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by Walter Robinson
Art fairs have their own esthetic, needless to say, and it’s the esthetic of shopping. While museums and galleries foster a certain sublime contemplation, the shopping esthetic stresses speed, with a steady calculus of availability and price. The possibility of acquisition, whether as fact or fantasy, is a constant. The freshest product stands out and, as with any fad, becomes more desirable as more people acquire it.

These remarks on the esthetic of shopping might seem out of place in an article on ARCO ’07, Feb. 15-19, which of all the big art fairs definitely does not have the reputation as a frenetic marketplace -- though plenty of business is done, as we shall see.

But first some stats about the fair. Now in its 26th year, ARCO ’07 presents 271 galleries from 30 countries in a pair of spacious, modern halls at the Madrid fairgrounds on the outskirts of the city. As usual, the exhibition includes stands sponsored by regional museums and foundations, adding a fulsome element of governmental and corporate sponsorship to the proceedings.

Of the 271 galleries, 193 come from Europe, including 84 from Spain, 14 from Portugal, 34 from Germany, 10 from Austria and seven from Switzerland. Twelve dealers are from France. Twenty-three are from the U.S., and 22 more are based in other countries in the Americas, including 13 in Brazil.

From Asia come 22 galleries, plus 14 more from South Korea, ARCO’s special "guest country" for 2007. Additionally, ARCO gains a youthful profile with its 70 "projects" galleries, featuring newer trends and younger artists and dealers in smaller booths that are arranged around the perimeter of the halls. And almost 50 of the participating galleries are new to the fair.

Also new is ARCO’s director, Lourdes Fernández, an art historian at the University of Barcelona who previously organized the European Manifesta biennial in 2003-04. Among her initiatives at ARCO are a day-long preview for VIPs and the press, and a special focus on the "experts forum," now in its fifth year. Among the New York talents imported to appear on panels are critic and author Linda Yablonsky, and Alexandra Peers, the former Wall Street Journal arts reporter who has recently been named editorial director of LTB Media.

Probably drawing the most awestruck attention at ARCO is the booth devoted to works by Damien Hirst, who is certainly a poster child for contemporary art-market fever. On display are a huge vitrine filled with animal skeletons, several small animal heads, skinned and pickled in formaldehyde, a large sculpture of a white balloon kept aloft by a stream of air above a bed of knives, a half dozen dot paintings of various sizes, two large spin paintings (one of them motorized and spinning) and a cast of Hymn (2005), Hirst’s 20-foot-tall painted bronze version of an anatomy model.

All this is at the booth of dealer Hilario Galguera, who opened his Mexico City gallery a year ago with an exhibition of Hirst’s works titled "The Death of God -- toward a Better Understanding of Life without God aboard the Ship of Fools." Featuring a dot painting with a greenish cast, specially conceived for Mexico, the show was a success, winning art scholar Thomas Crow’s nomination as "The Best of 2006" in Artforum Magazine.

The paintings at ARCO, priced from $300,000 to $700,000, promptly sold, though at the end of the fair’s first day, the rotating spin painting was still available for $950,000. Also available is Hymn, which carries a $6,000,000 price tag. Charles Saatchi owns one cast of the edition of three (with one artist’s proof), for which he reportedly paid £1,000,000. Seems like a bargain today.

Another artist whose works are much in demand, at ARCO and elsewhere, is Ryan McGinness, who had his first show in Spain in 2004 at Madrid’s Galería Moriarty, which was founded by Lola Moriarty in 1981. Back then, McGinness’ large works on paper -- layered, screenprinted conglomerations of logos and icon-like images that have their sources in skateboard and surfboard design -- sold for €900 each. A second show, held last fall, saw 11 of 15 paintings sell in the first week -- via email. "It was the first time we’d sold out a show like that," said Adam Joquera Ortega, a partner in the gallery.

Now McGinniss paintings are €24,000 each, and exceptionally hard to keep in stock. The gallery did have a pair of newer works, which forgo the cacophony of logos in favor of more abstract images made from densely printed, mandala-like sunbursts of swooping lines. These works, too, are $24,000 (they’re priced by size).

The grip of the market on artistic consciousness is amply demonstrated in the artworks themselves. At Galeriea Quadrado Azul from Porto in Portugal is a simple painting by the young artist André Sousa (b. 1980) featuring the words "A Fair World" embedded in a golden spider web -- a curious pun that, considering the fair context, is both idealistic and commercial.

The painting is actually part of an installation that includes a boxy black mousetrap and a pair of sticks marked with red and white caution stripes, which according to Sousa represent the difficulties an artist faces in making his or her work. "All artists have a mouse in their studio," Sousa has said. Though he has had two exhibitions with the gallery already, the work is bargain-priced: €1,500.

A deeply cynical approach to the questions of art, money and politics comes from art provocateur Santiago Sierra, whose Diamond Traffic Kills (2006) is a bit of socially conscious bling, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms. Produced just in time for the Blood Diamond movie premiere, the three-chain bracelet spells out its eponymous slogan in tiny diamonds. The work is displayed on black velvet inside a showcase at the booth of Madrid’s Galería Helga de Alvear, and by the first day at least one of the edition of eight was marked sold for €30,000.

A lighter approach is taken by Italian artist Gianni Colosimo, who is happy to paper the walls of a collector’s home with dollar bills, as he did in September 2006 at Galleria Pack in Milan, for €500 per square meter. Standing in the gallery, completely surrounded by dollars, was a fraught experience, said the affable director of Galleria Pack, Giampaolo Abbondio. Fans of more traditional art forms can purchase a large photo of the gallery installation for €10,000, edition of three.

Gently distancing herself from the prevailing mercantile atmosphere is the artist Mabi Revuelta, who was born in Bilbao in 1967. Her sculpture at the booth of Galería Valle Orti from Valencia, made from sewn felt and cloth with subtle artistry, is a 3D skull-and-crossbones displayed on a base covered with the pinstripe fabric of a typical banker’s suit. "It’s meant to be comic," said Revuelta. "Death to business!" The work is €5,000.

No visit to ARCO would be complete without stopping at the booth of Swiss dealer Karsten Greve from St. Moritz, with his choice selection of works by Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly, Jannis Kounellis and Pierre Soulages. What’s special about ARCO, he was asked. "It’s very Spanish," he said with a smile, before noting that ARCO draws a crowd that does not come to Basel or Miami or FIAC in Paris. "It’s the only place in Europe that you can see collectors from South America," he said. Plus, Madrid is an attractive city, with nice hotels and great museums -- the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen Collection -- all located in the center of town.

In the center of his booth is Bourgeois’ Fountain Couple (1999), a working two-part fountain in painted cast aluminum that consists of a pair of rough mountain shapes that look a little like they’re made of mashed potatoes (perhaps by Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters). The water dribbles from two curlicue peaks on each mountain and runs down a trough spiraling around the sides, blue like Windex on the white mountain and clear on the black one. At the end of the fair’s first day open to the public, the sculpture was on reserve to a European collector for a price over $1 million.

Since the 1950s the artist -- now 95 years old -- has been preoccupied with Manichean dichotomies, Greve said -- male and female, positive and negative, light and dark. A 25-foot-tall bronze version of the mountain sculpture was installed in Pittsburgh in 2000, and the present example is from an edition of two. The artist is probably keeping one for herself. "The ‘Spiders’ are more expensive," Greve said, before moving off to greet a client.

One U.S. gallery at the fair is Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, which is based in Saint Louis but has a space on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as well. The booth is filled with new photographs in Tim Davis’ "Permanent Collection" series, a radical group of "bad" photos of paintings in museums in which the image is disfigured by glare on the varnish.

The works at ARCO feature photographs of paintings in the Prado, and with many of the religious subjects the otherworldly glare seems to replace more mundane painted presences of the divinity. The price range is €1,200-€5,000, in editions of six with two artist’s proofs.

From London came dealer Max Wigram with a group of works that demonstrate the multiethnic present of contemporary art, at least in Britain. Among his wares are a series of photos of Palestinian transvestites living in London by Ahlam Shikli, an artist who lives in Israel (but refuses to be defined by ethnicity) -- she has been tapped to take part in Documenta 12 -- plus a 16-minute film by Julian Rosefeldt in which he literally walks through India, from the markets to the call centers. The €40,000 film is produced in an edition of six; two are sold so far.

Perhaps the most transgressive work at Wigram is by Mustafa Hulusi. A classic Conceptual Art-style "photo document," the work juxtaposes a picture of the artist slouching in an armchair with a young woman on his lap, and a matter-of-fact narrative explaining the details of The Mustafa Hulusi Performance, which involved hiring prostitutes for 11 consecutive evenings during a trip to Morocco in 2000. Whoremongering as art? A gallery staffer suggested that the tale was a "myth." In any case, two works of the edition of three had sold, with the final example priced at £2,000.

Wigram, who opened his gallery around the time of the first Frieze Art Fair in 2003, noted that the gallery had "turned a corner." "We do like to do the Slow Food thing here," he said, seconding the impression that sales at ARCO proceed at a relaxed pace.

One of the new galleries at the fair is Galeria Alvar Alcazar, founded in Madrid in the fall of 2006 by Alvar Alcazar. A second-generation art dealer, he is the son of the late Carmen Gamarra, a pioneering Spanish gallerist. His booth featured a large sculpture of a fly, with gossamer wings made of metal screening, by the Spanish Pop painter Eduardo Arroyo. Spain is a country for the flies, says Arroyo, who is awaiting the installation of a larger version of the sculpture, seven feet long, on the façade of a building in León near MUSAC (the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon). Arroyo is slated to have a retrospective of his paintings at IVAM in Valencia in 2008. In the meantime, his fly sculpture, Gran Mosca, No. 10 (2006), made in an edition of four, is €36,000.

In the corner of the fair devoted to galleries from South Korea is One and J Gallery from Seoul, opened by Won Jae Park, a RISD grad whose mother was an art dealer. "Koreans have the reputation in Asia of buying the most and paying the most," said Won. "This hasn’t been bad for our business!" His gallery opened in October 2005 and had a hand in launching the contemporary art boom in Korea. His ARCO booth is filled with sculptures by Lee Soo Kyung (b. 1963), an artist who had her first show at the gallery in the fall of 2006.

Lee makes her sculptures by piecing together shards of blue-figure porcelain discarded by master Korean craftsmen, a process that involves a painstaking search for pieces that don’t belong together but that match nevertheless. The works have specifically Korean reverberations, in the sense that Korean culture typically values perfection (and considers human imperfection to be shameful). Lee emphasizes the breaks by making them gold. A tabletop sculpture is $5,000, while large works are $38,000.

Setting the tone for the esthetic of shopping, no doubt unwittingly, is a work at the booth of Kenny Schachter Rove from London. Titled Julia (1994), it’s a classic work by Tony Oursler, a small rag doll on a metal stand, its distorted little face projected on its head via video. She starts out whimpering and moaning, and gets progressively more hysterical. The price is $35,000, and it went early on. "I could have sold five of them," said Schachter.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.

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