afternoon the gallery had already sold a few of his white-veiled photorealist landscape paintings for $10,000-$20,000 each. These pale beauties contrasted sharply with works by Kanishka Raja, whose neon Bollywood-inspired panel paintings in the back had yet to find homes at $4,000 to $20,000 a pop.

Extra space or not, plenty of group shows were still to be found. Nearly a dozen artists had work at Brooklyn’s Pierogi gallery. One of them, Williamsburg artist Jonathan Schipper, was even on hand to talk about his kinetic installation Slow Room. It’s a tractor winch tied to pieces of furniture that get pulled in until everything starts breaking. Schipper admits the work is inherently a tough sell, but he has sold several videos, for $1,000 each in an edition of 20, of a similar installation he made for Art Basel Miami Beach.

“We like to have the energy of the artists here,” said Pierogi director Susan Swenson about her guest. “I’m not sure that all the other galleries do.” That’s probably true, although Michael Riedel was stationed at Zwirner’s booth and Theaster Gates, the Armory Show’s “official artist,” has been hanging out near Kavi Gupta Gallery, at a table he built from desks thrown out of a south-side-of-Chicago school.

When they can, dealers frequently capitalize on the big museum exhibitions coinciding with the Armory Show, like the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, whose work was spotted at too many booths to count, or the Whitney Biennial, Mar. 1-May 27, 2012.

Zach Feuer had five scrap-material assemblages, which look like strips of a deconstructed house, by Kate Levant, who is in the biennial. They were still for sale in the morning for $6,000 each, but Feuer said to check back later in the day. “It’s not like in Miami,” he said. “People like to do a walkthrough first.” Indeed, by 6 pm, everything in the booth had sold, including a painting by Mark Flood for $20,000 and other works by Kianja Strobert and Florian Schmidt.

At Leo Koenig another biennial artist, Nicole Eisenman, had sold seven out of nine of her carnivalesque figure drawings for between $5,000 and $12,000. 

Meanwhile, the atmosphere was comparatively pastoral at the pier next door, which is devoted to modern art -- or what one observer called the “flannel-suit section.” There, under the almost tranquil buzzing of the lights, of-the-moment names could still be found among the 71 galleries, albeit of a more blue-chip variety.

A 2007 car-part sculpture by current Guggenheim Museum star John Chamberlain, priced at $925,000, was front and center at James Goodman Gallery. Directly across the hall, at Vivian Horan Fine Art, were two smaller Chamberlains in similar rainbow tones.

And the tragic photo prodigy Francesca Woodman, also getting a retrospective at the Guggenheim, has seven vintage black-and-white photographs for sale at Robert Klein Gallery for between $35,000 and $45,000. They hadn’t sold yet, but the gallery rep there said the interest has risen exponentially since news of the show broke. “People who would have never known who she was six months ago do now,” she said.

Design changes at the modern pier were almost imperceptible. “I guess they moved the coffee from downstairs to upstairs,” noted New York dealer Ezra Chowaiki after a pause. Chowaiki was doing his best to liven things up, however, at his booth devoted entirely to the female form (“because it’s better than the alternative,” he said).

So are there any risks at this year’s Armory Show? Sort of. Marlborough Gallery is pushing forth in its quest for youthful appeal with its first-ever booth on the contemporary pier, called Marlborough Chelsea. Organized by Max Levai and new director Pascal Spengemann, the booth features works by Robert Lazzarini, Rashaad Newsome and artist duo Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe.

But to see the really edgy work, one probably must venture beyond the piers, to Independent, the Fountain Art Fair or Volta, the Armory’s little-sister fair (and occasionally a feeder to the Armory) that opens today.

At Volta, artistic director Amanda Coulson said it helps to have Frieze looming in the future; it pressures artists to stand out. “They’re not just going to hang a painting on the wall,” she said. “They’re taking over the whole booth.” That’s what’s happening, apparently, with installations at the booths of Envoy Enterprises and Galerie Stefan Röpke.

The Armory Show opens to the public today. So long as the redesign can keep the 65,000 expected visitors from feeling like human cargo, the high-flying spirit will hopefully last through the weekend.

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email