Okay, let me see if I got this straight. The Art Show is so sophisticated and established that it can brand itself with no brand at all. The Armory Show is where the valuables are, slightly dangerous esthetic armaments, generally kept under lock and key, accessible only to the right people.
Volta is more electrified, and a little bit foreign (with that "a" on the end), while Pulse and Scope show that no matter what happens, there’s always art out there, art as life-beat, art as life-view, a sentiment that applies to PooL, Fountain and Verge as well.
And Independent, well, everyone loved Independent, the new art fair set up in the old Dia Art Center space by Chelsea dealer Elizabeth Dee and friends (what a pistol that young woman is turning out to be). Laid out like an exhibition rather than a bazaar, Independent freed artworks from the tyranny of the booth. It was sociable.
Even October magazine, which you might expect to boycott anything so market-oriented, participated, selling its benefit editions, NEP style ($10,000 for a portfolio of prints by October friends Sophie Calle, Tacita Dean, Renée Green, Gabriel Orozco, Andrea Robbins and Max Becher and Martha Rosler, from an edition of 25, if you’re curious).
It was like this: Where the Armory Show said "NO" (via a Santiago Sierra work at the Lisson Gallery booth), Independent said "No reason to say no" (via Ricci Albenda at Andrew Kreps). Now all we need is a "Say Yes" and we’re there.
On one floor at Independent was a setup of high-end art and design objects that mixed furnishings like a Maarten Baas burnt chiffonier ($60,000) and a Tomáš Gabzdil Libertiny Made by Bees Honeycomb Vase ($25,000) with photos by Diane Arbus, comic etchings by Pablo Bronstein (also currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum) and a scratchiti’d 7 x 4 x 4 ft. monolith in yellow Formica by Sterling Ruby ($80,000).
Art and design, we've seen it before, of course, but this display marked well the apotheosis of art as decor and decor as art. We’re all professionals now, if we weren’t always so.
This kind of mainstreaming of the avant-garde is no doubt the driver of the vast expansion of the contemporary art market. At the fairs last week, everyone seemed to have customers, and the dealers were expressing cautious optimism (only one year after the stock market hit its historic low). The Armory Show was like a zoo, it was so crowded that people were sitting on the floor. General admission was $30, but free tickets must have been easy to get.
Not every art professional goes to the art fairs. One top art critic volunteered, with a kind of a grimace, that he had decided not to attend, this year as last time around. A principled decision or a tactical one? Each new artwork, each new artist, each bit of new information, they all add up to just so many new obligations.
But does anyone really believe that art fairs are bad? Catnip for art lovers, that’s what they are, a chance to stroll and chat, look and explore, the kind of erotically charged shopping esthetic that so turned on Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. Be open, be friendly, spend some money, it’s a breeze.
And the art dealers work so hard, repeating the same spiel time and time again to one punter after another. It shows their dedication to their artists, though it might be described as well as a kind of self-inflicted brainwashing. It’s admirable.
On the other hand, our growing art-love has taken a bit of the bloom off the rose, like a marriage of long standing, strong as concrete but less than ardent. A lot of the artworks are nice, even provocative, but not that much of a surprise. Here's a pretty stripe painting, there's a portrait of the George W. Bush cabinet, here's a giant skull drawn in neon. Everything goes around and around, like they used to say in the 1980s, a circulation of signs.
A couple of weeks ago I went out to Union Docs on Union Avenue in Brooklyn to watch some old super-8 films from 1977 -- 33 years ago -- made by Coleen Fitzgibbon and Robin Winters, two young artists who for a short eight months had collaborated as X & Y Offer. In one film they ventured out onto the sidewalks on Madison Avenue and the Lower East Side, and asked passersby, "What do you think of the rich?"
The question is a bit more unsettling than the modernist "What is progress," Tino Sehgal’s "trademarked" query posed by children at the Guggenheim Museum, and certainly one that teased out more pointed insight into politics and class.
In another film, the two artists stood side-by-side in front of a makeshift assembly line, producing small sculptures by hand from lumps of clay, not at all different than the large aluminum blobs by Urs Fischer that were recently at the New Museum. The rendering by X & Y Offer, once again, better emphasized the economic and social underpinnings of what the artists were doing.
It was the 1970s, a more straitened and angrier time. The brief X & Y revival made me realize again more clearly that the ideas are few and they go round and round, but when Capital speaks, it gets heard.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.