ANY ART FAIR worthy of the name has a VIP program. It’s supposed to attract collectors, who mustn’t spend a moment idle, lest they start spending money on something other than art. Staged conversations or lectures further sweeten the pot, along with lunches, dinners, and after-hours parties stocked with plenty of tequila and local color to bring the privileged closer to their roots. They’re all pretty much the same. What’s different is the place—and sometimes the people.
Zona Maco, the Mexico City art fair that recently completed its eleventh edition, has the drill down pat. That may be because its artistic director and VIP relations chief, the Spanish-born curator Pablo del Val, created the first collectors’ program back in 1992, when Gabriela López Rocha founded Expo-Arte Guadalajara, the fair that put Mexico on the world map of contemporary art. It lasted six years, and inspired Zelika Garcia, then a recent art-school grad, to create Maco.
Today it has at least one advantage over fairs in other parts of the world: Mexico City. The weather is sublime, the atmosphere convivial, the food and hospitality supremo, and the museums first-rate. “Why I like to come to Maco is the vibrant atmosphere not only of the fair but also of the city,” n.b.k. curator Sophie Goltz told me. “You get it all: museum collections, contemporary institutions, highly profiled galleries, off-spaces, and the clash of different cultures.”
Moved this year from April to February, the better to attract norteños escaping the bitter pill of winter, and to keep well out of the paths of oncoming fairs in São Paulo and New York, this year’s edition (February 5 to 9) attracted 40,000 visitors. Of those, four hundred – including Gabriela Lopez signed on for the VIP tour. Early arrivals took a pre-fair, overnight trip to Guadalajara, home base for a number of Mexican artists, followed by a stop in Cuernavaca for lunch with the state governor and visits to exhibitions.
But the program began in earnest on Tuesday, February 4, with a Mexico City gallery hop, a cocktail party in the raised garden of architect Fernando Romero’s offices next door to the Luis Barragán house museum, and a big welcome fest at trendy Covadonga, an enormous cantina in the neighborhood of north Roma. Because I arrived after the tour began, I set off on my own with a companion, stopping first at Kurimanzutto, where the red-hot Argentine Adriàn Villar Rojas was making his solo debut with the gallery.
Departing from the gray palette of his signature cement sculptures, Villar Rojas created a kind of organic farm viewable only in the natural light of day. With a crew of twelve others, he had ripped out the reception desks and buried the floor of Mexico City’s most agreeable exhibition space in dry soil a foot deep, then “planted” rows of watermelons that sprouted sculptures made from twisted sneakers and other commercially produced objects. “This is hilarious,” said Eungie Joo, the peripatetic curator whose new posting is in the Emirates for the next Sharjah Biennial. She arrived with Danh Vo, a recent transplant to the Distrito Federal. “It’s a lab for ideas,” José Kuri said of the installation, which was made for the space and will be trashed at the exhibition’s end. “Adriàn wanted to go to extremes,” Kuri explained, “and we wanted to go as far as he did.”
Left: Artist Danh Vo with Sharjah Biennial 12 curator Eungie Joo. Right: Artist Gabriel Orozco.
With the light fading, I headed for Proyetco Parelelo in Condesa where the Guadalajaran artist Cynthia Guttiérez was making another impressive solo debut. Next on the agenda was the venerable OMR, recently given a needed second wind by Cristobal Riestra, son of gallery founders Jaime Riestra and Patricia Ortiz Monasterio. In the main space, Jose Dàvila (another Guadalajaran) showed immense, one-thousand-pound slabs of marble and granite held almost upright by brightly colored straps anchored to the floor. If one were to tip over, it would squish you flat like a cucaracha underfoot. Pia Camil’s annexed show of ceramics and striped curtains contributed a sense of safety, and a 1970 work by James Turrell—the first piece by this artist to appear in a commercial gallery here—provided solace for the more than one thousand people who would see it that night. “A record,” Ortiz would say later, “even for the week of Zona Maco.”
Because evening events in Mexico City seldom get into gear before 9 PM—Dàvila’s opening didn’t really take off till ten—I was way too early for the cocktail party at the Romeros’ archive, but the Gabriel Orozco–like work of Jorge Satorre was waiting across the street at Pamela Echeverria’s immense Labor gallery, along with the taxi that would take me to Fernando Mesta’s House of Gaga for a performance by Emily Sundblad.
A crush of art-fair attendees crammed the narrow exhibition space, where Sundblad’s drawings were barely visible. Instead, the faces of artist Klara Lidén and dealers Marc Foxx, John Riepenhoff, Lorcan O’Neill, and Alex Schroeder stood out among those of Museo Jumex director Patrick Charpenel, collectors José Noé Suro and Rodrigo Peñafiel, and historian Warren Niesluchowski before everyone trooped into the garden for the on-time start of Sundblad’s half-hour set. Who could have predicted that the Swedish lass would carry the night by singing English country folk tunes? Accompanied by guitarist Matt Sweeney, she also sang three equally poignant Mexican songs with Mesta.
Left: Dealers Alexander Schroeder and Lorcan O'Neill. Right: Artist Emily Sundblad (left).
Following a garrulous gathering in a nearby cantina, the evening made Zona Maco’s VIP preview the next morning feel almost anticlimactic. Not that anyone was ready to go home. It used to be that any gallery that applied to this once-chaotic fair could set up shop, but this year the affair at the Centro Banamex convention center exhibited clear signs of maturity. With the big guns—Kurimanzutto, Gladstone, OMR, Proyectos Monclova, Bortolami—accorded large, central spaces in the seventy-gallery main section, and Labor, Travesía Cuatro, and Salon 94 nearby, it was immediately apparent that the hodgepodge art of yore had been banished in favor of the minimal and conceptual.
“Collectors in Mexico think this is the next ARCO,” said dealer Clara Gurau, visiting from Majorca. Collector groups from Austria, Aspen, and the Metropolitan Museum wandered the aisles, alongside a smattering of Americans like Christen Wilson, Richard Chang, and Richard Massey, and Mexicans like the businessman Rodrigo Barerra. Orozco’s influence on art by younger Mexican artists was visible everywhere. “It’s very conceptual, and very sophisticated,” said the Berlin dealer Michael Fuchs of Maco. In other words, as Copenhagen’s Nils Staerk put it, “It’s starting to look like a real fair.”
It also looked very quiet. Though some dealers reported first- and second-day sales, the general drift in Mexico follows the eBay model: Collectors pounce at the last minute. “The speed of Mexico is not the same as everywhere else,” del Val told me. “The biggest sales happen two hours from closing.”
There is a lot of new wealth in Mexico, and it has created a class of younger collectors who get in the game by going first to Miami Basel, and making choices that tend to be ruled by advisers, some more expert than others. But art advisers are not risk-takers. To make newbie clients feel secure, they may make conservative or fashionable choices and eager galleries will naturally follow suit. At Zona Maco there was much to admire, if one looked closely, but for me the greatest interest, art-wise, was in the place where surprises usually lay—around the edges.
Along the back wall, for example, was Zona Maco Sur, where galleries selected by the Berlin-based curator Juan Andrés Gaitàn present one-person displays. One standout was a superb exhibition of works in several media by the late Léon Ferrari at Buenos Aires’ Ruth Benzacar. Another was Leonor Antunes’s space-altering, hanging sculptures of leather or fishnet at Marc Foxx. I also name-checked Alejandra Prieto’s black chandelier and monochrome painting—both made of polished coal—at the Lower East Side’s Y Gallery, and was amused at Johann Koenig’s stand, when a woman asked artist David Zink Yi what the inky substance spreading out from his giant ceramic squid was made of (it was ink) and if she could touch it. (No.) Most transfixing, in the booth of Buenos Aires’ Ignacio Liprandi, was a short film by Ana Gallardo, shot at a Mexican nursing home for former prostitutes.
The next day brought the most resplendent event of the week: the opening of Ugo Rondinone’s exhibition of bluestone figures at the Aztec fortress–like Museo Diego Rivera-Anahuacalli, followed by a three-course, outdoor lunch hosted by dealers Barbara Gladstone and Eva Presenhuber. The guest list included James Brown, the expat American who was invited to do the annual contemporary exhibition last year; a passel of Mexican-born artists (Gonzalo Lebrija, Laureana Toledo, Pedro Reyes, Francisco Ugarte, Steffan Bruggemann, Dàvila); visiting dealers (Max Wigram, Jonathan Viner, Thilo Wermke, Schroeder, and Bortolami); consultant Patricia Marshall; Viennafair codirector Vita Zaman; curator Ana Sokoloff; architect Manolo Mestre; and the Rondinone exhibition’s curator, Patricia Martin. Two colossal sculptures from “Human Nature,” Rondinone’s Public Art Fund installation at Rockefeller Center last year, made an especially dramatic sight on the plaza, where Beat poet John Giorno put in a captivating performance after the meal. With the late afternoon sun casting long pink shadows, one line—“everything is delusion / including wisdom / and then, there are the illusions / that make life / bearable”—went over especially well.
Back in town, there was barely time to regroup before the evening’s onslaught of fair-related parties. I started with a cocktail given by Expo Chicago director Tony Karman, where news of collector Fran Dittmer’s fatal plane crash cast a sobering pall. But word hadn’t reached the crowd attending a nearly all-night, jam-packed party given by Peñafiel at his apartment in Polanco, and life went on its tequila-soaked way, uninterrupted by the tragic.
Friday brought me to the upstart Material Art Fair at the downtown Hilton Reforma. There’s no other way to describe it: This was fun. “I haven’t seen a fair of this quality put together in twenty-one years of having a gallery,” said the Chicago dealer Carrie Secrest. Organized by Daniela Elbahara and Brett Schultz, codirectors of the D.F.’s Yautepec Gallery, with the art advisor Natalia Castilla, Material featured forty young galleries from North and South America, Europe, and the UK. Most presented modest work by young artists selling for modest prices, and they gave the fair all the energy, bootstrap pluck, and sense of discovery now largely gone from Zona Maco.
“We saw a need for an alternative fair that would have a focus on emerging practices,” Schultz said. “It’s a great opportunity to give attention to the explosion of Mexican project spaces over the last year.” One was Otras Obras, an artist-run space cocurated in Tijuana by Temra Pavlovic, Clay Gibson, and Michael Rayvon. The three madcap CalArts grads were making a film in their booth during the fair, and will soon move the gallery to Mexico City. “For a first edition,” Schultz said of his fair, “this feels good.”
That night, Zona Maco’s Garcia and del Val had a dinner for the curators participating in the following day’s special event within the fair: a four-hour conference organized by curator Montserrat Albores Gleason and artist Josiah McElheny. Titled “Symposium for the Art of the Future,” it would reconsider Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray’s Société Anonyme in contemporary terms, with presentations by such eminences as LACMA director Michael Govan, the US National Gallery’s Lynne Cooke, Bard CCS director Tom Eccles, art historian Richard Meyer, deCordova Museum curator Jennifer Gross, Artforum contributing editor Molly Nesbit, dealer (and Duchamp scholar) Francis Naumann, and historian George Baker.
That was an awful lot of brainpower for one dinner, where the talk was, as might be expected, pretty much all art all the time. But the symposium on Saturday had to compete with a Las Americas edition of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castet’s 89plus marathon at Museo Jumex. After a stop at Casa Barragán for the opening of a photo exhibition by the collaborating duo Lake Verea, and a detour through architect Maurizio Rochas’s remarkable library for the blind, I arrived in time to catch Kickstarter’s Perry Chen in conversation with José Luis Martinez Limôn, an information media student from Monterrey, Mexico. “We’re all looking for the extraordinary,” Chen said. “If you’re making mediocre work, you’re in trouble.”
Next morning, on my way out of the Hyatt, I asked Jennifer Gross about her experience of the curatorial think tank at the fair. Her response spoke for all of us in Mexico City that week: “Actually,” she said, “I learned a lot. And that’s always a good thing.”
Left: Dealer Fernando Mesta and poet Luis Felipe Fabre. Right: Dealer Orly Benzacar and collector Mauro Herlitzka.
Left: Dealer Cristobal Riestra. Right: Pablo León de la Barra, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Latin America, and Zona Maco VIP coordinator Hamid Amini.
Left: Dealer John Riepenhoff. Right: Artist Ryan Trecartin and Raul de Nieves.
Left: Sarah Gore Reeves, Enrique Norten, and Patricia Marshall. Right: Viviana Kuri, director and chief curator of MAZ (Museum of Modern Art, Zapopan).
Left: Performance at Zona Maco opening dinner, sculpture by Antonio O'Connell. Right: Nils Staerk.
Left: Curator Patricia Martin. Right: Fabienne Stephan and dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohaytn.
Left: MCA Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith, dealer Rhona Hoffman, and Grupo Habitat's Moises Micha. Right: Artist Leonor Antunes.
Left: Dealer Patricia Ortiz Monasterio. Right: Collectors Gabriela Garza and Tato Garza.
Left: Artists Carla Verea and Francisca Lake. Right: Carlos Phillips, director general of the Dolores Olmedo, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera-Anahuacalli Museums.
Left: Museo Tamayo curator Julieta González. Right: Dealers Alessandra Ammirati and Lorenzo Fiaschi.
Left: Alejandra Prieto. Right: Henry Kinman.