Armory Week 2015
The thousands who braved the snow for this year’s Armory found no big surprises. Rather, there were thoughtful works of painting, sculpture and photography and effortful installations. And the decision to pare down to 199 dealers and sacrifice a few worthy galleries gave the show a welcome fresh look
Piers 92 & 94, New York City
5-8 March 2015
by JILL SPALDING
Putting paid to the rumour of art fatigue, intrepids by the thousand sloshed across snowdrifts to the west riverfront piers to seek out the heat of the annual Armory Show. Past the coat check and Champagne bar, boots traded for Jimmy Choos and flute in hand, we were greeted by a large image that signalled buyer be aware – yes, get your money out, but think first. Papered over mirror, a photograph of a destroyed Beirut invited us to peel off a section, view ourselves in it, and contemplate our role in the ensuing chaos: before transaction, went the message positioned to serve as the fair’s mantra, must come reflection. In context, however, it was the gravitas that peeled off as the crowd pushed on to Artsy’s spirited installation – a clever commentary on technology and visual perception as applied to hidden advertising – which proved equally engaging, but a good deal more fun; take a photo of a printed poster-board with a flash, watch as a hidden message pops out, then pick up one of the bags spelling out “Life Imitates Ads” that showed up all over the fair by the day’s end.
You can never please the pros – opinion makers Martin Margulies, Susan and Michael Hort and Donald and Mera Rubell, when asked what they liked, made enigmatic gestures and moved on. But George Lucas looked at everything, Richard Meier smiled approval, and many I spoke to commented favourably on the fresh look derived from a directorial decision to pare down to 199 dealers and sacrifice a few worthy galleries in favour of scrappier ones. Let the salon of the rejected moan on (purveyor of 20th-century master photographs Howard Greenberg was “pissed” to be have been “shoved up” to Pier 92), it was grand to come upon On Stellar Rays, a small, feisty gallery from the Lower East side. This year’s focus on the Middle East was held welcome, too, as much for the quality of the material presented as for its political undertone. It’s about time that the charged photographic dioramas of Ahmed Mater, a star of the 2013 Sharjah Biennial, were headlined here.
Overall, there were no big surprises, and few duds, but rather aisle after aisle of curated booths showing, for the most part, thoughtful work that was fairly evenly distributed between painting, sculpture, photography and effortful installations. Only video seemed underrepresented, though it showed strongly at three of the satellite fairs. Closest to instant attention-grabbers were a collaged portrait by Mickalene Thomas at Susanne Vielmetter that was glittered with rhinestones, and Gilles Barbier’s creepy A Very Old Thing at Nathalie Vallois that sprouted unkempt growths of cacti and vines out of a sprawling Neolithic hulk.
As theArmory Show unfolded, the storied and the novel wrestled for attention; at Peter Blum and Monica de Cardenas, Alex Katz’s coolly peopled canvases spoke to traditional portraiture, while at Victoria Miro, Chantal Joffe’s erotic 2014 Woman in a Blue Coat on Green wondrously alluded to both Picasso and Sharon Stone. At the James Fuentes space, Berta Fischer floated new possibilities with plastic ribbons that ran riot, and at Marianne Boesky, William O’Brien’s erupting masses of glazed clay spilled over the tables that held them.
Artists commanding high prices at auction were reinvigorated; Two Palms showed gripping new work by Richard Prince that resurrected the artist from hype-land; at Thaddaeus Ropac, a shiny new sculpture titled A Youth of Rare Beauty breathed new life into the work of veteran Jack Pierson; and at Sean Kelly, a row of free-standing Antony Gormley cast-iron figures spoke truth to Peter Liversidge’s upstart neon signage spelling “Everything is Connected”.
There was a marked move to mini solo shows, single-artist presentations said to be a gauntlet thrown down to Frieze – the fair shipped in from London each May that drew an uncomfortable number of dealers from the Armory Show last year. Some buzz was sacrificed, but the end effect was calming – small oases of quiet among the babble of too many voices. Standouts were Brandon Ballengée’s montage of 18th- and 19th-century natural history prints from which he cut out animals now extinct and reworked or left blank the spaces that remained; an elaborate installation by Michael Müller featuring the artist’s remix of history, poetry, biology and master paintings, exhibited at Thomas Schulte as one piece but sold off in sections (with the first, an erect penis, bought, as I stood there, by an elderly woman); and at Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi gallery, Wafaa Bilal’s tri-part installation, Canto lll, 2014, which addressed the Great Leader myth with mocking iterations of Saddam Hussein that expanded from rows of shopping-mall plastercasts to a life-size domed-helmeted bronze bust, to a Photoshopped rendering of an aborted, actual, plan to shoot the great leader into space where he would reign supreme for ever, but which the artist, with the help of Russian scientists, plans to realise in a manner that will indeed spin him out there for ever, but as a failed leader, grown haplessly small.
It is tempting to take an artist’s temperature at big fairs such as this one, although often the thermometer can be read two ways. That Kehinde Wiley, whose flamboyant, outsize paintings of street people decked out like the Medici were last year’s popcorn, showed up here only twice, despite his current big-draw retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, could be attributed either to collectors not flipping what they own until Wiley’s prices redouble, or to the nagging suspicion that the emperor’s wardrobe is growing too thin. That Frank Stella’s presence, on the other hand, is steady as she goes, pervading five booths with work spanning his long career, is as much a recognition of his place in the pantheon as in anticipation of his 2015/ 2016 retrospective at the relocated Whitney Museum.
Who else? Newly new after her just-closed showing at Pace Gallery, Louise Nevelson was featured strongly with small-scale black constructions – even at galleries that don’t represent her. Fontana’s pristine slit canvases have never gone out of fashion, a point made by their strong showing on both piers. And as for young artists currently flying off the walls, they were mostly, like Tom Butler and Guillermo Pfaff, showing at the satellite fairs, though both times I visited the David Zwirner gallery, clients were asking to be placed on waiting lists for something, anything, by Jordan Wolfson.
New trends, however, excepting a new round of work hung from wire, were in happy abeyance – the politically inflected work coming out of the Middle East being a curatorial decision – and old tropes didn’t fly. The latest cycle of appropriation reads as cute and facile, as with the Danish collective Superflex’s tired take, at 1301PE, on Barbara Kruger, I Copy Therefore I Am, whose barbed comment on a famed art world logo has no sting.
As for the 3D printed sculpture that I fear will ultimately drive handwrought work to extinction, I found only three examples and, though that of Jon Rafman at Zach Feuer is of a size that gets attention, none distinguished. I did notice quite a number of artists hovering in the galleries showing their work (Stella, Ballengée and Tom Stogdon among them), but their presence is now held less a trend than an essential deal-closer.
Closest to a moment were graphic manipulations of geometric abstraction and the sly intrusion of op art into the still-healthy revival of abstract painting. As I discovered, though, in exploring how much of a moment, op art is too loose a designation, because each of the schools it spawned and spun off from is still holding fast to sometimes hairline distinctions. Still, once the brain gloms on to a thought, the mind’s eye sees it everywhere, and the fair was awash with vibrating patterns and colours, in work as diverse as Cary Smith’s floated ovals at Fredericks & Freiser, Spencer Finch’s dancing-pixel light box at Lisson, and Peter Schuyff’s pulsating paintings at Sorry We’re Closed. Naturally, the dealers would have none of it, allocating their artists to specific schools that preceded, anticeded or dissociated from op art. Those pulsing striped paintings of Karl Benjamin, enjoying a mini-revival at the Louis Stern booth? “The Hard Edge School.” The obsessively repetitive stripes spaced 8.7cm apart that popped the canvases of Daniel Buren at Kamel Mennour? “Architexture.” François Morellet’s vibrating superimpositions at Moeller Fine Art? “The Zero Group.” Josef Albers’ throbbing squares? “Perceptual Art.” Victor Vasarely’s striped vibrations? “Kinetic Art.” There was no refuting, however, the pulsing black-and-white Bridget Rileys at Sims Reed – op art by definition.
In the annals of art history, of course, the dealers knew what they were talking about, but in the domain of perception, the vibrating geometries that have haemorrhaged previous vernaculars are nourishing the capillaries of current abstractions. Case in point was the indirect debt to op art of Brian Bress’s 370 Cover at Cherry and Martin, which grouped six high-definition videos of the artist breaking through panels of morphing black and white stripes that scrambled the perception of all gathered before it until our eyes hurt.
Those who still had the energy to navigate Pier 92 found Modern material that looked wonderfully fresh. Allen Jones’s full-breasted, thonged, Hatstand blew today’s inflated dolls out of the ballpark; the vivid wall-long installation at Berggruen of Donald Judd prints was a showstopper – who knew he worked on paper? The power of a Jim Dine stencilled Self-Portrait at Alan Cristea mandated its own wall, and Ken Price’s small ceramics packed all the punch of the Sterling Ruby sell-out glazed megaliths that had held court at the Whitney Biennial. Tellingly, it was an eye-popping Stella masterpiece – Double Concentric Squares, 1973 – that stopped traffic.
The same should have held for the prestigious Art Dealers Association of America Show in the Armory space on Park Avenue, which is as hard for new dealers to infiltrate as a London men’s club. Tightly vetted for quality and selling power, it is positioned to exhibit impeccably provenanced modern classics targeted to the genteel classes of the Upper East side. How to explain, then, the disappointment of this year’s offerings? Possibly it was the realisation that Wasps are a fast-dying breed that inclined the dealers to show art priced for young Soho types who want a pronto collection they can flip with the fashion, rather than one built discerningly over time. The upshot was a jumble of small works with no particular focus. Exceptions were a wall-long selfie-defining mirror piece by Michelangelo Pistoletto, positioned at the entrance to reflect all who walked in; a 13-foot-long iron table anchoring Ronald Feldman’s space that held a “still life” of closely worked plaster objects; a study in materials at Pavel Zoubok that played off a 1963 wrapped resin Christo wall piece against a 2015 Charles McGill golf bag reconfigured from leather and steel; three commanding wall sculptures spun off her recent Park Avenue triumph by the for ever creative Alice Aycock that took over the light-flooded booth of first-time exhibitor Fredric Snitzer Gallery; and the eternal giant, Nam June Paik, represented at Carl Solway Gallery by a full body of work that stopped passersby in their tracks.
The satellite fairs lost attendance to the weather, but not heart. Volta benefited from its move to Pier 20, and sold well in the mid-priced range, leading off with Michelle Grabner’s tondo canvases, Lavar Munroe’s cut canvases, Katharina Karner’s trompe l’oeil kitsch, and Gabriel Pionkowski’s unfurled and rewoven paintings. Scope, alone in profiling Björk, perhaps due to abysmal revues of her current MoMA show, stepped out with strong showings of Latin American art (both first-time exhibitor Lucia Garcia Gallery and New York’s Horus Gallery reported brisk sales) and embraced animal-themed presentations that ranged from cute rodents competing for Dog Show best of breed to stuffed animals run through with spikes and perched on tin cans. Independent sacrificed independence to a first-time-ever entry fee and less open spacing, but with exceptions such as White Columns, Wolfgang Tillmans and Mark Flood, held to its programme of young galleries and new artists. Of Pulse, back with pride and cash prize intact after defecting to Frieze for two years, it was noted that, though three of the 12 artists up for this year’s award are represented by free-wheeling Miami galleries, in general, its offerings were uncharacteristically mainstream.
Happening art happened elsewhere. At Spring/Break Art Show, which took over the gloriously gritty Moynihan Station, performance artist Katya Grokhovsky invited all who came by to stop and dance with her; JaZoN Frings peddled his Relationship Zollars, whose value he had designed to be behavioural not numerical, and bad-boy artist Dustin Yellin, fresh off his $10,000-worth of shredded currency stint, which glued the ensuing mess to canvases each priced at that same amount so as to either make a profit, or not, from destroyed currency – which either way serves as a comment on value – was nailing slices of bread to the wall, shouting: “Your daily bread!” The irony was not lost.
By Sunday, the snow had all but melted, and the clocks flew forward an hour; meaning spring; meaning Frieze. See you then …