Los Angeles Plays Itself


Left: ForYourArt’s Bettina Korek and the Guggenheim Museum’s Ari Wiseman. Right: ARCO director Lourdes Fernández, “Panorama: Los Angeles” cocurator Christopher Miles, and Olga Garay, executive director of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. (Photos: ForYourArt)

“I SHOULD GET A JOB with the Chamber of Commerce,” said Kris Kuramitsu, curator, along with critic Christopher Miles, of “Panorama: Los Angeles”—the special focus of this year’s ARCO. Previous editions of the Spanish art fair have highlighted countries (India, China, Mexico, Brazil), so it was unclear whether it was a compliment to my hometown or a backhanded slap to previous foci that LA was getting such outsize attention. Nevertheless, a slew of Angelenos jetted in for the sort of panels, performances, parties, and exhibitions that make up the schedule of every international art fair.

ARCO was once deemed among the most popular fairs in the world, but recent incarnations have been marked by dropouts (most famously, Korean commissioner Sunjung Kim and her curatorial colleagues David Ross and Charles Esche in 2007) and, in 2005, a car bomb. Luck wasn’t much better this year. The global economy is still busting, and typically sunny, post-Movida Spain was wet with rain and sinking under 20 percent unemployment and a briskly shrinking GDP. Besides, just weeks before the opening day, the fair was scandalized by the resignation of eminent London dealer Anthony Reynolds, who dropped out after IFEMA (the organization that runs the fair) attempted to steamroller the selection committee and bulk up the number of participants. (Fair director Lourdes Fernández noted that such maneuvers have been blocked, but the damage was done.)

The fair kicked off strangely with journalists gathering at noon on Wednesday, February 17, for a press conference that never quite materialized. The junket group bemusedly wandered out of the VIP booth where the welcome was meant to be held and into a thin crowd that grew little throughout the day. By closing, many dealers I spoke with were grinning through gritted teeth that they were “holding out for sales later on” (some of which actually happened). But even with the dodgy economy and the odd layout with yawning walkways, good art always outs, and Bilbao’s Carreras Mugica, Zurich’s Mai 36 Galerie, and São Paulo’s Dan Galeria all had very strong presentations. (The last of the three featured Antonio Dias’s darkly funny 1970 painting The Day Tripper, a piece frequently referred to as the great work of the fair.)

Left: Curator George Stolz and Centro de Dos de Mayos director Ferran Barenblit. (Photo: ForYourArt) Right: The Getty Institute’s Andrew Perchuk and Thomas Gaehtgens. (Photo: Andrew Berardini)

The Los Angeles contingent, slotted into a warren of booths designed by LA architects JohnstonMarklee (whose great architectural innovation, besides a shared closet for the galleries, seemed to be a wonky fuchsia stripe painted on the individual booths entryways), intermittently chain-smoked (in the aforementioned closet), and quite a few bragged openly about their ability to bring all the art in their suitcases. For a trunk show, the gathering wasn’t exactly knockout, but it was decent, with smart works by Eric Wesley at China Art Objects, Bill Leavitt at Margo Leavin, and Erik Frydenborg at Cherry and Martin, as well as a beautiful artist’s book by Camilo Ontiveros at Steve Turner, which won the fair’s fifteen-thousand-euro Illy Prize for young artists.

Later that night, we gathered, shot glasses of ceviche clutched in our fists, under a cloud of cigarette smoke in a ballroom attached to the fairground. The opening dinner kicked off with a slew of speeches, which the cheap seats either couldn’t or wouldn’t hear, and the roar of their chatter began to drown out even the dignified mayor of Madrid. Getty Research Institute director Thomas Gaehtgens accepted the International Collectors Award, a prize officially intended to “encourage” collecting. The Getty’s presence brought a gravity to the LA dimension that was otherwise lacking. The institution did its best to keep it real, putting together a large show of SoCal real estate photographer Julius Shulman’s pics in a beautifully converted water tower; they also plugged their $10 million (over ten years) citywide initiative, “Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945–1980.”

Left: 1301PE’s Brian Butler and Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler. Right: Ooga Booga’s Wendy Yao at the US Embassy in Madrid. (Photos: ForYourArt)

The following day, the wildly popular Prince and Princess of Asturias cut the ribbon at the fair. Their Royal Highnesses did a tour of the galleries, making sure to stop by a few LA booths. Dealer Shaun Caley Regen blushingly “presented” a Lari Pittman catalogue to Prince Felipe. Meanwhile, Kathryn Brennan gushed over her brief audience with the royal couple, then admitted she’d have rather met the director Pedro Almodovar, who was sighted at the fair.

Every night, the rambling demimonde ended up reliving scenes from Almodovar films (Labyrinth of Passion, anyone?) at local watering hole the Bar Cock, whose name generated endless puerile permutations. There assembled an international mishmash of art consultants, dealers, artists, curators, and a few collectors engaging in what art fairs promote best (after cultural exchange): binge drinking. Halfway through one of my last nights (or was it mornings?), I was grabbed from the bar by dealers Guido Baudach and Erica Redling to suss out what our Spanish guide purported to be “the best flamenco bar in Madrid,” the Candela. A taxi and an eight-euro door charge later and there we were; to an admitted amateur, anyway, it seemed to live up to its hype, with booming flamenco on the speakers and an alluring mix of musicians tapping the bar and girls tapping the musicians. Downstairs, though, was another club, where apparently only real aficionados and practitioners were allowed. I didn’t even try. I figured this was one place my VIP pass just wouldn’t cut it.

Left: Dealer Erica Redling. Right: China Art Objects’s Steve Hanson. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Left: LACMA director Michael Govan. Right: Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist with poet John Giorno. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Left: “Panorama: Los Angeles” curators Christopher Miles and Kris Kuramitsu. Right: LA Louver’s Kimberly Davis. (Photos: ForYourArt)